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Henri Poincaré – The concordance of the caryatids

March 28, 2015

                “It is because simplicity and vastness are both beautiful that we seek by preference simple facts and vast facts; that we take delight, now in following the giant courses of the stars, now in scrutinizing with a microscope that prodigious smallness which is also a vastness, and now in seeking in geological ages the traces of a past that attracts because of its remoteness.

                Thus we see that care for the beautiful leads us to the same selection as care for the useful. Similarly economy of thought, that economy of effort which, according to Mach, is the constant tendency of science, is a source of beauty as well as a practical advantage. The buildings we admire are those in which the architect has succeeded in proportioning the means to the end, in which the columns seem to carry the burdens imposed on them lightly and without effort, like the graceful caryatids of the Erechtheum.

                Whence comes this concordance? Is it merely that things which seem to us beautiful are those which are best adapted to our intelligence, and that consequently they are at the same time the tools that intelligence knows best how to handle? Or is it due rather to evolution and natural selection? Have the peoples whose ideal conformed best to their own interests, properly understood, exterminated the others and taken their place? One and all pursued their ideal without considering the consequences, but while this pursuit led some to their destruction, it gave empire to others. We are tempted to believe this, for I the Greeks triumphed over the barbarians, and if Europe, heir of the thought of the Greeks, dominates the world, it is due to the fact that the savages loved garish colours and the blatant noise of the drum, which appealed to their senses, while the Greeks loved the intellectual beauty hidden behind sensible beauty, and that it is this beauty which gives certainty and strength to the intelligence.

                No doubt Tolstoi would be horrified at such a triumph, and he would refuse to admit that it could be truly useful. But this disinterested pursuit of truth for its own beauty is also wholesome, and can make men better. I know very well there are disappointments, that the thinker does not always find the serenity he should, and even that some scientists have thoroughly bad tempers.”

(from Science and Method, translated by Francis Maitland)

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