It is with pleasure that we welcome Waqas Ahmed, author of The Polymath, as our featured author for November.
In his book Waqas explores the ‘untold history’ of the Polymath – a breed of exceptionally versatile humans with multidimensional minds. They are people who reject specialisation and instead excel in multiple, seemingly unrelated fields. As such they have had a significant influence in shaping our past and must take an influential role in moulding our future. Waqas agues that every human is born with multifarious potential and if we are to survive as a species in these complicated times we must take it upon ourselves to awaken our inner polymath.
“I’m too stunned to comment on this book… I’m transformed and transcended, I will never be the same”
Story Musgrave – NASA astronaut
“An erudite, masterful and entertaining study by a great thinker and writer… essential reading for the coming decade”
Daniel Levitin – Neuroscientist, musician and author, Your Brain on Music
“This revolutionary book has filled one of the great voids in the history of knowledge”
Nasser D. Khalili – UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador
One breed of human appears to have shaped history more than any other. Polymaths, sometimes (although erroneously) referred to as ‘renaissance men’, are best described as: “Humans of exceptional cross-domain versatility, expressed variously through thought and/or action”. Put differently, they are multidimensional minds that pursue self-actualisation in its most complete, rounded sense.
Having such a mindset, they reject the prevailing system of lifelong ‘specialisation’ and instead tend to excel in multiple, seemingly unrelated fields – simultaneously or in succession. The inimitable complexity of their minds and lives are what makes them uniquely human. While one might be able to argue a certain neurobiological distinction to standard Homo sapiens (as we know significant shifts in brain activity can physically alter its size, shape and structure), the reference to a ‘species’ or ‘breed’ in this context is largely metaphorical. That said, polymaths have often been associated with a kind of transcendental wisdom which has positioned them uniquely to make a substantial contribution to the human story.
A Timeless People
The Polymath is as old as the Homo Sapien himself. The capricious nature of early human life, in which material knowledge was limited yet the challenges and opportunities so great, would have demanded exceptional versatility and creativity. Zoologist and ethnologist Desmond Morris, in his popular book The Naked Ape, confirmed that the human is naturally the most non-specialised, adaptive, opportunistic animal of all. So it’s not surprising that the leading world historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto postulated that ‘the further back you go the more polymathy there was, because, until fairly recently sub specie eternitatis, domains were undefined and expertise in one field would not have inhibited interest in another’.
In such early societies, most humans would have made it their business to become ‘practical generalists’ – that is, to acquire a wide range of knowledge and skills that had a practical value to their survival. This often meant that one person would have the knowledge of a botanist or physician (to know which plants harm, heal or are edible), the skills of a hunter (to provide for themselves and their families), the creativity of an architect or engineer (building a safe house or shelter on the correct terrain using the right materials) and the mind of an artist (to entertain and enlighten his family or community through games, shows and visual artwork). There was no division of labour – everyone was everything they could be. Of course everyone had their particular strengths and inclinations, which were recognised, encouraged and drawn upon for the sake of the family, community or tribe. But there is no evidence of lifelong micro-specialisation.
Architects of History
Moving on from traditional societies, the Polymath was integral to the creation of the early civilisations and the resultant ‘high culture’ responsible for the great artistic and scientific accomplishments of ancient history. Considering great ancient edifices such as the pyramids of Egypt and Central America, the ziggurats (staged tower temples) of Iraq, the palace of Knossos in Crete, the fortress at Mycenae in mainland Greece and the grid-planned cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro on the Indus, Graham Hancock believes that the great monuments built during these times are in themselves evidence that the architects were Polymaths:
If you look at the achievements of the Ancients, you will find that only polymaths could have created them. Even if we don’t have biographies of the individuals concerned, we can deduce from their handiwork that these were not a team of narrow specialists but rather a group of people that were multiply able in many different disciplines.
There’s no better example of this than Imhotep, the architect of the Step Pyramid at Saqqara and the first of the historically recorded Polymath. Most historians agree Imhotep was a contemporary of the legendary King Djoser (probably the best known pharaoh of Egypt’s Third Dynasty). Imhotep was a commoner who received a relatively liberal education and according to his biographer ‘grew up an erudite, versatile man, a sort of Aristotelian genius, who took all knowledge for his province’. His genius, it seems, was quickly identified and rewarded as he rose up the ranks and eventually gained the attention of King Djoser himself. It was this close relationship with the King which allowed Imhotep both the flexibility and resources to be able to explore the diversity of his interests and exhibit the multitude of his talents.
Impressed by his potential, Djoser appointed Imhotep as his trusted minister, or vizier. It was in this role that he flourished most, involving as it did a variety of cross-disciplinary duties. His jurisdiction ‘extended over the various departments of state’, including ‘the Judiciary, the Treasury, War (Army and Navy), the Interior, Agriculture, and the General Executive’. It was a sort of a 21st century Prime Ministerial or Chief Executive role, and there are many examples given by historians of Imhotep’s skilled statesmanship in areas of economy, foreign relations and public engagement.
Imhotep’s newly found status and power allowed him to pursue activities beyond his conventional stately duties. His polymathic urge pushed him towards his greatest talents: architecture, medicine, spirituality, science, poetry and philosophy. As an engineer and architect, Imhotep made some phenomenal breakthroughs. With his works scattered around the region, Imhotep became known for being one of the first to use columns in his buildings. His impressive ability to design, compose and work with stone (he had built many buildings around the region of Saqqara) won him an ambitious project to design the Saqqara Step Pyramid for King Djoser. This provided Imhotep with the opportunity to not only display his abilities as an architect, but also as a sculptor, astronomer and inventor. He designed the Djoser Pyramid to be the world’s first completely stone-dressed building of such magnitude. The result was a staggering 200ft tall stone pyramid that would revolutionise the architectural world of the time and set a precedent for successive Egyptian dynasties. Furthermore, it is considered by experts such as Robert Bauval as ‘an astronomical “manual” in stone’ for its hidden celestial alignments.
As a physician, Imhotep’s achievements are recognized as being equally, if not more, ground-breaking. He is known to have identified and cured over 200 diseases and written numerous treatises on medicine. He is credited with the invention of the papyrus scroll and has been identified as the author of the Edwin Smith papyrus – a medical treatise remarkable for being uncharacteristically devoid of magical thinking, and which contains a series of landmark anatomical observations, ailments, and cures, including the use of honey for wounds and the use of raw meat to stop bleeding. Imhotep’s reputation as a skilled and innovative physician played an instrumental role in earning him his demigod status for centuries after his death. Physician Sir William Osler said, it was Imhotep who was the real ‘Father of Medicine… the first figure of a physician to stand out clearly from the mists of antiquity.’ A mark of Imhotep’s legacy on the medical profession is manifested in the origins of the Hippocratic Oath (an oath taken by all physicians upon practicing) in which it refers to Asclepius – the god that the Greeks associated with Imhotep – as a god to be sworn by.
Beyond this, Imhotep played an important role as Chief Lector Priest (a priest of the higher class) with permanent duties and spiritual engagements such as sacrificial ceremonies and mummy funeral processions. He often represented the King (the ultimate high priest of the kingdom), a position he could only have been elevated to if in possession of the appropriate skills and respect. Imhotep also produced works in philosophy and poetry. His ideas were famously referred to in poems such as ‘I have heard the words of Imhotep and Hordedef with whose discourses men speak so much’ and he is accredited with various proverbs, including the famous ‘Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we may die’. The rareness of such diverse overachievement seems to have overwhelmed the people of his time – who perhaps saw this as evidence of his divinity – and he became the only commoner ever to be elevated to divine status and to be depicted as part of the pharaoh’s statue.
As a practicing physician, architect and astronomer who also made tremendous contributions to Egyptian society and culture as a priest, inventor, poet, philosopher and statesman, Imhotep was one of the first recorded Polymath. His official titles according to the inscription of his tomb include:
Chancellor of the King of Egypt, Doctor, First in line after the King of Upper Egypt, Administrator of the Great Palace, Hereditary nobleman, High Priest of Heliopolis, Builder, Chief Carpenter, Chief Sculptor, and Maker of Vases in Chief.
The Polymath as Mystic
That Imhotep was a polymath and a spiritualist may not be a coincidence. If we are to agree with Jonathan Black’s thesis in his ground-breaking Secret History of the World, a certain esoteric knowledge is what binds many of the greatest minds in history. Interestingly, many of those highlighted by him as mystics – Muhammad, Da Vinci, Bernini, Carroll, Cicero, Voltaire, Copernicus, Franklin, Edison, Bacon, Goethe, Imhotep, Leibniz, Newton, Pythagoras and Tolstoy – each excelled in multiple (seemingly unrelated) fields and in doing so, made history. That is, they were all polymaths.
Moreover, some of the greatest metaphysicians and spiritual leaders – inspired by the need to acquire, connect and pose questions on various forms of knowledge in order to better understand the divine reality – tended to have the most polymathic minds. After all, humans are both rational and spiritual animals; whatever the primary inclination, knowledge (whether worldly or esoteric) is always a constant pursuit. In fact both rational and mystical means have often been used simultaneously towards this aim, sometimes (and some claim more effectively) together.
Ancient Greek philosophers pursued a range of questions with the use of both logos (logic) and knosis (mysticism), with the Socratic Dialogues being a prime example of rational enquiry that led to an altered state of consciousness. Buddhism, traditionally known for its mystical and moral essence, also encourages the pursuit of truth through critical thinking using the Kālāma Sutta, or the ‘Buddha’s Charter of Inquiry’. Islam highlights both the heart (alb) and the mind (akl) as tools to obtain knowledge. One of the core premises of Hindu philosophy is that we want to know. Indeed knowledge is one of the four main paths towards God (jnana yoga), the others being love, work and psycho-physical training.
It is therefore not surprising to find influential mystic-polymaths across time and space, and deriving from various spiritual traditions. Indeed, some of the most influential mystics in world history have been those that appreciated the importance of understanding the physical world as much as the metaphysical. In the ‘Middle Ages’ we had the likes of the Indian mystic Abhinavagupta (who wrote plays, hymns and poems, composed music and wrote on aestheticism, yoga and theology), Persian mystic Al Ghazali (his far-reaching knowledge and synthesis of the natural sciences, theology, mysticism, Western philosophy, grammar and law set out in his magnum opus Ihya’ ‘Ulum al-Din), German nun Hildegard de Bingen (a distinguished poet, philosopher and composer, who also wrote a series of important botanical and medicinal texts) and Jewish spiritual philosopher Moses Maimonides (physician to Saladin and an erudite scholar and poet).
In more recent history, the mystic-polymath was exemplified by the likes of Russian priest Pavel Florensky (Christian philosopher who wrote mathematical and biochemical treatises), American Buddhist Henry Steel Olcott (who after an extraordinarily diverse career as a soldier, public official, lawyer, and agriculturist, co-founded the Theosophy movement), Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner (who was a scientist, artist and spiritualist in equal measure) and Ceylonese writer Ananda Coomaarasamy (a geologist, linguist and art theorist who became one of the leaders of the perennial philosophy movement). And what about visionary artists such as William Blake (also a poet, publisher, calligrapher and political activist) and Nicolas Roerich (also a stage and costume designer, poet, architect and archeologist).
The Brain and Cosmic Unity
How might we explain this apparent correlation between polymathy and spirituality? The answer may lie in a form of holistic thinking which not only encourages multidimensional inquiry, but as a result of such inquiry, achieves a higher perspective and in some cases altered states of consciousness – much like what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to as a ‘flow state’. Mystics tend to have a holistic approach to life and thought, seeing the diversity of the world as interconnected and emanating from the same source. This meant that their ‘transgressions’ onto different ‘fields’ were not seen or felt as transgressions. They saw a unity in everything.
This notion of cosmic interconnectivity has always been a central feature of the world’s philosophical and metaphysical traditions – to the Aboriginal tribes it was arungquiltha, to Polynesian tribes mana, to Mesoamerican tribes waken. Indeed, the Islamic concept of Tawheed inspired a civilizational culture of polymathy exemplified by the likes of Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd and Ibn Khaldun. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, esteemed polymath, philosopher and scholar of comparative religions goes further:
One might say that the aim of all Islamic sciences – and, more generally speaking, all of the medieval and ancient cosmological sciences – is to show the unity and interrelatedness of all that exists, so that, in contemplating the unity of the cosmos, man may be led to the unity of the Divine Principle, of which the unity of Nature is the image.
But this holistic outlook is by no means exclusive to ancient and pre-modern metaphysics. It appears time and again in modern, Western scientific and philosophical discourse. Here, too, polymaths lead the way. Goethe saw nature as ‘one great harmonious whole’ and Humboldt had a ‘habit of viewing the Globe as a great whole’. In fact, ‘holism’ as a philosophical term was coined and popularized by polymath Jan Smuts in his 1927 book Holism and Evolution. Even today, polymathic philosopher Roger Scruton insists on a more comprehensive approach to intellectual enquiry: ‘I see everything as connected… and I am motivated to look for connections largely because nothing makes sense to me in isolation’. The ecologist and philosopher of science E.O. Wilson agrees that this is the best methodology for uncovering reality: ‘A balanced perspective cannot be acquired by studying disciplines in pieces but through pursuit of the consilience among them’.
Yet still, the idea of ‘holistic thinking’ never fails to raise eyebrows among many modern materialist scientists who are quick to pejoratively associate it with the ‘philosophical mumbo-jumbo’ of New Age spiritualism. But ironically it is modern neuroscience that provides perhaps the best explanation for this mode of thought. It is by understanding the role of the brain’s right hemisphere vis-à-vis its counterpart, the left, that the importance of holistic, contextual thinking can be fully appreciated. The disposition of the right hemisphere is ‘to see things as a whole and in all their complex interdependence’ while that of the left hemisphere is ‘to look narrowly and in isolation.’ The ‘left provides the knowledge about the parts while the right provides the wisdom of the whole’, psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist says.
Moreover, according to numerous neuropsychological studies, the right hemisphere is shown to be responsible for all types of attention (vigilance, alertness, sustained attention and divided attention) except for ‘focused attention’ which is the realm of the left hemisphere. This implies that the right is responsible for ‘broad, global and flexible attention’ whereas the left dominates in terms of ‘local, narrowly-focused attention’.
McGilchrist has argued (in his extensively researched and popular The Master and his Emissary) that our abilities to think holistically varied over different points of Western civilizational history were at their highest during periods that we considered to be the most creative and intellectually productive – such as the at beginnings of Classical Greece and Renaissance Europe. He attributes the ingenuity and insight that allowed for, for example, perspective in art and nuance in language at the start of these eras to the more rounded outlook that arises from predominance of the right hemisphere. Each time, however, the left hemisphere eventually dominated – subsuming the more spiritual approach of ‘why’ and the ‘how’ with the more mundane and reductionist ‘what’. This, he insists, is where we are now and why knowledge and society is so segregated into perilous silos under the guise of ‘specialization’. Yet he acknowledges that, in general, non-Western civilizations saw the two hemispheres enjoying a better symbiosis than they did in the West, allowing for a more balanced cultural trajectory over the centuries.
Since the Renaissance – possibly as a cause or a consequence of such left-hemisphere domination –Western thinkers largely adopted the reductionist approach to science and philosophy, pioneered primarily by the French philosopher Rene Descartes. The Cartesian way saw the world in terms of individual foundations, certain building blocks which could be best understood through reductionist analysis. For 300 years this approach had gone a long way in investigating and explaining various natural phenomena.
But by the beginning of the 20th century a group of scientists realised that knowledge in the sciences was becoming increasingly fragmented, causing people to lose sight of the inherent connections between, and unity of, all natural phenomena. This breed of scientific thinkers sought to revert to the traditional, pre-Enlightenment mode of holistic thought, which they developed into a scientific framework termed Systems Thinking (developed by Soviet polymath Alexander Bogdanov and popularised by Austrian-American biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy). This new scientific paradigm inspired a new ecological movement (whose thinking was described as ‘deep ecology’), of which James Lovelock’s ground-breaking Gaia Theory of the Earth is the most popular manifestation. Indeed it was one of the pioneers of the ecological movement in the United States, Barry Commoner, who insisted that ‘everything is connected to everything else’.
Systems Thinking, according to one of the movement’s foremost living proponents Fritjof Capra, refers essentially to ‘connectedness, relationships and context’. Its premise is that the nature of the whole is always different from the mere sum of its parts and that relationships between objects are primary and objects themselves secondary (as objects are themselves nothing but networks, embedded in larger networks). So knowledge is not a ‘building’ but instead a ‘network’, according to systems thinkers. Capra contributed to Systems Thinking by importing elements of Eastern philosophy to better understand modern Western science, namely through his 1975 bestseller The Tao of Physics. His study into the thinking of Leonardo da Vinci – who he unveiled as the original systems thinker – confirmed its link with polymathy.
Multidimensional Minds for a Multidimensional World
That a great number of history’s most influential individuals were polymaths is simply a fact too difficult to ignore. Yet notwithstanding the historical connection of polymathy with esotericism, polymaths are not an exclusive club, order or society – every human has the potential to become one. In fact, ‘becoming’ is perhaps less accurate than ‘reverting’. We are all inherently multi-faceted beings and clearly demonstrate this disposition and the necessary traits as children; whether or not we remain that way into adulthood is determined by a cornucopia of cultural, educational, political, philosophical and economic influences. So for the individual, to be a polymath is to be true to our primordial selves; it is to unlock the many-sided potential of our slumbering minds.
The mindset of the polymath is needed today more than ever. The sheer complexity of 21st century challenges warrants a multidimensional approach. As it stands, hyperspecialisation – the predominant culture of ‘field segregation’ defining our education systems and workplaces today – is causing humans to lose sight of the bigger picture, resulting in grave intellectual and spiritual inertia.
Moreover, sapiens run a serious risk of extinction unless we cultivate the mind in a way that makes us indispensable to Project Earth. With machine intelligence and the so-called technological singularity looming (not to mention nuclear, environmental and economic catastrophes that are more immanent), the world has little choice but to see a revival of the polymath, as it is only this species of multi-faceted, complex, creative, versatile, inimitable – and thus, yes, spiritual – human that will have any value or relevance in a highly complex, automated, superintelligent future.
So what to do? Firstly, we must all recondition our minds to be able to think and operate like the polymath, nurturing the timeless traits and methods – such as curiosity and versatility –demonstrated by countless polymaths through history. This involves not only knowledge acquisition but also developing and deploying forgotten cognitive tools such as creative, critical and systems thinking, open-mindedness, perspective-taking, introspection and flow-state induction. Finally, we must seek to change the system itself – its prevailing culture, education curricula, social structures, institutions, work environment and general worldview – and replace it with a system that breeds and encourages multidimensional minds. A radical shift in consciousness for both Self and Society is in order. Are we ready for the cultural revolution?