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CONTEXTUALLY YOURS (article first published : 2002-10-8)

We frequently encounter the word “holistic” nowadays in such sentences as “Management will adopt a holistic approach to the project”, whatever that may be. It sounds important; its user must be a knowledgeable fellow. What does it mean? Religious? Morally pure? Multi-faceted? Thorough? Take your pick.

The search for its origin and meaning was mildly surprising, for it ended in the writer’s back yard, South Africa. To start with, its resemblance to “holy” is a linguistic convergence. “Holy” originates in the Anglo-Saxon “halig”, meaning “healthy, sound, whole”. “Heal” “health” and “hale” (as in “hale and hearty”) come from the same source.

“Holistic” is formed from “Holism”, which has its origin in the Greek “holos, whole”. It was coined by none other than Field-Marshal J C Smuts.

This man had a career so varied and extraordinary that it is hard to believe that it was contained in one lifetime. Born on a farm in 1870, he first went to school at the age of 12. At 16 he began a brilliant University career at Stellenbosch and later at Cambridge, where he read for the Bar. He began legal practice in 1896 in South Africa, and in 1898 was appointed State Attorney by President Kruger. In the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), he soon established himself as a daring and gifted guerrilla leader. After the war he was elected to Parliament, and in the Union of South Africa (1910) he was Minister of Defence, Mines and the Interior.

In World War I he resumed his soldierly role, in charge of the East African campaign. In 1917 he took part in the Imperial War Conference in London. He joined the War Cabinet, became a Privy Councillor, and was largely responsible for the establishment of the Royal Air Force. After attending the Versailles Peace Conference he returned to South Africa, where he soon became Prime Minister

. But Smuts had a ruthless streak, which came to the fore in the Rand Revolt of 1922. His severity ultimately led to his defeat by General Hertzog. He spent nine years as leader of the Opposition, until the Gold Standard Crisis of 1932 brought him back into office under Hertzog. He was Deputy Prime Minister until 1939, becoming Prime Minister on the outbreak of World War II. A confidant of Winston Churchill, he had a role in this conflict as great as his part in the previous one, and he was instrumental in drafting the Covenant of the United Nations. Widely honoured in Europe and the United States, he was nevertheless defeated at home in the General Election of 1948. He died in 1950, politically active until the end

Somehow during this career he found time to write a significant philosophical work entitled Holism and Evolution. It was published in 1926, during his time in political opposition. He put forward the theory that “the fundamental principle of the universe is the creation of wholes, i.e. complete and self-contained systems from the atom and the cell by evolution to the most complex forms of life and mind; the theory that a complex entity, system, etc, is more than merely the sum of its parts.” (The Chambers Dictionary.)

And there, at last, is the meaning that underlies “holistic”. It’s properly used in the term “holistic medicine”, which treats the patient as a whole rather than an assembly of parts for individual attention. But I very much doubt that factory management has anything like Holism in mind while debating the strike in the catering department.

Here’s Smuts in your eye. Contextually Yours, Ulysses Online.




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