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A Budget of Paradoxes, Volume I by De Morgan

Maseres was inveterately honest


speaks as follows: "A single quantity can never be marked with either of those signs, or considered as either affirmative or negative; for if any single quantity, as b, is marked either with the sign + or with the sign - without assigning some other quantity, as a, to which it is to be added, or from which it is to be subtracted, the mark will have no meaning or signification: thus if it be said that the square of -5, or the product of -5 into -5, is equal to +25, such an assertion must either signify no more than that 5 times 5 is equal to 25 without any regard to the signs, or it must be mere nonsense and unintelligible jargon. I speak according to the foregoing definition, by which the affirmativeness or negativeness of any quantity implies a relation to another quantity of the same kind to which it {204} is added, or from which it is subtracted; for it may perhaps be very clear and intelligible to those who have formed to themselves some other idea of affirmative and negative quantities different from that above defined."

Nothing can be more correct, or more identically logical: +5 and -5, standing alone, are jargon if +5 and -5 are to be understood as without reference to another quantity. But those who have "formed to themselves some other idea" see meaning enough. The great difficulty of the opponents of algebra lay in want of power or will to see extension of terms. Maseres is right when he implies that extension, accompanied by its refusal,

makes jargon. One of my paradoxers was present at a meeting of the Royal Society (in 1864, I think) and asked permission to make some remarks upon a paper. He rambled into other things, and, naming me, said that I had written a book in which two sides of a triangle are pronounced _equal_ to the third.[462] So they are, in the sense in which the word is used in complete algebra; in which A + B = C makes A, B, C, three sides of a triangle, and declares that going over A and B, one after the other, is equivalent, in change of place, to going over C at once. My critic, who might, if he pleased, have objected to extension, insisted upon reading me in unextended meaning.

On the other hand, it must be said that those who wrote on the other idea wrote very obscurely about it and justified Des Cartes (_De Methodo_)[463] when he said: "Algebram vero, ut solet doceri, animadverti certis regulis et numerandi formulis ita esse contentam, ut videatur potius ars quaedam confusa, cujus usu ingenium quodam modo turbatur et obscuratur, quam scientia qua excolatur et perspicacius {205} reddatur."[464] Maseres wrote this sentence on the title of his own work, now before me; he would have made it his motto if he had found it earlier.

There is, I believe, in Cobbett's _Annual Register_,[465] an account of an interview between Maseres and Cobbett when in prison.

The conversation of Maseres was lively, and full of serious anecdote: but only one attempt at humorous satire is recorded of him; it is an instructive one. He was born in 1731 (Dec. 15), and his father was a refugee. French was the language of the house, with the pronunciation of the time of Louis XIV. He lived until 1824 (May 19), and saw the race of refugees who were driven out by the first Revolution. Their pronunciation differed greatly from his own; and he used to amuse himself by mimicking them. Those who heard him and them had the two schools of pronunciation before them at once; a thing which seldom happens. It might even yet be worth while to examine the Canadian pronunciation.

Maseres went as Attorney-General to Quebec; and was appointed Cursitor Baron of our Exchequer in 1773. There is a curious story about his mission to Canada, which I have heard as good tradition, but have never seen in print. The reader shall have it as cheap as I; and I confess I rather believe it. Maseres was inveterately honest; he could not, at the bar, bear to see his own client victorious, when he knew his cause was a bad one. On a certain occasion he was in a cause which he knew would go against him if a certain case were quoted. Neither the judge nor the opposite counsel seemed to remember this case, and Maseres could not help dropping an allusion which brought it out. {206} His business as a barrister fell off, of course. Some time after, Mr. Pitt (Chatham) wanted a lawyer to send to Canada on a private mission, and wanted a _very honest man_. Some one mentioned Maseres, and told the above story: Pitt saw that he had got the man he wanted. The mission was satisfactorily performed, and Maseres remained as Attorney-General.

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