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A man who sets out to justify his existence and his activities has to distinguish two different questions. The first is whether the work which he does is worth doing; and the second is why he does it, whatever its value may be. The first question is often very difficult, and the answer very discouraging, but most people will find the second easy enough even then. Their answers, if they are honest, will usually take one or other of two forms; and the second form is merely a humbler variation of the first, which is the only answer which we need consider seriously.

(1) ‘I do what I do because it is the one and only thing that I can do at all well. I am a lawyer, or a stockbroker, or a professional cricketer, because I have some real talent for that particular job. I am a lawyer because I have a fluent tongue, and am interested in legal subtleties; I am a stockbroker because my judgement of the markets is quick and sound; I am a professional cricketer because I can bat unusually well. I agree that it might be better to be a poet or a mathematician, but unfortunately I have no talent for such pursuits.’

I am not suggesting that this is a defence which can be made by most people, since most people can do nothing at all well. But it is impregnable when it can be made without absurdity, as it can by a substantial minority: perhaps five or even ten per cent of men can do something rather well. It is a tiny minority who can do anything really well, and the number of men who can do two things well is negligible. If a man has any genuine talent, he should be ready to make almost any sacrifice in order to cultivate it to the full.

This view was endorsed by Dr Johnson—

When I told him that I had been to see [his namesake] Johnson ride upon three horses, he said ‘Such a man, sir, should be encouraged, for his performances show the extent of the human powers...’—

and similarly he would have applauded mountain climbers, channel swimmers, and blindfold chess-players. For my own part, I am entirely in sympathy with all such attempts at remarkable achievement. I feel some sympathy even with conjurors and ventriloquists; and when Alekhine and Bradman set out to beat records, I am quite bitterly disappointed if they fail. And here both Dr Johnson and I find ourselves in agreement with the public. As W. J. Turner has said so truly, it is only the ‘highbrows’ (in the unpleasant sense) who do not admire the ‘real swells’.

We have of course to take account of the differences in value between different activities. I would rather be a novelist or a painter than a statesman of similar rank; and there are many roads to fame which most of us would reject as actively pernicious. Yet it is seldom that such differences of value will turn the scale in a man's choice of a career, which will almost always be dictated by the limitations of his natural abilities. Poetry is more valuable than cricket, but Bradman would be a fool if he sacrificed his cricket in order to write second-rate minor poetry (and I suppose that it is unlikely that he could do better). If the cricket were a little less supreme, and the poetry better, then the choice might be more difficult: I do not know whether I would rather have been Victor Trumper or Rupert Brooke. It is fortunate that such dilemmas occur so seldom.

I may add that they are particularly unlikely to present themselves to a mathematician. It is usual to exaggerate rather grossly the differences between the mental processes of mathematicians and other people, but it is undeniable that a gift for mathematics is one of the most specialized talents, and that mathematicians as a class are not particularly distinguished for general ability or versatility. If a man is in any sense a real mathematician, then it is a hundred to one that his mathematics will be far better than anything else he can do, and that he would be silly if he surrendered any decent opportunity of exercising his one talent in order to do undistinguished work in other fields. Such a sacrifice could be justified only by economic necessity or age.

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一个人想要证明自己的存在和行为是有意义的,就必须辨别两个不同的问题。第一个问题是,他的工作是否值得去做;第二个则是,无论其价值如何,他为什么要去做。前者通常很难回答,答案也常令人十分沮丧。然而,多数人会觉得回答后一个问题很容易。如果这些人是诚实的,那么答案通常会符合两种形式,由于第二种只是比第一种更谦卑,于是第一种形式便成了我们唯一需要认真讨论的答案。

(1)“我做我所做的,因为这是唯一一件我能做好的事。我做律师,或股票经纪人,或职业板球运动员,是因为我真的有天赋来胜任这份工作。我是一名律师,因为我口齿伶俐,并且有志于把控法律的微妙之处;我是一名股票经纪人,因为我对行情的判断既快又准;我是一名职业板球运动员,因为我的击球技术出类拔萃。我同意,成为诗人或数学家也许会更好,但不幸的是我并没有从事这些职业的天赋。”

我并不是说多数人都能这样替自己辩解,其实多数人什么都做不好。也许只有 5%、最多也就 10% 的人可以在他的行当里干得相当出色。倘若是这一小部分人如此辩解,那么他们的说法一点儿也不荒谬,它是无懈可击的。能真正做好一件事的人非常少,能做好两件事的人更是寥寥无几。如果某人真有天赋,那么为了把这份天赋发挥到极致,他应该做好牺牲一切的准备。

约翰逊博士 1 赞同这个观点:

1Samuel Johnson(1709.09.18—1784.12.03),英国作家、文学评论家和诗人。

当我告诉他,我曾见过一个和他一样也叫约翰逊的人骑着三匹马时,他说:“先生,这样的人应该受到鼓励,因为他的表演展示了人类力量的极限……”2

2本段引自《塞缪尔 • 约翰逊的生平》,因此这里的“我”并不是哈代。

同样,他也会赞美登山者、横渡海峡的泳将,以及盲棋手。就我个人而言,我完全支持这种为了取得杰出成就而做出的全部努力。即使是魔术师和口技演员,我也能表示理解。在阿廖欣 3 和布拉德曼 4 即将打破纪录的那一刻,倘若他们失败了,我会感到非常失望。就这点而言,约翰逊博士和我都觉得,我们和公众的观点是一致的。正如沃尔特 • 特纳 5 所说,只有那些“趣味高雅的人”(带有贬义)才不欣赏“真正的名家”。

3Alexander Alekhine(1892.10.31—1946.03.24),苏联国际象棋运动员。

4Don Bradman(1908.08.27—2001.02.25),澳大利亚板球运动员。

5Walter James Redfern Turner(1889.10.13—1946.11.18),英国作家、批评家。

当然,我们也必须考虑不同活动之间的价值差异。我宁愿当小说家或画家,也不愿做相同级别的政治家。还有许多出名的办法,多数人都会因其有问题而加以拒绝。然而,这种价值差异几乎不会改变一个人对职业的选择,择业几乎总是由个人天赋的局限性决定的。诗歌比板球更有价值,但如果布拉德曼为了写二流小诗(我料想他不太可能写出更好的作品)而放弃板球,那他就是个傻瓜。倘若他的板球技巧不那么高超,而诗歌还写得稍好一些,那么可能会更难以抉择:我不知道自己会更愿意成为维克托 • 特兰佩 6 还是鲁珀特 • 布鲁克 7。幸运的是,这样的困境几乎没有出现。

6Victor Thomas Trumper(1877.11.02—1915.06.28),澳大利亚板球运动员。

7Rupert Chawner Brooke(1887.08.03—1915.04.23),英国诗人。

我还可以补充一点,这些人绝不可能想要当一名数学家。尽管数学家与其他人在思维过程上的差异常常被过分夸大,但不可否认的是,数学才能是一种最专业的天赋,而数学家是这样一类人,他们的常规能力或通才能力并不特别突出。如果一个人不管以什么标准衡量,都能算得上是真正的数学家,那么几乎可以肯定,相较他能做的其他工作,从事数学会好得多。倘若他为了能在其他领域有一份普普通通的工作,而放弃可以发挥自己数学才能的良机,那他就是愚蠢的。只有出于经济或年龄的考虑,这种牺牲才说得过去。

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