Category: People

Seduced by Logic: Émilie du Châtelet and the Struggles to create the Newtonian Revolution

Against great odds, Émilie du Châtelet (1706–1749) taught herself mathematics and became a world authority on Newtonian mathematical physics.

I say against great odds because being a woman at the time meant she was ineligible for the same formal and informal opportunities available to others. Seduced by Logic, by Robyn Arianrhod tells her story with captivating color.

Émilie and her lover and collaborator Voltaire realized that Newton's Principia not only changed our view of the world but also the way we do science.

“Newton,” writes Arianrhod, “had created a method for constructing and then testing theories, so the Principia provided the first truly modern blueprint for theoretical science as both a predictive, quantitative discipline—Newton eschewed qualitative, unproven, metaphysical speculations—and a secular discipline, separate from religion, although by no means inherently opposed to it.”

This, of course, has impacted the way we live and see ourselves. While Newton is relatively well known today, his theories were not easily accepted at the time. Émilie was one of the first to realize his impact and promote his thinking. In the late 1740s, she created what is, still to this day, the authoritative French translation, which includes detailed commentary, on Newton's masterpiece. Voltaire considered du Châtelet “a genius worthy of Horace and Newton.”

Émilie du Châtelet didn't limit herself to only commenting on Newton. The reason the book still stands today is that she added a lot of original thought.

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How did Émilie du Châtelet come to learn so much in a world that overtly limited her opportunities? This is where her character shines.

While her brothers were sent to the most prestigious Jesuit secondary schools; Émilie was left to fend for herself and acquired much of her knowledge through reading. While her brothers could attend university, “such a thing was unthinkable for a girl.”

Luckily her family environment was conducive to self-education. Émilie's parents “were rather unorthodox in the intellectual freedom they allowed in their children: both parents allowed Émilie to argue with them and express opinions, and from the time they were about ten years old, the children had permission to browse freely through the library.”

 

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Émilie would grow and enter an arranged marriage at eighteen with thirty-year-old Florent-Claude, marquis du Chatelet and count of Lomont. Less than a year later she gave birth to their first child, Gabrielle-Pauline, which was followed seventeen months later by their son, Floren-Louis. Another child, a boy, would come six years later only to pass within two years. His death caused her to remark on her grief that the ‘sentiments of nature must exist in us without us suspecting.'

“Sometime around 1732, she experienced a true intellectual epiphany,” Arianrhod writes. As a result, Émilie would come to see herself as a ‘thinking creature.'

“At first, she only caught a glimpse of this new possibility, and she continued to allow her time to be wasted by superficial society life and its dissipation, ‘which was all I had felt myself born for.' Fortunately, her ongoing friendship with these ‘people who think'—including another mathematically inclined woman, Marie de Thil, who would remain her lifelong friend—led Émilie to the liberating realisation that it was not too late to begin cultivating her mind seriously.”

It would be a difficult journey. “I feel,” Émilie wrote, “all the weight of the prejudice that universally excludes [women] from the sciences. It is one of the contradictions of this world that has always astonished me, that there are great countries whose destiny the law permits us to rule, and yet there is no place where we are taught to think.”

To become a person who thinks she became a person who reads.

“Presumably,” Arianrhod writes, “she studied Descartes, Newton, and the great English philosopher of liberty, John Locke, because when she met Voltaire a year after her epiphany, he was immediately captivated by her mind as well as her other charms.”

In an early love letter, Voltaire would write to her “Ah! What happiness to see you, to hear you … and what pleasures I taste in your arms! I am so fortunate to love the one I admire … you are the idol of my heart, you make all my happiness.”

“When Émilie and Voltaire because their courtship in 1733,” Arianhod writes, “she was twenty-six, and he was thirty-eight (the same as-as her husband, with whom Voltaire would eventually become good friends, thanks to Émilie's encouragement and her efforts as a diplomatic go-between.)”

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Arianrhod writes of Émilie's struggles to learn:

Émilie’s plan to become a mathematician would require all her courage and determination. Firstly, envious acquaintances like Madame du Deffand would try to cast her as a dry and ugly ‘learned woman’ or femme savante, despite the fact that she had such appeal and charisma that the handsome duc de Richelieu, one of the most sought-after men in Paris, was rumoured to have once been her lover, while the celebrated Voltaire adored her. Of course, some of her female contemporaries admired her scholarship: Madame de Graffigny would later say, ‘Our sex ought to erect altars to her!’ But many were irritated by, or envious of, her liberated commitment to an intellectual life, because Émilie was very different from the glamorous women who ran many of Paris’s legendary literary salons. It was acceptable, even admirable, for such women to know enough of languages and philosophy to be good conversationalists with the learned men who dominated salon gatherings, but it was expected that women be modest about their knowledge. By contrast, Émilie would become famous as a scholar in her own right, thus angering the likes of Madame du Deffand, a powerful salonnière who claimed Émilie’s interest in science was all for show.

There were few truly learned women of the time, the belief being they were “either pretentious or ugly,” something that lingered “for the next three centuries.”

If you're going to blaze the trail, you really have to blaze it.

At thirty-five, (Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis) Maupertuis was both ambitious and charming. When he agreed to tutor Émilie, he probably expected her to be a dilettante like his other female students: he had quite a following among society ladies. But her first known letter to him, written in January 1734, is both deferential and eager: ‘I spent all yesterday evening working on your lessons. I would like to make myself worthy of them. I fear, I confess to you, losing the good opinion you have of me.’ Perhaps he still doubted her commitment, because a week or two later she wrote, ‘I spent the evening with binomials and trinomials, [but] I am no longer able to study if you do not give me a task, and I have an extreme desire for one.’ Over the next few months, she sent him a stream of notes, trying to arrange lessons, asking him to come to her house for a couple of hours, or offering to meet him outside the Academy of Sciences – women were allowed inside only for the twice-yearly public lectures – or outside Gradot’s, one of the favourite cafés of the intellectual set.

[…]

It was this kind of intensity – as expressed in this multitude of requests for rendezvous – that fuelled gossip among her peers, and jealousy from Voltaire. Until the late twentieth century, most historians, too, seemed unable to imagine a woman like Émilie could be seduced only by mathematics – after all, until then, few women had actually become mathematicians. But it is true that many of Émilie’s letters to Maupertuis have a very flirtatious style – it was, after all, an era that revelled in the game of seduction. There is no evidence to prove whether or not they ever became lovers in those early months, before she and Voltaire had fully committed themselves to each other, but her letters certainly prove that all her life she would continue to hold a deep affection and respect for Maupertuis. In late April 1734, Émilie wrote to Maupertuis: ‘I hope I will render myself less unworthy of your lessons by telling you that it is not for myself that I want to become a mathematician, but because I am ashamed of making such mediocre progress under such a master as you.’ It was, indeed, an era of flattery! (Voltaire was quite adept at it – as a mere bourgeois, he often needed to flatter important people to help advance his literary career.) Although this letter suggests Émilie was simply using flattery to extract more lessons from her mathematical ‘master’, she always did have genuine doubts about her ability, which is not surprising given her lack of formal education and the assumed intellectual inferiority of her gender. She would later write, ‘If I were king … I would reform an abuse which cuts back, as it were, half of humanity. I would have women participate in all human rights, and above all those of the mind.’

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In the translator's preface to her late 1730s edition of Selected Philosophical and Scientific Writings, Du Châtelet highlights a few of the traits that helped her overcome so much.

You must know what you want:

(Knowledge) can never be acquired unless one has chosen a goal for one’s studies. One must conduct oneself as in everyday life; one must know what one wants to be. In the latter endeavors irresolution produces false steps, and in the life of the mind confused ideas.

She considered herself a member of the ordinary class, and she wrote about how regular people can come to acquire talent.

It sometimes happens that work and study force genius to declare itself, like the fruits that art produces in a soil where nature did not intend it, but these efforts of art are nearly as rare as natural genius itself. The vast majority of thinking men — the others, the geniuses, are in a class of their own — need to search within themselves for their talent. They know the difficulties of each art, and the mistakes of those who engage in each one, but they lack the courage that is not disheartened by such reflections, and the superiority that would enable them to overcome such difficulties. Mediocrity is, even among the elect, the lot of the greatest number.

Seduced by Logic is worth reading in its entirety. Du Châtelet's story is as fascinating as informative.

Using Multidisciplinary Thinking to Approach Problems in a Complex World

Complex outcomes in human systems are a tough nut to crack when it comes to deciding what's really true. Any phenomena we might try to explain will have a host of competing theories, many of them seemingly plausible.

So how do we know what to go with?

One idea is to take a nod from the best. One of the most successful “explainers” of human behavior has been the cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker. His books have been massively influential, in part because they combine scientific rigor, explanatory power, and plainly excellent writing.

What's unique about Pinker is the range of sources he draws on. His book The Better Angels of Our Nature, a cogitation on the decline in relative violence in recent human history, draws on ideas from evolutionary psychology, forensic anthropology, statistics, social history, criminology, and a host of other fields. Pinker, like Vaclav Smil and Jared Diamond, is the opposite of the man with a hammer, ranging over much material to come to his conclusions.

In fact, when asked about the progress of social science as an explanatory arena over time, Pinker credited this cross-disciplinary focus:

Because of the unification with the sciences, there are more genuinely explanatory theories, and there’s a sense of progress, with more non-obvious things being discovered that have profound implications.

But, even better, Pinker gives out an outline for how a multidisciplinary thinker should approach problems in a complex world.

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Here's the issue at stake: When we're viewing a complex phenomena—say, the decline in certain forms of violence in human history—it can be hard to come with up a rigorous explanation. We can't just set up repeated lab experiments and vary the conditions of human history to see what pops out, as with physics or chemistry.

So out of necessity, we must approach the problem in a different way.

In the above referenced interview, Pinker gives a wonderful example how to do it: Note how he carefully “cross-checks” from a variety of sources of data, developing a 3D view of the landscape he's trying to assess:

Pinker: Absolutely, I think most philosophers of science would say that all scientific generalizations are probabilistic rather than logically certain, more so for the social sciences because the systems you are studying are more complex than, say, molecules, and because there are fewer opportunities to intervene experimentally and to control every variable. But the exis­tence of the social sciences, including psychology, to the extent that they have discovered anything, shows that, despite the uncontrollability of human behavior, you can make some progress: you can do your best to control the nuisance variables that are not literally in your control; you can have analogues in a laboratory that simulate what you’re interested in and impose an experimental manipulation.

You can be clever about squeezing the last drop of causal information out of a correlational data set, and you can use converging evi­dence, the qualitative narratives of traditional history in combination with quantitative data sets and regression analyses that try to find patterns in them. But I also go to traditional historical narratives, partly as a sanity check. If you’re just manipulating numbers, you never know whether you’ve wan­dered into some preposterous conclusion by taking numbers too seriously that couldn’t possibly reflect reality. Also, it’s the narrative history that provides hypotheses that can then be tested. Very often a historian comes up with some plausible causal story, and that gives the social scientists something to do in squeezing a story out of the numbers.

Warburton: I wonder if you’ve got an example of just that, where you’ve combined the history and the social science?

Pinker: One example is the hypothesis that the Humanitarian Revolution during the Enlightenment, that is, the abolition of slavery, torture, cruel punishments, religious persecution, and so on, was a product of an expansion of empathy, which in turn was fueled by literacy and the consumption of novels and journalis­tic accounts. People read what life was like in other times and places, and then applied their sense of empathy more broadly, which gave them second thoughts about whether it’s a good idea to disembowel someone as a form of criminal punish­ment. So that’s a historical hypothesis. Lynn Hunt, a historian at the University of California–Berkeley, proposed it, and there are some psychological studies that show that, indeed, if people read a first-person account by someone unlike them, they will become more sympathetic to that individual, and also to the category of people that that individual represents.

So now we have a bit of experimental psychology supporting the historical qualita­tive narrative. And, in addition, one can go to economic histo­rians and see that, indeed, there was first a massive increase in the economic efficiency of manufacturing a book, then there was a massive increase in the number of books pub­lished, and finally there was a massive increase in the rate of literacy. So you’ve got a story that has at least three vertices: the historian’s hypothesis; the economic historians identifying exogenous variables that changed prior to the phenomenon we’re trying to explain, so the putative cause occurs before the putative effect; and then you have the experimental manipulation in a laboratory, showing that the intervening link is indeed plausible.

Pinker is saying, Look we can't just rely on “plausible narratives” generated by folks like the historians. There are too many possibilities that could be correct.

Nor can we rely purely on correlations (i.e., the rise in literacy statistically tracking the decline in violence) — they don't necessarily offer us a causative explanation. (Does the rise in literacy cause less violence, or is it vice versa? Or, does a third factor cause both?)

However, if we layer in some other known facts from areas we can experiment on — say, psychology or cognitive neuroscience — we can sometimes establish the causal link we need or, at worst, a better hypothesis of reality.

In this case, it would be the finding from psychology that certain forms of literacy do indeed increase empathy (for logical reasons).

Does this method give us absolute proof? No. However, it does allow us to propose and then test, re-test, alter, and strengthen or ultimately reject a hypothesis. (In other words, rigorous thinking.)

We can't stop here though. We have to take time to examine competing hypotheses — there may be a better fit. The interviewer continues on asking Pinker about this methodology:

Warburton: And so you conclude that the de-centering that occurs through novel-reading and first-person accounts probably did have a causal impact on the willingness of people to be violent to their peers?

Pinker: That’s right. And, of course, one has to rule out alternative hypotheses. One of them could be the growth of affluence: perhaps it’s simply a question of how pleasant your life is. If you live a longer and healthier and more enjoyable life, maybe you place a higher value on life in general, and, by extension, the lives of others. That would be an alternative hypothesis to the idea that there was an expansion of empathy fueled by greater literacy. But that can be ruled out by data from eco­nomic historians that show there was little increase in afflu­ence during the time of the Humanitarian Revolution. The increase in affluence really came later, in the 19th century, with the advent of the Industrial Revolution.

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Let's review the process that Pinker has laid out, one that we might think about emulating as we examine the causes of complex phenomena in human systems:

  1. We observe an interesting phenomenon in need of explanation, one we feel capable of exploring.
  2. We propose and examine competing hypotheses that would explain the phenomena (set up in a falsifiable way, in harmony with the divide between science and pseudoscience laid out for us by the great Karl Popper).
  3. We examine a cross-section of: Empirical data relating to the phenomena; sensible qualitative inference (from multiple fields/disciplines, the more fundamental the better), and finally;  “Demonstrable” aspects of nature we are nearly certain about, arising from controlled experiment or other rigorous sources of knowledge ranging from engineering to biology to cognitive neuroscience.

What we end up with is not necessarily a bulletproof explanation, but probably the best we can do if we think carefully. A good cross-disciplinary examination with quantitative and qualitative sources coming into equal play, and a good dose of judgment, can be far more rigorous than the gut instinct or plausible nonsense type stories that many of us lazily spout.

A Word of Caution

Although Pinker's “multiple vertices” approach to problem solving in complex domains can be powerful, we always have to be on guard for phenomena that we simply cannot explain at our current level of competence: We must have a “too hard” pile when competing explanations come out “too close to call” or we otherwise feel we're outside of our circle of competence. Always tread carefully and be sure to follow Darwin's Golden Rule: Contrary facts are more important than confirming ones. Be ready to change your mind, like Darwin, when the facts don't go your way.

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Still Interested? For some more Pinker goodness check out our prior posts on his work, or check out a few of his books like How the Mind Works or The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.

The Map is Not the Territory

How To Mentally Overachieve — Charles Darwin’s Reflections On His Own Mind

We’ve written quite a bit about the marvelous British naturalist Charles Darwin, who with his Origin of Species created perhaps the most intense intellectual debate in human history, one which continues up to this day.

Darwin’s Origin was a courageous and detailed thought piece on the nature and development of biological species. It's the starting point for nearly all of modern biology.

But, as we’ve noted before, Darwin was not a man of pure IQ. He was not Issac Newton, or Richard Feynman, or Albert Einstein — breezing through complex mathematical physics at a young age.

Charlie Munger thinks Darwin would have placed somewhere in the middle of a good private high school class. He was also in notoriously bad health for most of his adult life and, by his son’s estimation, a terrible sleeper. He really only worked a few hours a day in the many years leading up to the Origin of Species.

Yet his “thinking work” outclassed almost everyone. An incredible story.

In his autobiography, Darwin reflected on this peculiar state of affairs. What was he good at that led to the result? What was he so weak at? Why did he achieve better thinking outcomes? As he put it, his goal was to:

“Try to analyse the mental qualities and the conditions on which my success has depended; though I am aware that no man can do this correctly.”

In studying Darwin ourselves, we hope to better appreciate our own strengths and weaknesses and, not to mention understand the working methods of a “mental overachiever.

Let's explore what Darwin saw in himself.

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1. He did not have a quick intellect or an ability to follow long, complex, or mathematical reasoning. He may have been a bit hard on himself, but Darwin realized that he wasn't a “5 second insight” type of guy (and let's face it, most of us aren't). His life also proves how little that trait matters if you're aware of it and counter-weight it with other methods.

I have no great quickness of apprehension or wit which is so remarkable in some clever men, for instance, Huxley. I am therefore a poor critic: a paper or book, when first read, generally excites my admiration, and it is only after considerable reflection that I perceive the weak points. My power to follow a long and purely abstract train of thought is very limited; and therefore I could never have succeeded with metaphysics or mathematics. My memory is extensive, yet hazy: it suffices to make me cautious by vaguely telling me that I have observed or read something opposed to the conclusion which I am drawing, or on the other hand in favour of it; and after a time I can generally recollect where to search for my authority. So poor in one sense is my memory, that I have never been able to remember for more than a few days a single date or a line of poetry.

2. He did not feel easily able to write clearly and concisely. He compensated by getting things down quickly and then coming back to them later, thinking them through again and again. Slow, methodical….and ridiculously effective: For those who haven't read it, the Origin of Species is extremely readable and clear, even now, 150 years later.

I have as much difficulty as ever in expressing myself clearly and concisely; and this difficulty has caused me a very great loss of time; but it has had the compensating advantage of forcing me to think long and intently about every sentence, and thus I have been led to see errors in reasoning and in my own observations or those of others.

There seems to be a sort of fatality in my mind leading me to put at first my statement or proposition in a wrong or awkward form. Formerly I used to think about my sentences before writing them down; but for several years I have found that it saves time to scribble in a vile hand whole pages as quickly as I possibly can, contracting half the words; and then correct deliberately. Sentences thus scribbled down are often better ones than I could have written deliberately.

3. He forced himself to be an incredibly effective and organized collector of information. Darwin's system of reading and indexing facts in large portfolios is worth emulating, as is the habit of taking down conflicting ideas immediately.

As in several of my books facts observed by others have been very extensively used, and as I have always had several quite distinct subjects in hand at the same time, I may mention that I keep from thirty to forty large portfolios, in cabinets with labelled shelves, into which I can at once put a detached reference or memorandum. I have bought many books, and at their ends I make an index of all the facts that concern my work; or, if the book is not my own, write out a separate abstract, and of such abstracts I have a large drawer full. Before beginning on any subject I look to all the short indexes and make a general and classified index, and by taking the one or more proper portfolios I have all the information collected during my life ready for use.

4. He had possibly the most valuable trait in any sort of thinker: A passionate interest in understanding reality and putting it in useful order in his headThis “Reality Orientation” is hard to measure and certainly does not show up on IQ tests, but probably determines, to some extent, success in life.

On the favourable side of the balance, I think that I am superior to the common run of men in noticing things which easily escape attention, and in observing them carefully. My industry has been nearly as great as it could have been in the observation and collection of facts. What is far more important, my love of natural science has been steady and ardent.

This pure love has, however, been much aided by the ambition to be esteemed by my fellow naturalists. From my early youth I have had the strongest desire to understand or explain whatever I observed,–that is, to group all facts under some general laws. These causes combined have given me the patience to reflect or ponder for any number of years over any unexplained problem. As far as I can judge, I am not apt to follow blindly the lead of other men. I have steadily endeavoured to keep my mind free so as to give up any hypothesis, however much beloved (and I cannot resist forming one on every subject), as soon as facts are shown to be opposed to it.

Indeed, I have had no choice but to act in this manner, for with the exception of the Coral Reefs, I cannot remember a single first-formed hypothesis which had not after a time to be given up or greatly modified. This has naturally led me to distrust greatly deductive reasoning in the mixed sciences. On the other hand, I am not very sceptical—a frame of mind which I believe to be injurious to the progress of science. A good deal of scepticism in a scientific man is advisable to avoid much loss of time, but I have met with not a few men, who, I feel sure, have often thus been deterred from experiment or observations, which would have proved directly or indirectly serviceable.

[…]

Therefore my success as a man of science, whatever this may have amounted to, has been determined, as far as I can judge, by complex and diversified mental qualities and conditions. Of these, the most important have been—the love of science—unbounded patience in long reflecting over any subject—industry in observing and collecting facts—and a fair share of invention as well as of common sense.

5. Most inspirational to us of average intellect, he outperformed his own mental aptitude with these good habits, surprising even himself with the results.

With such moderate abilities as I possess, it is truly surprising that I should have influenced to a considerable extent the belief of scientific men on some important points.

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Still Interested? Read his autobiography, his The Origin of Species, or check out David Quammen's wonderful short biography of the most important period of Darwin's life. Also, if you missed it, check out our prior post on Darwin's Golden Rule.

Lee Kuan Yew’s Rule

Lee Kuan Yew, the “Father of Modern Singapore”, who took a nation from “Third World to First” in his own lifetime, has a simple idea about using theory and philosophy. Here it is: Does it work?

He isn't throwing away big ideas or theories, or even discounting them per se. They just have to meet the simple, pragmatic standard.

Does it work?

Try it out the next time you study a philosophy, a value, an approach, a theory, an ideology…it doesn't matter if the source is a great thinker of antiquity or your grandmother. Has it worked? We'll call this Lee Kuan Yew's Rule, to make it easy to remember.

Here's his discussion of it in The Grand Master's Insights on China, the United States, and the World:

My life is not guided by philosophy or theories. I get things done and leave others to extract the principles from my successful solutions. I do not work on a theory. Instead, I ask: what will make this work? If, after a series of solutions, I find that a certain approach worked, then I try to find out what was the principle behind the solution. So Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, I am not guided by them…I am interested in what works…Presented with the difficulty or major problem or an assortment of conflicting facts, I review what alternatives I have if my proposed solution does not work. I choose a solution which offers a higher probability of success, but if it fails, I have some other way. Never a dead end.

We were not ideologues. We did not believe in theories as such. A theory is an attractive proposition intellectually. What we faced was a real problem of human beings looking for work, to be paid, to buy their food, their clothes, their homes, and to bring their children up…I had read the theories and maybe half believed in them.

But we were sufficiently practical and pragmatic enough not to be cluttered up and inhibited by theories. If a thing works, let us work it, and that eventually evolved into the kind of economy that we have today. Our test was: does it work? Does it bring benefits to the people?…The prevailing theory then was that multinationals were exploiters of cheap labor and cheap raw materials and would suck a country dry…Nobody else wanted to exploit the labor. So why not, if they want to exploit our labor? They are welcome to it…. We were learning how to do a job from them, which we would never have learnt… We were part of the process that disproved the theory of the development economics school, that this was exploitation. We were in no position to be fussy about high-minded principles.

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Want More? Check out our prior posts on Lee Kuan Yew, or check out the short book of his insights from where this clip came. If you really want to dive deep, check out his wonderful autobiography, the amazing story of Singapore's climb.

Robert Moses and the Oxygen of Pure Competence

Do you know anyone that's really, really competent? Like really, ridiculously competent?

They seem to have a work ethic that's twice as powerful as yours, they get things done as asked, going “above and beyond” the call of duty almost always, and always within a reasonable time. They come up with creative solutions, or absent that, simply know how to get to a solution to keep the process moving. They keep going when others stop.

They're Competent, with a capital “C”.

Now ask yourself, regardless of the other traits you like or dislike about them, is that person at risk of losing their job, whatever it may be? Are they at risk of “wallowing in the shallows” in life? Are they at risk of true, debilitating failure? Or are they just getting ahead time and time again?

I'm going to guess the latter.

There's something about the pure and simple “getting things done”-type ability, the pure hustle, which acts like oxygen for most organizations and teams, making the people with that ability super-useful. These super-productive, super-able people, almost regardless of their other traits, seem to rise to the top. (Although, multiplicative type thinking tells us that it depends on how severe the lacking traits are. A drinking problem can kill even the best, for example.)

For the man we'll study today, the “pure oxygen” of competence outweighed so many awful traits that it's worth figuring out what lessons we might learn for ourselves.

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The inimitable Robert Moses was maybe the most powerful man in the history of New York City, responsible for building a large number of the beaches, bridges, tunnels, highways, parkways, and housing developments we all recognize today. Just pulling from Wikipedia the number of artifacts in New York City named after the guy shows you his influence:

Various locations and roadways in New York State bear Moses's name. These include two state parks, Robert Moses State ParkThousand Islands in Massena, New York and Robert Moses State Park – Long Island, and the Robert Moses Causeway on Long Island, the Robert Moses State Parkway in Niagara Falls, New York, and the Robert Moses Hydro-Electric Dam in Lewiston, New York. A hydro-electric power dam in Massena, New York also bears Moses' name. These supply much of New York City's power. Moses also has a school named after him in North Babylon, New York on Long Island; there is also a Robert Moses Playground in New York City. There are other signs of the surviving appreciation held for him by some circles of the public. A statue of Moses was erected next to the Village Hall in his long-time hometown, Babylon Village, New York, in 2003, as well as a bust on the Lincoln Center campus of Fordham University.

By the time Moses' reign was done in New York City — he held some form of influential power between 1924 and 1968 — he had built seven of the major bridges that connect Manhattan to its boroughs, at least a dozen major roads that would be familiar to all New York area drivers today (416 miles of parkways), over 1,000 public housing buildings, 658 separate playgrounds, scores of dams, State Parks, and beaches (including Jones Beach), Shea Stadium, the Lincoln Center…the list goes on. He was the dominant force behind all of them.

His physical — and in many ways, social — mark on New York City is unmatched before or since.

Oh, and did I mention he accomplished much of this during the Great Depression, a time when no one, cities least, had any money, finding incredibly creative ways to corral Federal funds to New York and away from the country's other great cities? And did I mention he was able to do it without ever winning any elections?

That is “capital-C Competence”.

 

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But the thing about Moses is that he was kind of a bastard. He did not treat others well. He didn't seem to care about making others feel good. He certainly did not follow the popular Dale Carnegie type behavior popular back then. Most of the people he had to work with over the years — Governors, Mayors, Commissioners, thousands and thousands of employees — did not like him.

If I described some of his personal traits to you — verbally abusive, racist, classist, demanding, elitist, difficult, insufferably arrogant — you would not conceive of this as the stereotype of someone you'd help rise to power. He “drove” his men, and he “commanded” those around him. He rarely passed up an opportunity to make a new enemy.

As an example, here's how his biographer Robert Caro, in his classic book The Power Broker, describes the general feeling when Moses is named New York's Secretary of State in 1927 by Governor Al Smith, his main ally:

The depth and unanimity of the feeling transcended party affiliation. Moses had for years been either insulting or ignoring legislators of both parties. And now the Legislature was being asked–for under reorganization the Senate had to approve key gubernatorial nominations–to approve the elevation to the second most important post in the state. One observer says: “When he walked down a corridor in the capitol and passed a group of legislators, you could see their eyes follow him as he passed, and you could see how many enemies–bitter, personal enemies–he had. I really believe that Robert Moses was the most hated man in Albany.

How did a guy like that get the elevation needed to become the Secretary of State, the State Parks Commissioner, the Triborough Bridge Authority, the city “Construction Coordinator,” the Long Island Park Commissioner…? He had more titles than a bookstore, all carrying tremendous power to direct the public purse, hand out thousands of jobs, and physically shape the most important city in the country. 

Pure and simple, the guy was insanely competent. He could get things done that no one else could get done. His administrative abilities were brilliant and his work ethic legendary.

His written reports, starting with his Oxford PhD thesis The Civil Service of Great Britain, were considered classics of the field. The brilliance of that thesis probably got him his first appointments. The following was said about Moses only in his mid-twenties:

Two men who had read Moses' thesis — it had been published — were Luther C. Steward, first president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, and H. Elliot Kaplan, later president of the New York civil Service Commission and executive director of the Civil Service Reform Association. Years later, when Kaplan had read everything there was to read on civil service, he was asked to evaluate the thesis and said simply, “It was a masterpiece.”

There were, he said, “very few people in the United States in 1914 who knew much about civil service. Bob Moses really knew.” Steward's wife, who had been working beside her husband in 1914, was even more emphatic. “Bob Moses wasn't one of the men in this country who understood civil service best at that stage,” she said. “He was the man who understood it best.” 

He didn't just understand it well: He was the best. 

Then again, when Moses got his career started in New York City municipal government, he wrote a report basically alone and in a small apartment (he didn't have a lot of money), late at night while keeping to his main duties by day.

It was another classic. Speaking of Moses' 1919 Report of the Reconstruction Commission to Governor Alfred E. Smith on Retrenchment and Reorganization in the State Government, Robert Caro writes:

From the moment on October 10, 1919, that it was published, it was hailed as a historic document, not only by [Al] Smith, who had sponsored it, and not only by the reformers, who saw in it the finest exposition of their philosophy, but, more importantly, by the men Belle Moskowitz had hoped would hail it– the Republican “federal crowd.”

The paper was hailed as “deserving of unreserved approbation,” while another commenter said “This paper is, I think, the most helpful one that I could put in your hands…to give you an idea of…what I believe to be the correct principles of state government.”

With that, Moses got pushed ahead again.

Time and again this would happen: Moses would do something extremely competent, demonstrating great value to this who needed his work, and he would get a boost.

And did he ever work his ass off to keep things moving. As he gathered momentum building up Long Island and Jones Beach State Park in the 1920s, his life became, as Caro puts it, an “orgy of work.”

Sloughing off distractions, he set his life into a hard mold. Shunning evening social life, especially the ceremonial dinners that eat up so much of a public official's time, he went to bed early (usually before eleven) and awoke early (he was always dressed, shaved, and breakfasted when Arthur Howland arrived at 7:30 to pick up the manila envelope full of memos).

The amenities of life dropped out of his. He and Mary had enjoyed playing bridge with friends; now they no longer played. Sundays with his family all but disappeared. He did not golf; he did not attend sporting events; he was not interested in the diversions called “hobbies” that other executives considered important because they considered it important that they relax; he was not interested in relaxing.

…there was never enough time; minutes were precious to him. To make sure he had as many of them as possible, he tried to make use of all those that most other men waste.

And it was this “orgy of work,” combined with a dedication to being the “best” and not “pretty good” that allowed Moses to rise in spite of his faults.

Even his true enemies, people who truly did not like him or want to see him succeed, like FDR — who was the Governor of New York during the Depression — continued to support his rise, almost against their own will!

Not only does a Governor not interfere with an official like Robert Moses; he heaps on him more and more responsibilities. No matter what the job was, it seemed, if it was difficult Roosevelt turned to the same man. During 1930, 1931, and 1932, Moses handled more than a dozen special assignments for Roosevelt and produced results on every one. And if increasing Moses' responsibilities meant increasing his power–giving him more money to work with, more engineers, architects, draftsmen, and police to work with–well, the Governor simply had no choice but to increase that power.

No two men in New York would come to hate each other more than Moses and FDR, yet there was FDR, dumping more and more power and more and more work into Moses' lap. Why?

He could be trusted to get it done and do it well. It was that simple. Competence is oxygen.

***

This aspect of the life of Robert Moses, a life worth studying for so many reasons, illustrates a few simple points.

The first is the pure value of capital-C Competence: Hard, correct work, repeated ad infinitum with no intermittence, will get almost anyone very far, even if they're missing other desirable traits. Moses, in spite of faults that would likely stop any mortal in his or her tracks, rose near the very top on the back of it. You can probably think of ten other individuals in your head who demonstrate a similar reality.

But as interesting, true, and instructive as that is, it brings up a very interesting historical counterfactual:

What if Bob Moses had that driving competence but also folded in things like humility, empathy, good temper, fairness, desire for group success over individual gloryand other traits we all desire in our own leaders? Wouldn't he be considered one of the most inspiring and beloved figures in the history of the United States? Might he have been the President instead of FDR? Might he have lived a much more pleasant and less contentious life than he did?

A great debate lingers even now about whether his actions to reshape the City were on balance a positive or negative — he created a lot of misery in his march to physically reshape New York City. He made it a very car-heavy, traffic-heavy city. He created slums. He destroyed a lot of neighborhoods. And so on. Might a bit of humility and respect for others' goals and opinions have built a New York City that people are less troubled about today? He could have a record of accomplishment and the unabashed respect of history.

It's hard to know — traits like Moses' work ethic are often “co-located” with traits that are not so desirable. But it is interesting to ponder, for our own lives, both the value of pure ability and the value of balancing it out with the other traits that can get us even further. Good is not always optimal.

And most of us probably don't have the pure ability and fire that Moses did, all the more reason to work on our “soft” skills. We may need to either work harder on our competence and work ethic or find a way to compensate for it in “softer” ways like true leadership ability.

But even as we do that, it's important to never forget the reality that competence and hustle go pretty far. Sometimes we're getting “beat” simply because others are providing more “oxygen” than we are, even if they're not pleasant people. It's just a part of reality.

So if we've already got the “soft skills” down, perhaps we need to do the hard work in figuring out how to raise our competence level.

Isaac Watts and the Improvement of the Mind

What did an 18th-century hymn writer have to contribute to the modern understanding of the world? As it turns out, a lot. Sometimes we forget how useful the old wisdom can be.

***

One of the most popular and prolific Christian hymn writers of all time — including Joy to the World — was a man named Isaac Watts, who lived in England in the late 17th and early 18th century. Watts was a well educated Nonconformist (in the religious sense, not the modern one) who, along with his hymn writing, published a number of books on logic, science, and the learning process, at a time when these concepts were only just starting to grab hold as a dominant ideology, replacing the central role of religious teaching.

Watts's book The Improvement of the Mind was an important contribution to the growing body of work emphasizing the importance of critical thinking and rational, balanced inquiry, rather than adhering to centuries of dogma. If, as Alfred North Whitehead once pronounced, modernity's progress was due to the “invention of the method of invention,” Watts and his books (which became textbooks in English schools, including Oxford) can easily be credited with helping push the world along.

One non-conformist who would later come to be deeply influenced by Watts was the great scientist Michael Faraday. Faraday grew up in a poor area of 18th-century England and received a fairly crude education, and yet would go on to become the Father of Electromagnetism. How?

In part, Faraday credits his own “inventing the method of invention” to reading Watts's books, particularly The Improvement of the Mind — a self improvement guide a few centuries before the internet. Watts recommended keeping a commonplace book to record facts, and Faraday did. Watts recommended he be guided by observed facts, and Faraday was. Watts recommended finding a great teacher, and Faraday starting attending lectures.

In Watts's book, Faraday had found a guiding ethos for how to sort out truth and fiction, what we now call the scientific method. And, given his tremendous achievements from a limited starting point, it's worth asking…what did Faraday find?

***

We needn't search far to figure it out. Smack dab in Chapter One of the book, Watts lays out his General Rules for the Improvement of Knowledge.

Watts first lays out the goal of the whole enterprise. The idea is a pretty awesome one, the same ethos we promote constantly here: We all need to make decisions constantly, so why not figure out how to make better ones? You don't have to be an intellectual to pursue this goal. Everybody has a mind worth cultivating in order to improve the practical outcome of their lives:

No man is obliged to learn and know every thing; this can neither be sought nor required, for it is utterly impossible : yet all persons are under some obligation to improve their own understanding; otherwise it will be a barren desert, or a forest overgrown with weeds and brambles. Universal ignorance or infinite errors will overspread the mind, which is utterly neglected, and lies without any cultivation.

Skill in the sciences is indeed the business and profession but of a small part of mankind; but there are many others placed in such an exalted rank in the world, as allows them much leisure and large opportunities to cultivate their reason, and to beautify and enrich their minds with various knowledge. Even the lower orders of men have particular railings in life, wherein they ought to acquire a just degree of skill; and this is not to be done well, without thinking and reasoning about them.

The common duties and benefits of society, which belong to every man living, as we are social creatures, and even our native and necessary relations to a family, a neighbourhood, or government, oblige all persons whatsoever to use their reasoning powers upon a thousand occasions; every hour of life calls for some regular exercise of our judgment, as to time and things, persons and actions; without a prudent and discreet determination in matters before as, we, shall be plunged into perpetual errors in our conduct. Now that which should always be practised, must at some time be learnt.

We then get into the Rules themselves, an 18th-century guide to becoming smarter, better, and more useful which is just as useful three hundred years later. In the Rules, Watts promotes the idea of becoming wiser, more humble, more hungry, and more broad-thinking. These are as good a guide to improving your mind as you'll find.

Below as an abridged version of the Rules. Check them all out here or get it in book form here. Watts had a bit of a bent towards solemnity and godliness that need not be emulated (unless you'd like to, of course), but most of the Rules are as useful today as the day they were written.

***

Rule I. DEEPLY possess your mind with the vast importance of a good judgment, and the rich and inestimable advantage of right reasoning.

Review the instances of your own misconduct in life ; think seriously with yourselves how many follies and sorrows you had escaped, and how much guilt and misery you had prevented, if from your early years you had but taken due paius to judge aright concerning persons, times, and things. This will awaken you with lively vigour to address yourselves to the work of improving your reasoning powers, and seizing every opportunity and advantage for that end.

Rule II. Consider the weaknesses, frailties, and mistakes of human nature in general, which arise from the very constitution of a soul united to an animal body, and subjected to many inconveniences thereby.

Consider the many additional weaknesses, mistakes, and frailties, which are derived from our original apostasy and fall from a state of innocence; how much our powers of understanding are yet more darkened, enfeebled, and imposed upon by our senses, our fancies, and our unruly passions, &c.

Consider the depth and difficulty of many truths, and the flattering appearances of falsehood, whence arises an infinite variety of dangers to which we are exposed in our judgment of things.

Read with greediness those authors that treat of the doctrine of prejudices, prepossessions, and springs of error, on purpose to make your soul watchful on all sides, that it suffer itself, as far as possible, to be imposed upon by none of them.

Rule III. A slight view of things so momentous is not sufficient.

You should therefore contrive and practise some proper methods to acquaint yourself with your own ignorance, and to impress your mind with a deep and painful sense of the low and imperfect degrees of your present knowledge, that you may be incited with labour and activity to pursue after greater measures. Among others, you may find some such methods as these successful.

1. Take a wide survey now and then of the vast and unlimited regions of learning. […] The worlds of science are immense and endless.

2. Think what a numberless variety of questions and difficulties there are belonging even to that particular science in which you have made the greatest progress, and how few of them there are in which you have arrived at a final and undoubted certainty; excepting only those questions in the pure and simple mathematics, whose theorems are demonstrable, and leave scarce any doubt; and yet, even in the pursuit of some few of these, mankind have been strangely bewildered.

3. Spend a few thoughts sometimes on the puzzling enquiries concerning vacuums and atoms, the doctrine of infinites, indivisibles, and incommensurables in geometry, wherein there appear some insolvable difficulties: do this on purpose to give you a more sensible impression of the poverty of your understanding, and the imperfection of your knowledge. This will teach you what a vain thing it is to fancy that you know all things, and will instruct you to think modestly of your present attainments […]

4. Read the accounts of those vast treasures of knowledge which some of the dead have possessed, and some of the living do possess. Read and be astonished at the almost incredible advances which have been made in science. Acquaint yourself with some persons of great learning, that by converse among them, and comparing yourself with them, you may acquire a mean opinion of your own attainments, and may thereby be animated with new zeal, to equal them as far as possible, or to exceed: thus let your diligence be quickened by a generous and laudable emulation.

Rule IV. Presume not too much upon a bright genius, a ready wit, and good parts; for this, without labour and study, will never make a man of knowledge and wisdom.

This has been an unhappy temptation to persons of a vigorous and gay fancy, to despise learning and study. They have been acknowledged to shine in an assembly, and sparkle in a discourse on common topics, and thence they took it into their heads to abandon reading and labour, and grow old in ignorance; but when they had lost their vivacity of animal nature and youth, they became stupid and sottish even to contempt aud ridicule. Lucidas and Scintillo are young men of this stamp; they shine in conversation; they spread their native riches before the ignorant; they pride themselves in their own lively images of fancy, and imagine themselves wise and learned; but they had best avoid the presence of the skilful, and the test of reasoning; and I would advise them once a day to think forward a little, what a contemptible figure they will make in age.

The witty men sometimes have sense enough to know their own foible; and therefore they craftily shun the attacks of argument, or boldly pretend to despise and renounce them, because they are conscious of their own ignorance, aud inwardly confess their want of acquaintance with the skill of reasoning.

Rule V. As you are not to fancy yourself a learned man because you are blessed with a ready wit; so neither must you imagine that large and laborious reading, and a strong memory, can denominate you truly wise.

What that excellent critic has determined when he decided the question, whether wit or study makes the best poet, may well be applied to every sort of learning:

“Concerning poets there has been contest,
Whether they're made by art, or nature best;
But if I may presume in this affair,
Among the rest my judgment to declare,
No art without a genius will avail,
And parts without the help of art will fail:
But both ingredients jointly must unite,
Or verse will never shine with a transcendent light.”
– Oldham.

It is meditation and studious thought, it is the exercise of your own reason and judgment upon all you read, that gives good sense even to the best genius, and affords your understanding the truest improvement. A boy of a strong memory may repeat a whole book of Euclid, yet be no geometrician; for he may not be able perhaps to demonstrate one single theorem. Memorino has learnt half the Bible by heart, and is become a living concordance, and a speaking index to theological folios, and yet he understands little of divinity. […]

Rule VII. Let the hope of new discoveries, as well as the satisfaction and pleasure of known trains, animate your daily industry.

Do not think learning in general is arrived at its perfection, or that the knowledge of any particular subject in any science cannot be improved, merely because it has lain five hundred or a thousand years without improvement. The present age, by the blessing of God on the ingenuity and diligence of men, has brought to light such truths in natural philosophy, and such discoveries in the heavens and the earth, as seemed to be beyond the reach of man. But may there not be Sir Isaac Newtons in every science? You should never despair therefore of finding out that which has never yet been found, unless you see something in the nature of it which renders it unsearchable, and above the reach of our faculties. […]

Rule VIII. Do not hover always on the surface of things, nor take up suddenly with mere appearances; but penetrate into the depth of matters, as far as your time and circumstances allow, especially in those things which relate to your own profession.

Do not indulge yourselves to judge of things by the first glimpse, or a short and superficial view of them; for this will fill the mind with errors and prejudices, and give it a wrong turn and ill habit of thinking, and make much work for retractation. Subito is carried away with title pages, so that he ventures to pronounce upon a large octavo at once, and to recommend it wonderfully when he had read half the preface. Another volume of controversies, of equal size, was discarded by him at once, because it pretended to treat of the Trinity, and yet he could neither find the word essence nor subsistences in the twelve first pages; but Subito changes his opinions of men and books and things so often, that nobody regards him.

As for those sciences, or those parts of knowledge, which either your profession, your leisure, your inclination, or your incapacity, forbid you to pursue with much application, or to search far into them, you must be contented with an historical and superficial knowledge of them, and not pretend to form any judgments of your own on those subjects which you understand very imperfectly.

Rule IX. Once a day, especially in the early years of life and study, call yourselves to an account what new ideas, what new proposition or truth you have gained, what further confirmation of known truths, and what advances you have made in any part of knowledge;

And let no day, if possible, pass away without some intellectual gain: such a course, well pursued, must certainly advance us in useful knowledge. It is a wise proverb among the learned, borrowed from the lips and practice of a celebrated painter,

“Let no day pass without one line at least.”

…and it was a sacred rule among the Pythagoreans, That they should every evening thrice run over the actions and affairs of the day, and examine what their conduct had been, what they had done, or what they had neglected: and they assured their pupils, that by this method they would make a noble progress on the path of virtue.

Rule X. Maintain a constant watch at all times against a dogmatical spirit;

Fix not your assent to any proposition in a firm and unalterable manner, till you have some firm and unalterable ground for it, and till you have arrived at some clear and sure evidence; till you have turned the proposition on all sides, and searched the matter through and through, so that you cannot be mistaken.

And even where you may think you have full grounds of assurance, be not too early, nor too frequent, in expressing this assurance in too peremptory and positive a manner, remembering that human nature is always liable to mistake in this corrupt and feeble state. A dogmatical spirit has man; inconveniences attending it: as

1. It stops the ear against all further reasoning upon that subject, and shuts up the mind from all farther improvements of knowledge. If you have resolutely fixed your opinion, though it be upon too slight and insufficient grounds, yet you will stand determined to renounce the strongest reason brought for the contrary opinion, and grow obstinate against the force of the clearest argument. Positive is a man of this character; and has often pronounced his assurance of the Cartesian vortexes: last year some further light broke in upon his understanding, with uncontrollable force, by reading something of mathematical philosophy; yet having asserted his former opinions in a most confident manner, be is tempted now to wink a little against the truth, or to prevaricate in his discourse upon that subject, lest by admitting conviction, he should expose himself to the necessity of confessing his former folly and mistake: and he has not humility enough for that.

2. A dogmatical spirit naturally leads us to arrogance of mind, and gives a man some airs in conversation which are too haughty and assuming. Audens is a man of learning, and very good company ; but his infallible assurance renders his carriage sometimes insupportable.

[…]

Rule XI. Though caution and slow assent will guard you against frequent mistakes and retractions; yet you should get humility and courage enough to retract any mistake, and confess an error.

Frequent changes are tokens of levity in our first determinations; yet you should never be too proud to change your opinion, nor frighted at the name of a changeling. Learn to scorn those vulgar bugbears, which confirm foolish man in his old mistakes, for fear of being charged with inconstancy. I confess it is better not to judge, than judge falsely; it is wiser to withhold our assent till we see complete evidence; but if we have too suddenly given up our assent, as the wisest man does sometimes, if we have professed what we find afterwards to be false, we should never be ashamed nor afraid to renounce a mistake. That is a noble essay which is found among the occasional papers ‘ to encourage the world to repractise retractations;' and I would recommend it to the perusal of every scholar and every Christian.

Rule XV. Watch against the pride of your own reason, and a vain conceit of your own intellectual powers, with the neglect of divine aid and blessing.

Presume not upon great attainments in knowledge by your own self-sufficiency: those who trust to their own understandings entirely, are pronounced fools in the word of God; and it is the wisest of men gives them this character,

‘ He that trusteth in his own heart is a fool/ Prov. xxviii. 26. And the same divine writer advises us to ‘ trust in the Lord with all our heart, and not to lean to our understandings, nor to be wise in our own eyes,' chap. iii. 5, 7*

Those who, with a neglect of religion and dependence on God, apply themselves to search out every article in the things of God by the mere dint of their own reason, have been suffered to run into wild excesses of foolery, and strange extravagance of opinions. Every one who pursues this vain course, and will not ask for the conduct of God in the study of religion, has just reason to fear he shall be left of God, and given up a prey to a thousand prejudices ; that he shall be consigned over to the follies of his own heart, and pursue his own temporal and eternal ruin. And even in common studies we should, by humility and dependence, engage the God of truth on our side. (Transcribers Note: This talk of God, pure nonsense that it is, does not diminish the value of his other rules.)