The conditioning of humans in society is accomplished in many ways, and influenced by many things. We are shaped by nature, by science, by society, by relationships, by beliefs, by experiences, by circumstances.
Americans are a small subset of the world, but in terms of where we do our learning and working and living and dying, America is our world. And as Americans, through our heritage, we are a people whose national numerology gives particular prominence to the number three.
The Rule of Three was not born out of American exceptionalism, however. That concept runs deep enough in civilization that there’s a Latin phrase for it: omne trium perfectum, which translates to “everything that comes in threes is perfect” or “every set of three is complete.”
Across the wide-reaching and overlapping dominions of mythology, magic, religion, philosophy and mathematics from antiquity forward, the number three reigns supreme in terms of variety, frequency and quantity.
Think about the tripartite aspects of nature that instinctively come to mind: Sun, moon and stars. Earth, wind and fire. Land, water and air. There are three states of matter: solid, liquid, gas. Three physical dimensions: height, width, length. Which are generally considered only one aspect of our human totality: Body, mind and soul.
A triune deity leads our predominant religion: Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Realms within that faith are heaven, earth and hell.
Our national government has three branches: Executive, legislative and judicial. Our Declaration of Independence leads with three unalienable rights: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
We work, rest and play across morning, afternoon and night, with breakfast, lunch and dinner (or supper) to sustain us. We learn words, reading and spelling by reciting our ABCs. The classical education trivia featured the foundational liberal arts of grammar, logic and rhetoric. A rhetorical rule suggests that when things come in threes, they are inherently funnier, more satisfying, or more effective than other numbers of things.
The numeral three permeates nearly every literary genre, from nursery rhymes to Shakespeare: Three bears, three little pigs, three blind mice, three little kittens (mittenless), Aladdin’s three wishes, three musketeers, three ghosts of Christmas (past, present, yet to come), three fates, three wise men, three witches boiling and toiling with cauldron bubbling in Macbeth. DC Comics’ main superhero stood for truth, justice and the American way.
Hollywood films often favor word groupings in threes for titles: Trains, Planes and Automobiles. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. Sex, Lies and Videotape.
Motion picture trilogies are common, and the list of films using the actual word “three” stretches long, including Three Men and a Baby, A Letter to Three Wives, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.
A whole host of movies count things starting with three: Three … in the Attic … Men on a Horse … Coins in a Fountain … Hours to Kill … Bites of the Apple … Texas Steers … Violent People … Faces of Eve … Days of the Condor … Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
Thinking, categorizing and speaking in triads is more than a tendency towards trichotomy; it’s more indicative of a numerological indwelling. Something really simple is as easy as 1-2-3. Three primary colors. Three-ring circuses. Three stooges. Up, up and away. See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. Rock, paper, scissors. Yes, no, maybe. Yesterday, today, tomorrow. Left, right, center. Small, medium, large.
We give three cheers, and consider the third time the charm.
Stoplights shine red, yellow, green. Railroad crossing warnings remind us to stop, look and listen. Thoughts and actions are ingrained in memory in threes: On your mark, get set, go. Ready, aim, fire. Lights, camera, action. Good, better, best. Faster, better, stronger (Olympic motto). Veni, vidi, vici (Caesar came, saw and conquered). Faith, hope and charity.
The strongest geometric shape? A triangle. The foundational makeup of a musical chord? Three notes. Newton’s masterpiece? Three laws of motion.
Trios figure more than other numbers in our sports culture: the three-point shot in basketball, field goal in football, hat trick in soccer.
The triple crown in baseball (which also features three strikes, three outs and three bases) is its most elite accomplishment, in which one player leads the league in batting average, home runs and runs batted in (RBI) in a single season. There’s only been one triple crown winner in the past 50 years: Detroit Tiger Miguel Cabrera last did it in 2012.
Triplicating words in succession is used for emphasis: Location, location, location. Holy, holy, holy. Yada, yada, yada.
Some experts in the fields of psychology, sociology and anthropology explain the perpetual relevancy of the Rule of Three because the number three is the lowest figure that can be used to form patterns in our mind.
The first instance of something occurring always comes down to chance; the second instance can be considered a coincidence; it is with the third instance that something is perceived as a pattern.
The latest iteration of the Rule of Three appeared in news headlines earlier this week, when the initiative to trifurcate California wildly exceeded the number of petition signatures necessary to make the ballot.