Greek generalists

Edith Hamilton writing in The Greek Way on Socrates:

Through the dialogues moves the figure of Socrates, a unique philosopher, unlike all philosophers that ever were outside of Greece. They are, these others, very generally strange and taciturn beings, or so we conceive them, aloof, remote, absorbed in abstruse speculations, only partly human. The completest embodiment of our idea of a philosopher is Kant, the little stoop-shouldered, absent-minded man, who moved only between his house and the university, and by whom all the housewives in Königsberg set their clocks when they saw him pass on his way to the lecture-room of a morning. Such was not Socrates. He could not be, being a Greek. A great many different things were expected of him and he had to be able to meet a great many different situations. We ourselves belong to an age of specialists, the result, really, of our belonging to an age that loves comfort. It is obvious that one man doing only one thing can work faster, and the reasonable conclusion in a world that wants a great many things, is to arrange to have him do it. Twenty men making each a minute bit of a shoe, turn out far more than twenty times the number of shoes that the cobbler working alone did, and in consequence no one must go barefoot. We have our reward in an ever-increasing multiplication of the things everyone needs but we pay our price in the limit set to the possibilities of development for each individual worker.

In Greece it was just the other way about. The things they needed were by comparison few, but every man had to act in a number of different capacities. An Athenian citizen in his time played many parts. Æschylus was not only a writer of plays; he was an entire theatrical staff, actor, scenic artist, costumer, designer, mechanician, producer. He was also a soldier who fought in the ranks, and had probably held a civic office; most Athenians did. No doubt if we knew more about his life we should find that he had still other avocations. His brother-dramatist, Sophocles, was a general and a diplomat and a priest as well; a practical man of the theatre too, who made at least one important innovation. There was no artist class in Greece, withdrawn from active life, no literary class, no learned class. Their soldiers and their sailors and their politicians and their men of affairs wrote their poetry and carved their statues and thought out their philosophy. “To sum up”—the speaker is Pericles—“I say that Athens is the school of Greece and that the individual Athenian in his own person seems to have the power of adapting himself to the most varied forms of action with the utmost versatility and grace”—that last word a touch so peculiarly Greek.

So Socrates was everything rather than what we expect a learned man and a philosopher to be. To begin with, he was extremely social; he delighted above all in company.

What is a criticism of a society, like our modern and globalized civilization, that prioritizes specialization and specialists? The witness of Greek history might suggest that specialization limits the ability of any one person to develop his own soulfulness or practical talents.

In other words, an education in a society of specialists would naturally leave out enormous swaths of general, soul-enriching knowledge. The society as a whole is enriched by the abundance that specialization enables in material terms, but the individuals within that society might be left poorer and less intellectually and spiritually enriched than in a generalist’s society more concerned with the Greek’s sense of telos and love of arete.

A value of an aristocratic (or semi-aristocratic) class in a democratic/specialized society might be to carve out a certain social space where at least a fragment of society can be less specialized and more generally developed. But it’s difficult to speak about this sort of thing, though, first because in the American mind aristocracy is fundamentally opposed to equality and egalitarian sensibility, and also because the sort of “generalist aristocracy” that might be useful in our society would not be a caste aristocracy of birth, but as much as possible it would be an organic, naturally occurring class. Aristocracy is therefore probably a poor and confusing word to use for the goal of developing a generalist, humanely developed number of human persons.

If nothing else, Edith Hamilton’s Socrates and others provide examples of what’s possible when we remember that a man good with numbers doesn’t merely have to devote himself entirely to accounting.

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