“Be what you would seem to be”— or if you’d like it put more simply —“Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.”’
It has occurred to me, and I feel firm in this, that Lewis Carroll meant this as a mock paraphrase of Proposition 6 of Book II of Euclid’s Elements:
If a straight line is bisected and a straight line is added to it in a straight line, then the rectangle contained by the whole with the added straight line and the added straight line together with the square on the half equals the square on the straight line made up of the half and the added straight line.
I forget the exact occasion, but it was as I was perusing Euclid that I was struck by the similarity of construction. The phrase, “straight line” , corresponds roughly to “otherwise” and “others” in the Duchess’ moral, and both expressions suggest a lilting meter. ( … and I hope I don’t have to remind anyone of Charles Dodgson’s mathematical vocation ! )
Furthermore, the syntax is similarly baffling, Euclid can actually be parsed, but not so the Duchess. Her moral contains three long phrases, each coherent on its own but with overlapping connections that make the whole thing incoherent:
Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear
to others …
it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been …
what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.
However, note that Prop. 6 does contain a “garden path” , as described by Stephen Pinker in THE LANGUAGE INSTINCT.
This is the phrase, “the rectangle contained by the whole with the added straight line …” which one is inclined to take as a complete description of a rectangle. However, the following phrase, “… and the added straight line together with the square on the half … “ is rendered nonsensical if one goes down this path, because a line cannot be taken together with a square. Of course, (ahem) the phrase, “with the added straight line” refers to the base of the rectangle while, “and the added straight line” specifies the height.
To me, it all adds up, especially considering the preamble. “Be what you would seem to be” would stand for the algebraic expression:
(a+b)2 = a2 + 2 a b + b2 … OR … a ( a + 2 b ) + b2
… as per the theorem. ( Note the “bee” and “two bee” in the moral. )
Also, “If you’d like to put it more simply”, alludes to the historically primitive character of geometry vis a vis algebra, which is somewhat more abstract. So Euclid’s book II may be construed as simpler than modern algebraic notation, being put in more primitive, or “simpler” terms.
Well, Heath was 40 years after ALICE, but I think that the english version of basic Euclid was probably already a matter of tradition by this point, although I really couldn’t say, of course.
NOTE ADDED IN PUBLICATION
All the above I’ve been carrying around for some years, but in anticipation of writing this up, I was spurred to check the original greek of Proposition 6:
… so feast your eyes! heh heh. Well, I spent some time on it but I don’t want to belabor the issue. You can note “tetragono” ( square ) and “gramme” ( line ) and “orthogonion” (!) orthogonal.
The thing I want to say about it is that the “garden path” does not exist in the greek, and the syntax seems to be a little more technical. “apo” means the base of a square, so it announces the specification of such, which is terminated by “tetragono” so that’s it, with no ambiguity.
The “garden path” clause specifies the base and height of a rectangle delineated by TO [ base spec. ] KAI [ height spec. ]
The base spec. is “upo tes holos syn te proskeimene” ( base of the whole with the extension ) and the height spec is “proskeimenes periexomenon orthogonion” ( encompassing orthogonal extension ? ) then comes “meta” = “together with” … ( the square on the half ) so there seems to be a more elaborate system of “terms of art” in play.