The Beauty of The Elements


A stone statue by Joseph Durham depicting the famous mathematician Euclid. Image: Garrett Coakley via flickr.

When I was in high school, I eventually learned about the mathematical subject known as geometry. Unlike most schools though, instead of our teacher having us sit down and listen to them talk about the subject, our teacher had each and every one of us go to the library and rent a copy of Euclid’s Elements (Book 1). From that point on till the end of the first semester, each day we would separately read from Euclid’s Elements and then try to prove to our teacher each and every postulate using Euclid’s methods. It wasn’t until recently that I discovered that most children do not learn about geometry in this fashion and how unique of an experience I had. While I can see some of the possible advantages behind the new ways people learn about geometry, I still believe that Euclid’s The Elements has its own advantages that some of these other sources don’t.

One of the most noticeable things about The Elements is that each and every one of Euclid’s postulates build exceptionally well off of each other. While I see proofs building off of each other in most other texts books, there is just something about the way it is done in The Elements that feels much smoother. Perhaps the big advantage with a book like The Elements is that it was never meant to be a “text” book but rather a book for people who are interested in learning about geometry. Because of this, it doesn’t have to continually throw out real world examples or ask the reader to try to use this proof in specific scenarios. Instead, The Elements will just make a statements, go about proving that statement, and then go straight into making another statement and most likely prove it using the previously proven statement.

Another difference between The Elements and other geometry books which I believe makes it far superior is the general way in which it goes about solving proofs. Nowadays, most geometry books will use a popular form of algebra and a number system to solve equations. However, Euclid’s Elements is fully self-contained and takes nothing for granted. Because this book was created in a time where people didn’t necessarily have access to other sources, everything that is necessary to understand what is being stated in this book is there; including its own algebraic system. This self-contained version of algebra within The Elements uses simple comparisons between lines and shapes to each other which replaces constants and variables found in other forms of algebra (which is also explained in the book) to prove that the different statements that are being made are true. These comparisons in combination with previously proven statements allows The Elements to create proofs of all different kinds. While the algebraic like system Euclid’s Elements uses to solve equations may be a little difficult to get one’s mind around sometimes it makes the proofs within its pages much more difficult to refute than other geometry books.

So, why do we not use this book to teach students about geometry today? Perhaps the biggest reason and most obvious is that The Elements is a difficult book to read. Unlike most textbooks today, it doesn’t use numbers and doesn’t give examples. However, just because current day geometry books are easier to teach with and easier for students to understand does not mean that they are better books. Perhaps the final reason that I believe The Elements is such a great geometry book compared to others is that the reader must want to learn about geometry if they wish to get anywhere in Euclid’s Elements.  But, if they are able to get through Euclid’s Elements, they will have a much stronger fundamental idea of geometry than from other textbooks. While it is easy to state the fact that someone who survives being stranded in the wilderness will have a better idea of how to survive in the wild than someone who hasn’t, it doesn’t change the fact that it is true.

Going back to my classroom experience, I thoroughly enjoyed going through the proofs in The Elements and I would spend most of my lunch time going to my teacher and proofing more of Euclid’s Statements. After about 2 weeks of starting the book, I had finished it. After that point, I spent the rest of time in class helping other students understand The Elements. Unfortunately, most of the other students had a hard time getting through that semester and only a few other students were able to understand it in a similar fashion as myself. However, those among us who did understand Euclid’s The Elements had no troubles passing the second semester of class which was going back to the more common form of geometry. In conclusion, I believe that Euclid’s Elements is a fantastic book that does more for geometry than any other book out there and, if someone is really interested in geometry, they should do their best to read through and understand The Elements if they want the best foundation in geometry they can have.