Saturday, November 17, 2012

Lincoln and Equality

Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln

When I was a Fulbright Fellow in Germany back in 1989-90, I read Euclid's Elements because I had time, and I tried to understand them, even resorting to straight-edge and compass to assist my effort, but the going proved rough, and in grinding my way through that particular text, Ptolemy's Almagest, and a modern textbook on astronomy, I eventually ran out of time, as well as grant money, and just focused on John's Gospel and Gnostic texts instead of trying to master all of classical antiquity, my ultimate aim.

I wasn't as smart as Lincoln.

As I know from my reading on the man, the self-educated Lincoln taught himself Euclid . . . and understood it with clarity. In Stephen Spielberg's recent film, Lincoln, the screenwriter Tony Kushner understands that Lincoln understood Euclid, and has him state:
Euclid's first common notion is this: Things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other. That's a rule of mathematical reasoning. It's true because it works, has done and always will do. In his book, Euclid says this is self-evident. You see, there it is, even in that 2,000-year-old book of mechanical law. It is a self-evident truth that things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other.
Kushner, however, who put these words in Lincoln's mouth, didn't quite understand Euclid, for the Elements was not about mechanical law. It was about geometry, mathematical law. It also wasn't about that assertion in the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." But none of that matters to inspired creative writing. Kushner can connect them to make a point, that white men were men, as black men were men, and both being equal to men were equal to each other.

I'd also have made the same, creative links using the word "equal" that Kushner made if I'd been writing the screenplay.

If I were as smart as Kushner . . .

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At 7:35 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Thanks for posting this

At 7:54 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

You're welcome.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:22 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Euclid's law of equals pertains to all things real. That is things which equal the same thing are also equivalent to one another. It is fundamental aka, an axiom. So if you can two things equal to the same thing that are NOT equal to themselves you'll be a bigger start than Einstein.

At 9:59 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

A "bigger start" than Einstein? Did you mean "bigger star"?

Also, for "NOT equal to themselves," I think you meant "NOT equal to each other," for every thing is equal to itself.

But why would you want to make "two things equal to the same thing that are NOT equal to each other"? That would be absurd, as Euclid was fond of saying.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:41 AM, Blogger firezdog said...

I see your point, but I thought this was a really silly moment in the film. Euclid just does not mean "equal" in the way the declaration of independence and the constitution mean "equal". It's a really terrible equivocation.

At 11:03 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Mr. Leibowitz. Equivocation is precisely the problem.

I looked at your blog. Impressive. You seem to know both Greek and Chinese. I assume you also know Hebrew.

I wish I had your facility with languages -- I might be more than a Gypsy Scholar.

Jeffery Hodges

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