Porkpie Hat—In Praise of the Polymath

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly.  Specialization is for insects.”

~ Robert Anson Heinlein

We are told that the Renaissance man is dead, buried beneath an avalanche of accumulated knowledge.  When this body of knowledge in every conceivable area of human understanding and endeavour is so vast, so deep, so esoteric, it’s no longer possible for any woman or man, no matter how determined, to be an expert in more than one narrowly focused field of study.

In some ways, this is true, of course.  It is not imaginable, in this age of rarified specialism, that we will again see polymaths the likes of Leonardo da Vinci, Isaac Newton, Nikola Tesla, or Bertrand Russell—thinkers who profoundly affected the development of multiple intellectual disciplines.  I think the spirit of the polymath, however, is one of the most encouraging and vital aspects of our often-overrated species, driven as it is by the beautiful energy of open-minded curiosity.  I also think, if we have any hope of surviving and thriving as a species, it is this aspect of ourselves that must be nurtured in our culture, in our education.

When I first moved away from home and into a rooming house in the West End of Vancouver, my landlady had a gentleman caller named (appropriately) Mr. Storie: a dapper, silver-haired and silver-tongued rascal of about seventy years old, who had at various points in his life been a merchant mariner, worked in British naval intelligence, been a rigger on a South African diamond mine, and was now the proprietor of a successful electrical supply company.  Occasionally, we would share a glass of whiskey or a cup of tea.  He would talk about all sorts of things, and I would be lost in his tales.  What made him so interesting was the seemingly inexhaustible breadth of his knowledge and the sheer variety of his passions.  In his native England, he had sung in a Welsh men’s choir, and as a semi-professional actor he had performed in everything from pantomimes to theatre of the absurd (he had once briefly met Samuel Beckett in Paris).  He had wonderful insights into avant garde film, military history, bel canto opera, and many other things besides.  He knew what cigars to smoke, the best bistro to visit in Montmartre, and how to navigate by the stars.  In spite of all that, however, I never once detected anything of the windbag or the prating pedant about him.  He was genuinely interested in what others had to say and held his own knowledge very lightly.  I’m not sure I have ever met another human being so curious and delightfully immersed in the world about him.  Certainly, he was a clever man, but I don’t believe he was a genius.  He was simply a human being with an open-minded and curious nature.  In that sense, he was the epitome of what I believe a well-rounded, thoughtful citizen of the world should be; the sort of person who is needed to further our progress.

The process of minutely dividing and categorizing is the realm of bureaucrats, technicians, bean counters, critics, and rule-bound functionaries.  On a more sinister level, it is also the realm of hate-mongers and demagogues; those who would profit in some way by setting one group against another: women against men, left against right, workers against intellectuals, one race against another.  These are the splitters of hairs, and the builders of walls.

I would suggest it’s a far more soulful, adventurous, and hopeful endeavor to be engaged in the work of finding unexpected connections between unlikely things.  What is the connection, for instance, between quantum chemistry and twelve-tone composition? How might a study of French symbolist poetry help inspire a deeper understanding of dark matter? What can we learn from others who have different skills, different world views, different experiences from ourselves? Just as biodiversity leads to a healthy biosphere, diversity of thought, the willingness to free dive into multiple realms of discipline and understanding, may be our best hope of finding the inspired solutions to the problems that are staring us down.  Like my old friend Mr. Storie, we must take pleasure in the wild and beautiful multiplicity of this diverse world of ours.

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