Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Polymathematical pondering . . .

We are all polymaths by nature, though few of us ever develop all our faculties. We are compelled to ignore or rank all our interests in favor of one overarching endeavor which, we are told, will lead to "success." As a result, other faculties atrophy. And imagination withers; its abundant energies are narrowly channeled and lose much of their vitality. We become near-sighted and must wear the spectacles of social convention. We fit ourselves in and we adopt a label, we make a name for ourselves, so we can answer the question, "what do you do?" And we worry constantly whether we are doing enough, and life becomes a grind . . .

But for the polymath, life is never a grind, it is an open field of natural marvels and tantalizing questions; it is a playground where curiosity is given scope and imagination is empowered. The attitude of the polymath is the greatest tonic for melancholy that I know of. 

People say, oh but you must specialize if you are going to get anywhere -- without stopping to think where it is one must go and what makes for a worthy destination. Of course, if you want to be a great musician, for example, you must practice five hours a day, as Artie Shaw once told a fan who said he would like to play the clarinet as well as Artie did. But scratch a genius and you invariably find a polymath. Part of the genius of being a genius is knowing that imagination does not function like a one-track mind. What gives you vision enough to be great at any one thing also gives you eyes to see a whole lot more . . .

Robert Heinlein once wrote, "A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."