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I am currently on page 36 of Terry Pratchett's Small Gods. One sentence reads:

Kitchens and storerooms and craftsmen's workshops belonging to the Church's civilian population honey- combed the Citadel.*

At the bottom of the page next to the asterisk mark, there is a line written saying that,

It takes forty men with their feet on the ground to keep one man with his head in the air.

I think I understand that the sentence implies that the people with their heads in the air are none other than the top priests of Omnia.

But what is the significance of the number 40 here? Was it just chosen arbitrarily or is it referring to something?

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  • you mean, why 40 instead of 39 or 41? Or why 40 instead of 4 or 400? I expect it's a roughly accurate estimate based on things like how many workshops, kitchens, servants bedrooms, guards barracks etc there were in castles and monasteries and such. Pratchett was the kind of person who noticed these details and understood what they meant. Jan 5, 2023 at 15:47
  • @KateGregory Thank you so much, I meant why not 50 or 30? Infact if you ask me 10 people ought to be enough for hoisting up one person in the air, so I thought there might be some significance behind the number 40. Jan 5, 2023 at 16:08
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    @Obinna you understand that this is metaphorical, it is about how many people doing practical things it takes to support one person (who engages only in cerebral or spiritual pursuits) in luxury who does not do physical work towards their own maintenance, rather than how many people it takes to physically hoist them in the air.
    – Spagirl
    Jan 5, 2023 at 17:01
  • Please put answers in the answer box.
    – shoover
    Jan 5, 2023 at 17:22
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    @Spagirl Thank you. Yes, I was taking it too literally, I understand now. Jan 6, 2023 at 5:32

2 Answers 2

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For largely unexplained reasons, many religions use "40" as a number in their texts for a significant, unknown, but finite, number. In particular, I remember it being pointed out that the story of the Flood does not literally mean 40 days of rain, but merely that it rained for a long time. Given the text of Small Gods is largely about the nature of religion, it makes sense for "40" to be used as a number.

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The verb keep in your quoted sentence doesn't mean to literally keep anyone up in the air or off the ground. It means to generally keep the man alive, well, and able to do his work. To provide food, water, heating in the winter, protection from the woes of the world, clothes, paper and ink for intellectual work, soft chairs and quiet rooms, and on and on and on. The monk or the professor or the king can appear not to think, care, or even know about all those things, they just get taken care of. And in the passage you quoted, the very rooms and buildings of the setting tell you about these people. Kitchens - for those who cook. Storerooms - for keeping food and other supplies. Workshops - for making and fixing clothes, tools, and so on.

Is it precisely 40 cooks, weavers, smiths, labourers, guards, farmers, fishers, hunters, and so on per monk or professor or king? No, that's not the point. It's dozens. And for the most part, those people are invisible. But Pratchett is pointing out that they exist, and hinting at what they do, and telling us that we can see them by seeing the buildings and rooms they used to do all that for the "one man" who gets the credit for good works and achievements.

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  • So 40 is just a random number which roughly equates to the number of people needed according to Pratchett. And the statement has to be taken metaphorically. I get it now. Thanks! Jan 6, 2023 at 5:38

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