Genius and Plod

A review of In Search of Churchill by Martin Gilbert and Everyman Revived: The Common Sense of Michael Polanyi by Drusilla Scott


Phillip E. Johnson

During the Boer War in 1899, the 25-year-old Winston Churchill made a spectacular escape from captivity. A British officer, writing to congratulate him, predicted that Churchill would someday be Prime Minister. "You possess the two necessary qualifications; genius and plod. Combined I believe nothing can keep them back." It's a great summary of what gave Churchill the power to survive reversals and accomplish great deeds. He had the creative instinct to know what had to be done in a tough situation, and the dogged determination to do (or oversee) the detailed work required to put his grand ideas into practice.

That letter is one of many gems to be found in Martin Gilbert's In Search of Churchill. Gilbert is the author of the standard 8-volume biography of Churchill, and this additional memoir is the story of how he tracked down the truth about the great man. The account of how a biography was researched might ordinarily make dull reading, but not when the biography is of Churchill and not when the biographer is as good as Martin Gilbert. Here is a taste of the fascinating questions Gilbert investigated: Was Churchill to blame for the Dardanelles fiasco in 1915, or was he made the scapegoat for political reasons? What were his work habits, and how much did he really drink? Who gave him the secret information which he used to such devastating effect against the Baldwin and Chamberlain governments during the Appeasement period? Each of these questions led Gilbert to fascinating documents and still more fascinating people.

To whet your interest, here are some answers. The Dardanelles operation was a brilliant naval concept that might have shortened the useless slaughter on the Western Front if Churchill had been supported by subordinates and cabinet colleagues as steadfast as himself. The initial naval operation failed because the Admiral on the spot refused to go forward after an initial reverse.

Lord Kitchener's Army then botched their part, and the temperamental First Sea Lord ("Jackie" Fisher) alerted the Conservative opposition to the disarray in the government by fleeing from London in a funk. Churchill lost his job as First Lord of the Admiralty because the Liberal Prime Minister Asquith caved in to Lloyd George's demands for a coalition government, and the Conservatives demanded Churchill's ouster as their price. Asquith, who was sixty-two years old, lost the will to fight because at the moment of crisis he was jilted by his twenty-seven year old heartthrob Venetia Stanley, to whom he wrote wildly indiscreet letters during Cabinet meetings. Venetia's daughter gave Gilbert the letters.

Churchill did like to drink, but his work schedule amply proves that he knew when to stop. Even when he was out of office, he habitually worked after dinner until two or three in the morning, dictating journalism or historical books to relays of secretaries. In office he put in even more hours of intense concentration, bombarding subordinates with succinct memos that told them that the boss knew and cared about what they were doing.

Obviously, he kept a clear head. Gilbert also tells poignant stories of interviews with the diplomats and military officers who risked their careers by informing Churchill of British unpreparedness, seeing as he did the disaster that lay ahead if the government and public did not wake up to the danger posed by Hitler.

That ought to be enough to make you want to read the book, so here's another hero of freedom to admire. If Churchill illustrated the power of genius and plod in statecraft, Michael Polanyi had the most to say about this combination in the not-so-different world of science. Polanyi was a distinguished chemist who turned to philosophy to correct the distortions of the materialist reductionism that has infected science in the twentieth century. His own writings are not always accessible to ordinary readers, so I am glad to see a new paperback edition of Drusilla Scott's popularization. It comes with an introduction by the distinguished theologian Lesslie Newbigin, who was heavily influenced by Polanyi.

The Hungarian-born Polanyi escaped from Central Europe just before Hitler came to power, and settled in England as Professor of Chemistry at Manchester University. According to Scott, Polanyi's unease with scientific materialism began with a 1935 conversation with Nicolai Bukharin, then a powerful Soviet communist theoretician and subsequently a victim of Stalin's purges. Bukharin told Polanyi that "under socialism the conception of science pursued for its own sake would disappear, for the interests of scientists would spontaneously turn to the problems of the current five-year plan." Polanyi was horrified not only by the crude instrumentalism of the Soviet attitude, but by the denigration of the creative spirit that followed even in democratic societies from the tendency to see "science" as a purely objective enterprise that filtered out the personal element. He turned from chemistry to philosophy to show that science as he knew it was inseparable from faith, inspiration, and freedom.

The philosophy of science Polanyi criticized was largely concerned with explaining the plod of science, the testing that ensures the objectivity of scientific knowledge. Bertrand Russell and other worshippers of objectivity presented a picture in which facts were first collected, hypotheses were proposed to account for the facts, and theories were preserved or discarded depending upon whether they survived empirical testing. This fact-centered view of science is encapsulated by Russell's story of how Galileo had supposedly dropped weights from the leaning tower of Pisa to prove that Aristotle was wrong about falling bodies. But Galileo never did this; like the young Einstein he thought much and experimented little, and was not disturbed by the fact that some experiments he had done tended to support the opposite conclusion.

Polanyi was more concerned with the genius side of science, the intuitive certainty that tells a creative thinker like Galileo or Newton how things must really be, and that enables them to pursue an intellectual program for years or decades despite fierce opposition and experimental discouragements.

He argued that "we know more than we can say," and described a tacit knowledge that enables to sense the outlines of reality without going through logical steps. A child learns to recognizes faces and to ride a bicycle without the slightest theoretical knowledge of how such things are possible. A creative scientist likewise senses a hidden pattern behind the puzzling chaos of uninterpreted facts, and goes to the laboratory knowing what he means to find.

Polanyi accordingly viewed science as akin to other kinds of human creativity, rather than a separate world set apart by its commitment to objectivity. Drusilla Cornell illustrates this with the story of Marie Curie, who sensed with a passionate intensity the existence of an atomic property she would later name radioactivity, and slaved for years under horrible conditions to prove against the opposition of conventional physicists that she was right. Marie's daughter Eve describes her mother looking at night with worshipful eyes at the first sample of radium, which glowed blue in the dark. As Cornell comments, "In other times she might have been a saint or martyr, but being of her time and place, what she hungered after was scientific truth."

There is a picture of genius in that story, but there's also a lot of plod. The hard work of checking and verifying is every bit as essential as the flash of insight, because intuitive geniuses can be very wrong. Even the traditionalists who argue against radical new ideas are a necessary part of the creative project, as were the Aristotelians who opposed Galileo -- up to the point where they lost their faith in free inquiry and called in government power to suppress a new idea. A genius is likely to go very wrong if he attains the power to dispense with the plod, and to put ideas into effect before they have been thoroughly checked out by critics.

I suspect we will see many examples of that principle now that it has become almost a common practice for scientists in high-profile fields to announce new discoveries at press conferences, before the scientific community has an opportunity to find the errors. The value of plod is also illustrated in the career of Winston Churchill, particularly when one compares his success to the disasters that Hitler and Stalin perpetrated with their unchecked power.

One of Churchill's personal assistants explained to Martin Gilbert why his boss was so much more effective as a war leader in the Second World War than in the First. In both wars, Churchill was always pressing some plan for a bold offensive thrust. "He pushed and pushed and pushed, which was all to the good ... provided he had people to keep him on the rails. He didn't at the Admiralty [in World War I]; he dominated the Board. He did have as Prime Minister, with [General Sir Alan] Brooke and the Chiefs of Staff. That is one of the reasons why we won the war." (pp. 179-180) Of course, it was Churchill himself as Prime Minister who was responsible for the quality of those military advisers.

That's why people like Winston Churchill and Marie Curie could accomplish what seemed to be impossible. The genius was there first, but then the plod was done right. When the two are properly combined, nothing can keep them back.