Strangling the Renaissance (Wo)man

Albert Einstein is most well-known for his work in theoretical physics and his famous mass-energy equivalence formula (E=mc^2). However, not many people know that Einstein also contributed to Geology with his paper on Baer’s Law, played the violin, and was offered presidency by the country of Israel. Besides being an excellent painter, Leonardi da Vinci was also an excellent sculptor, architect, musician, mathematician, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist and writer. When not looking to the skies, Galileo buried his head in math, philosophy, painting and lute playing. The face that graces the twenty-dollar U.S. bill – Benjamin Franklin – played many roles, such as politician, scientist, inventor, civic activist and diplomat. And to prove that men weren’t the only ones gifted with so many talents, Hildegard of Bingen was a German writer, composer, philosopher, Benedictine abbess, and wrote theological, botanical, medicinal papers as well as songs and poems. Similarly, the Italian Maria Gaetana Agnesi practiced mathematics, philosophy, theology and played the harpsichord and composed music.

All these people were extremely multi-talented, exemplars of the phrase “Renaissance Man” (or Woman). Many of the people listed above weren’t just extremely intelligent, they were extremely wise – they’re words often quoted (and misquoted). These people were leaders by example and had the power to inspire others not just by their speech, but also by their actions. Many of these people contributed greatly to their respective fields; they didn’t just know or do many things, they excelled at them. The great intellectual and cultural movers and shakers of history were made up of Renaissance Men and Women. These were the harbingers of the coming age.

Sadly, it feels as if there hasn’t been a Renaissance Man or Women in our world for a while. Our society seems to have been at a standstill as far as multi-talented geniuses go. Yes, there are still geniuses out there, but they don’t have nearly the same social or intellectual standing as one would have back in the day. It appears that the talented scientist-artist-social-leader is a dying breed. Some would say part of the reason for this lack of “Renaissance people” is because there aren’t any more earth-shattering scientific discoveries to be made, everything is now just some iteration of something before it. While this could be a reason for the lack of recognizable scientific and mathematical geniuses out in the world, I think the reason lies within our society. Human society has become increasingly specialized. We have now hundreds if not thousands of different categories for different fields of study and professions. Everyone has a role to play in the great machine of society, and everyone seems to stay within those boundaries prescribed to them by what they’ve been taught. We have many talented and intelligent scientists, engineers, artists and writers, but because they have been labeled as scientists, engineers, artists and writers, many feel as if that’s all they will ever be, or ever will be entitled to be. We think that just because we graduate with a diploma in X means that we are only allowed to voice our opinions on X, as that is our topic of expertise. If we try to voice an opinion about topic Y, we are ridiculed, people say that we do not know what we are talking about. You never see a baseball player performing surgery because a baseball player shouldn’t be allowed to practice a profession without having a certain amount of education in the topic. Admittedly this is a pretty poor example, but even if the baseball player wanted to become a surgeon, in today’s society it would be extremely difficult. Each of those professions requires years of experience and study, in today’s world, we’d say it would be impossible. Paths diverge so early in our lives thanks to the educational and social system, we begin to have serious doubts when the time arises to choose a major of study, or to choose a job, because we think that whatever door we choose to walk through, we’ll be closing countless other doors. We have this perception that because we choose one thing, we can’t do another thing because we won’t have the experience.

This kind of thinking stifles creativity. This kind of thinking prevents the rise of inspirational and intelligent leaders. A culture of specialization and expertise becomes stale quickly. If everyone has his or her head buried deeply into his or her cardboard box, he or she won’t be able to see what everyone else is doing and opportunities will be missed. Many of the great discoveries now are interdisciplinary, they require one to cross traditional boundaries and combine radical schools of thought. Great leaders aren’t only smart in terms of math and sciences, great leaders are charismatic and understand the importance of communication. It seems to me that the current way our society and education system is structure prevents people from really branching out and becoming proficient in a variety of topics. Yes, some topics require more study than others, but education should make it more accessible for people to learn more if they want to, it shouldn’t close doors. While I do believe that it takes a very talented mind to become a Renaissance person, I also believe that culture influences the rise of the Renaissance person. I highly doubt that there were more multi-talented geniuses in the past than there are now. I believe there are many people out there with the desire to learn more, but feel stifled by an environment of specialization, a culture of pick-one-and-only-one.

Think of a figure that inspires you. Most likely, that person was talented in many areas, was both intelligent and charismatic, knew how to communicate knowledge as well as discover it. That person probably understood the importance of both science and art. Where are these people today? Yes, there are some, but I think there are more out there. Don’t let boundaries and social expectations prevent you from pursuing all your interests. You don’t have to just pick one. There is plenty of life out there to experience and learn.

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