General Jan Christiaan Smuts was a complex person who was never completely understood during his lifetime. Neither was his book, Holism and evolution, nor his concept of holism. This is in part because Smuts saw his book as neither a work of science nor a work of philosophy, but as a point of contact between the two. He regarded his holism as a solution to some problems in science, philosophy, ethics, art, and related subjects. Smuts also indicated in his book that his holism would affect the spiritual interests of humanity, a subject he hoped to pursue elsewhere but which, unfortunately, he never did. Smuts thus drew solely on insights from science and philosophy to explicate his understanding of holism and evolution.
However, an interesting, but unexplored, aspect of Holism and evolution is the Bible texts that Smuts alludes to, especially from the fifth chapter onwards, to describe and explain his philosophy of holism. His use of the Bible reveals more about himself, his holism and religiosity. It is something that has not yet been explored by either students or critics of Smuts.
Piet Beukes attempted to make the mostly unknown spiritual life of Smuts more understandable to the general public. In his book The holistic Smuts: A study in personality Beukes argued that Smuts was actually deeply religious as a result of insights he had discovered during his youth. In his second book, The religious Smuts, Beukes tries to defend Smuts against those who thought of him as irreligious or an atheist. Beukes represents Smuts as a deeply religious man, a devoted Christian, and an admirer and follower of Jesus. A closer analysis will, however, reveal that Smuts was not in every respect the kind of person Beukes portrayed him to be. Beukes does not seem to fully grasp Smuts’ understanding of Christ, his use of and approach to the Bible and his religiosity as expressed in Holism and evolution. The analysis of his use of Bible texts, as well as other evidence, suggests that Beukes was right to conclude that Smuts saw himself as a powerful figure with a decisive message that determines the well-being of all.
The first section of the article focuses briefly on the religiosity and mysticism of Smuts’s preschool days and the period in which he was a student, first at Victoria College and later at Cambridge University. Prominent during his preschool years was the religious education he received from his deeply pious mother, and his mystical experiences of oneness with nature expressed as, among other things, “the religion of the mountain”. However, a change occurred in his religious views during the years he was at Cambridge. The reasons are threefold. The first two are inextricably connected: they are his study of Darwin’s Origin of species and his subsequent formulation of creative evolution, as well as his experience of studying the poetry and prose of Walt Whitman. Smuts used Whitman to illustrate that personality is the highest phase in the process of creative evolution. The third cause of the change in Smuts was a meeting of Quakers, now the Religious Society of Friends, which he attended in 1906. From the Friends he learned not only that the worship of God was not restricted to churches and cathedrals, but also about an inner presence known by them as the “Inner Light”. These three experiences meant the end of his naive puritanical beliefs and the orthodox views of the religion of his youth.
The focus in the second section of the article shifts to Holism and evolution, with the aim of highlighting Smuts’s use of scriptures. This analysis elucidates his philosophy of holism, and most importantly, his religiosity. Holism permeated his beliefs, his ideology, and offered the solution for problems he saw in philosophy, science, ethics, art and other relevant subjects, as well as the sole solution for almost every kind of human problem on a personal, national and international level. He stated this in 1895, in his book when it was published in 1926, and again in 1948, two years before he died. In fact, after the Second World War, thoughts about how he could recruit spiritual leaders to spread his theory of holism to the nations of the world continually occupied his thoughts. He even entertained the idea that the New Testament could be rewritten by using the terminology of holism.
Taken together, the information suggests that he saw his holism as the key to understanding the Bible, the problems of the world he lived in, and the universe. Not only did he believe his holism should be laid on the foundation of Plato and the Apostle Paul, he also saw South Africa and other nations of the world as a building of which he was the chief cornerstone.
Keywords: Holism; religiosity; Smuts, spirituality