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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

On numerology

Another great thing about Bodin's Methodus (I forgot to mention that mercifully, this one has been translated into English for moi) - an entire section on the importance of the numbers seven and nine in determining the rise and fall of states. Six is the women's number, so it is not relevant to the manly arithmetic of politics. But, men, beware:
No one considering this matter attentively doubts that the death of men occurs in multiples of seven and nine: as 14, 18, 27, 28, 35, 36, 42, 45, 49, 56. But if the seventh occurs with the ninth, all antiquity agreed that it was a most perilous year.
Do you persist in doubting?
Nor am I disturbed by what Aristotle thought in Book v of the Politics and at the end of the Metaphysics - that there is no importance at all in numbers. Why then does the seventh male heal scrofula? Why does the child born in the seventh and the ninth month live, that born in the eighth, never?
Leaving aside for the moment the assertion that no child born in August ever lives to adulthood, just what is the logic behind the claim that birth in the seventh or ninth month ensures life, but seventh and ninth years bring death?

9 comments:

Andrew Stevens said...

That is hilarious. However, I do think Bodin meant not that all children born in August die, but that all children born in the eighth month of pregnancy die, while full-termers and seven-month premature babies live. Or at least, believing that would be slightly less ludicrous than believing that all children born in August die, while all children born in July and September live.

Miss Self-Important said...

Yes, my husband also suggested that reading, but it makes no more sense than taking eighth month to mean August. How could a child born two months premature be more likely to survive in 1560 than one born one month premature?

Andrew Stevens said...

Well, as you say, I guarantee that children born two months premature in 1560 were much less likely to survive than those born one month premature, just as men were not more likely to die in the seventh and ninth years. But it's not nearly as silly that Bodin might have been told the opposite and believed it for mystical numerological reasons. Hard data on the subject, like hard data on ages of death, would have been pretty much impossible to come by. Whereas anecdotal data on August births surviving would very rapidly accumulate with only the barest of investigations (asking a few dozen people when they were born would do it). Believing these other numerological things in 1560 takes only a credulity which I come across today literally all the time (even in people who think of themselves as skeptics), but believing everyone born in August dies in infancy takes a profound stupidity.

Miss Self-Important said...

I'm not sure which of these claims is more indicative of profound stupidity given the infant mortality rate, and that babies born two months early don't always survive even w/ the modern accouterments of a NICU. It's not clear that Bodin asked anyone either when they were born or in what month of gestation to make this assertion. I don't have a good answer about what role numerology is playing in his political argument, so whether he really believed this stuff or not is an open question. He did write a book about how to identify and prosecute witches, which may suggest that he did believe in mysticism, but I haven't read it, so don't know.

Andrew Stevens said...

My thought is simply that I know people born in August and I have really done nothing to accumulate such knowledge. (Granted, my daughter was born in August, but even before her, I knew people who had been born in August.) I don't know enough about the culture of 16th century France, though. Perhaps they didn't celebrate birthdays (and so he might not have known anything about birthdays either).

I don't know anybody who was born in the eighth month of gestation (I'm sure I do, I just don't know that fact about them) because people don't talk about that or even necessarily know it (in the 16th century, there's a good chance even their mothers didn't know for sure). I do happen to know somebody born in the seventh month of gestation who survived (my grandfather, who was born in 1916), but I know this both because he's a close relative and because it was remarkable.

Withywindle said...

Purely hypothetical: a "seven-month pregnancy" would sometimes be a polite disguise for "they had to get married"; an eight-month pregnancy would be more likely to be genuine.

Andrew Stevens said...

I assume Withywindle was talking generally and I don't think he was implying anything, but just to defend my great-grandparents' honor, my grandfather had an older sister so there was never any doubt he was conceived safely within wedlock. There is actually an existing photograph of him as a premature infant, really tiny and all skin and bones. His mother, who was 25 when he was born, would never have another child and eventually went blind from her Type I diabetes.

There is a funny story about that. She applied for Social Security when she was 60 in 1951 when her husband died. However, her birth had never been registered. Fortunately, her father was still alive at the age of 88 (he would live to be 91 and outlive his daughter by a couple of years) and so was the doctor who delivered her, so they were able to register her birth 60 years late.

Withywindle said...

I have a very-great grandfather who was a seven-month baby, or was it six? Oldest child. I am firmly convinced that his parents were no better than they should have been.

Andrew Stevens said...

Heh. My eldest brother was born on Christmas day, six months after my parent's June wedding. I wasn't defending all of my ancestors' honor here, just those particular great-grandparents.