You Don't Have to be a Genius
At first Hirsch did not know what to make of it. Einstein, Freud, Franklin. Must be a list of smart people. Then Hirsch happily noticed who was listed fifth. A few seconds later Hirsch's mood changed. Why was he only fifth? Then his mood changed again when he realized he was the only living person on the list. It's great to be five, while you're still alive!
Abraham Lincoln and the Structure of Reason has a chapter devoted to Jefferson, and another chapter on Newton. The book also addresses Aristotle. So who really belongs on the list? Hirsch is fine with Jefferson and Newton. He is unwilling to comment on himself. But Aristotle on the list -- and number 1? No way.
The topic indirectly came up at Hirsch's March 26, 2011, speech at the National Archives II:
Questioner: “Hi. I enjoyed your presentation a great deal with its emphasis on reason. As a lawyer myself I always envy a lawyer that can branch out. But my question is this. I think by focusing on Euclid, to me you take a too narrow view of what Lincoln did as far as [voice unintelligable] speeches. You mentioned Isaac Newton as using Euclid. I thought of Spinoza, who you may or may not know, whose philosophical book of ethic speeches is directly out of it.
“What Lincoln does seems to me more, I have to use a classical example, would be Aristotle’s Rhetoric, Aristotle’s logic, which uses the syllogism, something that uses language rather than just figures and numbers, because without that, without the language and Lincoln’s power over it, I don’t think you quite capture what he’s about. And I’m sure he had classical speeches to look at, just like Frederick Douglass did, when he was learning how to write.”
Hirsch: “Actually, Aristotelian speech is what got us [the world] into the mess we’re in right now. Speech has not evolved much since Aristotle. Euclidean speech is the direct opposite of Aristotle. Aristotle, Aristotelian technique, you use any trick in the book to convince people. Stephen Douglas was an expert at Aristotelian speech. To address your question more directly, the reason this [Euclidean speech] works, and the reason it worked for Lincoln, and the reason it works just intellectually, is geometric speech is speech. In other words (even though Euclid was using diagrams to illustrate his problems) when he was proving them, he was proving them with words. He was literally writing sentences, he was giving a speech to prove those theorems [propositions]. And that’s why it translates so wonderfully into speech. And, that structure is all invisible. There is no algebra in it. The way geometry is taught today is different—Euclid’s gone way out of favor.
“As far as the book being narrow. We probably could have spent 5000 pages just talking about Lincoln’s Euclidean speech. If you want a rich, textured view of Lincoln, read Michael Burlingame. It’s worth every word of reading. We don’t pretend to give you a whole answer, and we certainly can’t solve the world’s problems. But we know this—we found out how he [Lincoln] talked, how his speeches mean. And they have a structural meaning that makes them come through. They’re not innate genius just coming out of words spun from whole fabric. This is a textured forest, and the words are just the leaves.”
To see Euclid's otherwise hidden structure look at Proposition 1 (above). Like an x-ray, structure is revealed cloaked by words hanging like leaves on the limbs of a beautifully crowned tree. A word, a sentence, a phrase, a paragraph, are not what gives power. The position of a word, a sentence, a phrase, a paragraph, is what gives power. Properly used, position is the lever of marshalled reason.
The bottom line is you do not need to be a genius to do this. You need only principle, discipline, and practice.
Copyright 2012 by David Hirsch and Dan Van Haften; all rights reserved.