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A Man and his Vision
The Holistic Smuts

Jan Christiaan Smuts
Jan Christiaan Smuts

By Rose De La Hunt

Special review of the book
The Holistic Smuts:
A study in personality
by PIET BEUKES

Published by Human & Rousseau (1989)
Reprinted from Odyssey April/May 1990


Although many biographies have been written about Jan Christiaan Smuts, none of them, says Piet Beukes, author of The Holistic Smuts, have really penetrated the inner mind and spiritual quality of this remarkable man. In fact, many of those who have studied and analysed the life and work of General Smuts have mistakenly regarded him as irreligious, if not an atheist, and have failed to understand or appreciate his spirituality. Biographer H C Armstrong, for instance, wrote of Smuts: 'In his universe there appeared to be no need nor even room for God.' For many people, anyone who believed in evolution could only be an atheist.

Piet Beukes has written his book to correct this misunderstanding, and has undertaken painstaking research into Smuts' life and personal correspondence to show that Jan Smuts was a man of deep religious convictions and greatness of soul.

Yet, while the author sees Smuts as a genius with outstanding qualities, a thinker with a massive intellect, whose great spirit guided and influenced the course of world events, he is not blind to the flaws in his make-up. He is also aware that, while Smuts laboured to heal the divisions between the Afrikaners and the English in this country, he failed to give similar attention to the increasing divisions and inequalities between black and white.

There were those among his detractors who felt that Smuts could be arrogant and intolerant; yet a few months before he died he wrote in a letter to one of his biographers: 'You incline to put me on a pedestal, which I don't like. I prefer to be what I am - a poor errant soul forever seeking and seldom finding - a pilgrim of the world and of life.'

It is Piet Beukes' contention that Jan Smuts was never understood during his lifetime, even by those closest to him, nor by those who admired and followed him. And when most of the earlier biographies were written, Smuts' voluminous personal correspondence was not yet available for study - letters that reveal much of the inner man.

Beukes gives an interesting sidelight on the 'Smuts Collection' of papers. An official authoritative biography commissioned by Cambridge University Press in 1950, which was originally expected to take two years to complete, turned out to be a mammoth task: a small team of researchers took over 20 years to collect, arrange and index the mass of papers related to General Smuts. Although a total tally of these documents was never made, those listed and indexed amounted to approximately 45 000! More than half of these - including nearly 23 000 letters - were private papers.

Among the personal letters written by Smuts were the 2000 letters he had sent out over a period of 40 years to the two Quaker families who were his closest English friends. These letters reveal the thoughts and feelings, the insights and ethics, philosophy and vision, of this multi-sided human being.

In describing Smut's outstanding qualities - his moral and physical fearlessness, his self-confidence, extraordinary intellect and far-reaching vision - Piet Beukes places above all these, his spiritual quality which 'became the foundation of his ethical approach and stayed with him throughout his long life with all its vicissitudes, its triumphs and tragedies.'

In the ultimate evaluation of greatness, says Beukes, he would also rate this spiritual quality as primary, for without it no individual can achieve 'that unity of character and personality, that deep and ultimate strength which comes from a feeling of oneness with the greater divine process of life and therefore with God as the ultimate creator. It also gives moral worth and spiritual value and a sense of ethical living to the truly great. Without it one can become eminent, capable of great deeds, a mighty conqueror or victor in war; but never truly great in the higher values and purposes of life.'

One example of Smuts' greatness of character that Beukes discusses was his ability to rise above the humiliation and defeat of the Boer War. From the personal sorrows and tragedies of that war and its aftermath, from the ashes of defeat, Smuts brought about, not only for his country, a victory over and freedom from the victorious enemy, but a victory over himself. It was from this that he entered into a new life of greater public service, in co-operation with his former enemy, the British.

"In this life, I have learnt that humiliation and unpopularity are, from time to time, necessary to be of great service in public life," Smuts once said.

Later, in his epic work, Holism and Evolution, Jan Smuts wrote of the tremendous effect of the 'moral awakening' in the life of an individual when the trumpet call of duty is first heard. It is then that the still small voice of the inner life comes to the fore, and then that you learn to become fully yourself in honesty and integrity of the soul, he wrote. It is then that you discover that to gain your life you must lose it; and that, not just in self, but in the whole - which includes the self - lies the only way upward to 'the sunlit summits'.

Jan Smuts grew up as a child of nature. Born in May 1870 on a farm in the Cape, he did not go to school until he was 12 years old - and then only because his elder brother died and his parents decided that their second son should take his place and be given an education to prepare him for the ministry. His boyhood years spent in the veld tending the cattle gave rise to his lifelong love of nature and his close affinity with mountains and plants.

'Having no human companion,' he wrote later, 'I felt a spirit of comradeship for the objects of nature around me. In my childish way, I communed with these as with my own soul.' Shortly before his death he told a friend of a unitive mystic experience he had while a young boy after climbing the mountain at Riebeek Kasteel.

After only four years at the local school in Riebeek West, at the age of 16 years he was ready for university. There the high quality of his intellect soon became apparent: in six days, starting from scratch, he achieved a sufficiently good grasp of the classical Greek language to head his class in a test. A devout and committed Christian during his student years, he nevertheless did not train for the ministry.

Although he chose to study law and was not a trained scientist, his intellect was such that he mastered a number of scientific disciplines. A true holist, he could think both in wholes and in parts - in amalgams of whole systems and processes, and in the intricate details of their parts. An authority on botany, for instance, Smuts could name and identify every species of grass in South Africa, and had considerable knowledge of its flora as well as that of many other countries.

'He knew and understood science, philosophy, religion and most related knowledge, not in a generalised way, but specifically and in detail,' writes Piet Beukes. 'His breadth of capacity was indeed remarkable, and with the penetrating insight of his great intellect into the mysteries of science and his understanding of philosophy and religion, he became a unifier of knowledge as few others have been throughout the course of history.' In an era of increasing information and specialisation, the capacity for bridging disciplines and synthesising knowledge assumes vital importance.

The scholarships that Jan Smuts won took him to Cambridge University, where his achievements were described as 'quite unparalleled'. It was there that he discovered and was profoundly influenced by the poetry of Walt Whitman, in whom he found a kindred spirit. Writers such as Goethe also made a powerful impact on his thinking.

'Whitman did a great service to me,' he wrote, 'in making me appreciate the Natural Man and freeing me from many theological and conventional preconceptions due to my early very pious upbringing. It was a sort of liberation... Sin ceased to dominate my view of life, and this was a great release as I was inclined to be severely puritanical in all things.'

A later influence on his spiritual life was his close and enduring friendship with members of the Society of Friends, or the Quakers. Although he chose not to become a Quaker, Smuts found himself very much in tune with their ways - especially the absence of formal religious ritual, the emphasis on silence and their understanding of the living Christ-Presence within. He read and admired Evelyn Underhill and gave her books on mysticism to his friend Queen Frederica of Greece to read.

In his last letter to Queen Frederica written shortly before his death he spoke of the awareness of the Divine, 'not as something beyond, but as the soul and essence of nature and oneself.'

In a private letter written to one of his Quaker friends at a time when he was heavily involved with world leaders in negotiating the launching of the League of Nations, Smuts said: 'The still, small voice is always there... Well, let us do our duty and leave the rest to God. You know that is my religion, and it produces great serenity of mind.'

In order to fully appreciate the extent to which Smuts was interested in and influenced by other writers and thinkers, says Piet Beukes, you need to see the wide range of books in his personal library, now housed in Johannesburg. Throughout his long and varied life he always found time to read and to study, and had selected books sent to him regularly from England.

A large part of Piet Beukes' book describes and explains the development of Smuts' philosophy of Holism. The key idea of seeing the world, life and the human personality as a whole simmered continuously in his mind, until in 1910, amid the enormous burdens and responsibilities involved in building the Union of South Africa, Smuts wrote his now famous treatise Holism and Evolution - as a means, as he put it, of seeking relief from his heavy political labours! The first person to whom Smuts sent the manuscript for comment was not impressed, and as a result of that nothing was done about publishing it for a further 14 years.

Smuts coined the word 'Holism' from the Greek holos, meaning 'whole'. The philosophy of Holism postulates that we live in a world that has an inherent tendency towards wholeness. The core of existence in all its forms is the unifying power which makes everything whole. Every whole (and this includes every person) is more than the sum of its parts. Wholes combine and evolve to form ever greater wholes in a process that is organic, dynamic and creative.

There is a progressive and ascending scale of wholes: from the physical and material, through plants and animals to the conscious realm of human personalities, communities and states, and on to the world of higher ideals and aspirations, which in turn give birth to a new order in the universe.

Present in all this creative evolution of ever new and higher forms of life lies the whole-making creative principle. At every new step in this ladder of evolution, this ascending scale of wholes, something more comes into play: a new force, a new field, whereby the new whole becomes more than the parts from which it was formed. It is this holistic force at the core of all existence which Smuts called Holism. This is the force that provides the controlling and regulating factor in evolution, the pattern and core from which ever higher forms evolve.

'Each series of wholes,' wrote Smuts, 'progresses both in complexity of elements and unity of pattern up to a point, when it more or less suddenly mutates or swings into a new rhythm or type of pattern, which again shows the same holistic development, until it in turn gives birth to a new and higher type.' Electrons and protons, atoms and molecules, plants and animals, minds and personalities, are all part of the process of Holism.

Smuts therefore saw two main forces operating in all existence: the one growing and developing (evolution) and the other (Holism) which is regulative and formative. Between the interaction of these two forces, the patterns of life are shaped to ever higher forms, to ever greater wholes within wholes.

'It is in the very nature of wholes to be more than their parts. The origin of a whole from its parts is an instance of the more arising from the less, the higher form from the lower.' To Smuts, this lifting up of the process of life is part of our growth towards the highest values of the spirit. Whole-making leads to soul-making. The world is indeed, as Keats put it, 'the valley of soul-making.'

As this dual process of evolution and Holism continues and develops, and as ever higher forms come into being, there is an increase in freedom: we have the potential to become masters of our own destinies instead of slaves of the material world. The higher the development, the greater the freedom and the more spiritual values and forces are available to use in the creating of our destinies.

This freedom and its creative power are attainable by those individuals who can control and transcend their internal impulses and passions, and rise above the limitations of their external conditions and conditioning. Freedom is the full measure of self-realisation to which each individual aspires, and the freedom of the personality is the measure of its development and self-realisation.

'To be a free person represents the highest achievement of which any human being is capable,' said Smuts. To him, wholeness and freedom were correlative expressions.
Those whose lives are ruled by hatred, greed, the desire to dominate, by uncontrolled passions and cravings, he said, cannot be regarded as free personalities. Their minds are clouded, and they cannot be at peace with themselves or others, nor can they realise themselves in all their beauty and grandeur as free, whole personalities.

To Smuts, individual freedom and the spirit of sturdy individualism were also vital ingredients of human liberty on a much wider scale. Without individual freedom, freedom itself is endangered, he believed. He saw the replacement of independent-minded, freedom-loving individuals by a servile mass mentality as the issue around which the greatest battles of this and the coming generation will be fought. This threat to freedom he saw less as a threat to nations than as a danger to the individual: a decline in freedom of thought leads to a climate of intolerance and opens the way for people to accept new tyrannies - which may be disguised in patriotic, religious or ideological colours.

'Freedom,' he said, 'is the most ineradicable craving of human nature. Without it, peace, contentment, happiness, even (hu)manhood itself, are not possible. The declaration of Pericles in his great funeral oration holds for all time...."Happiness is freedom and freedom is courage." That is the fundamental equation of all politics and all human government, and any system which ignores it is built on sand.'

Where an individual is dominated by others, by external forces, or by internal fears and passions, there is no freedom for the personality to find and fully express its own uniqueness. Without external freedom and without internal harmony, the individual personality cannot find dignity, happiness and wholeness. It is through freedom and wholeness that the individual enters the field of higher spiritual values and creativeness.

In 1907 Smuts and Gandhi met for the first time, in a Pretoria jail. 'Without their realising it,' writes Piet Beukes, 'these two giants who in many ways would make their mark on the international scene in the year to come, were here pitted against one another.'

At the time of Gandhi's 70th birthday celebrations in 1939, Smuts wrote: 'It was my fate to be the antagonist of a man for whom even then I had the highest respect. I must frankly admit that his activities at that time were very trying to me. Together with other South African leaders I was then busily engaged on the task of welding the old colonies into a unified state....It was a colossal work that took every moment of my time. Suddenly in the midst of all those engrossing preoccupations Gandhi raised a most troublesome issue. We had a skeleton in our cupboard...'

Shortly after the Indian Relief Act had been passed in 1914, Gandhi left South Africa for India and the commencement there of his civil disobedience campaign against British discrimination in that part of the British Empire. After his departure he and Smuts maintained contact with each other. In one letter to Gandhi Smuts wrote:

'When I was, at about the same time as you, studying in England, I had no race prejudice or colour prejudice against your people. In fact, had we known each other we would have been friends. Why is it then that now we have become rivals we have conflicting interests? It is not colour prejudice or race prejudice, though some of our people do ignorantly talk in these terms....'

While there is no evidence, says Piet Beukes, that Smuts was a racialist, he was not in favour of equal rights and in all his time in government he neglected to bring about changes to remove racialism and discrimination in South Africa. This 'glaring discrepancy between his holistic philosophy with the emphasis on the supreme worth of the human personality and the jarring racial discords which he failed to eliminate in South Africa', is inexplicable to his biographers.

Although Smuts grew in personality and stature from an Afrikaner, to a South African, to a world statesman and a holistic universalist whose thinking was way beyond his time, it seems that the conditioning of his early environment and his Calvinist/Victorian upbringing in a small rural Afrikaner community left an indelible mark. Yet these limitations in translating his high philosophical ideals into practical political reality should not detract from the gift of his holistic philosophy to the world. (Perhaps then the time was not ripe and people were not ready; perhaps this is the time and we are the people who must now implement a greater holistic vision as our country moves forward into a new and higher order, becoming a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts? - Editor).

In a letter to John X Merriman, Smuts wrote: 'When I consider the political futures of natives in South Africa, I must say that I look into shadows and darkness and then I feel inclined to shift the intolerable burden of solving that sphinx of a problem to the ampler shoulder and stronger brains of the future. Sufficient unto the day, etc. My feeling is that strong forces are at work which will transform the Afrikaner attitudes to the natives.'

For many Afrikaners, Smuts change in attitude towards the British after the Boer War was difficult to understand and forgive. For his part, Smuts was overcome by the trust that the British government displayed towards him and his people in his negotiations towards uniting the colonies into a Union of South Africa. He came to trust and admire his former enemies and was able to work in co-operation with the English on this and larger issues of the times. And when war broke out in Europe, Smuts pledged South Africa's support as an ally to its former enemy, uniting with Britain against a greater threat to world peace.

On the international scene General Smuts (later to become Field Marshal Smuts) became heavily involved in both World Wars, in the formulation of post-war peace treaties, the League of Nations, the United Nations and the transformation of the British Empire into the British Commonwealth of Nations. He assisted as midwife and consultant at the births of these great evolving wholes, and in regard to the League of Nations at least, was present also in the role of father-conceiver of the idea.

It is of interest to note that, although the final draft for the League of Nations was adopted almost entirely as Smuts had conceived it, he kept himself well in the background 'so that others might have the credit for it and in that way their co-operation could be ensured... As long as the Lord gives the vital growth, I don't care whether it is Paul who plants or Appollos who waters,' as he wrote to a friend.

For many years Smuts brooded over the idea of writing a sequel to Holism and Evolution, visualising the book (which was never written) as a philosophical bridge between the material and the spiritual worlds. While he viewed science as the great revelation of the modern world, it was not the only revelation; and he thought the time had come to try to bridge the chasm that separated the different revelations, so restoring unity in the higher life of mankind.

'Science so far has had far too much to do with the things of sense and of matter, and the things of the spirit have been bypassed. But can it be said that atoms are more real than souls?' While atoms had been tackled by the highest brains which the century had produced, he said, souls had been left to novelists and parsons.

Holism, he felt, built a bridge between humanism and divinity. In Smuts' holistic universe there is no contradiction between mind and matter, bodies and soul, between the material world and the world of the spirit. They are one because they are fundamentally unified in their origins and nature. there is something 'more' in matter than mere matter: there is a synthesising, ordering organising, regulating activity in the universe, a pattern and a principle of wholeness which binds the whole process together.

Smuts understood religion, not in terms of formal creeds or doctrines, not as an end but as a quest, a search for ultimate truth, Similarly, he saw science too as a quest for truth and a clear means of revelation in our age. He saw the pursuit of truth in its vision, order and beauty as combining art, religion, nature, science and ethical values, and felt the need to bridge the gaps between these disciplines and perspectives.

'The mystic whole is all the time with us and in us, but we understand it only in flashes of high experience,' Smuts wrote in his later letter to Queen Frederica, before his death in September 1950. 'One becomes aware of the Divine, not as something beyond, but as the soul and essence of nature and oneself... We are truly one with all things.... One realises this at great moments of inspiration when the self merges into the Whole.'

Years before, in his 'Spirit of the Mountain' memorial oration which he gave at Maclear's Beacon on the Top of Table Mountain, he had spoken in poetic and symbolic terms of the Religion of the Mountain and the freedom of the spirit that is experienced on mountain summits and which needs to be lived and practised in the valleys of life. Today, high on the rocks of Maclear's Beacon, there is a memorial tablet to Jan Smuts inscribed with these words of Shakespeare:
His life was gentle: and the elements so mixt in him, that nature might stand up and say to all the world: This was a man.
Smuts himself had no illusions regarding what constitutes true greatness. In his view:

All true greatness ultimately reduces to quite simple terms of humanity. When the position is lost and the pomp and circumstances go; when the pose can no longer impose and there is only the native strength of the soul left, you take the size of the man and you assign to him his rank and place, impartially, among the great and the simple.