It has long occurred to me that some people are endowed with homogeneous temperaments while others are endowed with heterogeneous ones. Those with the former tend to become specialists in one field of intellectual field of enquiry and to reflect a singular point of view. By contrast, the latter tends to become generalists in many fields of intellectual inquiry and to reflect a plurality of points of view.
Our society tends to recognize and reward the specialists, whether the field is science or spirituality, philosophy or poetry, history or literature, politics or psychology. But what do we do with those relatively rare individuals who develop their multifarious humanity as “passionate amateurs” throughout their lives in many disparate fields of intellectual inquiry and cultural experience? What do we do with our multidisciplinary learners who may or may not achieve the status of “polymaths” through a lifetime of broad reflections, diverse encounters, inclusive empathy and voracious reading across the entire liberal arts curriculum?
Some multidisciplinary thinkers with heterogeneous temperaments may initially establish themselves as authorities in one specialized field of knowledge, but eventually expand from that base to include an ever widening circle of interests that encompass all the humanities, arts and sciences, as well as the social, economic and political realms of our common life. Some of them make their start as nature writers and scientists like Loren Eiseley and Michael Polanyi, or literary essayists and cultural critics like Lionel Trilling and Joseph Epstein. But soon enough it becomes clear that their minds are inwardly compelled to roam as freely across the Serengeti of existence as the lions and antelope roam in the boundless wild. There seems to be little that they do not think about and imaginatively consider in one way or another. They do not belong to one sectarian party or ideological camp, though they have their considered preferences and are not without sober convictions. They seem to defy the ready made categories by which we conventionally pigeon-hole individuals as “this or that.” They seem to be “a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and a whole lot more” that defies our reality-fixing labels.
We need such free spirits today whose minds roam across wider territories than most of us in our modern, specialized and technocratic society allow ourselves to consider. They retain a sense of the sacred and a sacramental reverence for life but without the trappings and dogmas of any established religion that would capture and contain them. They have become “lights unto themselves,” illumined by the torches of ten thousand wise souls from many traditions who have come before them. They have a kind of native wanderlust, a gypsy spirit that is on a perpetual caravan to find out more without reducing the mystery of being to the categories we have invented to explain it, capture, predict and control it. They have not been domesticated but retain some of their original wildness.
They continue to retain “beginner’s mind” while expanding appreciation for the rich diversity of experience and their knowledge of many disciplines. They are able to look at life from many points of view are resist the tendency toward dualistic either-or thinking. They value both the introspective and the observational, the intuitive and the sensory, the emotive and rational, the perceptive and the judicious. They care about the individual and the community, they care about tradition and progress, the past and the future. They respect the rights of the insiders and outsiders, the majority and the minority. One could say they have ecological minds that always consider the relation of the parts to the whole, seeking the interconnectedness and relation of all things.
Whatever the case may be, it is my contention that these temperamentally heterodox and intellectually multidisciplinary seekers and sojourners embody a many-sided philosophical, poetic, artistic and scientific approach to life, learning, knowledge and experience. I believe they may serve to ground us in our common humanity and the spirit of civility in the midst of today’s society and world that have become increasingly polarized and polemical. We need wise souls who can help us to see the world through more than one lens lets we be blinded to everything outside our preferred method of insight, analysis, inquiry and investigation.