NUMBERS—ZERO, ONE, TWO, THREE
NUMBERS—ZERO, ONE, TWO, THREE
by William H. Benson
September 18, 2008
For millennium humankind struggled with mathematics before arriving at the concept of a zero, moving from the idea of empty to nothing to finally the modern zero. For the ancients, a pebble removed from a sand table left an indentation or a dimple in the sand, which reflects the “0” that we see today.
In the early 1970’s Three Dog Night sang the song One. “One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do. Two can be as bad as one. It’s the loneliest number since the number one.” One is undiluted power: King John before he signed the Magna Carta and Louis XIV seated upon the French throne. One is without equal, solitary, and autocratic.
As far as numbers go, zero and one placed together do not appear overly promising, but programmers build computers that operate with a binary number system—just zero and one. One is a closed electrical switch, and zero is open.
When we introduce two words, it is human nature to align them with their polar opposite: hot/cold, good/bad, right/left, in/out, dry/wet, long/short, salt/pepper, fat/skinny, pretty/ugly, men/women, fast/slow, Heaven/Hell, smart/dumb, past/present, sweet/sour, Democrat/Republican, yes/no, and tall/short.
And not just words, but also clauses or even sentences can be balanced with two parallel parts. Charles Dickens wrote: “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” And John Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” A balanced sentence hinges in the middle, usually by a semicolon, with the second half paralleling the first half, but changing one or two key words or altering the word order.
Balanced sentences call attention to themselves, and they stick in the reader’s or listener’s mind, for a certain tension is set up between the sounds of the repetition mixed with a lesser degree of variation.
The problem with polar words and balanced sentences is that they force everything into either agreement or opposition. It is different with the number three. If balance is the rhythm of two’s, then series is the rhythm of three’s.
The English essayist, Francis Bacon, favored building his sentences with three clauses, rather than just two. In his essay “On Studies” he wrote: “Crafty men condemn studies, simple men admire them, and wise men use them.” “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.”
Once two polar words admit a third, possibilities suddenly arise: hot/cold and lukewarm, good guy/bad guy and ordinary, Heaven/Hell and Earth, long/short and medium, Democratic/Republican and Independent, up/down and sideways, friend/enemy and acquaintance, past/present and future, mind/body and soul, and yes/no and maybe.
The world at times seems to group itself into series of three’s: the calendar into days/months/years, water into solid/liquid/gas, the atom into electron/neutron/proton, and amino acids into carbohydrates/proteins/fats.
Julius Caesar understood the power of three clauses when he wrote, “Veni, vidi, vici,” meaning “I came, I saw, and I conquered.” The founding fathers divided their new government into three parts: executive, legislative, and judicial.
Where the two-part balanced sentence has the connotation of authority and expertise, the three-part series seems reasonable, believable, and logical.
How we see the world may be through the rhythms of our own rhetoric. Zero is without friends, thoughts, or possessions, drifting in a state of nothingness. One is a King, a Queen, a prince, or a princess, absorbed on him or herself, unaffected by others, and quite lonely. Two lives life as a battle, a constant confrontation of that which, by its very nature, it opposes. Three admits to differing ideas and forms, to other systems of thought.
Human consciousness constructs its language through words but specifically through the numbers of words and clauses that it chooses. How we think our thoughts, how we then choose our words and clauses, and how we create our sentences can determine where we are, what we are, and what we can become.