Throughout Nasar’s biography, John Nash is portrayed as a wholly complicated figure. Though exceedingly intelligent in the world of academia, he lacks a sense of social awareness and is often cruel, commandeering, and downright uncaring to the people around him: his friends, family, and peers. In A Beautiful Mind, Nasar does not attempt to excuse or justify Nash’s behavior. Instead, she suggests that while Nash was able to get ahead as a mathematician in part because of his intense aversion to sociality, his actions made his life much more difficult. In this way, Nasar resists the commonly accepted idea that individual genius transcends questions of morality and culpability.
Nasar notes that Nash’s contemporaries find him “immensely strange,” “aloof,” “haughty,” “cold,” and “without affect.” These are qualities Nash demonstrates throughout A Beautiful Mind, as he continually alienates those around him in order to focus on academic success, which he gains easily as a result of his own antisocial attitudes. Because Nash is not especially mindful of other people’s opinions of him, he is able to resist authority and become a fiercely independent thinker, seeking out contrarian answers to problems and criticizing others’ approaches and ideas: “When he focused on some new puzzle, he saw dimensions that people who really knew the subject […] initially dismissed as naïve or wrongheaded. Even as a student, his indifference to others’ skepticism, doubt, and ridicule was awesome.” Instead of deferring to the judgments of more established mathematicians, Nash “thumbed his nose at the received wisdom, current fashions, established methods,” confidently following his own path—and receiving accolades for his work as a result.
Throughout A Beautiful Mind, Nasar painstakingly details the negative consequences of Nash’s difficult personality: his childhood as a loner, his alienation in college (where his new peers “found him weird and socially inept”), and his contemptuous attitude toward even those who are friendly to him. However, Nasar argues that Nash succeeds at Princeton because of its intensely competitive academic atmosphere. At Princeton, Nash’s often nasty, intensely supercilious, and downright immoral behavior make him a kind of alpha male. He is not concerned with others’ feelings—or even his own—and is thus able to channel all of his energy into succeeding as a mathematician.
Yet even as Nasar shows that Nash’s success and genius are tied to his negative personality traits, she also depicts Nash as an individual whose life is undone not only by mental illness, but also by his own thoughtless actions, highlighting that his genius does not alleviate him of his own personal problems and struggles with morality. For one, Nash’s troubled relationship with Eleanor Stier, a woman he meets while working at MIT, results in a troubled relationship with his and Eleanor’s son, John David Stier—one that Nash is never able to fully salvage, even after his remission from schizophrenia, since he effectively abandoned Eleanor and his son. In a cruelly ironic twist, while in the throes of mental illness, Nash is abandoned by essentially all of his friends and family members, save for his mother, Virginia, and his wife, Alicia. Nash’s personality, viewed as troublesome and eccentric even before his illness, means that few people take his suffering seriously. Even fewer hope to help him, given the extent of his alienating behavior as a student and junior academic. Nasar portrays Nash in his “Phantom of Fine Hall” phase as a man left utterly to his own devices, cast out by family and old Princeton colleagues.
Though Nash’s reputation is redeemed after he wins the Nobel Prize for his work on game theory, Nasar is careful to explain that he continues to live a life “full of regrets.” Nash attempts to reconcile with those around him, including his son with Alicia, Johnny, who also suffers from schizophrenia. Yet reconciliation proves intensely difficult, given the damage he inflicted on these relationships as a younger man. Nash’s “immediate future is uncertain,” Nasar writes, referring to his precarious mental state but also to his emotional life. Nasar argues that Nash’s great achievements, both early and late in his career, cannot fully make up for the relationships he strained or lost, suggesting that genius cannot transcend the consequences of loss and personal conflict. Nasar also suggests that as Nash seeks to improve his relationships with others, he has focused less intensely on his research: “he may be less than he was intellectually, he may never achieve another breakthrough, but he has become a great deal more than he ever was.” Thus, while genius and eccentric, antisocial behavior may be linked—Nasar compares Nash to other troubled geniuses like Einstein and Kafka throughout the biography—extreme intelligence does not make up for failures of emotion and interpersonal connection, and ultimately, it is not more important than stable relationships with others.
As Nasar represents Nash’s path from eccentric combativeness to mental collapse to recovery and redemption, she uses Nash as a key example to debunk the myth that genius somehow justifies immoral or antisocial behavior. Nash is now a better person, she contends, though he has lost the intensely competitive spirit of animosity that helped him to achieve genius in the first place. His personal development is ultimately more important than his status as an academic icon, and he is now content to live a “quiet life,” focusing on relationships instead of his own narrow-minded pursuit of intellectual success.
Genius, Morality, and Relationships ThemeTracker
Genius, Morality, and Relationships Quotes in A Beautiful Mind
No one was more obsessed with originality, more disdainful of authority, or more jealous of his independence. […] In almost everything [Nash] did—from game theory to geometry—he thumbed his nose at the received wisdom, current fashion, established methods. […] Nash acquired his knowledge of mathematics not mainly from studying what other mathematicians had discovered, but by rediscovering their truths for himself.
He was beguiled by the idea of alien races of hyper-rational beings who had taught themselves to disregard all emotion. Compulsively rational, he wished to turn life’s decisions—whether to take the first elevator or wait for the next one, where to bank his money, what job to accept, whether to marry—into calculations of advantage and disadvantage, algorithms or mathematical rules divorced from emotion, convention, and tradition. Even the small act of saying an automatic Hello to Nash in a hallway could elicit a furious “Why are you saying hello to me?”
Underneath the brilliant surface of [Nash’s] life, all was chaos and contradiction: his involvements with other men; a secret mistress and a neglected illegitimate son; a deep ambivalence toward the wife who adored him, the university that nurtured him, even his country; and, increasingly, a haunting fear of failure. And the chaos eventually welled up, spilled over, and swept away the fragile edifice of his carefully constructed life.
Nash was always on the lookout for problems. “He was very much aware of unsolved problems,” said Milnor. “He really cross-examined people on what were the important problems. It showed a tremendous amount of ambition.” In this search, as in so much else, Nash displayed an uncommon measure of self-confidence and self-importance. On one occasion, not long after his arrival at Princeton, he went to see Einstein and sketched some ideas he had for amending quantum theory.
Nash was choosy about whom he would talk mathematics with. […] “You couldn’t engage him in a long conversation. He’d just walk off in the middle. Or he wouldn’t respond at all. I don’t remember Nash having a conversation that came to a nice soft landing. I also don’t remember him ever having a conversation about mathematics. Even the full professors would discuss problems they were working with.”
Today, Nash’s concept of equilibrium from strategic games is one of the basic paradigms in social sciences and biology. […] Like many great scientific ideas, from Newton’s theory of gravitation to Darwin’s theory of natural selection, Nash’s idea seemed initially too simple to be truly interesting, too narrow to be widely applicable, and, later on, so obvious that its discovery by someone was deemed all but inevitable. […] Its significance was not immediately recognized, not even by the brash twenty-one-year-old author himself.
In this circle [at MIT], Nash learned to make a virtue of necessity, styling himself self-consciously as a “free thinker.” He announced that he was an atheist. He created his own vocabulary. He began conversations in midstream with “Let’s take this aspect.” He referred to people as “humanoids.”
There is no way of knowing what enables one man to crack a big problem while another man, also brilliant, fails. Some geniuses have been sprinters who have solved problems quickly. Nash was a long-distance runner. […] He went into a classical domain where everybody believed that they understand what was possible and not possible. […] His tolerance for solitude, great confidence in his own intuition, indifference to criticism—all detectable at a young age but now prominent and impermeable features of his personality—served him well.
More than a decade later, when he was already ill, Nash himself provided a metaphor for his life during the MIT years, a metaphor that he couched in his first language, the language of mathematics […] The equation represents a three-dimensional hyperspace, which has a singularity at the origin, in four-dimensional space. Nash is the singularity, the special point, and the other variables are people who affected him—in this instance, men with whom he had friendships or relationships.
Nash displayed a rather curious inconsistency in his attitude and behavior toward his son. At the time of his birth, he had reacted in neither of the ways one might have expected of a young man confronted with the pregnancy of a woman with whom he has recently begun sleeping, eschewing both the high road that would have led to a shotgun wedding, as well as the more commonly elected low road of flat-out denying his paternity and simply vanishing from his girlfriend’s life. He doubtless behaved selfishly, even callously […] But…it is natural to conclude that Nash, like the rest of us, needed to love and be loved, and that a tiny, helpless infant, his son, drew him irresistibly.
The prize itself was a long-overdue acknowledgment by the Nobel committee that a sea change in economics, one that had been under way for more than a decade, had taken place. As a discipline, economics had long been dominated by Adam Smith’s brilliant metaphor of the Invisible Hand. Smith’s concept of perfect competition envisions so many buyers and sellers that no single buyer or seller has to worry about the reactions of others. […] But in the world of megamergers, big government, massive foreign direct investment, and wholesale privatization, where the game is played by a handful of players, each taking into account the others’ actions, each pursuing his own best strategies, game theory has come to the fore.
The truth, however, is that the research has not been the main thing in [Nash’s] present life. The important theme has been reconnecting to family, friends, and community. This has become the urgent undertaking. The old fear that he depended on others and that they depended on him has faded. The wish to reconcile, to care for those who need him, is uppermost.
The extraordinary journey of this American genius, this man who surprises people, continues. The self-deprecating humor suggests greater self-awareness. The straight-from-the-heart talk with friends about sadness, pleasure, and attachment suggests a wider range of emotional experiences. The daily effort to give others their due, and to recognize their right to ask this of him, bespeaks a very different man from the often cold and arrogant youth. […] In deed, if not always in word, Nash has come to a life in which thought and emotion are more closely entwined, where getting and giving are central, and relationships are more symmetrical.
The festive scene at the turn-of-the-century frame house opposite the train station might have been that of a golden wedding anniversary: the handsome older couple posing for pictures with family and friends, the basket of pale yellow roses, the 1950s photo of the bride and groom on display for the occasion.
In fact, John and Alicia Nash were about to say “I do” for the second time, after a nearly forty-year gap in their marriage. For them it was yet another step—“a big step,” according to John—in piecing together lives cruelly shattered by schizophrenia.