Heath: The thirteen books of Euclid's Elements Preface

Thomas Heath published The thirteen books of Euclid's Elements in 1909. We quote here the Preface from this First Edition of the work:-

"There never has been, and till we see it we never shall believe that there can be, a system of geometry worthy of the name, which has any material departures (we do not speak of corrections or extensions or developments) from the plan laid down by Euclid." De Morgan wrote thus in October 1848 (Short supplementary remarks on the first six Books of Euclid's Elements in the Companion to the Almanac for 1849) ; and I do not think that, if he had been living to-day, he would have seen reason to revise the opinion so deliberately pronounced sixty years ago. It is true that in the interval much valuable work has been done on the continent in the investigation of the first principles, including the formulation and classification of axioms or postulates which are necessary to make good the deficiencies of Euclid's own explicit postulates and axioms and to justify the further assumptions which he tacitly makes in certain propositions, content apparently to let their truth be inferred from observation of the figures as drawn; but, once the first principles are disposed of, the body of doctrine contained in the recent textbooks of elementary geometry does not, and from the nature of the case cannot, show any substantial differences from that set forth in the Elements.

In England it would seem that far less of scientific value has been done; the efforts of a multitude of writers have rather been directed towards producing alternatives for Euclid which shall be more suitable, that is to say, easier, for schoolboys. It is of course not surprising that, in these days of short cuts, there should have arisen a movement to get rid of Euclid and to substitute a "royal road to geometry"; the marvel is that a book which was not written for schoolboys but for grown men (as all internal evidence shows, and in particular the essentially theoretical character of the work and its aloofness from anything of the nature of "practical" geometry) should have held its own as a schoolbook for so long.

And now that Euclid's proofs and arrangement are no longer required from candidates at examinations there has been a rush of competitors anxious to be first in the field with a new text-book on the more "practical" lines which now find so much favour. The natural desire of each teacher who writes such a text-book is to give prominence to some special nostrum which he has found successful with pupils. One result is, too often, a loss of a due sense of proportion; and, in any case, it is inevitable that there should be great diversity of treatment. It was with reference to such a danger that Lardner wrote in 1846: "Euclid once superseded, every teacher would esteem his own work the best, and every school would have its own class book. All that rigour and exactitude which have so long excited the admiration of men of science would be at an end. These very words would lose all definite meaning. Every school would have a different standard; matter of assumption in one being matter of demonstration in another; until, at length, GEOMETRY, in the ancient sense of the word, would be altogether frittered away or be only considered as a particular application of Arithmetic and Algebra." It is, perhaps, too early yet to prophesy what will be the ultimate outcome of the new order of things; but it would at least seem possible that history will repeat itself and that, when chaos has come again in geometrical teaching, there will be a return to Euclid more or less complete for the purpose of standardising it once more.

But the case for a new edition of Euclid is independent of any controversies as to how geometry shall be taught to schoolboys. Euclid's work will live long after all the text-books of the present day are superseded and forgotten. It is one of the noblest monuments of antiquity; no mathematician worthy of the name can afford not to know Euclid, the real Euclid as distinct from any revised or rewritten versions which will serve for schoolboys or engineers. And, to know Euclid, it is necessary to know his language, and, so far as it can be traced, the history of the "elements" which he collected in his immortal work.

This brings me to the raison d'ĂȘtre of the present edition. A new translation from the Greek was necessary for two reasons. First, though some time has elapsed since the appearance of Heiberg's definitive text and prolegomena, published between 1883 and 1888, there has not been, so far as I know, any attempt to make a faithful translation from it into English even of the Books which are commonly read. And, secondly, the other Books, vii to x and xiii, were not included by Simson and the editors who followed him, or apparently in any English translation since Williamson's (1781-8), so that they are now practically inaccessible to English readers in any form.

In the matter of notes, the edition of the first six Books in Greek and Latin with notes by Camerer and Hauber (Berlin, 1824-5) is a perfect mine of information. It would have been practically impossible to make the notes more exhaustive at the time when they were written. But the researches of the last thirty or forty years into the history of mathematics (I need only mention such names as those of Bretschneider, Hankel, Moritz Cantor, Hultsch, Paul Tannery, Zeuthen, Loria, and Heiberg) have put the whole subject upon a different plane. I have endeavoured in this edition to take account of all the main results of these researches up to the present date. Thus, so far as the geometrical Books are concerned, my notes are intended to form a sort of dictionary of the history of elementary geometry, arranged according to subjects; while the notes on the arithmetical Books vii-ix and on Book x follow the same plan.

I desire to express here my thanks to my brother, Dr R S Heath, Vice-Principal of Birmingham University, for suggestions on the proof sheets and, in particular, for the reference to the parallelism between Euclid's definition of proportion and Dedekind's theory of irrationals, to Mr R D Hicks for advice on a number of difficult points of translation, to Professor A A Bevan for help in the transliteration of Arabic names, and to the Curators and Librarian of the Bodleian Library for permission to reproduce, as frontispiece, a page from the famous Bodleian MS. of the Elements. Lastly, my best acknowledgments are due to the Syndics of the Cambridge University Press for their ready acceptance of the work, and for the zealous and efficient cooperation of their staff which has much lightened the labour of seeing the book through the Press.

T. L. H.
November, 1908.

Last Updated March 2006