Every once in a while, some figure will be dragged on television to tell us about the future, or why we should be especially worried about some obscure issue. Almost invariably, there is something wrong with his appearance: his clothes don’t fit, or are put together strangely, without any sense of aesthetics. He is, it is implied, that most rare thing: a genius. Sadly, the figure that appears before, looking as if he had been dressed by his Mom, is a specialist. He knows about some particular field. He does not know about life.
More importantly, inhabiting the world of the intellect — though, not Mind — he has no concept of the higher type of man, found throughout history, East and West. Most often he rejects physical excellence as something irrelevant or unpleasant, and possibly even indicating a “reactionary” individual.
The Emergence of the Neo-Generalist
A foundation in the liberal arts, a good understanding of history, greek mythology, culture, and so on, provided the foundation of the Western man of any consequence for his society — the public figure, the politician (in the classical sense), the military leader, and so on. They were generalists who later focussed on something specific. Their specific knowledge complimented and was supported by their broad knowledge, just as an artist may study drawing, sculpture, etching, and so on, though specializing later in painting, and drawing some lessons from them.
The emergence of specialists, though, has created a kind of neo-generalist. Whether for or against them, those who know the prevailing acceptable — and, better still, cool — opinions imagine that they have a kind of magic key that has unlocked everything for them. They are able to comment, with imagined authority, on the environment, religion, gender relations, international conflicts, and so on, without knowing anything much about them.
Religion: Having never read the Koran, Hadiths, Sunna, or so on, they are experts on Islam, because, they claim, “all religions are…” For the atheist “all religions” are evil, and for the multiculturalist “all religions” are good — though none are ever so evil or so good that these “experts” have read the books of even the major religions.
Environment: When it comes to the environment, the situation is the same. Those on “the Left” claim that they understand the science, and “the Right” (which disagrees with them) are mere intellectual neanderthals who just want to protect the uber-wealthy. “The Right” retaliates that “the Left” are using the wrong computer models, intentionally, since they are really “communists” who want a world government to enforce the liberal agenda.
The casualty in the latter case, is, of course, the environment. In the heat of the argument, no one notices the environmental devastation that doesn’t require computer models to see it. Pollution, unfit food, the devastation of forests, the extinction of wildlife, and so on, all become forgotten (or rendered unimportant) in the argument about whether “the Left” or “the Right” is more stupid or authoritarian.
It is symptomatic of an age that values the intellect over, and is even slightly disgusted by, the body. And in which politics has become the defining identity and moral guide (no matter that so-called Left and Right are continually shifting their opinions and positions, so that they eventually adopt each others).
An Integral Knowledge
Nosce te ipsum: the ancient Greek adage “know thyself” is sometimes invoked by the more spiritual among us in the West. Self-knowledge is advocated in most ancient traditions, including, for example, the samurai. But, as modern people with modern assumptions, unlike those of the Greeks, we misunderstand this adage.
For great men of the world’s cultures, to know the self was essential, but so too is knowing what is outside: the culture, the environment, the arts, the political. Self-knowledge represents a kind of generalization, i.e., the understanding of what humanity is, what it is to struggle, to face challenges, to be afraid, and to overcome. It was not mean to be taken as a kind of specialization, a kind of self-love, self-affirmation, therapy.
For the ancient Greeks, as for the Confucian, the samurai, and so on, to “know thyself” was something discovered in the midst of battle as it was in practicing calligraphy or painting, or debating with learned men with life experience. it was discovered at the edge, in daring, the borderline of life and death, and from going it alone.
The revered artist was revered partly for his moral lifestyle and intellect. The revered warrior was also a poet (even in Norse or “Viking” and samurai culture), a painter, and so on. Neither specialists nor generalists, they inhabited the world of Mind, practicing the arts diligently, perfecting them as far as they were able, to penetrate into the Tao, the eternal.
Today we revere the specialist, whether in the form of the pundit, the politician, or church preacher — forgiving and even apologizing for their hypocrisy, so long as they are on “our side.” Consequently, we have gang punditry, identity politics, and religious bigotry.
With the problems facing the world, economically, through religious wars, the devastation of nature, and so on, we need neither generalists nor specialists and neither “Left” nor “Right.” We need to cultivate in ourselves, and in our societies, the higher ideal, the higher type of man, who is in touch with — to borrow a phrase from Sun Tsu — both “heaven and earth.”