X Close

Whatever happened to the polymath? Inter-disciplinarians can't flourish in a time of information overload

Leonardo da Vinci painted the original polymath Aristotle. Credit: Godong/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Leonardo da Vinci painted the original polymath Aristotle. Credit: Godong/Universal Images Group via Getty Images


May 22, 2020   5 mins

Becoming a polymath used to be fairly straightforward. First, study hard, and ideally start early: Blaise Pascal was thinking up ground-breaking mathematical theories in his teens — useful preparation for inventing existentialism and the calculator. Second, find a patron: Leonardo da Vinci’s career as artist, inventor and scientist was supported by his work as Cesare Borgia’s chief engineer. Third, try and combine your interests: the Welshman William Jones, a pioneering scholar of law and languages, found his niche by accepting a position on the Supreme Court in Bengal.

Today the barriers to such a career are formidable. Learning has retreated to the universities, which demand specialisation. It’s hard to imagine a contemporary chemistry professor informing his employer (as Michael Polanyi did at Manchester in 1948) that he would like to switch to philosophy. And of course, any serious intellectual work requires the increasingly rare skill of not looking at your phone every ten minutes. As Peter Burke writes ominously in his timely new book The Polymath: A Cultural History from Leonardo da Vinci to Susan Sontag, present-day polymaths (Jared Diamond, Raymond Tallis) tend to be “scholars who were already middle-aged before the digital revolution occurred.”

Who cares, you may ask. It may be very impressive to be able to design a bridge in 27 languages, but is it any more useful to the world than juggling flaming torches on a unicycle? And given that one man’s polymath is another man’s charlatan, should we really be alarmed if the species is endangered? Burke’s book makes a strong case that we should be.

He does this by including not just the obvious superminds like Athanasius Kircher (a ludicrously wide-ranging scientific researcher who also wrote an encyclopedia of China and kickstarted the study of Egyptology) but also “polymaths of the second rank”. That means humanistic scholars such as RenĂ© Girard, who applied his theory of desire first to literature, then to anthropology and eventually to religious history; geniuses with an extra string to their bow, like Nabokov with his dabblings in the study of butterflies; and even popular writers like Macaulay and Voltaire, just because they had such diverse interests.

This does broaden the meaning of the word almost to the point of meaninglessness. But it also reminds us that first-rate polymaths are not a separate species. Their strengths — curiosity, a capacity for hard work, a good memory, the ability to focus — are not unique, they just have more of them than everyone else. Few of us will have occasion to ask ourselves, as Joseph Needham did in the opening line of his autobiography, “How did it happen that a biochemist turned into a historian and sinologist?” But if we lived for a thousand years, we might have a similar story to tell.

The decline of polymathy, then, suggests a broader crisis. For Burke, it is a crisis of too much information. The seventeenth century was a “golden age of polymaths”, as explorers found new regions, the scientific method flourished, and the postal service and the proliferation of journals allowed scholars to trade ideas. But those same forces led to “information overload”.

Over the next 200 years, the intellectual world divided between the specialists who knew a lot about their little area, and popularisers who knew a little about a lot. Institutions, as well as individuals, had to go their separate ways: in the 1880s the Natural History Museum split off from the British Museum, and the Science Museum from what is now the V&A. The twentieth century saw some conscious efforts to foster “interdisciplinarity”, but the fragmentation of knowledge only accelerated — even before the internet came along.

This is Burke’s version of events, and it is obviously a large part of the story. But there is surely another reason for the decline of the polymath: namely, the intellectual revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when as John Donne put it in 1611, “new philosophy calls all in doubt.”

That new philosophy claimed, like today’s political leaders, that it was merely following the science: instead of theorising about the celestial spheres, just look through a telescope! But there was a sinister undercurrent, as Donne realised: the new philosophers sometimes seemed to imply that, if you did follow the science, you might well find a cold, dead universe in which our beliefs about the beauty, harmony and meaning of the world around us would be exposed as delusions.

When Dante gazed at the night sky, he saw “the love which moves the sun and other stars”; 350 years later, Pascal looked at the same thing and recorded that “the eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me.” The contemplation of the world, it appeared, might not lead us to sublime truths, but to disenchantment.

Before this revolution, as Burke observes of the Middle Ages, “Wide-ranging curiosity was normal … and might even be described as the default setting.” I suspect that pre-modern all-rounders — Aristotle, Shen Gua, Avicenna, Hildegard of Bingen — took for granted that all their different studies had an essential unity. Combinations which we think of as quirky — such as Roger Bacon’s moving between astronomy, theology, optics and linguistics — came naturally. Polymaths could assume that very different kinds of intellectual work were all approaches to the truth.

But over the last 400 years, we have had to deal with an underlying anxiety: what if only one kind of study — measuring things and making mathematical laws from the results — really gets you to rock-bottom reality? If that’s correct, then a beautiful piece of music, ultimately, is just sound waves hitting your ears. Love, truth and goodness are just your neurons firing. As for philosophy — well, according to Stephen Hawking, “philosophy is dead”, and as Richard Dawkins once memorably asked, “What did Plato say that was actually right?”

This nagging anxiety threatens polymaths more than anyone: if the scientific method, and only the scientific method, reveals the ultimate truth of things, then philosophy, art, music, history, philology and so on are, at best, interesting digressions from the real work. As George Steiner – who died in February, just a few weeks before his fellow polymath Roger Scruton – put it: “Many of the traditional humanistic disciplines have shown a deep malaise, a nervous, complex recognition of the exactions and triumphs of mathematics and the natural sciences.” Steiner’s response was to defend language, “the word”, as something which can also reveal the truth.

Over the last century, other polymaths have tried to show that the scientific method isn’t everything. Michael Polanyi, himself a distinguished scientist, defended “tacit knowledge” — those things we know even if they can’t be written down as laws. Raymond Tallis, a clinical neuroscientist among many other things, has written incisively about why neuroscience isn’t enough. Scruton wrestled with the same question, though he often sounded rather glum about it.

In bridging the gap between science and everything else, our best hope is a school of philosophy which has gained momentum in recent years. It suggests that many of the old philosophical assumptions, the ones which were overturned four centuries ago, are actually the only sure foundation for modern science. And the key, according to this new school, is a return to Aristotle. So if the twenty-first century sees the rebirth of the polymath, we may be able to thank the father of the whole tribe.


Dan Hitchens writes the newsletter ‘The Pineapple’ and is former editor of the Catholic Herald

ddhitchens

Join the discussion


Rejoignez des lecteurs partageant les mĂȘmes idĂ©es qui soutiennent notre journalisme en devenant abonnĂ©s payants.

Subscribe

To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

14 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
David Barnett
David Barnett
4 years ago

There is no dichotomy between science and the humanities. The real distinction is between open-minded exploration and orthodoxy. People claiming cover of science can be just as guilty of insisting on the latter and shunning the former as the most obscurantist theologian.

The difference is the approach to truth.

Orthodoxy assumes it has found “truth” and all you need do to understand the objective world is learn the doctrine.

Science does the opposite. While it depends on the existence of objective reality to function, it acknowledges that a human being can never know it completely. What a scientist can do, however, is map out what is false. What is true must lie somewhere in the region of ideas not yet identified as false.

The science has gained us astonishing mastery of the world over the last four centuries. This success has seduced too many people into confusing the fruits of science with science, and science with the pursuit of “truth”. To repeat, science is the mapping of falsehood.

Along the way, science has discovered many useful tools for identifying unifying patterns and testing falsehood. Many (perhaps most) can be codified by mathematics.

The scientific approach (mapping falsehood) is equally applicable to exploration in the humanities. It is a branch of philosophy.

I would urge you to examine claimants to the cloak of scientific “authority” for their approach. Are they asserting an orthodoxy (unscientific arrogance) or showing you the boundaries of their falsification map (scientific modesty)?

andy young
andy young
4 years ago
Reply to  David Barnett

Exactly. Scientific method has given us unbelievable material wealth & thus we think it can solve all our problems. It can’t. Apart from anything else, it is really fairly limited in the amount of data it can cope with & the complexity of the system being modelled. With the virus there is a profuse amount of data producing contradictory models. We haven’t had anything remotely approaching sufficient time to evaluate all these models, yet the media scream catastrophe at the government, which is ridiculous. We won’t know just how they’ve performed for a long long time. That time will come, however, & it will be up to the electorate to decide if they were up to the mark.
Incidentally I consider the Arts to be a science of complexity, attempting to deal as it does with the most difficult systems of material objects we know of: human beings

David Barnett
David Barnett
4 years ago
Reply to  andy young

“…I consider the Arts to be a science of complexity…” It is not the nominal discipline that makes it scientific or otherwise, but the approach. Paradoxically, pursuit of exact “truth” is unscientific. It is the tracking down of falsehood that is the essence of science.

Incidentally, there is a mathematically oriented science of complexity. One branch of it is chaos theory, which certainly has proved a very helpful tool in the art of digital image making.

On your point about artists and complexity – they certainly can have a scientific attitude. Some of the best art highlights contradictions in our social structures – an exercise in falsification.

raducarven
raducarven
4 years ago
Reply to  David Barnett

Dear David
I agree…my point of view is that there are many sciences which means branches of Knowledge and One Scientific method…
These disciplines deal,all of them, with a branch of Humanities,which is Philosophy…
Philosophy is divided into other branches,among them
Logic which fuses with the
Scientific methodology of Science.
Philosophy infuses Science from the beginning and vice- versa.
The Greek pre- socratic started with a mixture of philosophy (wonder ,amazement leading to enquiry about the ways and state of the world,) and embryonic Science ,Reason refined into future Logic..
Thales,Pythagoras. ..
Then Socrates,a precursor of
Moral,even Psychology which encompasses both Humanities and tends to be a Science
What about Neuroscience which addresses mental, emotional,
Physiological,and scientifically
studied brain structure and function…
And all these are tranversally bridged and perforated by
Metaphysics which tries, with
Spirituality to promote,assert and give meaning to what is,how is,and mostly why is..
Eternal need,basic,and longing,
spiritual,to us ,aleatory observers and innocent bystanders of an amazing,
awesome,complex and mysterious world.

Geoffrey Simon Hicking
Geoffrey Simon Hicking
4 years ago

Star Wars features high tech armies backed up by mystical warriors adhering to a mysterious religion. It is a pulpy, lowest common demonstrator portrayal of how science and religion should exist together in the same setting. It is an immensely popular franchise, making billions.

Might this represent a subconscious desire by the people to indulge in a bit of “religion” every so often? People can vote with their wallets. Maybe Dawkins should take note.

raducarven
raducarven
4 years ago

Dear Geoffrey
Stars wars are neither Science nor Religion…
This franchise is science fiction with a tint of spirituality,
intended to entertain and amuse,not harsh astrophysics and orthodox religiosity which might be impalatable.
The spectator does not take it as face value ,it is an incursion into less dangerous territory…

Juilan Bonmottier
Juilan Bonmottier
4 years ago

Along with the decline of the polymath there is also the decline of the generalist (perhaps the polymath’s somewhat poorer relative). Information is not knowledge though in this day and age it is often confused for it and sold to people as it.

Alex Mitchell
Alex Mitchell
4 years ago

Agreed and yet in this age of ever increasing complexity, generalists are more necessary than ever. The over-simplistic split of health vs economy in the covid discussion is a prime example of where specialism fails to deliver an optimum result

Mike Smith
Mike Smith
4 years ago

I think the Covid-19 lockdown in the UK, and around the world, is that we need more polymaths in positions of power. At the moment, the ruling classes seem to be all arts and humanity graduates who, with no scientific or mathematical background, could tell the difference between predictions of charlatans and real experts.

My opinion is that an education in arts, classic, management etc is only half of an education. Without enough knowledge of technical matters, our leaders are prone to being mislead by snake-oil salesmen. After all, how many arts graduates have an interest in engineering an scientific subjects? Why should they, since they have taught that science and engineering are not worth learning about. But how many scientists and engineers have become philosophers and writers – I can think of several famous ones.

To be a well rounded person, you need to be interested in subject areas you have no qualifications in – to be a polmath as best you can. You won’t be an expert, but you will understand the world better. And the idea that knowing how sound is generated lessens the joy of listening to a piece of music is frankly something that only an ignoramous could say. In fact knowing more about the world makes it even more awe-inspiring.

Steve Craddock
Steve Craddock
4 years ago

There seems to be a continual tension between happiness and things. If the balance swings to far either way it has wide ranging consequences for our general well being and that of our society. Unfortunately where ever we are between the two, ends up colouring our view of where others are or even where we ourselves were previously.
Polymaths are maybe the result of a strong happiness drive where knowledge is treasured for it’s own ends; it is it’s own objective. If some benefit should emerge as well then that is even better.
Intense specialism which as suggested drowns out polymaths, however, seems more a tool for the acquisition of things, knowlege to dominate over or achieve something and may be not to be too dissimilar from religions of the past and present. Especially where the bearer of the new truth assumes a mantle of authority, that often extends well beyond their expertise, over the non specialists. This can even lead to the major problems seen today with blind deference given to specialists removing the winnowing principles of criticism, review and debate. When people suggest science is the new religion may be they are closer to the truth than we all realise.

Michael Baldwin
Michael Baldwin
4 years ago

I wonder when it was precisely that Pascal made that statement quoted above in regard of observation of the night sky ” “the eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me.”

I would assume however it was before 23 November 1654 when he apparently had an intense religious vision which led to his conversion to belief.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wi

It is this “proof by experience” which Richard Dawkins (also mentioned above) dismisses as irrelevant in a few short pages of his “The God Delusion” book, which is the foundation of all the existing religions.

Thus, lacking such experience, or even the intuition that most who do follow a religion have that the universe doesn’t make any sense to them without some kind of Creator, we find these alleged scientific “gods” of our era, Dawkins and Hawking, have both been what one might call “confirmed atheists.”

The relevant quote regarding Hawking’s views on religion is: “the concept of an afterlife as a “fairy story for people afraid of the dark” “

This view not only shows vast disrespect to the wide variety of motives for following or believing a religion, and in my view far greater scientists of the past like Pascal himself, who did hold a God belief, but also shows the most massive ignorance of the vastly complex systems of religion and spiritual philosophy that have existed and appeared at all times and places throughout human history.

It also declares all the prophets, visionaries and founder of religions either insane or liars, including Pascal, for holding such a view.

Why this is not regarded as arrogance of the highest order – which of course Richard Dawkins shares to perhaps an even greater degree by his clearly book title implied “anybody who believes in a God is deluded/insane” – is because in this modern day battle between science and religion, in the West, science has for the moment apparently won, and so just as history is written by the victors in war, so now allegedly science-based atheism takes a triumphalist position in not only mocking what it sees as the unscientific or irrational religious believer (including Pascal, a greater scientist in my view than either of them, as I will shortly argue), but in even declaring them as more or less either childishly immature or of unsound mind.

My own observations of arguments or debates suggest it is very frequently a truth, that those who accuse others of something – in this case

irrationality – are generally speaking suffering from that trait themselves, and usually far worse than the persons they are accusing.

I submit neither Dawkins nor Hawking are likely the “great scientists” that our basically liberal propagandist media and academia claim, but are instead mere flag bearers and propagandists for a culture of atheistic values, which have meaninglessness at their core, while claiming to be full of meaning.

Let us take Stephen Hawking for example, whose main work is on black holes.

I should point out that Stephen Hawking was, like Einstein, not a laboratory physicist or scientists, but only a theoretical one – nothing of any major consequence – basically the stuff on black holes – has ever been proven in the same way as Einstein’s formula E = mc2 was proven right by the production and explosion of an atomic bomb.

If you read very carefully what astronomers and physicists say, they admit there is no absolute proof that black holes even exist, it is all an extremely intricate house of cards based on suppositions, and unexplained actual astronomical observations; but nobody can by definition ever see a black hole as it cannot emit any light, which is why it is called a black hole.

So in fact, what is going on is a lot closer to Plato than Mr Dawkins pretends, because as with “Plato’s cave”, the scientists are only trying to prove a black hole may exist somewhere by implication of other evidence that they can gather, which suggests its presence, just as the shadow on the wall in Plato’s cave, suggests something created the shadow.

But as is the point with the Plato’s cave idea, from a mere shadow one cannot do other than speculate what is there, unless one can see the object that created the shadow.

And the same applies to the so called “Big Bang” – which of course nobody can witness, and therefore prove by observation, as a scientific fact.

Yet you see, science now talks as if both the Big Bang and black holes were facts, though there’s no proof, yet utterly refuses to accept a God idea and demands proof of anybody suggesting a God might exist.
This is but a small sign of their irrationality – I mean that of modern so called “scientists” in general.

The real truth about religious belief, is that apart from those who apparently know due to some direct experience such as Moses and the Burning Bush etc. or Buddha’s enlightenment – and many thousands of people known to history have had similar experiences, all totally ignored by modern science – it is largely an emotional decision whether or not to hold a God belief and not a rational one, as Pascal once again points out in his “Pascal’s Wager.”

https://en.wikipedia.org/wi

Briefly, Pascal’s Wager (in very rough terms) says that we are all staking our life (with no choice, as we are all born) like a bet on whether there is a God or not, so those who choose disbelief are basically betting their life on following a few worldly pleasures, which can be taken away at any point in time, at which point they win zero so to speak, if they are right.

Whereas if the religious believer is right, they get an infinite reward for the same stake.

Therefore it is more logical to choose to believe, as far more gain is possible than by not choosing to believe.

No scientist has never had an answer to this, but it is interesting to see what else Stephen Hawking said, bearing the above in mind:

“We are each free to believe what we want and it is my view that the
simplest explanation is there is no God. No one created the universe and
no one directs our fate. This leads me to a profound realisation. There
is probably no heaven, and no afterlife either. We have this one life
to appreciate the grand design of the universe, and for that, I am
extremely grateful.”

(extremely grateful to what or who one wonders, if there’s no God?)

Mr Hawking said “the simplest explanation is there is no God” – but that leaves a universe totally unexplained as to how or why it came into being.

The Big Bang only suggests a process of how a finite or possibly even infinite universe appeared from nothing. It’s not an explanation as to why it ever happened at all, or at that particular point in time, alleged 13.8 billion years ago or whatever.

This is once again symptomatic of the modern disease in academic thinking in general, which has started regarding theories as facts.

It’s especially bad when it comes out of the mouths of scientists, who are supposed to have proof for things, but when they don’t – e.g. the proof of there being no God – behave as if they were true anyway.

Note they are in fact consistent in their irrationality if you see what I mean.
i.e. they say there is no God without any proof (they demand proof there is one, but don’t think any proof is needed that there isn’t, but totally ignore this inconsistency, by saying to say there is the same evidence for God as there is for “a chocolate teapot circling Mars – which is not science, but mockery; and not a proper analogy, when if a God exists, God is a non-physical non-finite invisible being, and/or the whole universe, so beyond the scientific method to prove or disprove in either case.).

But then they insist there are black holes and the Big Bang is true, also without any certain proof.

Dawkins incidentally is said to have ” introduced into evolutionary biology the influential concept that the phenotypic effects of a gene are not necessarily limited to an organism’s body, but can stretch far into the environment.”

And he wrote the Selfish Gene, which is once more just theoretical waffle, with no visible real world applications or benefits.

My point being, he is yet again, just a theorist, he has not made any practical contribution to science in any tangible way, any more than Stephen Hawking has, e.g. cured cancer (surely a genius biologist’s kind of task) or developed nuclear fusion (surely a genius physicist’s kind of task, which of course if it were developed, would once again be based on the work of Einstein in explaining the energy-matter equivalence, not Hawking).

So the purpose of the above considerations is to suggest that most if not all of our modern scientists and academics are very far from being the true geniuses of the past like Newton (mechanics, ballistics, optics), Pascal, Einstein, Bernouilli (whose work led to the aerofoil so aeroplanes eventually), or Maxwell (electricity), Mendeleev (periodic table of the elements) or even Crick and Watson (DNA), Dalton (atomic theory), etc, etc. but rather a largely mediocre species of beings, who on the whole are causing a great deal more problems than they are solving.

Our technological society with its miracles of TV, mobile phones, Internet, computers, aeroplanes and so on, is based mainly on the work of engineers (electronic or mechanical), who actually prove they know what they are doing as they produce things that actually work.

These are often very practical people, who are not the same people at all who are trying to peddle us with the idea that science has solved the ultimate questions and knows what cells are, or what atoms are, or what ultimately sound waves are (referring to the above).

Science, hand in hand with the mostly atheist media, wishes to convince us that it has solved all the fundamental questions of life and reality, or is but this small step away from the ultimate (you know, the Higgs Boson is another thing they claim exists, but even if it does, it makes no difference whatsoever to our reality).

They spend a vast fortune trying to find the Higgs Boson, when if they had put the same money and effort into producing viable nuclear fusion energy they could have solved the global warming crisis (if such there be, my point being, to rid us of fossil fuel dependency, which is threatening to life and polluting regardless of global warming issues).

But because they are not thinking sensibly, rationally, as they constantly claim, instead they pursue their power mad obsession with trying to get total power over creation and simultaneously prove there is no God.

So my relevant point is, we are facing something a lot worse than an absence of polymaths, but an academia and scientific culture which has been hijacked by atheists, and is not actually acting in the public interest any more, because of its obsessions with power and disproving God, or developing such power that it makes the need for a God irrelevant.

Hence the “mad scientist” idea, long established, as per the Frankenstein story, in which the mad scientist creates life from dead bodies – he puts Nature’s spark into his laboratory experiment, so thus tries to create life just like God.

But while in his God Delusion book, Richard Dawkins says (roughly) “he wouldn’t be a bit surprised if some smart scientist “midwifed” the creation of life in a laboratory any day now”, in reality this has never happened, just like most of the other scientific claims.

This obsession with a power that the scientists don’t actually have (it’s mainly to destroy rather than create, or to create something possibly monstrous by messing with genetics they don’t understand) is a common long established feature, which we now see with the lockdown also, which they ignore is almost certain to kill more than it saves.

They tell us year after year, they are going to do this, or that, cure this disease, or find life on Mars of something, or on other planets round other stars, but it never happens – cancer patients still die regularly, and it is mainly just more testing that is saving people’s lives, no fundamental cure has ever been found for cancer.

Likewise with the lockdown they chase a “supervaccine” but don’t find one, and even finding one for a certain virus takes ages or never as in the case of HIV, and before they can fix one virus, another appears.

Perhaps if there is a God, as many of us believe, He is trying to give them the message that he is not going to let egotistical scientists control His Creation.

But the more immediately relevant point is, the public has got to understand that the scientists and academics are nowhere near as rational in many cases as they are claiming, and are often so intoxicated with their own knowledge or belief in their own understanding, and their academic authority, they have become a serious danger to the public, as this lockdown proves.

They argue amongst themselves, producing diametrically opposing views of the virus behaviour – the Oxford Study and the Imperial one – and show themselves no more trustworthy or consistent than the various warring religions whom they mock and think themselves superior to.

Even worse, both academia and science have now both become seriously politicised, they do not search for truth any more, they search for a means to carry out their political agendas, and then indoctrinate children and students with those plans and agendas, and hide them behind academic authority.

It is high time therefore we applied the same standards of doubt and demand for clear proof of their claims, that they apply to religions, which we find when we examine much of what they claim – especially in the biological, psychological, medical and “ultimate questions” fields – is equally non-existent or inconclusive.

The natural curiosity of course which leads to the polymath – which I’d suggest is basic to all humans, as any child is interested in lots of different subjects unless somehow prevented from exploring them – is of course frustrated by what are basically propaganda based forms of education, at all levels now, which seek to control a child’s thinking, instead of letting it develop naturally, merely by providing information, and the basic tools of numeracy and literacy.

It is therefore our deeply flawed and wrongly politicised education system and academia which is frustrating human talent and indeed genius, and in fact we see that many private schools now (though naturally not state funded) are offering alternatives to state education, as well as an increasing number of people doing home schooling to avoid the despotic effect of the state schools.

Val Cox
Val Cox
4 years ago

Don’t underestimate the importance of Dawkins earlier work before his obsession with atheism.

uztazo
uztazo
4 years ago

this is very interesting

Sean Arthur Joyce
Sean Arthur Joyce
3 years ago

Kudos to Hitchens for addressing this important issue, one often overlooked in our specialist-driven, technocratic society. The irony is that science is getting to where our poets and philosophers already were by taking the long, empirical way round. Many ideas we were told at the outset of the scientific-rationalist age”for example that your grandma’s chicken soup is healing to use a silly example”have actually been verified. The English Romantic poets warned us that industrialism would be a disaster for both the planet and the soul, or human spirituality. They were seeing this from the very beginning of the first Industrial Revolution and our decimated global environment now bears testimony to the prophetic nature of their visions.
Canadian philosopher John Ralston Saul made it clear in his masterwork, Voltaire’s Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West, that the so-called rational “enlightenment” has proven a disastrous failure. Writing in the early 1990s, he predicted based on observable trends even then that rationalism and pseudo-science would lead to social inequities and a rending of the social fabric:
“The technocrats of our day make the old aristocratic leaders seem profound and civilized by comparison,” Saul wrote. “The technocrat has been actively”indeed, intensively”trained. But by any standard comprehensible within the tradition of Western civilization, he is virtually illiterate. One of the reasons that he is unable to recognize the necessary relationship between power and morality is that moral traditions are the product of civilization and he has little knowledge of his own civilization.”
While specialization and separation of disciplines has enabled us to make some genuine strides, it also leads to a progressive narrowing of the mind. You end up with, as Saul says, people who know everything about a computer chip, but nothing about anything else, and oddly lacking in moral fibre. In that regard, the polymath who is a generalist, a voracious reader of multiple disciplines, is in a far better position to see the Big Picture. We’re going to need them more than ever in the years ahead.