22 April 2014

Killing our Minds One Lesson at a Time - Part 2: The Polymath


In my research, my sister directed me to an article by the British poet and writer Robert Twigger titled "Anyone can be a polymath". The word "polymath" emerged from the Renaissance era which produced people like Da Vinci, followed up later by Goethe and Benjamin Franklin.  You may also be familiar with the term "Renaissance Man", someone who is competent in multiple fields. If you're like me, you probably used to have only a vague idea of exactly who Da Vinci was, because he was introduced to you as a painter.  Later, however, when someone told you he was an inventor, and someone else insisted he was a writer, you may have looked him up and discovered (with slight annoyance) that he was also a sculptor, architect, musician, mathematician, engineer, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, and botanist. And perhaps like me you began to wonder what in the world you were doing with your life.

Am I saying everyone needs to become a Leonardo Da Vinci in order to have a good education? Well, not exactly, but don't shy away from the idea. As Twigger writes, "The real master has no tools at all, only a limitless capacity to improvise with what is at hand. The more fields of knowledge you cover, the greater your resources for improvisation."

The crazy part is just how little these "polymaths" are talked about today.  No one praises them for their multifaceted abilities or encourages anyone to do likewise. They seem to be existing in a world infinitely remote to the modern world. Taking classes at Bellevue College, I was baffled to find the name "Pythagoras" appearing in at least three different textbooks, and even more baffled to find that none of the respective professors seem to have the slightest clue who he was.  One introduced him as "The Greek philosopher Pythagoras", the other as "The Greek mathematician Pythagoras" and another, "The Greek astronomer Pythagoras" and then proceeded to talk about whatever theorem or constellation he discovered, as if the elusive Pythagoras did nothing but sit around doing sums or counting stars. Any of his accomplishments outside their own field was of no interest to them.

As you probably know, Pythagoras was around long before the Renaissance era. The concept of polymathy has existed long before the word was invented. After all, doesn't it sound awfully similar to... participation?

Humans have been trying to put the broken glass of reality back together since the beginning of all recorded history. It transcends all cultures and times.  We know everything is connected. It is only at the turn of the 20th century that we have finally managed to convince ourselves that the glass isn't really broken at all. Let's look at some of those attempts at that re-assembling.

1. The Liù Yì 六藝

In ancient China, students were required to master what was called the "liù yì", which means "The Six Arts". There was none of this "just take whatever classes interest you", it was "take all of it or none of it." And these were the fields:
  1. Rites (or philosophy) 
  2. Music
  3. Archery
  4. Charioteering
  5. Calligraphy
  6. Mathematics
When a man showed himself to be sufficiently proficient in all six areas, he was called a jūnzǐ (君子) which loosely translated means "the perfected gentleman".

Now doesn't that sound familiar? It seems that a "participatory" person has all sorts of names. The polymath. The renaissance man. The jūnzǐ. And if you are a long time reader of this blog, you may know him by yet another name: The Warrior-Poet.

But lets put things in perspective. Do you think your ten-year-old would be complaining about his math homework if he knew the next day he would need it to calculate distances for hunting wild beasts and winning chariot races? I think not. Apparently the Ancient Chinese do NOT share the Western view that "work" and "play" are two independent worlds. In fact, they had a name for those who held that view--the xiăorén, meaning "small or petty person". The Chinese can be very blunt--they don't mean small in stature, they mean small in brain. The xiăorén are said to be egotistic and narrow-minded. They are either exclusively interested in power and fame or sensual and emotional pleasures, which as you already know, renders them both useless.

2. Alchemy

Another historical attempt at participation was the practice of a branch of science called alchemy.  Alchemy is actually the foundation of modern day Chemistry, except it had one extra ingredient: Magic. Yes, Alchemy was a class that Harry Potter most likely took at Hogwarts School. In fact, that's probably where J.K. Rowling got the idea. Before anybody starts saying that Harry Potter promotes witchcraft and sorcery, remember that Magic can be simply another word for the supernatural. There are good supernatural powers as well as evil supernatural powers. “Magic” is, in the ancient sense, an amoral word. 

Alchemical imagery
The practice of the alchemist was to perform scientific experiments by connecting with the spiritual realm.  For example, they believed that by getting in the right spiritual frame of mind, they could, in theory, transform a block of silver into a block of gold.  The Catholic term “transubstantiation”, where wine and bread are believed to actually molecularly transform, originated from this alchemical practice.

Some may cast a skeptical eye on the truth behind this, but I'm inclined to believe that those scenes about Ron turning teacups into rats is not as far-fetched as we think. And I don't speak from wishful thinking.  I have said this countless times before, and I will say it again: A miracle is no less miraculous merely because it can be scientifically explained. That's like saying there is nothing remarkable about a sunset simply because it's nothing more than a giant burning globe of nuclear energy ninety-three million miles away. (This truth is probably what makes Doctor Who currently the most popular TV show in the world--and what makes me shamelessly participate in the hype).

Again, how cool would it be to be a kid and find out that the lines between his "fairy-tale" world and his "real" world aren't quite as distinct as he was told? Is imagination and reality yet another paradox that is rendered useless when separated? I submit that it is.
If alchemy really is possible, it is admittedly questionable.  It’s hard to say whether these druids and wizards were getting their powers from God or from Satan.  What we do know is that we have several eyewitness accounts of alchemists actually performing this feat (the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza was one of them).  If it is true, it is a very high form of participation. It is man in direct communication with God and His creation. 
3. The Greeks
Now, The ancient Greeks believed that the fields we now call the sciences and humanities were actually flip-sides of the same coin. At that time, the scientific method was called The Greek Method of Inquiry: Observation leads to hypothesis, which leads to theory, which leads to law. 

But there was another step, a step that our culture has disposed of. And it was this. Is the hypothesis meaningful?

(note the curious completion of a question mark: I thought that extremely clever)

 In other words, did the idea fit into their philosophical beliefs about the universe? Why was this step dropped? Well, turns out that it often led the Greeks to the wrong conclusions.
For example, when they observed that a rolling ball will eventually come to a stop, they concluded that the natural state of all objects was to remain stationary. Furthermore, they believed this was the result of living in a sinful world, because "humans are lazy and prefer to remain stationary." When they saw that the planets in the sky appeared to be in constant motion (to them, the opposite of laziness) they concluded that untainted perfection lay in the heavens.  
How’d they come up with that? Through the participation of science and philosophy. Now later, Isaac Newton showed us that this was wrong—any object in motion will stay in motion until acted upon by an outside force.  It is true that the art of general or integrated education runs the risk of making some pretty big mistakes. The biggest one being, of course, the theory of Geocentricism. 
4. Geocentricism

Until about 1500, it was universally accepted among astronomers that the Earth was the center of the solar system and that the sun and the planets all revolved around us, because—and here’s the integration—mankind, created in God’s image, ought to have a special place in the universe. Copernicus was the first to question this idea, but backed off in the fear of the Catholic Church.
Naturally, when Galileo came along in 1600 suggested that the Earth actually revolves around the sun; he really got on the Church’s bad side.   Not because the Catholic Church could deny Galileo’s calculations, but because his ideas were posing a dangerous threat to that fragile unity they had spent so long in constructing.  It didn’t matter if the Earth wasn’t the center of the universe—it should be.  In short, they told Galileo to shut the book—it didn’t matter if they were wrong as long as it worked.  Eventually, the Church accepted the Heliocentric Theory, but that was long after Galileo’s death.

Now we come to the critical point in our journey. This is where modern culture comes in and says “See, this is why we keep the peas from the potatoes. Look what happens when we mix our subjects—everything gets messed up!” Countless materialists have used this story to say that Christianity is a hindrance to science. Maybe that is true--to an extent. But then again, what exactly is our alternative? 

Continued in Part 3: The Monopath.
-The Minstrel Boy

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