Richard Dedekind: A deeply religious yet secular person

By Wang Haina

I am a chemistry major at the National University of Singapore but in my free time, I indulge in my love for German culture and mathematics. In the process, I had the privilege to read the works of German mathematician Richard Dedekind, whom I regard as my hero, and appreciate the little wonders that he left behind.

A brilliant German mathematician from the 19th century, Dedekind made important contributions to abstract algebra. He was far ahead of his time and his theories are still influencing our computing methodologies today. Although Richard Dedekind was a giant in the world of mathematics, it was the littlest things he did that impressed me the most.

For example, I had read Dedekind’s now-famous Section 66 of Was sind und was sollen die Zahlen, where he half-jokingly claimed that “my world of thoughts is infinite” (which I feel is simply a way of saying “you can regard the existence of an infinite set as an axiom”)

He also wrote a letter to his sister Julie that says: “A rainy day = a gray day = a nice day” Well, a rainy day allows him to stay in his room reading math books, a prospect that was definitely great for him!

On another occasion, he wrote to the editors of a calendar book which wrongly stated that he had died on some day in 1899: “The date may be right; the year is certainly wrong.”

Considering these, please forgive me for finding Dedekind cute sometimes!

Dedekind’s care for the tiniest details went beyond maths and can be seen even in matters of religion and secularism.

Dedekind himself was a devoted Lutheran. On his grave lies the inscription “2 Timothy 4. 7-8”, a biblical verse.

I recently stumbled upon a little discovery regarding his correspondence with Mrs. Elise Riemann, carried out in order to compose a biography of her husband, German mathematician Bernhard Riemann (i.e. Bernhard Riemanns Lebenslauf).

This little finding will probably give you an idea of how considerate Dedekind was:

Although most of the biography was written by Dedekind, the last paragraphs were borrowed from Elise Riemann’s letter. (Apparently, Elise approved such copying!!) Therefore, it is meaningful to compare what Elise wrote with what appears in the final published biography. I will just put the original German text here, but the important parts will be explained later.

Elise Riemann:

Rs Ende war ein sehr sanftes, ich möchte sagen ein Heimgehen ohne Kampf und Todesschauer, es schien mir als ob er mit Interesse dem Scheiden der Seele vom Körper folge, ich mußte ihm Brod u. Wein reichen, er trug mir Grüße auf an die Lieben daheim, sagte mir küsse unser Kind, ich betete das Vater Unser mit ihm, er konnte nicht mehr sprechen, bei den Worten, Vergieb uns unsere Schuld richtete er gläubig das Auge nach Oben, ich fühlte seine Hand kälter werden in der meinen, noch einige Athemzüge, und er war aufgegangen in Gott, wo er schauen wird was hier seinem Forschen versagt war.

In the published biography:

Sein Ende war ein sehr sanftes, ohne Kampf und Todesschauer; es schien, als ob er mit Interesse dem Scheiden der Seele vom Körper folgte; seine Gattin musste ihm Brod und Wein reichen, er trug ihr Grüsse an die Leben daheim auf und sagte ihr: küsse unser Kind. Sie betete das Vater Unser mit ihm, er konnte nicht mehr sprechen; bei den Worten “Vergieb uns unsere Schuld” richtete er gläubig das Auge nach oben; sie fühlte seine Hand in der ihrigen kälter werden, und nach einigen Athemzügen hatte sein reines, edles Herz zu schlagen aufgehört.

There was this significant change to Elise Riemann’s account made by Dedekind.

The Christian expressions for passing away “Heimgehen” (going home) and “aufgegangen in Gott” (going up in God) were removed, and changed to neutral expressions like “sein reines, edles Herz hatte zu schlagen aufgehört” (his pure, noble heart stopped to beat), which are unrelated to religion.

Dedekind, despite being a deeply religious person, cared about readers who had other faiths than Christianity. He made these changes so that Riemann’s biography can appeal equally to people with all beliefs.

I have to say that I was greatly surprised, and even touched when I discovered these little modifications. After all, even today, we still hear US presidents proclaiming “God bless the United States of America!” regularly even though there are many atheists in America.

But perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised, as Dirichlet, Dedekind’s colleague and close friend, was reported to be non-religious.

I believe I don’t need to emphasize how precious such active thoughts of secularism and religious harmony were in the 1870s Germany, especially from a person who was deeply religious himself.

Dedekind’s open-mindedness and considerations for all readers are qualities I really like about him.

Haina is a fourth-year student at the National University of Singapore and a member of Singapore’s Humanist community. An earlier version of this article was first published on the NUS website on May 2017.