Friday, August 7, 2009

The Limits of Sympathy

The utility of biography, Dr. Johnson argued, rests on the fact that we can enter by sympathy into situations in which others have found themselves. Parallel circumstances to which we can conform our minds shape every life. Even the great are not removed from the factors common to all: "We are all prompted by the same motives, all deceived by the same fallacies, all animated by hope, obstructed by danger, entangled by desire, and seduced by pleasure." I must confess that twenty years devoted to the biography of Newton have not in my case confirmed Dr. Johnson's dictum. The more I have studied him, the more Newton has receded from me. It has been my privilege at various times to know a number of brilliant men, men whom I acknowledge without hesitation to be my intellectual superiors. I have never, however, met one against whom I was unwilling to measure myself, so that it seemed reasonable to say that I was half as able as the person in question, or a third or a fourth, but in every case a finite fraction. The end result of my study of Newton has served to convince me that with him there is no measure. He has become for me wholly other, one of the tiny handful of supreme geniuses who have shaped the categories of the human intellect, a man not finally reducible to the criteria by which we comprehend our fellow beings, those parallel circumstances of Dr. Johnson.

— Richard S. Westfall, Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton 1

Lest you be overawed by the towering, alien intellect of Mr. Westfall's great subject, O Intelligent and Humble Reader, do not forget that it was this same Isaac Newton who is known to have invested a large sum in stock of the South Sea Company near the peak of its bubble in 17202 and who was reported by his niece to have lost £20,000 (or £3 million in today's money) upon its ultimate collapse.

Or, as the great man himself is reputed to have said:

I can calculate the motions of the heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people.

* * *

With all due deference and respect to my learned colleagues in the study and practice of quantitative finance, I will side with Sir Isaac and state that we still have a great deal of work to do before we can confidently predict the madness of our markets.

But then, I'm just an old fogey who finished math at linear algebra and differential equations. What do I know?

1 Richard S. Westfall, Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983, p. x.
2 Ibid., pp. 861–862.

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