2 min read

Venerable voracious curiosity

I sometimes wonder what it would be like if I were venerably, voraciously curious about everything, if I prosecuted that wide-ranging curiosity to the full extent of my ability for years. What if I cared to know deeply about traffic lights and economics and finance and philosophy and ethics and variational methods and cooking and gardening and music and pottery and and and and and and and and and and and and and and and... and?

Though I've never read the book, I've long liked the Heinlein quote (from Time Enough for Love?) that:

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.

It's a long list of capacities. I wonder if anyone could do all these things. The idea sounds fantastic, in both senses.

I still wonder, because I've met a few that seem close to it. They have detailed thoughts on Nietzsche, on artificial intelligence, on anthropology, on math, on obscure CLI programs. They think about nursing home care and the ethics of suffering. They think about laws and zoning and economics. They grow and prepare food. They raise animals. They build philosophies, like techno-optimism. They seem to have opinions on everything—real ones.

I knew a guy in college who was like this. He was no encyclopedia, but he knew a fair amount, and he seemed to have thoughts on all of it. He made reference to systematic theories, but never seemed at their mercy. When he could stop joking to offer serious opinions, they had gravity. I would raise obvious objections and they would fall into place in his thinking with a clunk and a rushed, over-brief explanation, like he was bothered to have to explain this for the umpteenth time. When someone hit on a rarer objection, he would stop and think for minutes. It felt like a mountain moving. He didn't always find a satisfying answer, but it felt useful to the conversation going on in his head. I had the sense he was really thinking about it.

I'm not informed enough to know if these people I met are good or correct in all those things—but I admire their ambition in trying. They feel like deep wells of thoughtfulness, fossilized and crystallized. Their thinking feels, in short, like a tree: Massive, gnarled, weathered, with deep roots, heavy, not to be disturbed easily, yet resilient. The people I'm thinking of seem to care about getting right as much as they can in what they think and do—but not by letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. And what's more, the parts of their work and ideas that I can judge seem pretty good.

I don't see how I would get there, but I wonder if I could, and whether I would want to. These people got this way somehow—they don't grow on trees. Maybe it's not a matter of fixed, unchangeable genius. Maybe there is a way—not of course a guaranteed predictable systematic method, but a way of being more like that. If so, it must be sorcery.

I wonder then if Heinlein's vision is so fantastic after all—or merely wonderful.