The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World

Written by Ian McGilchrist Reviewed By J. A. Van Gerpen

Ian McGilchrist is a former Oxford literary scholar who trained in medicine and now works as a consulting psychiatrist and writer. For the past twenty years, he has pondered why the brain is divided into two hemispheres, instead of being an integrated, single organ. Utilizing the fruits of current neuroscientific investigation, McGilchrist acknowledges that virtually all functions once thought to be the province of one hemisphere (e.g., speech and language in the left hemisphere and imagination and emotion in the right), are, at least to a certain extent, mediated by both hemispheres. Nevertheless, he posits that the two hemispheres provide the individual with differing perspectives on the world. The right hemisphere promotes emotional sensitivity and empathy; an aesthetic sense, with an appreciation of beauty; knowledge and awe of the numinous, leading to a religious impulse; and an overall ability to place facts into context. The left hemisphere allows focusing on details; communicating about them using language; and the ability to manipulate this knowledge to achieve desired ends. Citing examples from nature, McGilchrist hypothesizes why both of these perspectives may be necessary for a being’s thriving. For example, a bird can pick out edible seeds (utilizing primarily the left hemisphere) while maintaining vigilant surveillance of its environment to detect potential predators (mediated by the right hemisphere).

According to McGilchrist, mankind, at least in the West, unfortunately has had a predilection for drifting into epochs during which the left hemisphere becomes overwhelmingly dominant with the baleful consequences of dehumanization, environmental exploitation, and ruthless individualism—a Hobbesian world of lives that are “brutish, nasty, and short.” Not surprisingly, the author suggests that we are in such an age currently. The “master and his emissary” image comes from a Nietzschean parable in which a virtuous ruler sends forth a redoubtable emissary to foster peaceful prosperity in his kingdom, only to have the counselor usurp the throne and wreak havoc and destruction on the realm. McGilchrist hopes that Western man will return to an equilibrium in which the wise emperor (the right cerebral hemisphere) and his formidable emissary (the left hemisphere) work synergistically.

The book is divided into two parts. Part one, “The Divided Brain,” provides the reader with some basic neuroscience to undergird comprehension of the author’s thesis. Part two, “How the Brain Has Shaped Our World,” surveys Western civilization, comparing and contrasting ages in which the left hemisphere was dominant (e.g., the Enlightenment) with those in which the “Master” and “Emissary” worked harmoniously (e.g., the Renaissance). A lengthy introduction and conclusion reinforce dominant themes, aiding the reader in seeing the entire Seuratian landscape of McGilchrist’s depiction of Western civilization and contemporary neuroscience, rather than merely the multitudinous individual points (i.e., fostering the right hemisphere keeping the left hemisphere in check).

McGilchrist’s breadth of knowledge is impressive, and The Master and His Emissary is accessible to the general reader. As with Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence, the book provides the reader with a broad, erudite survey of Western civilization. Additionally, it exposes the reader to the reasoned judgment of one competent in science assessing the view that we derive “real” knowledge only with the scientific method; McGilchrist shows that this view is impoverished indeed and that it inexorably leads to dehumanizing man into a mere machine. McGilchrist’s repudiation of materialism, the default philosophy of many current Western “elites” and “intellectuals,” is refreshing, as is his measured assessment of religion.

The author recognizes, “Even the best scientists . . . cannot help anthropomorphizing” (p. 256), and a fortiori a literary scholar-cum psychiatrist cannot either. Thus, though his oft-repeated thesis is riddled with assertions that seem as nonsensical as Richard Dawkins’s designation of certain genes as “selfish” (one wonders if other genes are “envious,” “hedonistic,” etc.)—e.g., the left hemisphere is “confident, unreasonably optimistic, unwitting of what goes on in the right hemisphere, and yet in denial about its own limitations” (p.131)—McGilchrist is wise enough to recognize that his conception is likely more metaphorical than factual. Indeed, pace Dickens’s Gradgrind, the author’s assertion that many of life’s most important insights are metaphors rather than facts is apposite. The Master and His Emissary provides the thoughtful believer with a more balanced view of what we currently know about the brain and ourselves than the settled “science” proffered by many of today’s self-styled “brights.”

J. A. Van Gerpen

J. A. Van Gerpen
Mayo Clinic
Jacksonville, Florida, USA

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