Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Though you studied law, your life might yet not be a bankrupt evil waste

AngerAdmit it! Admit it! Admit the Green Revolution was evil! Admit cocaine is the ultimate cash crop! Admit your life is a bankrupt evil waste!

-- Jane Smiley, Moo 340 (1995)

Of late I've suffered serious bouts of regret over ever having attended law school. What Chairman X tells Dean Nils Harstad as the out-of-control horticulture chairman clobbers the dean of agricultural extension in Moo comes close to expressing my nightmare: I have reached Dante's proverbial mezzo del cammin di nostra vita, only to realize that I burned the first half in pursuit of professional goals for which I was thoroughly unsuited.

LeibnizI remain unconvinced that I did the right thing. But I do believe I've found a role model (to go along with Billy Beane): Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1710).

What did Leibniz do? He invented calculus independently of Sir Isaac Newton. Unlike Newton's, his notation remains in use. He counted in base 2. He anticipated topology and fractals. According to his Wikipedia profile:
[Leibniz] also made major contributions to physics and technology, and anticipated notions that surfaced much later in biology, medicine, geology, probability theory, psychology, knowledge engineering, and information science. He also wrote on politics, law, ethics, theology, history, and philology, even occasional verse. . . . To date, there is no complete edition of Leibniz's writings, and a complete account of his accomplishments is not yet possible.
Okay, so Leibniz is also remembered as the model for the pathetic and laughable Doctor Pangloss in Candide. I suppose that's for the best in this best of all possible worlds. But here's what's really cool about Leibniz. He did all this (1) while serving a pair of royal houses and (2) in spite of having been formally trained in law.

Most of all, he once confessed this:
I cannot tell you how extraordinarily distracted and spread out I am. I am trying to find various things in the archives; I look at old papers and hunt up unpublished documents. From these I hope to shed some light on the history of the [House of] Brunswick. I receive and answer a huge number of letters. At the same time, I have so many mathematical results, philosophical thoughts, and other literary innovations that should not be allowed to vanish that I often do not know where to begin.
My hero. This is a confession worthy of the father of applied science, which of course is the branch of learning to which law belongs. And if you dispute that last statement . . . well, maybe I am not the person who shouldn't have gone to law school.

Yes, though you studied law, your life might yet not be a bankrupt evil waste. Go ask Leibniz.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

*sigh of relief*

This makes me feel better, as a 1L struggling through the "why am I here?!!?!?" phase of the first semester.

10/18/2006 10:46 AM  
Anonymous Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

Agreed: Leibniz was a polymathic genius. Yet he invested a bit too much hope in the value of formal logic to heal all that ails us. As Harold I. Brown explains, it was Leibniz

"who envisioned a ‘universal characteristic,’ i.e., a symbolism analogous to arithmetic which ‘will reduce all questions to numbers, and thus present a sort of statics by virtue of which rational evidence may be weighed.’ If such characteristic were available, it would allow us to settle philosophical and religious disputes, questions of war and peace, and all other human difficulties ‘with the clarity and certainty which was hitherto possible only in arithmetic.’ Such a technique is not now at hand, and perhaps Leibniz was a bit too optimistic about its prospects, but we can see why he would consider it desirable."

10/18/2006 11:28 AM  

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