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Welcome to March and the tail end of winter. We’re also in the final month of the winter session of our online classes.
Both courses are emerging from the ancient into the modern world. In “‘Know Thyself’: Knowledge and Self-Knowledge Literature and Philosophy” we spent last week discussing the divergent views of Leo Tolstoy and Oscar Wilde on the value and purpose of art. This coming week we’ll read a short story by Alice Munro, Canada’s only Nobel laureate in literature. Munro is famous for the fine-grained attention she gives to her characters’ inner lives. We’ll ask whether this kind of literary attentiveness has ethical significance.
In “An Introduction to Philosophy in Ten Dangerous Ideas,” we spent last week with Friedrich Nietzsche, arguably the most dangerous philosopher of them all. We examined his argument that Christian and post-Christian morality is rooted in resentment and hatred. This week, we’re turning the other cheek, as it were, and confronting Peter Singer’s challenge that we should give almost all our money to providing relief for the neediest people in the world. I discussed Singer’s argument in my December newsletter.
I’ve been enjoying being back home in Vancouver and close to family. Near the beginning of the month, I made a day trip to Galiano Island, where I lived for most of 2020 and the first half of 2021. It was a welcome reminder of the quiet beauty of the Pacific Northwest.
One of the central questions in “Know Thyself” is whether, and in what way, literature is good for us. The idea has an intuitive feel. Reading feeds the imagination, people say, makes you more sensitive, more empathetic, trains you to see things from others’ perspective, and so on.
Literature is good for you: who wouldn’t agree with that? Well, Plato for one. I rehearsed his argument in my January newsletter, so I won’t go over it again here. Instead, I want to consider the intellectual discipline Plato thought was good for us. It might seem counterintuitive, but it’s an idea that has a long history. If you want to be a better person, the subject you should study is mathematics.
The most memorable single class of my high school years was a math class in grade 12 (I was a bit of a math nerd in high school). Mr. Nakamoto led us through the derivation of Euler’s identity, the equation eiπ + 1 = 0. The equation features two mathematical constants, π and e, both of them irrational (they can’t be expressed as fractions). These two constants seem unrelated to one another, and yet it turns out they’re linked in an equation involving i, the square root of -1. That’s a number so strange that it’s called “imaginary” (the square of any real number is positive). The equation says that if you take this irrational number e, and multiply it by itself a number of times that’s equal to the square root of minus-pi—a proposal that boggles any attempt to picture it—you somehow end up with –1. It’s like being told—and not just told but given elegant, irrefutable proof—that if you collect the fury of all the green ideas you’ll end up with colourless sleep. It seems to make no sense and yet everything falls into place beautifully.
I staggered out of the class in a daze. The halls were bustling with students going to their next classes, lockers slamming, chatter everywhere. It all seemed so unreal. I’d just seen something so incomprehensibly perfect that all this messy reality was strange and alien.
Plato thought the sublime perfection of mathematics was a gateway to higher truth. Immersed as we are in the sensory world, we can struggle to apprehend the abstract principles that structure it. But this struggle to abstract away from the sensory world, and the bodily appetites conditioned by it, is the only reliable path to virtue and knowledge.
Plato wasn’t the first person to have this thought, nor was he the last. Plato was influenced by Pythagoras, an earlier Greek philosopher who preached a kind of mathematical mysticism—and whose name is linked to a mathematical theorem about right triangles that I also learned about in high school. You can find the mathematical route to virtue in later Christian, Jewish, and Islamic theology, as well as in the Indian philosophical tradition.
The idea that literature improves us, by contrast, is of much more recent vintage. Literature broadens our empathy and trains us to see matters from others’ perspectives—that’s the main thrust of how this thinking usually runs—and it accomplishes this by giving rich portrayals of the inner lives and material circumstances of people different from ourselves.
Notice how different these two conceptions of moral instruction are. The literary model aims at a detailed and sympathetic understanding of our social world. The mathematical model urges us to rise above that social world altogether.
You might say these are two different models for combatting selfishness. One (the mathematical) is spiritual and the other (the literary) is moral. This world you bustle about in is as real as a dream, the mathematician-philosophers tell us. It isn’t fitting for a being attuned to higher reality to let this dream-world inflame passions of greed and anger. The literature-is-good-for-you boosters also want you to let go of your greed and anger, but for different reasons. Think about others, they say, and your selfish emotions will relinquish their hold.
It’s no mystery which of these models is more prominent nowadays. A chorus of voices enjoins us to improve ourselves by reading fiction. But why not pick up a math textbook instead? I’ve read a lot of great novels in my time. But few have lifted me so quickly and so powerfully out of my own selfish wallowing as Euler’s identity.