Acute Vision For Others, Feeble Sight For Ourselves

I recall reading somewhere that both Archimedes and the mathematician Leonhard Euler never liked to explain how they arrived at their discoveries.  They took care to remove all the scaffolding before presenting their magnificent edifices to posterity; we saw the finished product, but not the arduous labor that was necessary to create it.  This may be an exaggeration, at least in the case of Archimedes, whose lost Method was finally unearthed in Istanbul in 1906; but I think the point is sufficiently true, for enough famous names, to merit some reflection.

Rare is the creative mind that cherishes secrecy.  The desire to propagate, to release, submerges the hesitations fueled by timidity and fear.  Those involved in any kind of creative endeavor will feel a strong impulse to announce their work to the world, and this impulse may lead us to premature unveilings of our labors.  How many times have we observed the benefit of setting something aside for a time, and then coming back to it?  How many supposedly “complete” works have been rushed into the marketplace before the chemistry of creative fermentation has had a chance to ripen to proper maturity?  In his 1489 work Miscellanies, the humanist Angelo Poliziano offers some wise counsel in this regard, that I translate as follows:

I have only mentioned this point, not for the purpose of strangling thought but rather as a warning to scholars who have assumed this most laborious and brutal task of writing, not to abandon their purposes, nor restrain their efforts and goals, nor indulge themselves or surrender in the face of the task at hand.  Let them take a look around everywhere, balance, weigh, and examine things individually; let them not fail to use their sense of smell, to probe, investigate, and to critique things repeatedly.  And let them very often place ideas under the anvil, sometimes even soliciting the views of the uneducated.

Let them not look down on the diminished capacity of those of lesser rank, if I may word it this way.  For it is a well-established principle that we possess the eyes of a lynx when it comes to critiquing the mistakes of others, but find ourselves blind or with impaired vision when examining our own.  We do not see, in Catullus’s words, “the pouch resting on our own back [manticae quod in tergo est].” Those who write should take special care not to rush too much due to a desire for acclaim, and propel their studies into the public eye in an unfinished form.  [Misc., Ch. 90]

This is superb advice, perhaps never equalled by Poliziano.  The creative mind has an inherent urge to release his creations to the world, and at times this zeal can blind him to refinements or adjustments that time might, in her infinite wisdom, suggest.  Procrastination may not a virtue, but impetuosity is decidedly a fault.  In the passage above, we should note the phrase attributed to Catullus (XXII.21), “the pouch resting on our own back.”  What does this mean?  We find such carrying-pouches mentioned in the Odyssey; but a more relevant reference may be found in Aesop, which we may explain as follows.

When Prometheus first created man, he suspended two pouches (perai) from him.  The one containing the mistakes of others was placed in front, and the one containing the mistakes of the bearer was placed on his back.  This placement enabled us, says Aesop, easily to view the foolish things that others do, while preventing us from looking into our own bag of errors.  Imagine how we would look, if we could see ourselves through the eyes of others!  What conceits, what absurdities, what baseless posturings, would then suddenly melt away!  And yet who among us would be willing to subject himself to such treatment?  We have acute vision for others, but feeble sight for ourselves.

And yet the public is forgiving of those who possess sincerity and honesty, or least I have found this to be so.  The verdict of the public is wiser than many writers are willing to admit; it is not infallible, of course, but perfection is an attribute it never aspired to.  Samuel Johnson, when confronted by the failure of his play Irene in London in 1749, was stoic in his acceptance of the situation; he did not lash out in bitterness, but accepted it, and moved on.  This was one measure of his greatness as a literary man—and no one ever doubted his essential honesty, or impugned his integrity.  Perhaps Johnson was wise enough, and subtle enough, to grasp intuitively what is represented by the old Arabic proverb:

اكثر الظنون ميون    [Arabum Proverbia XXI.123]

And this means, “Most opinions are lies.”  Consider another relevant fable by Aesop.  A woodcutter was chopping down trees on the banks of a river with and axe.  He lost his axe in the reeds and mud, and, unable to find it, sat down on the bank and began to despair.  The god Hermes suddenly appeared before him; the woodcutter explained the problem, and the god, taking pity on him, sought to help.  Hermes plunged into the river, and brought up a golden axe; he asked the man if this was the one he had lost, but the man replied in the negative.  The god dived down into the water again, this time pulling out a silver axe; he put the question to the man, and again the man told Hermes that that was not his axe.  So a third time did the god enter the waters, and this time he produced the actual axe that had been lost.  The man was deeply grateful at this; and Hermes, impressed with the woodcutter’s honesty, gave him all three axes.



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