I've came across the phrase (arithmetic promise) and I was confused by the word (promise) here. What does it mean in the following context.

Buddhism begins with the “Four Noble Truths,” but their brevity is deceptive. The first three are one- liners: life is suffering; the source of suffering is attachment; the goal is to give it up. The fourth noble truth is an “Eightfold Path”— which rather defeats the arithmetic promise. (How many noble truths are there, in fact? Eleven? Or more, if some of the eight turn out to be more than one?)

Thank you in advance!

  • The writer means that the 'Four Noble Truths' are actually more than four (not the number 'promised' by the name) because the fourth is divided into eight parts. Sep 1, 2021 at 16:54
  • Is it possible that this is a typo (or auto-correct?) and that the word was originally intended to be "premise"? This would surprise me less than "arithmetic promise" which I have never seen used in English before. (Of course, it may be a literal translation from an idiom that has more meaning in another language.) Sep 1, 2021 at 16:57
  • Thank you Kate and Tim. It's now clear. I thought it was a mathematical idiom or something.
    – Lili M
    Sep 1, 2021 at 17:02

1 Answer 1


This isn't an idiom, you should take the words at face value.

'Arithmetic' means things related to mathematical numbering.

I also wondered if perhaps it 'promise' is a mistake, and it should be "premise", although it could work either way. It could be that the "four truths" are a "premise", meaning the root idea of something; or perhaps the writer did means that four truths are 'promised', but that the additional points break that promise. Either way, it works.

The writer is drawing attention to the fact that Buddhism is based on "four noble truths", but that one of the 4 turns out to be an "eightfold path". So, there are in fact 11 points to know, belying the arithmetic premise (or promise) that there were only four.

  • I'd go with "promise". The sentence begins with the assertion that there are four important truths. As it begins to list them, it implicitly suggests (promises) that there are only four issues to consider - and then nearly triples the actual count. Jun 14 at 1:44

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