Three Attempts to Become a Great Man

Ulrich had always thought himself destined to become a great man; the first attempt was as a soldier.

This man who had returned could not remember any time in his life when he had not been fired with the will to become a geat man; it was a desire Ulrich seemed to have been born with. Such a dream may of course betray vanity and stupidity, but it is no less true that it is a fine and proper ambition without which there probably would not be very many great men in the world.

The trouble was that he knew neither how to become one nor what a great man is. In his school days his model had been Napoleon, partly because of a boy’s natural admiration for the criminal and partly because his teachers had made a point of calling this tyrant, who had tried to turn Europe upside down, the greatest evildoer in history. This lead directly to Urich’s joining the cavalry as an ensign as soon as he was able to escape from school. The chances  are that even then, had anyone asked him why he chose this profession, he would no longer have replied: “In order to become a tyrant.” (I,31-32)

He next tried to find a path to greatness through engineering.

But when Ulrich switched from the cavalry to civil engineering, he was merely swapping horses. The new horse had steel legs and ran ten times faster.

From the moment Ulrich set foot in engineering school, he was feverishly partisan. Who still needs the Apollo Belvedere when he had the new forms of a turbodynamo or the rhythmic movements of a steam engine’s pistons before his eyes! Who could still be captivated by the thousand years of chatter about the meaning of good and evil when it turns out that they are not constants at all but functional values, so that the goodness of works depends on historical circumstances, while human goodness depends on the psychotechnical skill with which people’s qualities are exploited? Looked at from a technical point of view, the world is simply ridiculous: impractical in all that concerns human relations, and extremely uneconomic and imprecise in its methods; anyone accustomed to solving his problems with a slide rule cannot take seriously a good half of the assertions people make. (I,33-34)

It is hard to say why engineers don’t quite live up to this vision. Why, for instance, do they so often wear a watch chain slung on a steep, lopsided curve from the vest pocket to a button higher up, or across the stomach in one high and two low loops, as if it were a metrical foot in a poem? Why do they favor tiepins topped with stag’s teeth or tiny horseshoes? Why do they wear suits constructed like the early stages of the automobile? And why, finally, do they never speak of anything but their profession, or if they do speak of something else, why do they have that peculiar, stiff, remote, superficial manner that never goes deeper inside than the epiglottis? (I,34)

Finally, he settles on mathematics, the soul of the modern world.

Thinking over his time up to that point today, Ulrich might shake his head in wonder, as if someone were to tell him about his previous incarnations; but his third effort was different. [Mathematics] is the new method of thought itself, the very wellspring of the times and the primal source of an incredible transformation. (I,35)

Of course there is no denying that all these primordial dreams appear, in the opinion of nonmathematicians, to have been suddely realized in a form quite different from the original fantasy. Baron Münchausen’s post horn was more beautiful than our canned music, the Seven-League Boots more beautiful than a car, Oberon’s kingdom lovelier than a railway tunnel, the magic root of the mandrake better than a telegraphed image, eating of one’s mother’s heart and then understanding birds more beautiful than an ethologic study of a bird’s vocalizing. We have gained reality and lost dream. No more lounging under a tree and peering at the sky between one’s big and second toes; there’s work to be done. (I,36)

The only people who actually lived in ignorance of these dangers were the mathematicians themselves and their disciples the scientists, whose souls were as unaffected by all this as if they were racing cyclists pedaling away for dear life, blind to everything in the world except the back wheel of the rider ahead of them. But one thing, on the other hand, could safely be said about Ulrich: he loved mathematics because of the kind of people who could not endure it. (I,37)

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