When woman’s point of view receives due consideration and woman’s will is allowed adequate expression in the arrangement of social affairs, we may expect great advancement in matters which have often be grievously neglected under the old regime of male dominance—such matters as health, temperance, peace, and regard for the value of the individual life. Improvements in these respects will have very far-reaching and beneficent effects. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá says:
“The world in the past has been ruled by force, and man has dominated over woman by reason of his more forceful and aggressive qualities both of body and mind. But the balance is already shifting; force is losing its dominance, and mental alertness, intuition, and the spiritual qualities of love and service, in which woman is strong, are gaining ascendancy. Hence the new age will be an age less masculine and more permeated with the feminine ideals, or, to speak more exactly, will be an age in which the masculine and feminine elements of civilization will be more evenly balanced.”
The Master and his Emissary is a deeply satisfying book. It is the first and only book written from a predominantly neuropsychological viewpoint about which I do not have major reservations: his position is not tainted by even the faintest trace of simplistic reductionism. It engages at a profound level with the problems of the modern age. It describes how the pressures of the modern world in the west tend to push all of us nearer to psychosis and delusion than we would otherwise be. It gives a perspective on the Bahá’í principle of unity and its relationship with diversity that I feel is immensely helpful. It also casts an important light on how difficult it is to work both systematically and with a sense of the organic, to be both efficient and loving – something of great concern to the Bahá’í enterprise.
Are the ‘wow’-factor adverbs and adjectives beginning to seem irritating? I can’t help that. Either I use them or I sell the book short.
At a whopping 462 pages of fairly demanding core text it is not a skim read. We’d end up with a variant of Woody Allen‘s experience of a speed reading course: all he could say at the end was, ‘I’ve read War and Peace. It’s about Russia.’ With this book all we would be able to say would be, ‘It’s about the brain.’
Not surprisingly I feel that just might miss the crucial point. However, summarising my sense of the book’s overall meaning in about 1000 words is almost as bad. It’s like getting a lake into a pint pot. Perhaps the only way to do it is to be brutal about my précis of the first half of the book and surgical in my resumé of its second half, which may in the process inevitably do some violence to the overall meaning, for reasons that will shortly become obvious.
Two Ways of Being
He gives a comprehensive overview of research into the ways the two hemispheres of the brain work both separately and together. He contends these processes underpin and determine the way we experience the world and organise our responses to it. The evidence he adduces for his final conclusion is compelling and extensive.
It is key to the second part of the book, which looks at the impact on modern society of the processes he has clarified. I will state his main conclusions here but there is no way I can convey the impact of the evidence in this space. The book has to be read in its entirety for that to be achieved. Needless to say I feel that would be a most rewarding experience for any one to undertake.
The conclusion he reaches that most matters when we look at our western society is on pages 228-229:
The left hemisphere point of view inevitably dominates . . . . The means of argument – the three Ls, language, logic and linearity – are all ultimately under left-hemisphere control, so the cards are heavily stacked in favour of our conscious discourse enforcing the world view re-presented in the hemisphere that speaks, the left hemisphere, rather than the world that is present to the right hemisphere. . . . which construes the world as inherently giving rise to what the left hemisphere calls paradox and ambiguity. This is much like the problem of the analytic versus holistic understanding of what a metaphor is: to one hemisphere a perhaps beautiful, but ultimately irrelevant, lie; to the other the only path to truth. . . . . .
There is a huge disadvantage for the right hemisphere here. If . . . knowledge has to be conveyed to someone else, it is in fact essential to be able to offer (apparent) certainties: to be able to repeat the process for the other person, build it up from the bits. That kind of knowledge can be handed on. . . . By contrast, passing on what the right hemisphere knows requires the other party already to have an understanding of it, which can be awakened in them. . .
On the whole he concludes that the left hemisphere’s analytic, intolerant, fragmented but apparently clear and certain ‘map’ or representation of reality is the modern world’s preferred take on experience. Perhaps because it has been hugely successful at controlling the concrete material mechanistic aspects of our reality, and perhaps also because it is more easily communicated than the subtle, nuanced, tentative, fluid and directly sensed approximation of reality that constitutes the right hemisphere experience, the left hemisphere view becomes the norm within which we end up imprisoned. People, communities, values and relationships though are far better understood by the right hemisphere, which is characterised by empathy, a sense of the organic, and a rich morality, whereas the left hemisphere tends in its black and white world fairly unscrupulously to make living beings, as well as inanimate matter, objects for analysis, use and exploitation.
Their Effects in the World
He traces the oscillations of influence between the hemispheres over the centuries. Though the benefits of a recently increased left hemisphere dominance in the affairs of humanity are clear to see in the technological advances we enjoy, mostly in the west, so are its costs in terms of a parallel increase in alienation, competition, intolerance, fragmentation, totalitarianism and the unrestrained exploitation of people and resources. We are in desperate need of reinstating a proper balance in the modes of operation of the two hemispheres. This cry is articulated in the Bahá’í Faith’s belief that religion and science are to be seen as one and should not be in conflict. They are as the wings of one bird, as also, we believe, are men and women in the social and political sphere, a not unconnected issue as the quote at the head of this post indicates.
McGilchrist’s articulation of this need is complex and subtle but required reading for anyone who cares about these issues. The quote below is only one part of his case, though a central one (page 203).
There is, in summary, then, a force for individuation (left hemisphere) and a force for coherence (right hemisphere): but, where the whole is not the same as the sum of its parts, the force for individuation exists within and subject to the force of coherence. In this sense the ‘givens’ of the left hemisphere need to be once again ‘given up’ to be reunified through the operations of the right hemisphere. . . . [T]he rational workings of the left hemisphere . . . should be subject to the intuitive wisdom of the right hemisphere.
Over the years many other books by experts in their fields have enriched my understanding of this whole area: the work of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), of Guy Claxton, of Ken Wilber, of Jonathan Haidt, of Robert Wright, of Margaret Donaldson and of Paul Gilbert, to quote only those which come most readily to mind. This book plumbs the waters at least as deeply and perhaps more widely than any of them.
It has altered my take on the arts (I don’t feel so inadequate now for my failure to ‘get’ Cubism, for example) as well as the sciences, and I feel it has also helped me understand more deeply the scriptures of my own tradition. I suspect I will be drawing on those other insights in the posts on this blog for quite some time to come. They are too many and too complex to include here.
If it not already obvious I am strongly recommending The Master and His Emissary. If you want a great read, try this book.
 The ‘concept of diversity as a fundamental characteristic of unity’ appears to date from Liebnitz’s Monadology 1714 (see McCarthy, J.A. Criticism and Experience, in Philosophy and German Literature: 1700-1990 ed. Nicholas Saul)