An apocryphal story about Michaelangelo and his horse

I like apocryphal stories, particularly those apocryphal stories that might not be true.  That can’t be true. Indeed, I think I prefer those that can’t possibly be true.  I suspect that this story, involving Michelangelo, is squarely in this latter category.

The short version has someone asking Michelangelo, how do you, the great Michelangelo, carve a statue of a horse?  He answers, it’s quite straightforward.  One starts with a block of marble, and then removes everything that isn’t a horse.

This story shapes a lot of my teaching, particularly my aikido teaching, as well as my aikido practice.  Part of aikido is doing as little unnecessary as possible, actively removing the unnecessary, and Michelangelo’s horse always helps to remind me of this, that I need to be efficient in what I do.

This efficiency, a principle of least action of sorts, holds in mathematics as it does in aikido.  When we develop proofs of lemmas, propositions, theorems, we look not only for a correct argument, but we look for an argument that is beautiful in its efficiency. We work to polish our answers, to remove all the rough edges, to make them shine with the reflected glory of mathematical truth.

In both aikido and mathematics, we have models of this beauty and efficiency that we can work from. In aikido, we have recordings of O’Sensei and his students, as well as our own teachers. In mathematics, we have canonical examples of proofs that cannot be improved, such as Euclid’s proof that there are infinitely many prime numbers.

So how do get to there from here? My current struggle is to develop that efficiency myself, but as I’ve commented elsewhere in these pages, that for teachers, there is a seductive danger to this beauty and clarity. Understanding this clarity and efficiency takes a depth of knowledge and experience and lots and lots of time, and when we develop the ability to see this beauty and clarity, it is sometimes easy to forget that not everybody does. And therein lies the danger.

~ by Jim Anderson on 18 October 2015.

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