Jan Christian Smuts (24 May 1870 – 11 Sep 1950): What Rises Converges

BIOGRAPHIES, 23 May 2016

Rene Wadlow – TRANSCEND Media Service

René WadlowIt has been my lot to have passed many of the years of my life amid the conflicts of men, in their wars and in their Council Chambers.  Everywhere I have seen men search and struggle for the Good with grim determination and earnestness, and with a sincerity of purpose which added to the poignancy of their fratricidal strife.”
— Jan Christian Smuts

Jan Christian Smuts, whose birth anniversary we mark on 24 May, was the Prime Minister of South Africa from 1919 to 1924 and again from 1939 to 1948 as well as having served in the South African government in other posts, having started at the young age of 28 as the Minister of Justice of Transvaal.  There would be much to analyze in the South African political career of Smuts, representative of an Afrikaner mentality but educated at Cambridge University and so a link to the English-speaking community in South Africa and to politics in England.

However, it is Smuts as an original thinker, author of Holism and Evolution and a major contributor to the structure of the League of Nations and to the Preamble of the UN Charter that I would like to highlight.

Jan Christian Smuts

Jan Christian Smuts

Smuts was by nature timid and reserved. He was a poor public speaker and did not like the sort of social occasions at which political figures need to be seen. As a poor speaker, although a UK-trained lawyer, he gave up quickly working in court cases to take up writing on serious topics in newspapers.  He had fought on the Boer side in the 1899 Second Boers War and was given the title of “General”. He was widely respected in South Africa if not particularly liked as a political figure.

His reflections on the motors of history he published in 1926 as Holism and Evolution, but he had been making notes for a long time. (1)   In 1924, for a 10-year period, he left active political life and so focused on the publication of Holism. In the preface he wrote “The old concepts and formulas are no longer adequate to express our modern outlook.  The old bottles will no longer hold the new wine.  The spiritual temple of the future will require new and ampler foundations in the light of the immense extension of our intellectual horizons.”

Evolution with a goal was for Smuts the motor of history. “The groaning and travailing of the universe is never aimless or result less.  Its profound labours mean new creation, the slow painful birth of wholes of newer and higher wholes, and the slow but steady realization of the Good which all the wholes of the universe in their various grades dimly yearn and strive for − and slowly but in ever-increasing measure, to attain − wholeness, fullness, blessedness. The real defeat would be to ease the pain by a cessation of effort, to cease from striving toward the Good.”

To this driving force behind the evolutionary process, he gave the name  holism − a great unifying creative tendency that operates through Nature, life and mind, which organizes them from the humblest inorganic beginnings to the most exalted ideas.  To Smuts, creative evolution meant the emergence of ever more complex and organized wholes synthesizing new entities from the parts and then transcending them.  The wholes are viewed not as aggregates of their parts, but in terms of dynamic synthesis and a rising hierarchy of ever more perfecting wholes.

Although the writings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin were only published after Teilhard’s death in the 1950s, at the same time that Smuts was publishing Holism Teilhard was independently developing the same views on the direction of evolution and the ways that parts become wholes on a higher level of organization − a concept that Teilhard de Chardin expressed as “All that rises converges.” For a contemporary development of parts and wholes (which he calls holons) see the writings of Ken Wilber.(2)

For Smuts, the League of Nations and then the United Nations were examples of the ways parts – that is separate States- converge into a greater whole.  Smuts’ draft for the League of Nations was incorporated into the British proposals for the structure of the League.  As in all international political negotiations, the Covenant of the League is a compromise among different proposals, but Smuts’ draft was a major element.  Smuts’ proposal for a system of League of Nations mandates for the German and Ottoman colonies was used almost as Smuts had proposed.

As one of the few “fathers” of the League of Nations still active in 1945, Smuts was asked to express the values and aims of the United Nations that would serve as the Preamble to the Charter. The structure of the United Nations had been largely designed in 1944, well before the 1945 San Francisco Conference, but there needed to be an inspire ring Preamble that would set out clearly the goals and values of the organization.

For Smuts, although the League of Nations had not lived up to his hopes, the League had been an important step in the evolution of humanity.  For Smuts the aims of the United Nations were not to be separate goals but rather parts coming together in a larger coordinated whole.  Thus the aims set out in the Preamble − peace, human rights, a higher standard of living in greater freedom and the development of international law − were not separate aims but a convergence  into a higher whole.

The contribution of Jan Christian Smuts to holistic thinking in many different fields is often overlooked by the worldwide reaction to South Africa’s racial policies.  We cannot separate his domestic political actions from his philosophy, but Holism and Evolution merits an important place in the main currents of modern thought.


1) J.C. Smuts. Holism and Evolution (First published in 1926 in Cape Town and London. Republished in 1987 by N & S Press, Cape Town)

2) See in particular Ken Wilber. Sex, Ecology, Spirituality. The Spirit of Evolution

(Boston: Shambhala, 1995)


René Wadlow, a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and of its Task Force on the Middle East, is president and U.N. representative (Geneva) of the Association of World Citizens and editor of Transnational Perspectives. He is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment.

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 23 May 2016.

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