The passing of the polymaths

Felipe Fernández-Armesto laments our giant-killing culture

March 19, 2015

Once, giants bestrode the Earth. The Renaissance uomini universali, who mastered every art, like Leonardo and Michelangelo; the medieval encyclopedists, like St Thomas Aquinas, who encompassed all knowledge; ancient sages, such as Confucius, Aristotle and Plato, whose thoughts still shape ours, and the shamans and soothsayers who preceded them, founding religions and unravelling mysteries, like Zoroaster and Pythagoras; amid the flames of the Enlightenment and the forges of the Scientific Revolution were magi and masters who knew no academic frontiers; some statesmen of the 19th and early 20th centuries led their peoples without sacrificing civilised interests. Churchill might as well have won a Nobel Prize for Peace as for Literature.

We no longer see their like. In classrooms and columns, we still have know-alls – some readers may accuse me – but no polymaths. No one now knows enough to comprehend the plural, multifaceted, interconnected world we inhabit. Ignoramuses lead us. Specialists teach us.

Yet progress depends on polymathy, because ideas breed. Specialists can invent gadgets, formulate algorithms and exchange blows. But to transcend experience and change the world, ideas need mental space where influences from all disciplines can mingle alchemically. Those spaces are in polymaths’ brains. To conquer empires of the intellect, you have to exceed your own domain.

Machines can store and strum through every known fact and, potentially, draw surprising inferences. But we need polymaths to program them to think like polymaths

Humans, like ants and bees, are ill-equipped for polymathy. If we exclude sexual specialisation, practised by all sexually reproducing species, the norm among mammals is for everybody to do more or less everything. We can be sure that among hominids there were universal genii, who still roam among non-human primates. Imo, for instance, the capuchin monkey who, in 1953, first alerted primatologists to the existence of culture outside human societies, devised new techniques for washing sweet potatoes and separating edible grains – innovations that demanded different approaches.

When Homo sapiens emerged from the fossil record, fields of study were undefined and an expert stargazer could be a healer or hunter or whatever he or she seemed apt for. But humans live in relatively large communities, and the bigger the group, the more opportunities arise to distribute tasks. Art 50,000 years old proves the existence of specialists in shamanism and painting. Specialised talents – in music, for example, physical dexterity or prowess in calculation – seem heritable, perhaps for epigenetic reasons. Polymathy faded again when agriculture began: about 10,000 years ago it became possible to make clear distinctions between leisure and labour, exploiter and exploited, manpower and brainpower. City life was among the consequences, with new niches for specialised professions. Sedentarists include more specialists than nomads, and cities more than villages.

Polymathy, therefore, has been in decline for such a long time that we should be less surprised at its disappearance than at its longevity. Universities bear some responsibility for its extinction. Classical Greece, Renaissance Italy and Victorian England all revered and rewarded generalists, for whom today universities have little or no space or patience. Enclosed departments in discrete spaces, with their own journals and jargons, are a legacy of lamentable, out-of-date ways of organising knowledge and work. In the US, we give undergraduates a broad curriculum that forces them outside their chosen fields into an intellectually panoramic experience, but we still produce narrow-minded graduates, perhaps because we have no protocols for showing them how their courses fit together in the jigsaw of knowledge. We have holistic and interdisciplinary visions, but we rarely realise them. We dig ever deeper, narrower furrows in ever drier soils until we choke on our own aridity, instead of lifting our heads to see the landscape whole.

Will artificial intelligence save us? Machines can store and strum through every known fact and, potentially, draw surprising inferences. But we need polymaths to program them to think like polymaths. Imagination, the secret ingredient of ideas, seems, so far, irreducible to circuitry. So we face a future without giants, except those preserved from the past only in statuary, on whose shoulders we stand.

At Notre Dame, we have just buried one of the last: Father Theodore Hesburgh, who died at the age of 97, still evincing universal competence. He held the world record for number of honorary degrees (150) and for years at the head of a major university (35), until his retirement in 1987, transforming a small Catholic college with an outsize football reputation into a strong research university “to do the Church’s thinking”. He was a theologian by formation, an authority on atomic science by avocation, and the first Catholic priest to work as a US ambassador. He served the Holy See in initiatives in ecumenism, human rights and disarmament. His presidential commissions covered, among other topics, atomic research, civil rights, draft-dodging and immigration. He led US universities in resistance to military occupation of campuses in 1968, freed Catholic colleges of episcopal control, and chaired the Board of Overseers of Harvard University. He trained as an astronaut, regretting the cancellation of his mission because he hoped to celebrate the first-ever Mass in outer space.

Hesburgh was also a giant in modesty. For him, everything he did happened inside the vocation expressed in the single word he wanted for his epitaph: priest. Will we ever see again such an unfaltering master – who does so much and does it all so well?

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