The Concept of Universal Man
Lord Clark of Saltwood, CH, KCB
Among the Founding Fathers of the American Republic, two derive much of their eminence from the fact that they were what we call universal men: I refer, of course, to Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. I thought it might be interesting to compare these great Americans with other so-called universal men, to see what this concept involves, under what circumstances it develops, and whether it has any value for us today.
What meaning can one attach to the words ‘universal man’? For the purposes of this lecture I will propose a meaning that covers, arid would have been acceptable to, Franklin and Jefferson. Universal man is one whose interest extends from every branch of human activity to the observation of nature. He is a man who, when he observes a human institution—the paving of a road or the irrigation of a field—wishes to improve it; and, when he observes a natural phenomenon, wants to know how it works. Can it be measured, does it conform to certain laws, can it be made of use to man? In order to answer these questions he collects evidence. Universal man, on my present definition, is essentially a believer in the inductive method.
But he regards all these branches of knowledge as arts. There is in this country, as most of you will know, an institution which still perpetuates an earlier meaning of that elusive word: The Royal Society of Arts, founded in 1754. From the first it devoted most of its time to agriculture and afforestation, and other useful arts. This year it has had lectures on Agriculture and the Engineer, on the Changing Design of Ports, on structural engineering, and, of course, on Afforestation. Franklin, who was one of its early members, would still feel at home there, although he might have shirked the occasional lecture on art in our contemporary sense of the word.
The Royal Society of Arts was founded during a period in which there was still a great deal left to be learnt about practical things. One may say that universal man develops out of either scarcity or over-abundance; Robinson Crusoe or Goethe. This statement has a flaw in it, because the scarcity of Robinson Crusoe was material, the over-abundance of Goethe intellectual. But it also implies a truth, that universal man thrives on freshness and the need for action. There is, after all, a certain youthful optimism in the assumption that all knowledge and skills can be learnt and used by a single individual.
Universal man was not a concept of antiquity. It could, I suppose, be claimed that some of the pre-Socratic philosophers, in particular Empedocles, were universal men. They certainly asked questions about the nature of matter. But they were inhibited by the profoundly theoretical, or non-inductive, character of the Greek mind, and when we come to Plato the questions are not about observable facts, but about certain aims—wisdom or happiness into which material considerations were supposed not to enter. One might have supposed that Aristotle, with his encyclopedic interests, would have drawn the portrait of the universal man, but quite the contrary. His ideal was the magnanimous man, who would have lost some of his magnanimity if he asked the kind of questions asked by Franklin and Jefferson. There was no ‘do it yourself’ in ancient Greece. Aristotle would have recoiled from the very thought. And one result of this society based on slavery was the division between liberal and mechanical arts which was supposed to go back to Aristotle, although its classification only took place in Roman times, in the encyclopedia of Varro. The mechanical or illiberal arts include the greater part of science, mathematics other than geometry, painting, sculpture, architecture (off and on), agriculture and, of course, all forms of craftsmanship.
It is true that Plato, in the Republic, admits that the four mathematical sciences might be admitted into the education of a statesman, as tending to draw the soul towards truth. Aristotle also allows that science could be studied, but only if this is done for its own sake, without any view to results. The last word on the subject is in Xenophon, who considers the illiberal arts so degrading that he commends those countries where they are made unlawful.
If the concept of universal man, as I am trying to define it, found no favour in antiquity, still less was it valid in the middle ages, which based its philosophical structure on Plato, Aristotle and Boethius, and assumed that all intellectual activities were ultimately directed towards the knowledge and love of God. In a sense Dante was a universal man—scholar, jurist, soldier, active politician, philosopher, astronomer, supreme poet. But Dante was separated from the men I am discussing today in that all his experience of life was ultimately directed towards the understanding of Divine Truth, whereas Franklin and Jefferson wanted to observe nature and master every branch of human experience in such a way as to be of use to man. This concept was an invention of the early Italian renaissance, and depended on the assumption that natural causes and human arts could be combined. In Jacob Burckhardt’s immortal essay, the central section is called the Discovery of Man and the Discovery of the World. The combination of these two discoveries created universal man. It had what I have called a Robinson Crusoe side, because the first universal men, Leon Battista Alberti and Leonardo da Vinci, had to ask absolutely new questions—questions that a man might ask if put down on a desert island and find not only new answers but new means of answering them.
Alberti is Burckhardt’s hero. In fact most people know him only through the moving passages in the Civilisation of the Renaissance that are devoted to him. Burckhardt speaks of Alberti’s athletic prowess, of his mastery of horses, of his love of music, and adds ‘All the while he acquired every sort of accomplishment and dexterity, cross examining artists, scholars and artisans of all description about the secrets of their craft (Franklin did the same). That which others created he welcomed joyfully, and held every human achievement that followed the laws of beauty as something divine’. Burckhardt goes on to describe his skill as a painter, and his literary works, and ends with the following unforgettable passage: “At the sight of noble trees and waving fields of corn he shed tears: handsome and dignified old men he honoured as ‘delights of nature’ and could never look at them enough and more than once, when he was ill, the sight of a beautiful landscape cured him”. It is as a result of this paragraph alone that Alberti has entered the general historical consciousness, and has even been made the hero of an article in Life magazine.
I rather doubt if many readers of that article carried their researches further. Alberti’s works are rare and inaccessible, and his autobiography, from which Burckhardt made this rather free translation, is extremely obscure. However, I hope you will allow me to say a little more about Alberti, as he seems to have established a sort of prototype of universal man which was to re-emerge in the first days of the American republic. It is possible to know a lot about him, because in addition to this autobiography (the first since St. Augustine) he left over a dozen dialogues on morals and society in which he and his family are the chief speakers, he left a book on the theory of painting (the first ever written), a great book on architecture (the first since Vitruvius), a book on sculpture, on the moving weights, on mathematics and on the excavation of a Roman galley. The first, the first, the first; you see why I stress this point, that universal men grow most vigorously in untilled soil.
Alberti was born in the year 1404. He learned Greek and Latin at the University of Padua, and throughout his life had a remarkable facility in languages. He then moved to Bologna, where he studied law. Evidently he overworked, and suffered some kind of breakdown. Letters, he tells us, which had once seemed to him like vigorous and sweet-smelling buds, now swarmed beneath his eyes like scorpions. But he conquered this breakdown, as he conquered all physical weakness; for as he said “A man can do all things with himself if he will”. And he developed an almost morbid industry. “Although at no hour of the day could you see him idle, yet that he might win for himself still more of the fruits of life and time, every evening before going to bed he would set beside himself a wax candle of a certain measure and, sitting half undressed, he would read history or poetry until the candle was burnt up. The followers of Pythagoras used, before they slept, to compose their minds with some harmonious music. Now our friend finds his reading no less soothing than was the sound of music to them; but it is more useful. They fall into a profound sleep in which the mind is motionless; but he, even when asleep, has noble and life-giving thoughts revolving in his mind; and often things of great worth become clear to him, which when awake, he had sought with unavailing effort.”
After the law he turned to mathematics, and received instruction from the leading mathematician of his day. But as a typical humanist, Alberti did not practice mathematics for its own sake, but in order to secure control over the forces of nature, in particular how to use the powers of wind and water. He invented a means of measuring the depths of the sea, an igrometre for measuring damp. various devices for raising weights, and a camera obscura, Which he described as a miracolo della pittura. He was interested only in the practical application of his studies for, as he said, “Man is born to be of use to man. What is the point of all human arts? Simply to benefit humanity. So the wise will blame those who studiously devote themselves to complicated and unimportant enquiries.”
We are a long way from Aristotle and Xenophon, and remarkably close to Franklin and Jefferson. The description of Alberti sitting up in his nightshirt reading till his candle had burnt out is pure Franklin; but on the whole the resemblance to Jefferson is closer, and is confirmed by a comparison of their proud, wilful heads. Also by the fact that both of them put their theories into practice through the medium of architecture. Architecture would seem to be the ideal means of expression for the universal man, combining as it does knowledge of mathematics and what Alberti called ‘A movement of weights and conjunction of bodies’ with a wide appreciation of human needs. Unfortunately architecture is a good deal more difficult than it seems, and those who have learnt the art in a library rather than a stonemason’s yard usually reveal a certain amateurishness. This charge, which has been brought against Alberti (in my view wrongly), can I think be sustained in the case of Jefferson. In his buildings nothing clicks. And yet there is something lovable in the way one can follow the workings of his mind, and what professional architect could have conceived the over-all plan of the University of Virginia? Perhaps only the great universal man of seventeenth century England. Sir Christopher Wren, whose early buildings are as amateurish as Jefferson’s; but who, by turning from universalism to concentration, became a professional architect of the first order.
The other great universal man of the renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci, escapes all generalisations. He has no resemblance to a Virginia country gentleman or a Philadelphia printer. And yet, if we compare him to the great minds of antiquity or the middle ages, we find how much closer to the age of the enlightenment he is. His aim is knowledge. He believes that nature will act consistently in all its operations, and thus that all natural phenomena must somehow be related to one another. The scaffolding in which his observations must be fitted is mathematical. In mathematics, he says “One does not argue if twice three make more or less than six: all argument is reduced to eternal silence, and they can be enjoyed in a peace that the lying sciences of the mind cannot attain”. But this mathematical peace of mind was continually disturbed by his insatiable curiosity. Everything he saw suggested a question—a shell in the soil, the shape of a leaf, the flight of a bird, the formation of clouds, the forces of wind and water. Why does the flame of a candle burn to a point—a question also asked by Franklin. The thousands of notes in which he recorded his observations are not lively reading. We must accept the fact, confirmed by such of his successors as Franklin, Jefferson and Sir Joseph Banks, that a universal man is not afraid of being a bore. What makes Leonardo’s observations tolerable is that they are related to the art in which he was supreme, the art of drawing. “If you despise painting”, he says “which is the sole means of reproducing all the known works of nature, you despise an invention which, with subtle and philosophic speculation, considers all the qualities of forms: seas, plants, animals, grasses, flowers, all of which are encircled in light and shadow.” So the relegation of painting to the mechanical arts becomes all the more absurd.
Leonardo, in this list, does not include the human body. Yet it was to the human body that he first applied his scientific attention, and it remained the subject of his last dateable drawings. Once more, the first: because although there had been a school of anatomy in Padua, and the subject made rapid strides during Leonardo’s lifetime, producing the first anatomist of known eminence, Marcantonio della Torre, with whom Leonardo became friendly. But Leonardo raised the subject on to an entirely new plane, partly because he asked questions which no one had dared to ask, particularly on the subject of conception and birth, and partly because he could record his findings in accurate and beautiful drawings. The strange thing is that he did not go further. Why, for example, when he made such a thorough and, on the whole, accurate investigation of the action of the heart, did he not anticipate Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of the blood. The answer is that he distrusted all forms of hypothesis:
an answer that may have some bearing on our subject, because hypothesis, without which scientific advance cannot take place, is the product of the imagination, charged with observations, but concentrating on a single problem; something which the universal man is unlikely to achieve.
Universalists have usually been more interested in what we call nature—in geology, botany, hydraulics, than in our own bodies. I suppose that the study of anatomy was distasteful and soon became too specialised, although famous anatomy schools remained places of resort throughout the seventeenth century. But to Leonardo the human body was the type of all life. Its growth and change could by analogy be extended to nature as a whole. “Nothing originates”, he says, “in a spot where there is no sentient, vegetable, and rational life; feathers grow upon birds and are changed every year; hairs grow upon animals and are changed every year The grass grows in the fields, and the leaves on the trees, and every year they are, in great part, renewed. So that we might say that the earth has a spirit of growth; that its flesh is the soil, its bones the arrangement and connection of the rocks of which the mountains are composed, its cartilage the tufa, and its blood the springs of water. The pool of blood which lies round the heart is the ocean, and its breathing, and the increase and decrease of the blood in the pulses, is represented in the earth by the flow and ebb of the sea.” In such a passage as this humanism takes on an imaginative power very different from the commonsense of Alberti or the homespun empiricism of Franklin.
And yet Leonardo had his Robinson Crusoe side. Next to the movement of water, I suppose that the greatest part of his notes is concerned with machines, many of them so elaborate and fanciful as to remind us of another Robinson. How far these are Leonardo’s own invention, and how far the records of things he had seen and had struck him as ingenious we shall never know. Very elaborate machinery must have been used in the building of Beauvais Cathedral, but the craft rules of the middle ages prevented it from being recorded. From the point of view of my subject the important thing is that the greatest of universal men was not content with either theory or fact finding, but wanted to put his ideas of cause and effect into practice.
But at this point there emerges a curious difference between Leonardo and what I may call the standard universal man. Alberti says repeatedly that he accumulated knowledge in order to be of service to men. It was a mainstay of the humanist creed. Franklin and Jefferson would have said the same. They were propelled by some kind of moral necessity, and believed that the more you know the better equipped you are to make humane and reasonable judgments. This point of view had no appeal to Leonardo da Vinci. The vast accumulation of words in his notebooks contain hardly a single moral judgment except in some proverbs copied from traditional sources. In his early notes he sometimes implies that knowledge would give men power over the forces of nature. But as he grew older he abandoned this position, partly because he had come to have so low an opinion of the human race that he was quite prepared to see it wiped out by wind and water; and partly because he came more and more to the conclusion that nature was not only indifferent but beyond the powers of reasonable analysis. He had started with a mathematical framework in which observations could be measured and arranged. In the end these observations, not only by their bulk, but by the contrary nature of their evidence, had passed tragically out of his control. Di mi se mai fu fatto alcuna cosa—tell me if anything was ever done: this was Leonardo’s doodle, the words that came automatically from his pen in a vacant moment. Before the infinite complexity of space and organism the greatest of universal men foreshadowed the eventual inadequacy of universal man.
The renaissance reached England almost a hundred years late, and it is appropriate that the last great universal man of the renaissance should be an Englishman: Francis Bacon. The Discovery of Man and the Discovery of the World: we think of Burchardt’s chapter when we look at the superb frontispiece of the lnstauratio Magna, with its galleons sailing away between the pillars of Fortitudo into the unknown, while in the foreground is the knowable world of plants and shells. Like Alberti, Bacon frequently declared a practical intention. “I thought myself born to be of advantage to mankind”, and like Leonardo he maintained that he had taken all knowledge for his province. “Knowledge”, he said, would “restore the original commerce between man and nature and recover the imperium hominis, the grand object of all science.” However, his opinion of homo sapiens was no higher than that of Leonardo before him or Voltaire after him, and the section of the Novum Organum entitled Idola is an anatomy of human prejudice, in which he specifically renounces the notion that man is the measure of the universe. He accepts the conclusion that so much distressed Leonardo, that “Man, the servant and interpreter of nature can do and understand so much, and so much only; as he has observed in fact or in thought of the course of nature; beyond this he neither knows anything, nor can do anything”, and makes it the basis of his system. Because, unlike Leonardo, Bacon tried to make his observations into a system, and, in spite of his prodigious intelligence, he failed for the same reason that prevented Leonardo from even attempting such a task: his mistrust of hypotheses. It is for this reason that he omits some of the chief scientific discoveries of his age, including Copernicus and Kepler. He does not even mention Harvey, although Harvey was his own doctor. Harvey, in return, said “He writes philosophy like a Lord Chancellor”. That is unfair. The scope and universality of Bacon’s mind is unquestionable, and the Novum Organum is entirely uninfluenced (except in its most brilliant chapter, the Idola), by his experience of public life. But on those words we may ask if Bacon should be described not as a universal man, but as a universal intelligence. There have been few men of his eminence to whom the good old Victorian epithet “manly” is less applicable. His life was spent in lobbying, intriguing and weighing the chances of legal and political preferment. Even in that age of sycophancy no one wrote more abjectly grovelling letters to those in power. He not only abandoned his friend and patron (that, under the circumstances, was understandable) but used all his skill to ensure that he was beheaded. For a Lord Chancellor to take bribes may have been customary at the time, but it cannot be considered admirable.
The concept of universal man should ideally involve a balance of human faculties and, if I may be permitted two expressions which are out of favour with modern writers, Bacon was unusually deficient in warmth of heart and moral sense.
It was not these deficiencies which led to a decline in Bacon’s reputation in the seventeenth century. It was the fact that he was not a mathematician. In that century the greatest minds in Europe were concentrated on mathematics. It is true that Pascal deviated into religious controversy and the Descartes had an almost Leonardesque interest in whirlpools. But basically they were mathematicians, and at the close of the century came the purest mathematician of all, Sir Isaac Newton. For universal men a warning gong was sounded: because although the Principia became the sacred book of the next century, I cannot believe that, in the great age of the universal man, many had read, still less understood it.
As towards its close the earnestness and passionate concentration of the seventeenth century declined, the way was open for a new age of synthesis. In many respects it was a throwback to renaissance humanism, and it was accompanied by an unbounded admiration for the last renaissance man, Francis Bacon. Voltaire called him ‘le père de la philosophie experimental’, and d’Alembert, in his brilliant introduction to the Encyclopédie, referred to him as ‘le plus grand, le plus universal’ and ‘le plus eloquents des philosophes’. It may seem an unwise generalisation to call the age of Voltaire and Rousseau optimistic. The author of Candide had no illusions about his fellow bipeds and, although Rousseau professed to love the human race, he saw anyone who was kind to him as a potential enemy. Yet both were optimistic in that they believed that man could be improved through education. They thought that if men could discover enough about themselves and the world they would become juster, more reasonable and more humane. The Dictionaire Philosophique is ultimately an optimistic book, and so, of course, are both Emile and the Contrat Social. In this spirit both Voltaire and Rousseau aspired to be universal men and I think we may say that Voltaire achieved it, for he really did know an enormous amount about history, human thought and human behaviour, and put his knowledge into practice in organising his little community at Ferney. Unfortunately at that date philosophy was bound to include what was called natural philosophy, and he felt it his duty to spend many hours in scientific experiments. Many of you will remember two essays on the subject by Mr. E. M. Forster. They are high comedy, all the more so because Voltaire took his researches so seriously. As always with the early natural philosophers, geology was the great stumbling-block Those marine fossils and sea-shells in mountains! They had baffled Leonardo, who devoted many pages to them, they baffled Mr. Jefferson, they even distressed Sir Edmund Gosse’s father. They worried Voltaire particularly, because the only reasonable explanation involved admitting that there was some foundation for the legend of the Flood, and this Voltaire’s anti-religious fanaticism would not allow him to do. However, as Mr. Forster said, all was not lost; “they can still be accounted for in three ways. Firstly, since so many of them are cockles, they may have dropped from the hats of Palmers who were going to the shrine of St. James at Compostella in the Middle Ages. Secondly, since so many are edible, they may be the debris of picnic parties. And thirdly, since so many of them are different, they may have come from the collections of dead conchologists.”
I quote this passage because it shows how one of the most intelligent men of all time could make himself ridiculous by attempting to master all knowledge. Voltaire’s universalism is more humane than Bacon’s, but ignores that wise man’s warning that we can understand so much and so much only.
The most complete expression of this desire for universal knowledge was, of course, the Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire Raisonné des Sciences, des Arts et des Métiers. I give the full title, because it shows how the men of the enlightenment, in spite of their lip-service to antiquity and their mania for Greco-Roman sculpture, had an entirely non-Aristotelian view of the aims and limits of human knowledge. The despised mechanical arts are now the main theme of these twenty-four enormous volumes. The men who pushed through the work were Diderot and d’Alembert, and it must be allowed that their universality gave something to the world. Diderot, in particular, had a range of information and achievement which has seldom been equalled, because in addition to writing well-informed articles on every topic, articles that can still be read with pleasure, he wrote stories as brilliant as La Religeuse, and as penetrating as the Neveu de Rameau. He was even an art critic. The Encyclopédie was not only a source of information, it was, together with the Dictionnaire de Beyle, a battering ram to use against the ancien régime. It was twice suppressed, and became the subject of passionate struggles in which the Court, the Jesuits and the intellectuals all behaved with equal duplicity. Thus the accumulation of knowledge became not only a source of power over the forces of nature, but a means of defeating tyranny.
This was the intellectual atmosphere in Paris when Benjamin Franklin arrived there as ambassador in 1775. The fight for the Encyclopédie had been won. The last volume was just about to appear, twenty-five years later than the first. The brightest minds in France were looking to America, and here, from the new world of liberty, came a universal man. It was over thirty years since the great Buffon had seen the value of Franklin’s electrical experiments and caused his essay to be translated into French. It had been accepted by French scientists, rejected by the Royal Society. His electrical kite was one of those images that strike the popular mind. So his reputation as a natural philosopher, a revolutionary statesman and a sage was already established before he came to France. When he arrived his character, with its combination of naivety, cunning and apparent meekness, was irresistible. He immediately became one of the most famous men in Europe. In dozens of drawings and engravings his robust frame and large, unromantic countenance appeared rather incongruously floating on clouds of glory. Winged figures of fame and virtue flew at his feet. It was said that miniature busts qf Franklin out-numbered those of Voltaire and Rousseau; although this is no guarantee of lasting favour, because during 1941 (this is statistically true) there were more Toby jugs sold of Dr. Joad than of Mr. Churchill. It was certainly the greatest public triumph that any universal man has ever enjoyed.
Several factors account for it. Franklin was a man of enquiring mind and of powerful commonsense. If prudentia be a virtue he was virtuous. He made a number of useful inventions, including the glasses I am wearing now, which are much more practical than Mr. Jefferson’s glasses. A hundred years later he could have been Thomas Edison, the greatest of all ‘do it yourself’ scientists. He also had the diplomatic cunning that one learns in local politics, and his famous meekness, which in fact he had assumed with his usual self-discipline, made him a favourite in the competitive society of Paris. But the card which no one else could play was the extreme simplicity of the society in which he had made his way.
It is quite hard to believe in the Philadelphia of the l730s: only one printer, till the young Franklin set up in competition; only one set of type, till another arrived from England. The most desirable job was printing for the post office, not because of the money it brought in, but because it gave one a chance of knowing about the doings of one’s neighbours. Small-town life. Franklin, more than anyone, supports my statement that universal man must have something of Robinson Crusoe. But his resourcefulness extended from the mechanical to the civic arts. His discussion group turned into the Philosophical Society of America; his educational organisation turned into the University of Pennsylvania; his hospital turned into the Pennsylvania Hospital; he first secured the paving of streets; he established the first insurance company. He was not only the first man to see the necessity of all these institutions, but he had the will and the tenacity to see them carried into effect. To the philosophes of Paris he seemed to show that reason and benevolence could grow out of virgin soil as they never could in the over-cultivated fields of Europe. Unwittingly and unwillingly (for he had no high opinion of primitive man) he drew a dividend from Rousseau’s Discourse on the Nature of inequality and on Bougainville’s discoveries. Tn spite of an undeniable absurdity, he remains a lovable man. “1 thought myself born to be of advantage to mankind”. These words might have come from his autobiography, and he certainly had a better right to use them than Francis Bacon.
“No one can replace him, sir. I am only his successor”: Thomas Jefferson’s usual answer to those Parisians who congratulated him on replacing le grand Franklin as American ambassador to France. It is true that the two men were remarkably dissimilar. There was nothing of the homespun philosopher about Jefferson. There was not even a feeling of universal benevolence. His famous comments on the French Revolution—”The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants”—are not those of a humane bourgeois but of a republican aristocrat who really hated government of any kind. Jefferson never adopted the disguise of meekness, and his famous contempt for uniforms and ceremonies was the expression of a heroic pride which has alienated a large section of American opinion till the present day.
‘A good guy’, ‘Just folks’, those two terms of praise, which have played so large a part in arousing the love of the great American people, could never have applied to Mr. Jefferson, and his instructions to omit from the inscription on his tombstone the fact that he had been President of the United States (“and not one word more”) is surely one of the most magnificent assertions of intellectual pride in history.
As a universal man Jefferson is linked with Franklin in two ways. First, he too was tilling virgin soil, Of course America had come a long way in the thirty years since the small-town simplicity of Franklin. But even so most of Jefferson’s investigations were without precedent. When a traveller went West Jefferson could ask him for reports on the terrain, the weather, the fauna and flora, knowing that all his information would be fresh. In agriculture, in botany, in irrigation, in palaeontology, in scientific excavation, in the philology of Indian dialects—the list could be extended— he was ‘the first’, and with his tireless patience, self-discipline and intelligence he arrived in one leap at methods and results that might not have been discovered for half a century. Like other universal men he preferred collecting and arranging facts to proposing hypotheses. Jefferson’s mind was at its best in questions of fact, at its weakest in questions of theory. In his celebrated— justly celebrated -correspondence with Adams I think that Adams comes out as the wiser man. Yet even there how surprisingly intelligent he could be. That anyone with his intellectual powers and intransigent character could become President of the United States shows what miracles can happen when a nation is still young.
Secondly, he was linked with Franklin, as he was with Alberti, through his involvement with a republic. Universal man does not flourish under a tyranny: Bacon is the exception that proves, somewhat painfully, the rule. The first privilege of universal man is asking questions, and innocent questions about agriculture or irrigation can easily develop into questions about the rights of property. The second privilege of universal man is the use of reason, or at least of common sense: and in the light of reason the pretensions of a tyrant are odious and the divine right of kings looks ridiculous. And thirdly there is the old belief, repeated in the same words by universal men for three hundred years, that man is born to be of use to men, and presumably this hope is more likely to be realised when the res publica rather than the tyrant is the final court of appeal. Even Voltaire thought it wise to live on the borders of a republic.
Divine kingship is the oldest form of government, and has been accepted by the majority of mankind for the longest time. Successfully to oppose it requires a rare combination of circumstances and men: a great soldier, a man of absolute probity, a group of able lawyers and a universal man (I do not include an orator, in spite of Mirabeau and Danton, because oratory is by no means always on the side of reason, and, although an extremely powerful weapon, is one that can ricochet in an incalculable manner). All these characters were present in the formation of the Florentine Republic in the early fifteenth century. There have seldom been abler and more devoted public servants than the first Florentine chancellors, Salutati and Bruni, both of whom had in fact been trained as lawyers: and their regime produced the first universal men. The same characters appeared in the rise of the Dutch Republic, William the Silent, Grotius and, as universal men, the Huyghens family who wore poets, scientists and indefatigable question-askers as well as public servants. Jefferson fits perfectly into the context. He is, as I had the honour of saying in his own university, almost like a reincarnation of Leon Battista Alberti —the same almost morbid industry, the same belief in a combination of will and commonsense, the same insatiable appetite for information, the same love of nature: even the same recreations—horsemanship and music.
It would seem that a universal man has played an honourable part in growing communities, and especially in republics; and he is also useful in periods of synthesis. But has he, on my definition, any relevance to the intellectual life of the present day? It looks as if the answer will be “no” for two reasons. First of all the questions asked by Leonardo da Vinci, Franklin and Jefferson have turned out to be far more complex than anyone could have realised before the invention of the electronic microscope or the radio telescope. The very small and the very large have become so much smaller and larger, and so utterly unpredictable that the answers which satisfied a universal man of the nineteenth century, like Huxley are no longer acceptable. And then so many of the simplest questions have proved unanswerable. Why does a bird sing? Nobody knows. Why do some moths survive by adopting protective colouring while others wear the gaudiest dress that nature can provide? Nobody knows. I do not think that Leonardo ever asked these questions, but others that he asked repeatedly, like the age of the earth, the constitution of its inner core, the origin of storms, have remained equally unanswerable.
The trouble was that Leonardo’s answers went only half the way. In anatomy, for example, they showed what a muscle looked like, and even how it worked, mechanically. But they did not explain why it worked. This was a question that could not possibly have been answered before the invention of the electronic microscope, and it is only in the last few years that scientists tell us (and we must take it on trust) that they can see the millions of fibres, infinitesimally small, that give a muscle its power of constriction. In anatomy, in the study of the brain, answers have been given that would have delighted Leonardo, and we certainly know a great deal more about the electric fluid than Franklin did. But these answers have not been arrived at by the intelligence and pertinacity of individuals, but by small armies of field workers and institutions full of men in white overalls. It is the stalest of platitudes that scientific advance is the result of team work. It is also the result of mathematics. When Lord Snow gave his notorious Rede Lecture, The Two Cultures, academic opinion was outraged, and perhaps he made a mistake to use such an unacceptable word as culture. We should all like to think that historians and physicists can share the same culture, and indeed there are many examples. Lord Kelvin was a fine classical scholar, Lord Adrian is a man of the highest culture, the list could be extended indefinitely. But the traffic is all one way. A physicist can read history after dinner or play Bach on the gramophone. But how many historians can follow even an elementary proposition in mathematics? May 1 be forgiven a fragment of autobiography. When I was Chairman of the Independent Television Authority I was responsible for the erection of transmitting stations, and frequently found myself signing cheques for close on a million pounds. They were made payable to contractors who had very different views about the type of equipment required. It seemed incumbent on me to learn just enough about the problems involved to have a view as to which contractor was preferable. I had been interested in science in my youth, and had won (absurdly enough) several prizes in mathematics. I therefore asked our director of engineering how long it would take me to gain a knowledge of electronics sufficient for me to weigh up the often conflicting reports of contractors. He replied “Well, if you concentrated on nothing else and took a sort of crash course, you might do it in three years”. As I had only another two years of my chairmanship to run I gave up the idea.
There can be no reasonable doubt that the mathematical sciences have transformed Europe, and brought it into its present perilous position. One illustration. Our first effective contact with the older, and, on the whole, more admirable culture of China was through Jesuit missionaries in the seventeenth century. They were tolerated simply because they knew mathematics. The Emperor K’ang H’si, said to his successor, “Have nothing to do with their religion, but keep them and protect them, because of their knowledge of the mathematical sciences”. Well, a universal man might know as much mathematics as a Jesuit priest in China, hut he could not learn enough to hold up his head in the most tolerant university. Most of us would regard this as regrettable. The rule of specialists and experts has several drawbacks. They tend to grow crazy and attach a quasi-religious importance to their specialised conclusions; and the sanest of them make mistakes which no one, except a fellow specialist, is equipped to challenge. It sounds ridiculous to say that experts are swayed by fashion, but in all branches of expertise with which I am even remotely familiar, they are. A universal man should be able to see things in a larger context, both of time and human needs. He should be able to point out the flaws in an accepted scientific position, as Goethe pointed out the flaws in Newton’s theory of colour, and Samuel Butler the flaws in Darwinian biology. This was difficult enough in Samuel Butler’s time. He was ridiculed by the whole scientific establishment. Today there is increasing evidence that he was right. Perhaps the capacity to ask specialists awkward questions should be the chief function of universal man today. It may seem rather a limited and negative aim compared to the great ambitions of the Novum Organum: but it is one of very great value.
And then the modern universal man, even in his reduced circumstances, can achieve something which, in human terms, is worth preserving. Specialists, owing to the narrow concentration needed for success in their studies, tend to become narrow people. I am told that Chairman Mao is fond of using the term universal man, meaning a man with a complete and harmonious balance of faculties, who can practice both the arts and the sciences, without being a specialist or a mere dilettante.
Finally there is the proposition that played so great a part in the minds of Alberti and Bacon, Franklin and Jefferson: that man’s knowledge should be of a kind that can be of use to man: what one may call the humanist approach to knowledge. This is contrary to the present trend of opinion. We believe that the quest for truth is an absolute which must be honoured even if it leads to our destruction. It is part of the same romanticism which reached an extravagant, but harmless, expression in Villiers de l’Isle Adam’s Axel. There seems to be something selfishly flat-footed in the axioms of classical humanism, by which man’s first object should be to benefit himself.
I shall not presume to enter this great debate. But I may end by quoting one of the greatest of universal men. Goethe, when he was asked to define the difference between classic and romantic, replied ‘Classicc is health, romantic disease’. Only the author of Werther had a right to give such an answer. It affirms that, whether or not the idea of universal man is conceivable in contemporary society, his existence is a sign of health.
Let me conclude by saying how honoured I am to have been invited to give the Ditchley lecture. As with most honours, I would have been well advised to decline. It is ironic that, in trying to write about universal man, I learnt the truth of the old adage, which Franklin might have quoted but did not follow: that the cobbler should stick to his last.