I'm reading a book about James Clerk Maxwell, and there is one passage that wrote

One great charm of Maxwell’s society was his readiness to converse on almost any topic with those he was accustomed to meet . . . no one talked to him for five minutes without having some perfectly new ideas set before him; some so startling as to confound the listener, but always such as to repay a thoughtful examination

As far as I understand, the author here talked about the charm of Maxwell in any conversation with anyone. That he wants to show that Maxwell had a great impression on the listener.

However, I don't understand the meaning of the phrase set before: Who is the subject of set before? Who is him here, the listener or Maxwell?

And I also doesn't understand the passage: but always such as to repay a thoughtful examination. Does the author mean that, the listener in the conversation with Maxwell would be repaid by a thoughtful conversation/idea/...? What does it mean here by examination?

Please help me.


1 Answer 1


The "set" is the past participle form of "set". This verb has the same form for present, past and past participle, which can be confusing. The past participle has a passive sense. So the meaning can clarified as

new ideas set before him by Maxwell

And "him" is the person talking to Maxwell.

"examination" means "careful investigation, consideration and though". The sense is that "if you investigate the idea suggested by Maxwell, the idea will pay back to you some interesting discovery"

This is the idea of:

  • you give (or pay) the idea some thinking time, and
  • the idea gives back (repays) new discoveries.
  • 1
    The new ideas were metaphorically 'put in front of' the listener (that is, presented to him). Jan 9, 2023 at 8:48
  • 1
    It's perhaps worth noting that "him" refers to two different people. "Talked to him" means "talked to Maxwell". "Set before him" means "set before the person talking to Maxwell." Jan 9, 2023 at 19:12

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .