The curious appeal of the number seven

The Norman Transcript June 30, 2007 01:53 am — For the Transcript Down through the centuries, many people believed the number seven had a magical quality about it. Pythagoras and his followers as well as the Egyptians and Babylonians shared this view. The ancient Hebrews contributed to the myth: Creation took seven days, the week also entails seven days, and there were, they thought, seven ages in the life of man; purification among the Levites took seven days; and Elijah required his servant to look for rain seven times. Samson's wedding festival took seven days and he was bound with seven locks of air and with withes -- tough, flexible twigs. And Nebuchadnezzar suffered seven years of derangement. In the uncertain recesses of classical Greek history comes the first reference to the mysterious Pleiades. These were thought to be the seven daughters of Atlas -- a god who with his great strength supported the heavens. The connections between myth and science are sometimes subtle, even jolting. In this case the Pleiades were transformed by the creative convolutions of the human imagination into the stars of the constellation of Taurus. Today they are recognized and studied by astronomers who calculate their distance from the earth as some 400 light years. There have been so many other assumptions, summons and uses of the concept seven. Few have enriched the idea or contributed more to human wisdom than Aeschylus, the father of Greek tragic drama. Scholars know the titles of 72 of his plays although only seven texts are now available. All are engaging and one is "The Seven against Thebes." This legend tells the story of an assault against Thebes by Argives -- Greeks from the province of Argolis, or following Homer those Greeks who were against Troy. The struggle was over political power; it shows the consequences of entangled emotions and unkept pledges. Aeschylus gives us one of the first pictures of a tragic hero and raises such cardinal philosophical questions as "...whither doth destiny drive us and where is the goal of our fears?" In the academic world two references to the number seven are engaging, the first deeply rooted in classical Mediterranean culture, the second emerging from the political-intellectual clash in modern Germany. The Greeks made a major contribution to language and knowledge by differentiating several major subjects and distinguishing parts of speech. By cultural osmosis that understanding passed to the Romans and thence into the medieval world. Cassidorus, a sixth century minister in the court of King Theodoric the Great was a lover of literature and learning, who founded a monastery in southern Italy especially devoted to scholarship. Out of his work along with that of other Roman scholars, crystallized the school curriculum of the middle ages -- the seven liberal arts. These subjects -- grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music dominated formal learning for a thousand years and only slowly gave way to more "practical" and vocational studies. Academia is always infused with politics and sometimes it overflows. German universities in the late 19th century were perhaps the finest, most creative and most intellectual in he world. In spite of their pioneering leadership in promoting freedom to teach and freedom to learn they were often under pressure from the aristocracy and the conservatives. Seven professors at the University of Gottingen -- which incidentally is where Robert Oppenheimer took his doctorate in physics in 1927 -- joined the Number Seven Club when the King of Hanover abrogated the Constitution. They protested the king's arbitrary action. With the unjustified self-confidence of the authoritarian, the king dismissed them from the University. The "Gottingen Sieben" were and are honored by all who understand the importance of free speech and who cherish liberty. The "Seven Club" even incorporated chess. Although originating in India, chess has flourished most fruitfully in Europe. Russia's overwhelming dominance did not come until after the Communist Revolution of 1917.

America did not become a serious player until Paul Morphy, who was born in 1837. A neglected twist in this story is that of the chess Pleiades. The Germans who have pioneered brilliantly in so many fields of intellectual endeavor did not rise to eminence in chess until mid and later 19th century. An important foundation of that eminence rests on a group of talented masters in the early part of the century who resolved to enhance Germany's status in the chess world. Theirs is an interesting story carrying the label of the "Seven German Pleiades." Categories of seven sweep our universe from God to humankind. There are the seven wise men of Greece, the seven hills of Rose, the seven wonders of the world, the seven churches of Asia cited in Revelation, the seven cities of Cibola -- a vague region thought by Spanish explorers to contain vast treasure, and the seven mortal sins -- all surrounded by the seven seas. During the French Renaissance a group of seven poets -- the Pleiades -- joined to bring into French writing the best literary forms available. They focused especially on the sonnet. And T.E. Lawrence adds to the categories with his provocative "The Seven Pillars of Wisdom" -- a history showing again how Moslems and Christians, even in a screw-loose world, can cooperate with on another. Nor should be overlooked John Ruskin's "Seven Lamps of Architecture" written more than a century and a half ago. This is in effect a defense of the Gothic, a position sufficient to drive some moderns architects to the brink. To round out this list, one last category is necessary -- the seven foundations of democracy. The people of a democratic society, if they really want to keep it, must: 1) love truth more than the comfort of platitudes; 2) rely on realism rather than a fantasy based sense of security; 3) give loyalty to the public good rather than to their private privilege; 4) strive for an open society, not the presumed safety of a closed one; 5) develop the habit of cooperation rather than living by the illusion of individual self-sufficiency; 6) cultivate a sense of compassion rather than substituting the word for the act; and 7) live by mutual helpfulness rather than deceit, intrigue and subterfuge of the market place. If we follow such standards we may effectively cope with what Shelley saw in store for us -- grief that returns with the revolving years. Indeed, we may find peace and happiness, and seven may prove a magic number. Lloyd Williams is a retired educator. His column runs monthly in The Transcript. Copyright © 1999-2008 cnhi, inc.

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