"Pay my troops no mind; they're just on a fact-finding mission."

Great Men Are Not Specialists

The Ancient Athenians who did about 2500 years worth of thinking for us, were a handful of people who lived over just a few generations.  They accomplished infinitely more than men across centuries who had far more resources and specialized learning.
In their own time: why was it war-like ancient Greeks who came up with these great ideas and not more civilized Egyptians and Babylonians who already had 1000 year old academic traditions?
The Greeks borrowed lots of knowledge from further east, but they did extraordinary things with what they learned.

There is a key difference I notice between Greek philosophers and Egyptian scribes.

The trained scribe or academic has always been an extreme specialist confined to a few tasks and isolated from the rest of society, a hothouse plant who’s never had to make his own way and face adversity.  In fact he prides himself on not having to fight battles or perform back-breaking labor.  The scribe and the academic are features of a mature civilization that’s settled into a rigid caste system where everyone performs one role as a replaceable part in a great machine.

The comparatively savage Greeks behind the most important thoughts in human history weren’t as sheltered from the travails of life, nor did they have the luxury of living in just one specialty their whole lives.
Socrates was a soldier and Plato a wrestler.  They were men of the mind, but unlike Egyptian or Babylonian scribes, they were not rote specialists.  They had to live in the physical world and test themselves against other men in the crudest way.  They were forced to understand the problems that ordinary people must face.  Their practical experience taught them what is empty sentiment and what works in real life.  They couldn’t hide; they had to face and conquer their fears first.  Then having experienced how the world works, they formulated their ideas about reality into philosophy.

The Ancient Greeks are one of the few peoples in history who believed that an excellent man is master of both mind and body.  They saw a perfect physique as the natural counterpart of a perfect mind.
Throughout history, their view has been unusual.  Almost every settled people has had a class of scribes rather than warrior poets and philosopher kings.

If we take one quick glance at the course of ages, we see that one warrior poet is worth legions of scribes and one lone renaissance man can produce a century worth of technology and culture.

A man who lives only in the physical is a brute and a thug.
A man who lives only in the mind is a vaporous weakling.
A man who can master and unite both has the potential to become a great man

Abraham Lincoln is a historically recent great man who the Ancient Greeks would have admired.
He was an able laborer and if need be, a warrior capable of defending himself with his own gnarled fists.  He grew up on a frontier where survival was on the line and sentimental bullshit quickly slapped down by harsh reality.
His deep understanding of the “short and simple annals of the poor”  combined with philosophy, poetry, literature, rhetoric, and logic made him one of those rare great men across thousands of years who avoids the trap of specialization and masters the entire human experience.
Lincoln coming out of a rural backwater managed to best Seward for the Republican nomination.  Seward was an extremely capable man who’d been both a governor and senator of New York state and lived his entire life at the highest levels of society, groomed by political bosses for the highest office in the land.  Yet despite his endless advantages, a powerful and brilliant man like Seward lost to one backwoods lawyer who was a Great Master in the style of the Ancient Greeks.

What’s even more extraordinary is these Ancient Greek philosophers understood what made them uniquely Great.  Plato’s ideal philosopher king was no rote specialist but a man of the world trained in every art.  Perhaps most telling is one of the final tests for philosopher king trainees: to go out in the world as a common man and make a living; and in so doing to become master of the entire human experience, finally fit to rule.

See Also:  The Pitfalls of Microspecialization in Mass Societies

7 responses to “Great Men Are Not Specialists

  1. Sam April 14, 2015 at 9:24 pm

    You haven’t posted much until recently. I look in every now and then because I enjoy your perspective. I must say your recent post are very insightful. Maybe you’ve been dwelling on our situation. We’re in quite a fix. A oligarchy that seems to control most everything, a perilous financial situation and a racial mix that would task the Balkans. On the other hand a hand full of guys in a beer hall overthrew Germany and Germany was in much more dire straits. It isn’t over yet. I was talking to a young guy and he actually said,”White people are a minority” and he was a business major at the college hardly the Nationalist type. So maybe some attitudes are changing.

    • Giovanni Dannato April 18, 2015 at 4:20 am

      I’ve been entirely too busy in the real world to trouble myself with blogging for the most part. I come back to blogging thinking of myself as taking down notes for something bigger. These notes may as well be publicly available so they can be of some worth in themselves. It gives me satisfaction that you find them worthwhile.
      I write down the ideas for a lot of these posts during my 25 minute commute each way on the DC metro system while most people around me are reading bland legal thrillers or playing candy crush.

      The trouble with blogging, is the people with endless time for blogging have no business advising others on what to do. And because of this truth, no one ever takes a blogger too seriously.
      I spent a few years thinking I might change things by blogging (Kingdom of Introversion, 6 Heretic’s Way, guest posts on Return of Kings), but I came to realize that it must be just one small part of a complete portfolio.

      • Loner Black May 12, 2015 at 5:56 pm

        I’ll keep my eyes alert for a brilliant fellow Metro rider on my commute from Woodley Park to Rockville only in the morning, as a physical man like myself defers to cycling back after a days labor.

  2. Sam April 22, 2015 at 6:22 am

    If you get a chance on your commute you should read a series of books I read that had a powerful effect on me by James Dale Davidson and Sir William Rees-Mogg. They are based on the idea of Meapolitics. Namely that power and politics are based on the Technology of defense and offense. Mao, “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” An example; gunpowder brought about the rise of large states due to cost of cannon. It also destroyed castles which collapsed smaller states. It lowered the power of defense. Followed by “the Right of Kings”. The main idea being until the technology supported it “the Right of Kings” was just so much nonsense. The authors claim the microprocessor is decreasing the power of offense which decreases the power of large States. During the World Wars you needed a large population with lots of guns to prevail. Now a small group armed with advanced weapons can attack at will hitting their targets every time. From this they concluded the welfare state and the USA was doomed. The books are also investment books. They did not do so well on this because they were just too soon. Who knew the US could stay afloat in such dire circumstances. They’re well worth reading. I’m like probably most of the people here, a book worm, and these are some of the best books I’ve read ever on BIG ideas with far reaching ideas. The books are old so most only cost a penny plus shipping.

    “Blood in the Streets: Investment Profits in a World Gone Mad” (1987)
    The Great Reckoning: How the World Will Change in the Depression of the 1990’s (1994)
    The Sovereign Individual: Mastering the Transition to the Information Age (1999)

    If you only read one “The Sovereign Individual” would be best.

    A lot of these are on a higher level kind of thinking which may seem to have little relevance to your every day life but that’s not necessarily true. If you know the larger frame work of society, power, boundaries, etc. it might save you time by channeling your behavior or actions towards more productive uses. Not that I have done personally. Here’s three more that are world class.

    The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force, and Society since A.D. 1000 by William H. McNeill

    Plagues and Peoples by William H. McNeill

    The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers by Paul M. Kennedy

  3. Giovanni Dannato April 22, 2015 at 1:59 pm

    Our world isn’t the product of fine sentiments, it reflects the balance of power.
    A book I really enjoyed on the way power works was Diplomacy by Henry Kissinger.
    That’s why I see power as the key problem of politics: the strong are powerful, whether or not they’re best suited for the position.
    Imagine heart surgeons were selected by prowess in fist fights, yet that is how the far more delicate business of running a society has always been handled.

    Great States reached a height around the time of WWII and have become less important since the end of colonialism. I too have noted that technology especially communications, the internet have made people much harder to control and indoctrinate. Anyone who’s slightly curious finds plenty of other opinions out there.
    The internet is the anti-television, a medium that encourages mass participation rather than passively receiving all input from a few large organizations.
    As I have pointed out, if gunpowder led to absolute monarchs, nukes have greatly diminished the power of states With the traditional military muscle of states rendered powerless, Great States lose much of their justification.
    As it is, a state like the US continues to spend almost 1 trillion a year just maintaining its military even though there’s no great war for it to fight, no great enemy for it to deter.
    Perhaps they understand that the greatest justification for the state is the fear of other states and if military might were to be reduced, so is the importance of the state.

    Thanks for your recommendations.
    I’ve actually read Plagues and Peoples and Rise and Fall of the Great Powers and have quoted them right here on Forward Base.

  4. Sam April 30, 2015 at 5:28 am

    I worked at reading Diplomacy by Henry Kissinger and it just never grabbed me. I felt I was being fed more propaganda. I’ll try to read it again. The financial books I talked about have a lot of financial advice of no relevance to the average person but has a wealth of histories lessons in them. Don’t fell bad if you skip some parts.

    • Giovanni Dannato April 30, 2015 at 12:01 pm

      Kissinger is without a doubt self serving; you were right to detect that Diplomacy is in part an apology for his own more controversial actions.
      However, it is a book about diplomacy by a real-life top diplomat, not some passive academic, which in my eyes makes it an incredibly valuable source.
      He simply has an understanding of the power game between nations that no one else you’ll ever meet has.
      And what a diplomat he was. Ending Vietnam and opening up relations with China were just a couple of things he played major roles in. I actually think American foreign policy under Kissinger’s realpolitik philosophy actually got a lot more done than the typical misguided idealistic foreign policy(called ‘Wilsonianism’ by Kissinger) that has been practiced with almost uniformly disastrous results.
      Woodrow Wilson was a massive failure at foreign policy and W. Bush, a major disciple of his idealistic school of thought also failed in the most spectacular way.

      It would be fair to point out that Kissinger is seen as almost a supervillain of sorts, a major public image failure for a diplomat. There’s a character called Dr. Killinger from the Venture Bros. that hilariously satirizes him.

      Many of the authors you recommended are amazing at identifying and analyzing patterns, which is of course what I like about them.

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