Irrefutable Elegance

1.13     This was a favorite teaching of his:

He who seeks fame, destroys his name;
Knowledge not increased is knowledge decreased;
One who does not study deserves to die;
One who exploits Torah, will perish.

Still reading Hillel. Still awed by his elegance. Reading the Hebrew, even though I’m not yet to the point where I understand the words, it even sounds like poetry. In math and science, we see elegance in a special way: Something so concise and simple it’s graceful, something so succinct it cannot be said in any better way. Hillel shares this same elegance. It is the elegance of perfection; it is the elegance that most emulates the nature of God.

I’ve been watching a program on string theory today, and in it, it was said that Einstein was one of the physicists who truly wanted to see the face of God—to find the whole picture, the equation that explains everything in the universe. I share this nature, as I’ve implied in past posts, and I dream of one day finding what I call this proclaimed Holy Grail of Science—the God equation, the one or two lines of numbers and symbols that sum up the universe with the same elegance that Hillel sums up such ethics as these. But that is a day far off, and this is today.

I’ll discuss each line in turn, then discuss the whole. It’s much the same in physics today: We must address each force in particular, then unify the forces in general. In the end, both fact and philosophy share a singular goal: elegance.

“He who seeks fame, destroys his name” – I need only to point toward Hollywood and perhaps the capital to prove this statement. When we lose track of what propels us, we lose track of what defines us. In absence of cause, we become rogues, free radicals, cancerous tumors. It’s the old adage, write for your audience. It’s not always entirely true (you should at least write for the love of writing), but you should be considerate of what you’re writing for. Write for the sake of writing, not for making a name for yourself. Those who write for name write cheaply and in the end, they lose what talent they began with and only end up as those authors never read.

It’s the same with leadership. We have to hold onto our principles and do what’s right. Not for ourselves, but for our groups and our causes. I’m sincerely passionate about becoming a part of the National Marriage Boycott, and the other Gay-Straight Alliance officers agree with me; but unless our fellow members share the same enthusiasm, we won’t proceed. Why? Because we know what we do is not about us; it’s about the group. As a leader, you learn that true strength is not about being the strongest; it’s doing what takes the most strength to do.

“Knowledge not increased is knowledge decreased” – This one’s simple psychology: If we don’t use it, we lose it. And if we’re using it, we’re improving it. One of my greatest pleasures this semester is being able to work as a tutor in the Math Lab. Trust me, it’s not the allure of the paycheck that excites me; it’s the prospect of combining two things that I love into one: math and teaching. And by teaching math to those who need it, I’ll be reinforcing my own learning and making it easier for me to remember everything that I already know. I know from seeing countless others need to retake math classes even after having taken them years before: Unless you use it, unless you make a habit of doing something, that knowledge will rapidly wane.

This applies equally well to technology: As the world advances around us, if we fail to keep up—even if we maintain our levels of expertise—we will be at a disadvantage to those around us. Relative to this increase in the extent of knowledge, ours is itself equally decreased.

“One who does not study deserves to die” – I’ve heard comparison of death to a failure at life, and it’s in this sense I’ll assume a lack of studying leads one to deserve death—if by death we mean failure. If we then perceive study to be any work toward a goal, those who don’t do, do deserve all that they’ve done: Nothing. Failure. It’s simple reciprocity: The more you put into it, the more you get out of it. If you seek to learn, you will succeed. If you squander your duties, you deserve to die.

Education seeks to change this. It’s why there’s so many opportunities for people to become educated and to pull themselves up through society (even though this task is itself becoming more difficult, even as education is theoretically becoming easier to obtain). The point remain: Without trying to make education an integral part of one’s life, a person can only move in one direction: To the bottom.

“One who exploits the Torah, will perish” – From the realms of the actual, to the realms of the spiritual. The Torah—both the written Torah and the oral Torah, from which the Pirkei Avot is taken—is a guide for living righteously and as a holy people. It’s a perfect guide to life. And to stray from this ideal is, in Jewish thought (as we’ve seen in some past weeks), to perish. If we exploit that, if we take it for granted or don’t take it at all, what else could come of us?

But what happens if this perishing is not meant to be a physical ordeal but instead a spiritual one? Food perishes. It spoils and becomes rotten. The food itself is still there, but it lacks the freshness and the flavor it once had. What used to be sustaining is now poisonous. It’s the same with us: If our souls perish, if we do not foster our spirits, then we too will rot and turn toxic. It’s an empty feeling, to feel soulless; it’s a feeling that faith can help dispel. And by following the Torah, or whatever religious path you follow, that death can be wholly assuaged.

So now we come to the end. The whole. Where all things come together. To unify four things into one: From the destruction of reputation, through the destruction of skill and success, to the destruction of the soul itself. If we destroy our name, we lose our following, the trust of others. If we don’t learn, we lose; if we do not do, we decay; all the while, we lose our usefulness to ourselves and to others. If we stop studying, if we stop striving, we stop reaching for success and only grab failure. If we exploit our principles and disregard our morals, we perish inside. We lose our way and we lose ourselves. We end up lost. In the end, this entire teaching is a lesson on living, a lesson on living to your greatest potential and to your greatest success.

And all of this in four lines.

That’s elegance.


3 thoughts on “Irrefutable Elegance

  1. I’ve been meaning to comment on this article (this one specifically) since I was linked this blog, and since it is mostly a consideration rather than a debate, I thought it would be better to post rather than mail about this particular topic.

    Mostly, it is unrelated to your explanation of Hillel’s teachings (though I have some brief comments); rather, I would like to address the difference I make between linguistic elegance and stylistic elegance.

    The only thing I had to say about the teaching was that I, too, upon first reading it, thought he meant “intellectual and spiritual death” — though I regrettably don’t know the era in which this was written, I think something could be said for the argument of evolutionary usefulness. The argument itself is more so related to productivity (and isn’t my own, mind you), but if we draw a parallel you could reason a person that doesn’t wish to improve (intellectually or practically) is not only not of benefit, but of detriment to society (humanity) and thus has no place therein. This requires further nuance, but I have not the time (volunteer work in a few hours, and I still have to sleep).

    NOTE: “Knowledge not increased in knowledge decreased” -> in = is*

    Now, as far as the main topic goes, I do see this elegance, this conciseness that is both ingratiating and graceful — it serves not only the message conveyed, but also the understanding of those who read it.

    In that sense, there is a lot to be said for the language “Lojban” — it is an artificial language (that I’ve mentioned before) that strives to remove all ambiguity, and from what I’ve read, it succeeds. It is a perfect language in that it harnesses linguistic understanding to present a completely unambiguous, compact and elegant presentation of linguistic data, rather than being wasteful, as the English language (and all Nordic-, Latin- and German- based languages) often is.

    It is with this that I am forced to draw a distinction between two specific sets of elegance, neither of more value than the other except in the eye of the beholder: linguistic elegance and stylistic elegance.

    Linguistic elegance would be unambiguous, compact yet complete and of perfect syntax, grammar and diction. The power to convey as much information as possible in as little words as possible, while being universally understandable (universally to those in possession of this particular language, that is). As one studying the art of programming (and perhaps Computer Science with it?), surely you can find yourself agreeing with such a definition, where the language is a binary code that can be both verbose and condense, where perfection is achieved by reducing the amount written yet achieving the highest output of actual data.

    On this subject many books have been written, many of which I’d recommend — but that is for later.

    The second set draws mostly on cultural, linguistic and emotional understanding of a language to appease the parts of one’s mind (some would argue soul) dedicated to deciphering these complex means of communication. Diction would be a key component here as well (though with a different goal in mind), as would syntax and rhetoric. Yet there is a difference.

    Stylistic elegance to me is the use of literary profundity in such a way that it best fits the theme or subject of its content. In that sense, the use of grammar and the diction herein is used to convey an emotion, form a connection in one’s mind that bonds within and is aimed to be recognized by as many cognitive processes as can be attained to formulate a harmony; a symphony of both wording and emotion.

    It is in that we can find many subtle elements of the language that are hard to master because they are hard to evaluate or observe: subtlety, emotion, contingency and flow (which encompasses metric, syntax, formulation, and more such things).

    I have worded this improperly (mostly because I am both tired and incapable of reviewing this entire comment — it is done on memory alone, I cannot oversee the whole), but the best way to exemplify it is by pointing out the two styles of programming, of which one not yet exists but is theorized (among records of this theory (not in the scientific terminology, mind you) is an essay in an edition of the yearly Edge compilation): 1) the utilitarian perfection of current binary languages, and 2) the associative comprehension of computing systems (for example: you can program a simulation of a heart and a lung separately for medical purposes, but if written in different coding, they can’t easily be combined — not so if a computer could understand the effects and implications of both these organs).

    In effect, this means that, should we write a story, we could write, for instance:

    “Jack saw a bird. He admired the bird.”

    Which is linguistically correct, descriptive and elegant. However, we could also write:

    “Ever so fondly Jack beheld an avian creature, and it was not without admiration.”

    Which is linguistically correct, descriptive, and STILL elegant, yet not at all unambiguous, compact or universally understandable (largely due to its ambiguity) like the previously written sentence was. It is elegant because we understand the wording and appreciate how well the words complement each other, because of how much more this sentence reminds us of great literary works (I’m not implying I am of great literary prowess, of course), it is culturally accepted that complexity IS more emotionally appeasing (to some, not all), and many more such things could be named if need be.

    Furthermore, the level of complexity is consistent, and so is the feel and style of proze (I refuse to write this word with an “s”). Additionally, and finally, should you read this sentence out loud, it contains no vocal oddities (like the sentence I pointed out had a beautiful assonance throughout did due to the continuance).

    It is in this we see that elegance encompasses a great many things; elegant simplicity is perfection (and possibly divine, as you imply), but linguistic perfection need not be simple to be elegant.

    And with that, I end an inspired comment by an exceptionally profound article.

    Be well.

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