Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The beautiful and the serious

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A mathematician, like a painter or a poet, is a maker of patterns. If his patterns are more permanent than theirs, it is because they are made with ideas. A painter makes patterns with shapes and colors, a poet with words. A painting may embody an “idea,” but the idea is usually commonplace and unimportant. In poetry, ideas count for a good deal more; but, as Housman insisted, the importance of ideas in poetry is habitually exaggerated: “I cannot satisfy myself that there are any such things as poetical ideas.…Poetry is no the thing said but a way of saying it.”

Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm from an anointed King.

Could lines be better, and could ideas be at once more trite and more false? The poverty of the ideas seems hardly to affect the beauty of the verbal pattern. A mathematician, on the other hand, has no material to work with but ideas, and so his patterns are likely to last longer, since ideas wear less with time than words…

The “seriousness” of a mathematical theorem lies, not in its practical consequences, which are usually negligible, but in the significance of the mathematical ideas which it connects. We may say, roughly, that a mathematical idea is “significant” if it can be connected, in a natural and illuminating way, with a large complex of other mathematical ideas…The beauty of a mathematical theorem depends a great deal on its seriousness, as even in poetry the beauty of a line may depend to some extent on the significance of the ideas which it contains. I quoted two lines of Shakespeare as an example of the sheer beauty of a verbal pattern, but

After life’s fitful fever he sleeps well

seems still more beautiful. The pattern is just as fine, and in this case the ideas have significance and the thesis is sound, so that our emotions are stirred much more deeply. The ideas do matter to the pattern, even in poetry, and much more, naturally, in mathematics; but I must not try to argue the question seriously.

G.H. Hardy, A Mathematician’s Apology

Written by nevalalee

June 10, 2017 at 6:57 am

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