Law's double helix

»  Reprinted from Jurisdynamics, MoneyLaw, and the June issue of the Louisville Bar Association's Bar Briefs  «



“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” — that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.


John Keats
Ode on a Grecian Urn (1819)



The concluding couplet in John Keats's Ode on a Grecian Urn (1819) — “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” — that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know. — is arguably the most famous pair of lines in Keats's body of work, perhaps in all of English poetry in the Romantic tradition. The suggestion that truth and beauty might be one has proved so seductive that mathematicians and physicists often rely on unproven links between truth, beauty, and symmetry to frame their hypotheses.

FermatKeats may have stated the unity of truth and beauty in memorable literary terms, but mathematics may be the discipline that relies most heavily on it. Often enough, though not invariably, the unity of truth and beauty holds. What is beautiful is true, and what is true in turn is beautiful. Exceptions do arise — the computer-assisted proof of the four-color theorem and Andrew Wiles's proof of Fermat's last theorem are salient examples of mathematical proofs that look more like rambling narratives or even telephone directories than odes.

Nevertheless, philosophers, poets, and physicists wax rhapsodic in lauding the points in intellectual space where truth achieves what Bertrand Russell called "a beauty cold and austere." Edna St. Vincent Millay echoed this sentiment when she wrote, "Euclid alone has looked on Beauty bare." According to the physicist Hermann Weyl, the best scientific work has “always tried to unite the true with the beautiful.” But when he “had to choose one or the other,” Weyl “usually chose the beautiful.”

How firmly does Keats's unity — the unity of truth and beauty — hold in law?

True to the serendipitous way in which law itself arises, I stumbled unto what I believe to be the law's best description of Keats's unity in — of all things — a memoir described as a uniquely powerful first-personal account of science in action. In the opening pages of The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA (1st ed. 1969; reprint 2001), James D. Watson explained how the quest for beauty and the quirks of human culture both bent the trajectory of the quest for the double helix:

Watson and Crick[S]cience seldom proceeds in the straightforward logical manner imagined by outsiders. Instead, its steps forward (and sometimes backward) are often very human events in which personalities and cultural traditions play major roles. To this end I have attempted to re-create my first impressions of the relevant events and personalities rather than present an assessment which takes into account the many facts I have learned since the structure was found. Although the latter approach might be more objective, it would fail to convey the spirit of an adventure characterized both by youthful arrogance and by the belief that the truth, once found, would be simple as well as pretty. Thus many of the comments may seem one-sided and unfair, but this is often the case in the incomplete and hurried way in which human beings frequently decide to like or dislike a new idea or acquaintance.


Law proceeds on terms somewhere between the extremes of Euclid's airtight Elements and the comprehensive computer-aided proof of the four-color theorem. As Francis Crick and James Watson discovered when they sought to unlock the structure of DNA, the quest for the social truth that law embodies may begin in "the belief that the truth, once found, would be simple as well as pretty." That gesture of "youthful arrogance," however, rarely if ever yields the truth on its own. No less than their scientific counterparts, lawyers follow an "incomplete and hurried" protocol by which they "frequently decide to like or dislike a new idea or acquaintance."

Grecian urnLike other outsiders, law students often envision the formation, interpretation, and enforcement of law as a straightforward, even logical process. They soon learn, as Oliver Wendell Holmes observed in the opening lines of The Common Law, that "[t]he life of the law has not been logic: it has been experience." Even as Watson acknowledged how science lurched "forward (and sometimes backward)" in response to "very human events in which personalities and cultural traditions play major roles," Holmes recognized that law does not so much observe syllogisms as reflect "[t]he felt necessities of the time, the prevalent moral and political theories, intuitions of public policy, avowed or unconscious, even the prejudices which judges share with their fellow" citizens.

Two intertwined strands run through all law. One strand represents the cold mathematical logic that the LSAT purports to measure, the austere beauty of legal reason deduced without regard to the social circumstances in which law must be made, enforced, and lived. The other strand speaks in historical, even literary or lyrical terms. That manifestation of truth in law, as Holmes explained, "embodies the story of a nation's development through many centuries, and it cannot be dealt with as if it contained only the axioms and corollaries of a book of mathematics." That is all you know in law, and all you need to know.