The holistic understanding is that every human being is an integrated physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual unity. But such a balanced view is rarely achieved. History shows that society at any one time tends to emphasise one aspect of this whole to the neglect of the others. Ancient Greek society prized philosophy, the love of wisdom, expressed in the intellectualisations of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Ptolemy, Pythagoras and others. Plato in his ‘Republic’ defined three human elements of mind, spirit and body. For him, mind was superior, leading him to the concept of a society with elite philosopher rulers supported by lower caste guardians, auxiliaries and workers. This view inspired Aristotle’s ‘Politics’ and later Saint Augustine’s ‘The City of God’ until being challenged by Karl Popper in his 1945 ‘The Open Society’ as totalitarian.
The Enlightenment similarly triumphed intellect, summed up in Descartes’ famous phrase ‘I think, therefore I am’. Not all Enlightenment thinkers focussed on intellect. Whilst Kant and Voltaire celebrated reason, Vico, Hume and Rousseau valued emotion and myth. But on the whole, neither the Enlightenment, nor the Greek philosophy it in some ways revived, were holistic. We commonly refer to a relationship as being ‘Platonic’ if it is purely intellectual and eschews physical or sexual embrace. A major fault with this Enlightenment view is that it implicitly values human beings according to their intellect. Whilst intellectual ability should be valued, this should not lead to intellectual people being more highly valued than those with less intellectual capability. ‘I think therefore I am’ is an incomplete and therefore incorrect statement of human ontology. The same critique is possible of the physicalism current in some atheist philosophy (see the article on Physicalism in ‘Think Pieces’). It is possible for a physicalist view to have no account of metaphysical human emotion and human spirituality, and therefore lead to a less than holistic perspective.
The reverse side of the Enlightenment’s intellectual emphasis was that body and emotion were relegated as inferior to intellect, the crude rather than the refined aspect of a human being. This distortion was powerfully expressed in widespread recent western unease with emotion and body. The classical British upper lip was stiff, men should not cry, and sex became an enormous neurosis of guilt and distortion. Physical contact when greeting anyone was restricted to a handshake.
This is shifting. Society is becoming more tactile – a hug and kiss on the cheek has partially replaced the handshake. It’s now OK to be ‘touchy-feely’, and people are generally more comfortable about sex, and relaxed enough to enjoy it. Sex itself has huge holistic potential since it physically expresses emotion, feeling and mind which are then themselves energised by physical sensation. Healthcare is also becoming more holistic, in the recognition of the psycho-soma link in human conditions of health and illness, and in treatment of disease to include emotional care as well as a mere physical fix. Physical exercise releases endorphins which reduce stress, anxiety and depression, and generate a feel good state of mind.
In business management, there is a new interest in ‘emotional intelligence’. This is a rather unfortunate phrase, as it seems to relegate emotion back to the supposed superiority and control of the intellect, but it does begin to recognise that aspects other than the intellect are important to human being, including to human work.
Just as the Enlightenment was followed by Romanticism which corrected the over-emphasis on mind, intellect, rationality and logic with a fresh awareness of emotion, so today’s modernity is transforming into postmodernity which challenges logic with the feel factor.
The full creative human potential is holistic, celebrating body, emotion, mind and spirit. Bodily health and exercise, physical enjoyment, fulfilling sex, good eating and drinking, combine with intellectual challenge and rigour, wide reading, lifetime learning, and emotional expression of love, joy and sorrow, awareness of beauty, management of anger, jealousy and other negative emotions.