The Whole Man

"In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic." 
-Karl Marx,* The German Ideology 

“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.” 
-Robert Heinlen, Time Enough for Love
It's always interesting when you see an ideal held by both sides of a deep ideological split.  This sentiment points to the praiseworthiness of developing all aspects of our nature, burnishing virtues of mind and body and spirit.

This was Plato's idea as well:  the virtues should prove to be a kind of unity.  Courage, for example, means doing the right thing under threat:  so you must also have the virtue of practical wisdom, to know what 'the right thing' happens to be.  Knowing is likewise of little good without the capacity to do, and so you ought to have trained your body to maximize its capacities for action.  This, in turn, opens new ranges for the expression of courage:  developing a capacity to swim strongly and well means that it may be courageous for you to save a drowning man, whereas it would not be courageous but foolish for someone who swims poorly to try.

So far this morning I have replaced the belt on a lawn tractor, arranged a plumber to fix the leak in the basement pipes, read and considered some philosophy, and killed a huge and bothersome nest of fire ants.**  Most of those tasks are unpleasant, but the sheer variety of them makes it rewarding.  It's pleasant to exercise so many different faculties, even if each individual exercise -- philosophy aside -- is no special joy.

* A Marxist friend of mine tells me that this quote is really one of Engels' contributions to the work, and that Marx hated it.  I assume he's right about that, although I haven't seen the documentation.  It makes sense, as Marx was economist enough to fully grasp the benefits of specialization -- and the necessity, at his point in the Industrial Age, of maintaining that efficiency in order to support his new kind of society.  It may not always be necessary, though:  tasks that benefit from specialization are very often the kind of tasks that can be automated.  That frees the man to be a man again, not a widget or an insect.  Indeed, if he is not to starve, it requires him to show the flexibility that is the mark of a man and not an insect.

** Unless environmental legislation should someday retroactively protect the fire ant species, in which case I have no idea how that rock got turned over, the mound dug up, and poison poured all over the furious beasts.  It's a complete mystery.


raven said...

It sounds great, and I love the ideal, but in real life , for most people, it is unrealistic. Hence the old saying, "jack of all trades, master of none."
There is no substitute for 10 or 20 years of concentrated study. Everyone can appreciate this when after 20 years they try to instruct a newcomer, and realize how deep is the pool of knowledge they rely on as a foundation prior to evaluating the task at hand.
Stuff they don't even think to mention, till it becomes obvious the newbie has no clue.
But most of the time,we do not need mastership of a skill, usually we can muddle through with minimal competency- this comment for example-I am a poor writer, but hopefully the gist of what I am trying to say will come through. Write a novel? Not so much.
There seems to be a direct relationship between multiple skill sets, and distance from population centers- high density allows specialization. All the good jacks I have known have been limited by money or location. Necessity is the mother.. etc.

MikeD said...

Fire ants are a special breed of evil. Oh I know they have their place in nature and whatnot. But they are the most vicious, ill tempered, nasty little critters and they deserve a good poisoning.

Grim said...

It's also possible, though, Raven, to invest in more than one specialty to the benefit of both. A man who has taken advanced mathematics will be a better biologist; a man who has studied both physics and metaphysics will be aware of some assumptions that a physicist only will never notice he is making, while a metaphysicist only may make arguments that are preposterous according to modern physics. A student of literature who isn't also a student of history is missing out on a huge amount of the real story behind the actual story they are reading and critiquing. Etc.

Unfortunately, we lack the capacity to really know all that there is to know. Even so, overspecialization is a danger to both the mind and the spirit. It's also a danger to the body: if you specialize in mental work to the point that you fall out of shape, you will lose a lot of human capacities. As a result, you will live a life that is diminished, smaller than it could have been.

Grim said...


I agree. And they're really tough, too: this is about the third time I've gone after this nest. Each time I think I've gotten it, and each time... after a while... it comes back.

This time I dug it out of the ground in the hope of killing the queen and any queens-in-waiting. We'll see if it worked.

bthun said...

Amdro is about the only thing I've found to work better than most at killing a colony, especially the HQWIC.

The biggest problem with fire ants is their proliferation. Multiple colonies can become established in a fairly small footprint. An unfortunate acre can become a target rich environment.

Grim said...

Yeah, no kidding.

A Cherokee I once knew (a real one!) advised me to dig up one nest, then dig up another some distance away; dump the stirred-up warriors from the first nest onto the second, and vice-versa. The idea was that the angry warriors would hunt down and kill the enemy queen, thus destroying both nests.

It sounds great in theory, but so far I can't attest with perfect certainty that it's worked for me. However, his other suggestion -- stir up the nest and then fill it with boiling water -- works really well at cutting down on the number of warriors you have to deal with while you wait for the poison to work.

bthun said...

Without a backhoe, I'd not attempt to dig up a fire ant mound. But that's just me...

When I was a little fellow, I made the mistake of not paying attention to my whereabouts resulting in my being covered in a tribe of regular, but apparently very angry black ants. I've been on a jihad against ants within my sphere of influence ever since.

"A Cherokee I once knew (a real one!)"

Heh... TINS: One of my best friends since I became one of the majority, and one of the most decent men I know is of the Blackfoot tribe. He uses Amdro too. =;^}

Grim said...

It's not as dangerous as it sounds, digging up the nest. Instinct prepares them to KILLKILLKILL anything they can bite, but their range is short and so is their awareness of threats. I use a mattock to cut the nest up, a bit at a time, and then when it's exposed I try to locate and poison the queen, the eggs, and of course a zillion angry little warriors.

Amdro, however, sounds like it might be a better approach.

raven said...

Yes, I can concur on the overspecialization idea- My brother is a rocket scientist- cutting edge thermo and fluid dynamics- and using a screwdriver is a chore for him.
He has effectively replaced that sort of task by applying the by-product of his endeavors -money. has helped me with infestations of one type and another.

Grim said...

Money's a fine thing, in its place, but it does pose some disadvantages. It can keep you from being able to use a screwdriver, for example!

On the other hand, you'll notice that I arranged for a plumber to come out to fix my basement water tank. I try to do most everything myself, but there are two things I really prefer to delegate to experts: plumbing and electricity. I did my own electrical work the last time, but it's very much against my religion.

I hate working on machines. Nevertheless, I find that I can do a lot of things I never thought I'd be able to do -- or ever wanted to do -- because I've had to do them. It's kind of satisfying when you realize you've fixed it after all (especially if it was something important to your wife and she rewards you with beer and kisses).

Anonymous said...

Anyone who wants to list fire ants as a "species of concern" (to use bureaucrat-ese), should first spend several hours to days of quality time with the little [redacted]s prior to recommending the listing.

Yes, I've had the pleasure of encountering them before. How can you tell?


douglas said...

To phrase things another way, specialization is great, but it's even better if you have knowledge of other things so that you see more fully where that specialization fits in the larger context of the world. It's also a good preventative against doing things the accepted way all the time because it's the way it's done- something specialists tend to fall into, without letting new ideas propose improvements and alterations.

One reason I went into architecture was that it was such a broad education. Now, even construction is becoming more and more specialized- there are too many new products to be aware of with any depth, too many new technologies to have developed experience using them artfully, codes so complex the city planning and building department employees can't keep track much less you, etc. I keep flirting with the idea of pulling back to something a little simpler, like furniture, because of it all.

BillT said...

"In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow..."

In communist society, society will regulate *everything* to such an extent as to make it impossible for you to do anything other than the task society assigns you. Period.

Insect colonies are the perfect example -- workers can never be other than workers, soldiers can never be other than soldiers, and the queen is stuck with being the queen, and the queen doesn't "rule" the colony, she's just an egg-production machine, which is the role that communist society assigned her a hundred-plus million years ago.

Texan99 said...

Yeah, I had to laugh at that idea of the free communist society, myself. All those happy workers doing all that self-defining.

Around here I have more trouble with leaf-cutter ants than fire ants. They can strip a fruit tree in one or two nights. At certain times of year we often find ourselves out at dusk with flashlights, pouring the special bait along their long, long paths, hoping to be led to the opening to their multiple mound openings. There's some kind of mother ship out there in the woods that we haven't ever quite hacked our way through to.

Our chickens do a fine job of murdering ants by the zillions. They love to have their chicken tractor set down on a large mound. Not that they make a real dent in the overall population, of course. I get 20 ant bites in the ordinary day., but luckily I'm not allergic, so it's just a matter of a ten-second sting.

BillT said...

Leafcutters can take a chunk when they bite. I use bio warfare against them -- they bring the leaf cuttings into galleries where they grow fungus, and that's what they eat.

If I can find the nest, I build a ring of Micotin around it; the workers' legs eventually get coated with it and they track it into the galleries -- if I can't find the nest, I find the tree they've been harvesting and dab the fungicide on the leaves I can reach.

The fungus dies in a few days and the ants soon follow suit.

bthun said...

I had to have a large old hickory tree beside the barn removed a couple of weeks back.

A small wound in the bark had given carpenter ants access and within a couple of years they had destroyed a goodly portion of the core of the tree to a height of about five feet.

I noticed it only because the trunk exhibited a four foot vertical split in the bark after a recent wind storm.

Damned ants...

BillT said...

There's a dead hemlock in my back yard that I haven't taken down solely because I spotted a flicker's nest-hole about ten feet up a few years back. They're the only critters I know of that eat carpenter ants.

MikeD said...

Little ants (I suspect carpenters, but I'm not skilled in the identification of the little [redacted]s... thanks for that LR1) managed to actually tear up my roof. Thankfully I also happened to have hail damage and USAA decided I needed a whole new roof and that they'd cover the lot. Good insurance company.

tyree said...

My Dad was a Doctor. One day my bothers. my dad and I decided to build a scale model lighter than air remote control flying machine.

It worked wonderfully well given our lack of experience in such things.

Years later when I read the Heinlein quote I though of my Dad. He could have done a dozen jobs really well and used his medical degree as a back up.

Ymar Sakar said...

Specialization by morons is pretty stupid, I agree. Specialization by geniuses increase the progress of humanity, one way or another.