Why are we obsessed with making lists?

From Mark O’Connell’s article in The New Yorker, 10 Paragraphs About Lists You Need In Your Life Right Now“:

In twenty years ago, Don DeLillo mentioned that “lists are a form of cultural hysteria.” From the vantage point of today, you wonder how much anyone—even someone as routinely prescient as DeLillo—could possibly have identified list-based hysteria in 1993. DeLillo’s statement also hints at something crucial about the list as a form: the tension between its gesturing toward order and its acknowledgement of order’s impossibility. The list—or, more specifically, the listicle—extends a promise of the definitive while necessarily revealing that no such promise could ever be fulfilled. It arises out of a desire to impose order on a life, a culture, a society, a difficult matter, a vast and teeming panorama of cat adorability and nineties nostalgia. Umberto Eco put it dramatically: “The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order.”

But even the most definitive-seeming inventories are always undermined by a sense of their own arbitrariness. There’s an absurdity—a hysteria—that lurks between the lines of the most stern and sober of lists. Whoever wrote the Ten Commandments (or “10 Judeo-Christian Moral Injunctions You Need in Your Life Right Now”) was surely aware that it could just as well have been eight, or eleven, or seventy-seven commandments. (You get the sense that God, or whoever, could have gone on prohibiting and decreeing things all day, but that He was well aware of His people’s already compromised powers of attention.)

While O’Connell is right to observe that our cultural obsession with listicles reveals a “gesturing toward order,” he’s wrong to conclude its an “acknowledgement of order’s impossibility.” He assumes culture must create order when, in fact, order already exists in the universe, owing to God, and we are tasked with discovering it.

There’s nothing arbitrary about the number of commandments in the Decalogue. O’Connell, like many people in late modernity, has forgotten the Pythagorean-Christian tradition, which observes the symbolic associations of natural numbers. On the number ten, Stratford Caldecott writes in Beauty for Truth’s Sake:

There were ten Commandments given to Moses and ten Sephiroth or archetypes from which the w0rld is created, according to Jewish mysticism. The fact that we have ten fingers made it the natural basis for counting systems around the world. The sacred Tetractys of the Pythagoreans is the sum of the first four numbers, represented by ten points in an equilateral triangle: one over two over three over four – the “four lettered name” of God equivalent to the Jewish “JHVH.” It can be used to construct many different geometrical forms in two or three dimensions, including the five Platonic Solids, and the basic harmonies of music. Here it is: the ancient “theory of everything,” a mathematical representation of God:

Tetractys

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