Semisimple Lie algebra

In mathematics, a Lie algebra is semisimple if it is a direct sum of simple Lie algebras, i.e., non-abelian Lie algebras whose only ideals are {0} and itself.

Throughout the article, unless otherwise stated, is a non-zero finite-dimensional Lie algebra over a field of characteristic 0. The following conditions are equivalent:


Examples of semisimple Lie algebras, with notation coming from classification by Dynkin diagrams, are:

These Lie algebras are numbered so that n is the rank. Except certain exceptions in low dimensions, many of these are simple Lie algebras, which are a fortiori semisimple. These four families, together with five exceptions (E6, E7, E8, F4, and G2), are in fact the only simple Lie algebras over the complex numbers.


See also: Root system
The simple Lie algebras are classified by the connected Dynkin diagrams.

Every semisimple Lie algebra over an algebraically closed field of characteristic 0 is a direct sum of simple Lie algebras (by definition), and the finite-dimensional simple Lie algebras fall in four families – An, Bn, Cn, and Dn – with five exceptions E6, E7, E8, F4, and G2. Simple Lie algebras are classified by the connected Dynkin diagrams, shown on the right, while semisimple Lie algebras correspond to not necessarily connected Dynkin diagrams, where each component of the diagram corresponds to a summand of the decomposition of the semisimple Lie algebra into simple Lie algebras.

The classification proceeds by considering a Cartan subalgebra (maximal abelian Lie algebra; corresponds to a maximal torus in a Lie group) and the adjoint action of the Lie algebra on this subalgebra. The root system of the action then both determines the original Lie algebra and must have a very constrained form, which can be classified by the Dynkin diagrams.

The classification is widely considered one of the most elegant results in mathematics – a brief list of axioms yields, via a relatively short proof, a complete but non-trivial classification with surprising structure. This should be compared to the classification of finite simple groups, which is significantly more complicated.

The enumeration of the four families is non-redundant and consists only of simple algebras if for An, for Bn, for Cn, and for Dn. If one starts numbering lower, the enumeration is redundant, and one has exceptional isomorphisms between simple Lie algebras, which are reflected in isomorphisms of Dynkin diagrams; the En can also be extended down, but below E6 are isomorphic to other, non-exceptional algebras.

Over a non-algebraically closed field, the classification is more complicated – one classifies simple Lie algebras over the algebraic closure, then for each of these, one classifies simple Lie algebras over the original field which have this form (over the closure). For example, to classify simple real Lie algebras, one classifies real Lie algebras with a given complexification, which are known as real forms of the complex Lie algebra; this can be done by Satake diagrams, which are Dynkin diagrams with additional data ("decorations").


The semisimple Lie algebras over the complex numbers were first classified by Wilhelm Killing (1888–90), though his proof lacked rigor. His proof was made rigorous by Élie Cartan (1894) in his Ph.D. thesis, who also classified semisimple real Lie algebras. This was subsequently refined, and the present classification by Dynkin diagrams was given by then 22-year-old Eugene Dynkin in 1947. Some minor modifications have been made (notably by J. P. Serre), but the proof is unchanged in its essentials and can be found in any standard reference, such as (Humphreys 1972).


Complete reducibility

A consequence of semisimplicity is a theorem due to Weyl: every finite-dimensional representation is completely reducible; that is for every invariant subspace of the representation there is an invariant complement.[1] Infinite-dimensional representations of semisimple Lie algebras are not in general completely reducible.


Since the center of a Lie algebra is an abelian ideal, if is semisimple, then its center is zero. (Note: since has non-trivial center, it is not semisimple.) In other words, the adjoint representation is injective. Moreover, it can be shown that the dimension of the Lie algebra of derivations on is equal to the dimension of . Hence, is Lie algebra isomorphic to . (This is a special case of Whitehead's lemma.) Every ideal, quotient and product of semisimple Lie algebras is again semisimple.


The adjoint representation is injective, and so a semisimple Lie algebra is also a linear Lie algebra under the adjoint representation. This may lead to some ambiguity, as every Lie algebra is already linear with respect to some other vector space (Ado's theorem), although not necessarily via the adjoint representation. But in practice, such ambiguity rarely occurs.

Jordan decomposition

Any endomorphism x of a finite-dimensional vector space over an algebraically closed field can be decomposed uniquely into a diagonalizable (or semisimple) and nilpotent part

such that s and n commute with each other. Moreover, each of s and n is a polynomial in x. This is a consequence of the Jordan decomposition.

If , then the image of x under the adjoint map decomposes as

The elements s and n are unique elements of such that n is nilpotent, s is semisimple, n and s commute, and for which such a decomposition holds. This abstract Jordan decomposition factors through any representation of in the sense that given any representation ρ,

is the Jordan decomposition of ρ(x) in the endomorphism ring of the representation space.


The rank of a complex semisimple Lie algebra is the dimension of any of its Cartan subalgebras.


The significance of semisimplicity comes firstly from the Levi decomposition, which states that every finite dimensional Lie algebra is the semidirect product of a solvable ideal (its radical) and a semisimple algebra. In particular, there is no nonzero Lie algebra that is both solvable and semisimple.

Semisimple Lie algebras have a very elegant classification, in stark contrast to solvable Lie algebras. Semisimple Lie algebras over an algebraically closed field are completely classified by their root system, which are in turn classified by Dynkin diagrams. Semisimple algebras over non-algebraically closed fields can be understood in terms of those over the algebraic closure, though the classification is somewhat more intricate; see real form for the case of real semisimple Lie algebras, which were classified by Élie Cartan.

Further, the representation theory of semisimple Lie algebras is much cleaner than that for general Lie algebras. For example, the Jordan decomposition in a semisimple Lie algebra coincides with the Jordan decomposition in its representation; this is not the case for Lie algebras in general.

If is semisimple, then . In particular, every linear semisimple Lie algebra is a subalgebra of , the special linear Lie algebra. The study of the structure of constitutes an important part of the representation theory for semisimple Lie algebras.


Semisimple Lie algebras admit certain generalizations. Firstly, many statements that are true for semisimple Lie algebras are true more generally for reductive Lie algebras. Abstractly, a reductive Lie algebra is one whose adjoint representation is completely reducible, while concretely, a reductive Lie algebra is a direct sum of a semisimple Lie algebra and an abelian Lie algebra; for example, is semisimple, and is reductive. Many properties of semisimple Lie algebras depend only on reducibility.

Many properties of complex semisimple/reductive Lie algebras are true not only for semisimple/reductive Lie algebras over algebraically closed fields, but more generally for split semisimple/reductive Lie algebras over other fields: semisimple/reductive Lie algebras over algebraically closed fields are always split, but over other fields this is not always the case. Split Lie algebras have essentially the same representation theory as semsimple Lie algebras over algebraically closed fields, for instance, the splitting Cartan subalgebra playing the same role as the Cartan subalgebra plays over algebraically closed fields. This is the approach followed in (Bourbaki 2005), for instance, which classifies representations of split semisimple/reductive Lie algebras.


  1. Hall 2015 Theorem 10.9
  • Bourbaki, Nicolas (2005), "VIII: Split Semi-simple Lie Algebras", Elements of Mathematics: Lie Groups and Lie Algebras: Chapters 7–9 
  • Erdmann, Karin; Wildon, Mark (2006), Introduction to Lie Algebras (1st ed.), Springer, ISBN 1-84628-040-0 .
  • Hall, Brian C. (2015), Lie Groups, Lie Algebras, and Representations: An Elementary Introduction, Graduate Texts in Mathematics, 222 (2nd ed.), Springer 
  • Humphreys, James E. (1972), Introduction to Lie Algebras and Representation Theory, Berlin, New York: Springer-Verlag, ISBN 978-0-387-90053-7 .
  • Varadarajan, V. S. (2004), Lie Groups, Lie Algebras, and Their Representations (1st ed.), Springer, ISBN 0-387-90969-9 .
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