Wisdom and Knowledge
Valentine: It makes me so happy. To be at the beginning again, knowing almost nothing. [...] It's the best possible time to be alive, when almost everything you thought you knew is wrong.
The unknown isn't something to be scared of, it can lead to new discoveries.
Septimus: When we have found all the mysteries and lost all the meaning, we will be alone, on an empty shore.
Thomasina: Then we will dance.
We're all doomed. The play raises the question, if the universe is falling apart and we can't stop it, what should we do? Thomasina's answer may seem frivolous, but are there any better options?
Literature and Writing
Chater: "To my dear friend Septimus Hodge, who stood up and gave his best on behalf of the Author – Ezra Chater, at Sidley Park, Derbyshire, April 10, 1809." There, sir – something to show your grandchildren!
Bernard, reading this 2 centuries later, fails to understand the sexual double entendre underlines how important context can be in understanding writing.
Thomasina: Papa has no need of the recording angel, his life is written in the game book.
This passage juxtaposes an "objective" history (the angel on high who sees everything) with a "subjective" one (the seemingly limited account of life as reflected by bird-killing) to suggest that they are equal. Although, since recording angels don't share their diaries with us down here on earth, the only option we have is to reconstruct the past as best we can through limited records.
Thomasina: When you stir your rice pudding, Septimus, the spoonful of jam spreads itself round making red trails like the picture of a meteor in my astronomical atlas. But if you stir backward, the jam will not come together again. Indeed, the pudding does not notice and continues to turn pink just as before.
This seems to be the strength of Thomasina's scientific thinking: she's able to think about big ideas in familiar terms, and to make connections between seemingly unrelated things.
Valentine: Heat goes to cold. It's a one-way street. Your tea will end up at room temperature. What's happening to your tea is happening to everything everywhere. The sun and the stars. It'll take a while but we're all going to end up at room temperature.
Lady Croom: Mr. Hodge, ignorance should be like an empty vessel waiting to be filled at the well of truth – not a cabinet of vulgar curios.
"The well of truth" again suggests that truth is something absolute and unchangeable: like water from a well, it just is. People are just passive receptacles in Lady Croom's metaphor, making truth something that comes into a person from outside, rather than something they have a part in creating.
Bernard: Oh, bugger persuasive! I've proved Byron was here and as far as I'm concerned he wrote those lines as sure as he shot that hare.
Here's another joke thrown in for the century-hopping audience but lost on the characters themselves. Lord Augustus's complaint that Byron took undue credit for his hare (2.7) suggests that even the supposedly factual record of the game books is not to be trusted as an accurate account of what really happened – making Bernard's use of it here as a benchmark for certain truth unintentionally funny.
Thomasina: Septimus, what is carnal embrace?
Septimus: Carnal embrace is the practice of throwing one's arms around a side of beef.
By playing on the root meaning of "carnal," Septimus emphasizes the unintentional side effects of language: most people would not think of making love as hugging meat, but that's kind of what it is.
Bernard: You should try it. It's very underrated.
Hannah: Nothing against it.
Bernard: Yes, you have. You should let yourself go a bit. You might have written a better book. Or at any rate the right book.
Bernard seems to think that sexual repression equals emotional repression equals intellectual repression. While his diagnosis of Hannah may be questionable, he does raise the interesting question of how much mental functioning is affected by physical and emotional states.
Thomasina: You can't stir things apart.
Septimus: No more you can, time must needs run backward, and since it will not, we must stir our way onward mixing as we go, disorder out of disorder into disorder until pink is complete, unchanging and unchangeable, and we are done with it forever. This is known as free will or self-determination.
Septimus is talking about two entirely different things here, the Second Law of Thermodynamics and free will. Or perhaps he's making an ironic connection – even if we do have free will in the short term, the Second Law means we'll all eventually end up as mush anyway.
Valentine: And everything is mixing the same way, all the time, irreversibly . . . [...] . . . till there's no time left. That's what time means.
At its most basic level, according to Valentine, it means you can't go back into history.
Time - Septimus
Septimus: We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language. Ancient cures for diseases will reveal themselves once more. Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again. You do not suppose, my lady, that if all of Archimedes had been hiding in the great library of Alexandria, we would be at a loss for a corkscrew?
Septimus's theory is kind of similar to the idea that enough monkeys at enough typewriters for enough time would produce the complete works of William Shakespeare. It's a rare idea that would occur to only one person in the entire course of human history.
Fate and Free Will
Septimus: "If everything from the furthest planet to the smallest atom of our brain acts according to Newton's law of motion, what becomes of free will?"
The quotes are there because Septimus is referring to a question that was already so common as to be trite in 1809 (the "are we there yet?" of physics). Perhaps a more interesting question would be, why does this subject make people so uncomfortable? What's so disturbing about saying free will is just an illusion?
Augustus: You are not my tutor, sir. I am visiting your lesson by my free will.
Septimus: If you are so determined, my lord.
Septimus plays on the double meaning of "determined" discussed above – and the beauty of his joke is that there's no way for Augustus to prove that Septimus is making fun of him.
Man and the Natural World
Septimus: Well, so much for Mr. Noakes. He puts himself forward as a gentleman, a philosopher of the picturesque, a visionary who can move mountains and cause lakes, but in the scheme of the garden he is as the serpent.
Septimus is stretching his metaphor to make the point that man's having power to manipulate nature doesn't make Mr. Noakes anything like God – he could be Satan instead.
Lady Croom: Where there is the familiar pastoral refinement of an Englishman's garden, here is an eruption of gloomy forest and towering crag, of ruins where there was never a house, of water dashing against rocks where there was neither spring nor a stone I could not throw the length of a cricket pitch.
Lady Croom's words echo Septimus's metaphor of the serpent in the garden of Eden: just because Mr. Noakes is capable of transforming the garden in ways that seem almost magical doesn't mean that he should.
Man and the Natural World (2)
Hannah: The grass went from the doorstep to the horizon and the best box hedge in Derbyshire was dug up for the ha-ha so that the fools could pretend they were living in God's countryside. And then Richard Noakes came in to bring God up to date.
It's usual to think of "natural" as "without human intervention," but Hannah's history of gardening suggests that the definition of "natural" is subject to fashion. If ideas of nature depend on historical context, does that extend to science as well? If two time periods have different ideas about what nature is, does that mean that their science will go about investigating it in different ways?