Coincidentally: Great Minds Thinking Alike

Many have read the explanatory note of 29 June 1998 about Pope John Paul II’s motu proprio Ad Tuendam Fidem issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the centenary of suffrage in Norway and the election of the former king Milan as commander-in-chief of the Serbian army. One hundred years later the Norwegian government is almost totally female and the Serbian army is again a storm center of controversy. But these were not the subject of the doctrinal commentary. It sought rather to explain how truths are identified for all times and circumstances. So a footnote says, “. . . such an infallible teaching is thus objectively set forth by the whole episcopal body, understood in a diachronic and not necessarily merely synchronic sense.”

In other words, formulations of a truth have to be understood in the context of a wide historical panorama as an organum applicable to all times and conditions, and not according to the tastes and perceptions of the moment. Synchrony is a coincidence of time; diachrony is inclusive of all times. It does not help much to check out the dictionary and find as a gloss this remark of George P. Faust: “Historical (diachronic) linguistics is an honorable field of study; so is structural (synchronic) linguistics.” More helpful are juicy mots of the venerable Simeon Potter: “A man may surely make a rational and satisfying synchronic or descriptive study of a language now or for any time in the past, but, if that study is to remain 100 percent synchronic, he must at no point ask or state the reason why, for that will ineluctably bring in diachronic or historical factors.”

By extension, we could say that the Light Brigade at Balaklava might have been saved had they been more diachronic, but it is “not for us to reason why.” And when Marshall Bosquet saw the fatal charge and said, “It is magnificent, but it is not war,” he meant that it was great synchrony but not at all diachrony, language that might have been lost on the brave bleeding soldiers. Is it not both synchronic and diachronic that Lord Raglan, for whom the raglan sleeve is called, accused Lord Lucan after Balaklava the way Nero condemned his own Lucan (Marcus Annaeus Lucanus)?

All this is by way of introducing astonishing specimens of synchrony in physical science. Jean Nicholas Sebastien Allamand, explicator of the phenomenon of the Lyden jar, died just as Russia and Austria were declaring war on Turkey. In 1769 as Eleazar Wheelock was founding Dartmouth College, James Watt invented the steam engine, Richard Arkwright invented the spinning frame, and Joseph Wedgewood opened his Etruria pottery works. The English chemist William Prout discovered hydrochloric acid in the stomach in the year of the proclamation of the Monroe Doctrine, a high point in the “Era of Good Feeling.” Henry Sweet, founder of modern phonetics, died in 1912 when George Bernard Shaw presented Pygmalion, which featured the professor of phonetics, Henry Higgins. Thomas Edison, as a newspaper boy on the Grand Trunk Railway in Michigan, was rewarded for saving a stationmaster’s son by being given a scholarship to an academy in Mount Clemens that serendipitously happened to specialize in the new science of telegraphy. On September 3, 1930, as Edison’s electric passenger train was making its first trip on the Lackawana tracks in New Jersey, Dieudonne Coste and Maurice Bellonte landed at Valley Stream, Long Island, in the first direct flight from Paris to the United States.

Now synchrony yields to diachrony. I have noted elsewhere how John Couch Adams and Urbain Jean Joseph Leverrier simultaneously calculated the position of the planet Neptune. In England, William Henry Fox Talbot announced a photographic process exactly when Louis Jacques Daguerre invented the daguerreotype. Talbot also figured out the Persian cuneiform vowel system simultaneously with the Irish Orientalist Edward Hincks and the English Assyriologist Henry Creswicke Rawlinson, all of whom acted without any collusion. Antonio Pacinotti in Italy and Zenobe Theophile Gramme in Belgium simultaneously invented a dynamo with ring winding.

Correlations like these are hyper-synchronic. The most plausible explanation is that these men absorbed the intentions of nature’s timeless laws and transcended the limits of insular perspective so that their insights were the material glimmerings of the universal lamp of knowledge. When great minds are alike, it is synchrony strutting like a peacock. When great minds think alike, it is diachrony like a peacock in full display.


*Originally published in Crisis Magazine

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