A reflective essay, written last year by Nicholas Kroon (Espin 2016):
I take no responsibility for the fact that I have a talent for mathematics, I merely acknowledge it here, as it is a trait for which
I have become known. Thus I was surprised when a teacher of mine urged me to consider the humanities. “I’m far better
at mathematics than the humanities”, I assured him and dismissed his remark as that of a well-meaning, but overzealous
English teacher. Yet the encounter sticks in my mind and I am left pondering the merits of these two paths. One beautifully
abstract, one beautifully human.
They say mathematics is the queen of the sciences, since she forms the basis of all other science. It is important that
she is the queen, not the king, for she holds a beauty that is unmistakably feminine. In her finest moments she is elegant,
graceful and pure enough to make one see why, rightly or wrongly, the Victorians prized this virtue so highly. Admittedly,
her beauty remains veiled to most who meet her, but to me it was evident from first sight. Yet, whilst her beauty is flawless,
her admirers are arguably not so. The pure mathematicians, who dare to live in her fantasyland, are perhaps selfish. Their
intentions are honest; they have found a beautiful thing, which they would like to admire. But were I to join them, I would
join a group of people who contribute very little to humanity. Their theorems help no one and the beauty of their work is a
gift only to themselves.
Authors and poets, may similarly provide little practical help to anyone, but their work remains a gift to humanity. Their work
has a beauty, more intimate than mathematics, and far more accessible. They, unlike mathematicians, can affect the way
we live our lives. I am fond of two ancient Greeks, Homer and Euclid. Studying Euclid brought me joy, but reading Homer
taught me about myself and of others and of my interactions with them. Euclid has not changed me, but Homer, perhaps
slightly. I have learnt to look to the humanities to explain humanity, a lesson that perhaps ought not to have needed teaching.
The humanities, unlike mathematics, is not practised in isolation. And this is, to me, the strongest point in its favour. In The
Brother’s Karamazov, Father Zosima says that it is only “when [one] knows that he is not only worse than all those in the
world, but is also guilty before all people, on behalf of all and for all … only then will the goal of our unity be achieved”. This
seemed at first, to be an unjust accusation and an unwarranted expectation. But it is not so. Paradoxically, it is the most
virtuous people that think themselves the least virtuous. And when this level of virtue is reached, it is easy to see why, being
worse than all others, we are guilty before them. My failures are the failures of humanity and humanity’s failures are mine.
We have a collective guilt, and we face this fact, not as individuals, but as one humanity.
Unlike mathematics, we are vastly imperfect. This is the human problem and it is only together that we can make sense of
what we are and why we aren’t what we ought to be. Mathematics has always been, to me, a Platonic ideal. A prelapsarian
image of what man might’ve been and may one day be. Yet I live in a human world, one filled with an endless supply of
questions to ponder. And if I can ponder them, ought I not to? If I, if any of us, can increase man’s understanding of man,
albeit in a small way, ought we not to? Certainly, we ought to.