History is flooded with many great names. From warriors and kings to philosophers and artists… human history is largely a tale of great things done by great souls. While the masses always participated in the works of history (where would Alexander the Great have gotten to without a mass of nameless soldiers?) it has always been the dreams, passions and obsessions of singular minds that have spurred wars, dynasties and social movements.
Sometimes I marvel at particular men such as Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. Most of the names that stick out through history are of social geniuses and/or cunning warriors. They command respect in their own rights. But men like da Vinci and Franklin and Jefferson are of an altogether different sort that have always fascinated me.
They are the defined as Renaissance Men.
A Renaissance Man, or polymath, is someone who excels in a wide range of fields. In the case of da Vinci, the fields were art, architecture, engineering and anatomy. Franklin was a journalist, printer, diplomat and scientist. With Jefferson it was politics, philosophy, engineering and archeology.
Modern education is, in some degree, an attempt to turn the masses into polymaths. We try to teach math, science, humanities and language to all students in the hopes that they will become broadly educated. It isn’t until college that education begins to focus onto more specialized knowledge.
But despite the efforts, it doesn’t feel like the modern system is creating many Renaissance Men. That is, unless you consider high competence in operating VCR menus, navigating Internet search engines and cooking grand microwave dinners a form of wide competence.
I don’t know that this is a flaw in our educational system, since I don’t know where Renaissance Men actually come from. Why do most people feel content with narrow fields of proficiency when a few explode into as many fields as they can?
Renaissance Men still exist. I personally know musicians that are artists; musicians that are budding politicians; a writer/engineer who loves sports. In fact, as I come to think of it, a very large portion of the people I know are talented artists (musical or visual) and excel in other professional careers. On further reflection, maybe a large percentage of us are, after all, minor polymaths—we work in one field and play hard in another.
Even so… even if many of us can be classified as minor polymaths, there still seems to be a disparity in the heroic polymath like Jefferson and da Vinci. Where are the people who make noticeable impacts on disparate professional stomping grounds? Sure, we have Bill Gates making a mark on personal computers… but he has yet to step into politics or art; we have George Bush stamping his name on global democracy (or protection of oil fields), but he has failed to excel as a philosopher or diplomat; we have Kobe Bryant dazzling basketball fans… but he lets us down in any other arena.
Maybe the time of complete Renaissance Men has come and gone. Maybe there is just too much information out there for anyone to really become a master in more than one field; maybe the competition has reached a level that high success can only come to single-minded devotion to a single trade. Something tells me that this is the case in our time. Real polymaths have a rough time surviving in any field because their attention is split up… and they won’t be able to compete with the best of the best in specific fields.
In ages past, a man could learn almost all of the officially pragmatic knowledge of humanity, because the scope of human knowledge could be fit into a few tomes. That doesn’t happen anymore. I know that in my own field of web development, there are increasingly large volumes of newly developing technologies every year. Just to stay on top of that is sometimes nigh impossible… what if I also wanted to become highly proficient in molecular biology as well as advanced musical theory?
Time is the reason there are less polymaths in our age than in the past. A human being no longer has the capacity to learn the majority of human knowledge that he had historically. A polymath of our century, to rival a man like da Vinci in his time, would have to live five hundred years to learn enough to stand out in an equivalent number of fields.
Still, I think more people ought to try to follow in the footsteps of the Renaissance Man, simply because there are so many fascinating things for each of us to learn in this world. It’s a shame more people don’t see the wonders that could enthrall their minds as they live their short lives.