Berwyn, PA.  In his Degrees of Knowledge, Jacques Maritain argues that one central fault of the modern mind has been its propensity to think of mathematics rather than metaphysics as first philosophy.  If we take number for the foundation of all things, then we deprive ourselves of the capacity to think of being; we truncate reality, and fail to see the elegant ascent the human mind can make from the immediacy of sense experience, by way of abstraction, to the conception of being and, at last, — by the grace of God — to the immediate experience of Being.  Too assiduous a delight in the quantitative may conceal our intellectual natures from us, and disfigure our lives.

And yet, from Galileo through the contemporary Physicist, number has seemed to be something like the language of God (a phrase sometimes used to describe DNA, but that utterly misunderstands what DNA actually tells us about reality, as if God only spoke living things into being).  As someone concerned with the way in which art, and poetry in particular, reveals being to us, the way in which it clarifies the vision and initiates us into a richer way of dwelling in the Real, I have always appreciated the admonitions of Maritain and others who would draw us, with St. Thomas Aquinas, to think being first, last, and always.  And yet, precisely as a practicing poet of sorts and as a sincere amateur in the reading of poetry, I have long since come to the conclusion that poetry without verse is not really itself.  That is, any good ontology of poetry must confess that number dwells deep down near the essence of the poetic, whether one is thinking in the broad terms of proportion in any art work, or whether — or above all when — one is thinking about what makes poetry, in English, to be itself: verse, that is, the counting of syllables and accents, and sometimes rhymes and stanzas.  So what can a poet with a love of Aristotle make of these facts?  What can he tell us about the “Pythagorean Temptation”?

Two years ago, I was asked to provide some thoughts on this subject in response to the poet David Rothman’s essay, Lisping in Numbers, for Think Journal.  Just this Spring, Dappled Things has published a revised and slightly extended version of the essay in its Candlemas issue.  You can read the whole essay here, but for those who must count their minutes before the computer screen with parsimony, I provide this passage, which is my personal favorite:

Aristotle synthesized form and matter, number and being. Before him, Plato’s dialogues articulated both light and number as first principles. Indeed, variations on these propositions speckle the whole history of western thought, sometimes in surprising or less obvious terms, down to the present moment. How unsurprising, then, that, for a poem to be a poem, it must be measured, proportioned by number; and yet, it must also show forth a radiance beyond mere meter. And, how fitting that Rothman’s defense of verse should restore Pythagoras to his proper place, near the center of any discussion of art and beauty. The splendor of a poem must be given form—it must be counted.

But we are moderns, and modernity does not permit us to end on such a harmonious note. Our world is absolutely saturated in number and talk of number—as much as was the world of Plato and Aristotle. But ours lacks their synthesizing genius. In the public realm, only matter and motion are counted as real, and these, only because they are resolvable into numbers we can manipulate. Behavior is processed as statistics; thought as quantifiable chemical processes; society as the mere sum of economic transactions; morality as incarceration rates; education as graduation rates; wedded bliss as divorce rates; and the course of history as so many measurable biological modifications. In a world so beholden to the spirit of the Pythagoreans, it is curious the arts should be so patently typified by their explicit rejection of all number.

In Walker Percy’s novel, The Moviegoer, existential searcher Binx Bolling speculates that “romanticism” and “1930’s science” killed his father. He asks himself, “Does a scientifically minded person become a romantic because he is leftover from his own science?” Quantification is the key to the modern physical sciences. We are subordinate to it in the scientific method and in everyday life far more than we are to “empirical observation”—that phrase with which the supposed rationalist among us flatters himself. We do not believe in what we see or experience; we believe in what others can count and calculate, so much so that we readily dismiss our own experiences, if they seem to conflict with some publicly established measurement. And so, though nearly all of us have turned the reins of health and history over to the powers of the numeric, we nearly all feel something “leftover” that cannot be entirely dismissed, but which cannot be counted either, and therefore seems not to count as real. The leftover is us.

I am no salesman, but it would be a hard sell to convince a population of which less than 1% reads poetry with any uncoerced frequency that it can discover something about the ground of reality from the tra-la-la-la of versing.  But I think we can, if only because my own pilgrimage to convictions regarding local politics and the good of the polis as Aristotle conceived it was by way of learning how to write a sonnet.  Long before I knew anything about Wendell Berry, I had gleaned anything he or others might have to say about the virtue of constraint from a sonnet by William Wordsworth:

Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room;
And hermits are contented with their cells;
And students with their pensive citadels;
Maids at the wheel, the weaver at his loom,
Sit blithe and happy; bees that soar for bloom,
High as the highest Peak of Furness-fells,
Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells:
In truth the prison, unto which we doom
Ourselves, no prison is: and hence for me,
In sundry moods, ’twas pastime to be bound
Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground;
Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be)
Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
Should find brief solace there, as I have found.

From the ten acre field of the sonnet, being, reality becomes visible to those with eyes free for the seeing.  If the quantitative obsessions of the modern world have made it hard to see any place, so busy are we calculating ad infinitum, so a well-squared cell can remind us that goodness and happiness has measured dimensions of its own.

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James Matthew Wilson
James Matthew Wilson is Associate Professor in the Department of Humanities and Augustinian Traditions at Villanova University. An award-winning scholar of philosophical-theology and literature, he has authored dozens of essays, articles, and reviews on subjects ranging from art, ethics, and politics, to meter and poetic form, from the importance of local culture to the nature of truth, goodness, and beauty. Wilson is also a poet and critic of contemporary poetry, whose work appears regularly in such magazines and journals as First Things, Modern Age, The New Criterion, Dappled Things, Measure, The Weekly Standard, Front Porch Republic, The Raintown Review, and The American Conservative. He has published five books, including most recently, a collection of poems, Some Permanent Things and a monograph, The Catholic Imagination in Modern American Poetry (both Wiseblood Books, 2014). Raised in the Great Lakes State, baptised in the parish of St. Thomas Aquinas, seasoned by summers on Lake Wawasee (Indiana), and educated under the Golden Dome, Wilson is scion of a family of Hoosiers dating back to the early nineteenth century, and an offspring of Southside Chicago Poles whose tavern kept the city wet through the Depression (and prohibition) years.  He now lives under the same sentence of reluctant exile as many another native son of the Midwest, but has dug himself in for good on the margins of the Main Line in Pennsylvania with his beautiful wife, dangerous daughter, and saintly sons. For information on Wilson's scholarship and a selection of his published work, click here. See books written and recommended by James Matthew Wilson.


  1. Here is W. B. Yeats longing for his own “plot of ground”:

    I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
    And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
    Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
    And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

    And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
    Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
    There midnight’s all a-glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
    And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

    I will arise and go now, for always night and day
    I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
    While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
    I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

    FPR readers certainly are familiar with “The Lake Isle of Innesfree.” It’s not a sonnet, but it’s a model of “constraint” and discipline nonetheless–a well-cut gem of verse. Critics say that the poem expresses Yeats’ desire to leave the city for the country, but I see a view of heaven in his lines. If the Yeats’ sentiment is universal, which seems to be the case given the poem’s popularity, it’s fitting that we travelers in this quantitative world want only a “bee-loud glade” for Paradise.

    Thank you, Mr. Wilson, for your piece.

  2. i was always a fan of the notion of the music of the spheres but like poetry as well. always loved these ; “I thank you God for this most amazing day, for the leaping greenly spirits of trees, and for the blue dream of sky and for everything which is natural, which is infinite, which is yes.” and “To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting” both by e. e. cummings

  3. In defense of Pythagoras (and Plato — I won’t speak for Aristotle), number and “mathematics” were to be an introduction to abstract thought, really just a proof that abstract thought exists. The misuse of number is not his fault — the notion of a “Pythagorean temptation” seems to me to suggest that it might be.

  4. I agree with Mr. 364557237 above: the modern faith in statistics as the only reliable measure of reality is not that akin to Pythagoras. The Pythagoreans looked at mathematics primarily as a matter of relationships between different abstract concepts: like ratios and theorems. Theirs was a mystical spirit that saw abstract concepts as pointing to a fundamental reality (dare we say, metaphysics?). Nowadays, though, the statistical mindset is concerned with counting and causation. It’s a reductionist, empiricist worldview much more akin to Darwin or Marx than to Pythagoras.

  5. There is probably a reason that the typical mathematics enthusiast isn’t usually a big fan of statistics. Sadly, we live in a world today where those things are of great importance.

  6. Stephen and Mr. 36455… affirm the central thing in the Pythagorean penchant for divine relation; which involved the birth of harmony understood as the right relationship of strings, chords and notes in the scale in whatever mode. Music is preeminently driven by these relationships and one could point to the geometries of vertical and horizontal realms of the discursive notation of melody and the interlinear resonances of harmony, all struck in time, all the better to give pleasure. “The Poem must be abstract” remarks Stevens at the outset of his Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction, it also “must give pleasure.” There’s nothing in number so valuable as proportion, and nothing so satisfying to seekers of meaning to have the world align itself with such principles.

  7. Well the first thing I thought of was Mondrian – a painter is always confronted by the frame. Second thought was Reiff’s Life Among the Deathworks. He’s a Freudian, I’ve been taught, and as brilliant as I think he is there’s that – things have moved on.
    I don’t have the mind to move past him as I’m pretty much a dolt, but I think there’s a path.
    Thanks for posting.

  8. 2 points in response if I may.

    The first is that number is inarguably fundamental as it establishes the context by which all other modes of understanding emerge from the human mind. It is the necessary function of discriminating one’s self from all else around that makes meaning possible. Without the ability to differentiate one’s self from one’s surroundings, survival itself is mere fantasy. Forgoing this first acting of counting – 1 “me” and 1 “everything else” (a.k.a. not me) – there is neither opportunity nor purpose to any form of quantitative or qualitative musings about ourselves or the world.

    My second point is that the world is not used-up by descriptions of it. Rephrased, number alone is necessary but insufficient to living a meager or ample existence.

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