Rebirth of the Renaissance Man


The ostensible success of Grown Ups 2 should serve as the last nail in the coffin for Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs hypothesis. Maslow suggested (hoped, really) that as people met their basic needs they would strive to achieve more for themselves, culminating in self-actualization. As it turns out, once people get their chateaubriand and Glendronach out of the way, they are perfectly content to extinguish all further aspirations. For others, all it takes is Cheetos and beer.

This is the world we have inherited. Senescence is the belief that the world is old, sick and nearly dead. Y2K brought on a wave of senescence across the globe, just as the end of each century always has. Now, a decade and a half into the new millennium, we are beginning to discern the dim outlines of a weltanschauung that last seized the world in the 1920’s – the belief in an imminent and immanent (perhaps an eminent) rebirth.

Of course, the big “R” Renaissance, beginning in the 14th century, was the Rogue Wave of rebirths in terms of European culture. The doors to the East were burst apart by the horrors of the Crusades and Europe was bathed in a flood of ancient wisdom, some of it shockingly new and the rest merely unearthed.

Then as now, there was a need for a new kind of human to absorb and inhabit this new gnosis. The ideal of the Renaissance Man was born.

The ideal human for the Renaissance humanists was a capable scientist, an athlete, a scholar, a statesman, and an artist.

Nothing less could be a man in full. Many strived but few could achieve it on a practical level. One of the very few who were able to embody this ideal was Émilie le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise du Châtelet. She was a close friend and lover of Voltaire, who remarked that the Marquise was “a great man whose only fault was being a woman.”

Speaking of her own talents, she said, “It may be that there are metaphysicians and philosophers whose learning is greater than mine, although I have not met them. Yet, they are but frail humans, too, and have their faults; so, when I add the sum total of my graces, I confess I am inferior to no one.”

It was not a boast but an understatement. She was fluent in French, German, Latin and Greek by the age of twelve. She studied fencing, riding and dance. She remained a confidant to rulers like Frederick the Great of Prussia. And although she was merely passable at the harpsichord, her greatest achievement was her impeccable translation of Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica from tortured Latin into contemporary French. Imagine working through high level math at the forefront of physics written in a dead language by an addled alchemist and somehow making sense of it all. Without a doubt she was Western culture’s most successful popularizer of science.

Although specialists may still be required in many fields of our highly technological world, the Renaissance Self brings together insights from across varied disciplines or modalities to present a cohesive vision. While in many ways man has become smaller and weaker, the Renaissance Self must become stronger and greater.

It is in the role of athlete that qualities such as discipline, resilience, bravery and confidence are wrought. This mode, the pure physicality of it, is both a test and a foil to the other arts. An artist who is not at home with their great animal energies will burn out before their potential is maximized. Likewise the scholar is ever learning and ever curious—as well as genuinely objective—and keeps the artist honest. The scientist too demands intellectual honesty and rigor, while the statesman does not shrink from the great problems and questions of his time. The market has largely replaced the polis as the contemporary arena of action, so today’s Renaissance Man will as likely be a businessman as statesman. It is the dedication to solving real problems that defines this character.

In the coming Comic Age, not everyone can be a Renaissance Man. But those who strive to lead us into this new world must be.

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