Numbers and Words: Why We Need English

I’m an English teacher, a fact I must apologize for with almost every introduction. “Oh, you teach English?” strangers will say to me. “I’ll have to watch my grammar around you!” As though they would otherwise stumble around with their grammatical pants around their ankles. Look proper everyone! There’s a Grammar Cop in the room!

The Scarlet Letter: Making sex and vengeance boring since 1850.

But as the conversation progresses, I’ll often encounter the lingering discomfort or resentment of former English students. “I never really liked that class,” they’ll say. “The grading, it just seemed so arbitrary.” “I hated The Scarlet Letter,” another will remark. They won’t be able to remember any details of the book, just the lingering stain of drudgery and pleasureless reading. I can relate to those experiences; they were mine as well. I grew out of them; others don’t. That’s perfectly natural.

What cuts deeper is the charge that English is unnecessary, superfluous, or outdated. “Let me ask you this,” one dinner companion put to me. “When am I ever going to need to analyze a poem? Or find the theme of a book?” I don’t doubt, he continued, that there’s value in analysis, or even of connecting with our cultural heritage — Shakespeare and all that. “But come to numbers,” he prosecuted. “It really all comes down to numbers. And English is really no damn good at that.”

The Case of Numbers Guy

As every modern baseball fan will tell you, the beauty of baseball is statistical expressions of Wins Above Replacement figures.

Every English teacher has met that guy — the numbers guy. He’s ascendant. Science — the big winner of the past half-millennia — speaks the language of numbers. So do doctors, lawyers, accountants, and hedge fund managers. Baseball — the great lyrical muse of many a writer — is now dominated by the statistician, the Moneyball disciple. It’s not that English isn’t important. It just shouldn’t be THAT important, right?

My response was that English is really about arguments — often aesthetic ones — and that we need to cultivate an appreciation for such conjectures and their relationship with our lives. Everything is an argument — the choler of Fitzgerald’s characters, the universality of Falkner’s Yoknapatawpha, the hue with which Margaret Atwood imbues the ivy on a church’s edifice. It’s all making a case for the way the author sees the world, and we need to understand these arguments to make sense of the arguments we make with our lives. The Homeric poems weren’t recited because cyclopes[1] and demigods are cool; they were passed down from generation to generation because Odysseus was great, and we could — can — learn from him.

“Look! LOOK! The symbolism’s RIGHT THERE! Why can’t you see it? What is wrong with your… your… aw, Christ. I give up…”

But Numbers Guy was not satisfied. “Yeah, but how do you KNOW what the argument is?” he challenged. “My English teacher swore to me — swore! — that the movie The Incredibles was a tribute to Ayn Rand. And then I saw an interview where the director said, ‘Naw, it’s just a superhero film.’ Half the time English teachers are just making things up!”

And again, I have to give Numbers Guy his due. English’s arguments seem pretty subjective. “How do we know what the author intends?” I’ve often asked. “How do we know that her alliteration was purposeful or that a periodic sentence was used to build tension? You stupid teacher, you can’t even tell us if Godot is God!”[2] English must always genuflect to the certainty of Math, wearing a wry smile that could mean contentment, enlightenment, or thoughtlessness. Damn ambiguity!

And here’s the thing — right about now, my students deeply crave certainty. With the drumbeat of economic uncertainty growing loud in their ears, what they’d really like are some practical arguments. What’s the best school? What’s the best major? What path — what exact path — leads you to whatever gilded utopia lies at the heart of the upper-middleclass ideal. In the face of such questions, English can merely ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. As Lynch[3] told Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, “I don’t care about your esthetic philosophy […] I want a job of five hundred a year! You can’t get me one!”

The Pythagorean World

Numbers Guy’s point is that for certainty, you can always turn to Math. To Euclid, to Newton, to Turing. Maybe the first great philosopher — Pythagoras — was a Math guy. He, of course, is known from the theorem a2+b2=c2, for the discovery of the musical scales and harmonies. But before he was a marble bust, he was a curious young man exploring the world. You have to imagine this mild-mannered guy dressed in simple clothes, staring at a field of olive trees somewhere in Crotona, listening to the birds and insects chirping.

As Professor Daniel N. Robinson writes, “Everywhere he went, he could sense that reality was created out of something that is itself not material but is architectonic for all that can be material. That ‘something’ is the abstract plan or idea on which all reality is constructed.” For Pythagoras, that abstract idea is number, through which material reality becomes accessible to the senses.

One. The point. The separation between an object its environment. Two. The line. The distance between points. Three. The plane. The birth of area, of space, of freedom. Four. The solid. The sine qua non of dimension, of forms. Without one, we cannot be; without two, we cannot have others; without three we cannot be anywhere; without four, we cannot hold anything. Added together, these sacred integers — the tetraktys — generate the sensible world of material things. Indeed, the harmonies of music are but the sensible manifestation of relations between and among numbers; relationships that determine which combinations will be concordant and discordant.

John Newlands, a British chemist, offered an early version of the periodic table of elements. He noticed a pattern when he arranged the elements in order of atomic mass, or weight. He found the properties of the elements seemed to repeat every eighth element. He called this the Law of Octaves, comparing it to musical scales.

But even Pythagoras couldn’t be certain of everything. The more he studied the relationship between numbers and reality, the more Pythagoras detected astonishing coincidences. There is harmony in numbers, in music, in the soul, in the planets. Harmony is in relations, which is not material but has an existence nonetheless. Often mathematical abstractions predate physical discoveries which, however, they describe exactly. Before we had the periodic table of elements, we had mathematical expressions to describe their relationships. The odds are long that 200 years before their discovery, physicists already had the math needed to understand quarks and gluons, but that’s what happened. There are also numbers that don’t even match up with anything physical, like π or the square root of -1. You need π to calculate the circumference of a circle, but it’s not even measurable!

“Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous” — Albert Einstein

For Pythagoras, coincidence cannot explain this. Such occurrences, then, must express some plan. The ultimate plan must be abstract but capable of generating the physical reality. It must be a plan of relationships between one, two, three, four. It must be the plan of some greater mind, a God. But Pythagoras could not be sure. The numbers could only take him so far.

Beyond the Numbers

And now we return to English, to the maddening ambiguity of sentences and paragraphs, to the inscrutable will of the writer. These words must be there for a reason; nothing is coincidence in the hands of Donne, Swift, Shelley, and Woolf. The gap between what we perceive and what we know for certain is where all meaningful thought takes place, where a hunch becomes a leap. And if you look beyond the text at the world itself, we see expressions of arguments everywhere. It cannot be an accident that I, the English prodigal, would one day take up its cause as my own. Would meet Numbers Guy and have lunch together. There was something there — in that meal! — that expresses the divine truth of number, relation, harmony. You can call it numeric coincidence or you can call it truth. The choice makes all the difference.


Once upon a time a young student teacher sat working at his desk alone. One. On her way out, another teacher stopped to chat. Two. “Staying late?” she asked. “I think I might just stay all night,” laughed the student teacher. “Maybe I’ll make a nest of chewed-up essays under my desk.” She smiled. Three. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to have that desk; maybe she wasn’t supposed to speak to me on her way out. But she did, and 12 years later we are married with two kids. Four. It was all there in that moment of dizzying uncertainty and delirious ambiguity. The harmony of relations. The unconditional truth of my life. Everything is an argument, and all the numbers matter.

[1] For the record, it’s a scientific fact that cyclopes are cool. That’s just science, man.

[2] Godot is God. There. I said it.

[3] Lynch is, of course, the true hero of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.