The Renaissance Man

The term Renaissance man suggests a person, either a man or a woman, of many accomplishments. A Renaissance man is neither an expert nor a specialist. He or she knows more than just a little about "everything" instead of knowing "everything" about a small part of the entire spectrum of modern knowledge. The term is essentially ironic, for it is universally believed that no one really can be a Renaissance man in the true meaning of the term, since knowledge has become so complex that no human mind is capable of grasping all, or even a large part, of it.

Was there ever a Renaissance man, even during the Renaissance, in this sense of the term? The answer is no. The reason may seem surprising. Knowledge is no more complex today that it was in the fifteenth century. That is, it was just as complex then as it is now. It was no more possible for any human being to know everything about everything then that it is now.

This does not mean that everything we know was known by the men and women of Renaissance times. Obviously, we know many things they did not know. On the other hand, they knew many things we do not. They were much more knowledgeable about theology, for example, a science they took infinitely more seriously than do we. On the whole, they were better philosophers, for again they prized philosophy more highly than we do. Their knowledge of philosophy was, if not greater than ours, then very different. Those were very general fields in which they thought it desirable to specialize, and to them the greatest thinkers devoted their best efforts.

In one general field we are far ahead of Renaissance men. We know vastly more about the way nature works than they did. People of the Renaissance had only just begun to recognize this field of knowledge as both respectable and important. We have concentrated on it, almost to the exclusion of everything else, for nearly five centuries. It is no wonder that we are far ahead of them. It is also no surprise that we remain far behind them with respect to other disciplines they thought more important than natural science.

These remarks are not made in support of their sense of priorities. Like every modern person, I am inclined to believe that our bias toward natural science and away from divine science (if I may make the distinction so simply) is correct. On the whole, we live better today than Renaissance men and women lived, longer, more healthy, more comfortably, because of our emphasis on natural science.

The point is to correct a fundamental misunderstanding about what was meant by the idea of the "Renaissance man" in the Renaissance. As I have said, there never was a Renaissance man in the distorted sense we use today. But there were examples of such remarkable persons in another sense of the term, not only in the Renaissance, but also in classical antiquity and perhaps also in recent times. We shall even have to examine the question whether it is not possible for Renaissance men in the true sense to exist today.

As with so many ideas, this one can be traced back to Aristotle. It is addressed in the beginning of his treatise On the Parts of Animals, when he discourses on the method that he will employ in what follows. What he says is both simple and profound:

Every systematic science, the humblest and the noblest alike, seems to admit of two distinct kinds of proficiency; one of which may be properly called scientific knowledge of the subject, while the other is a kind of educational acquaintance with it. For an educated man should be able to form a fair off-hand judgment as to the goodness or badness of the method used by a professor in his exposition. To be educated is in fact to be able to do this; and even the man of universal education we deem to be such in virtue of his having this ability. It will, however, of course, be understood that we only ascribe universal education to one who in his own individual person is thus critical in all or nearly all branches of knowledge, and not to one who has a like ability merely in some special subject. For it is possible for a man to have this competence in some one branch of knowledge without having it in all.

This famous passage, so full of meaning and usefulness for our own time as well as the Renaissance, may require some comment to be fully comprehensible. First, to the distinction between having "scientific knowledge" of a subject and "educational acquaintance" with it. "Scientific knowledge," here, is the knowledge possessed by a specialist in a given field, which entails knowing not just the general principles and conclusions of the field but also all the detailed findings included therein. As the ancient physician Hippocrates said, "Life is short and the Art long" (Ars longa vita brevis est). That is, no individual in the short span of a human life can hope to acquire "scientific knowledge" in the sense of knowing everything there is to be known in all fields or branches of knowledge. That was as true in Aristotle's day, as he clearly implies, as of course it is true today.

What does Aristotle mean by an "educational acquaintance" with a subject? It is what a man or woman possesses who has been educated in the method of the subject, not just its details and its particular findings and conclusions. Such a person is "critical" in that field. That is, he is able to tell the difference between sense and nonsense, as we might say using modern terms, about the field. A "professor" of the field is an expert, a specialist. But Aristotle recognizes that such a "professor" might be less genuine than he would like you to believe. A person with an "educated acquaintance" with the field would be able to tell if that were so.

"To be educated," says Aristotle, "is in fact to be able to do this." That is, a person can only claim to be educated if he is able to be "critical" in a wide range of scientific knowledge -- if he is able to distinguish between sense and nonsense even when he is not a specialist in any one area of knowlege. What an extraordinary claim! And how far it is from our current notion of what being educated means!

Finally, a man of "universal education" -- who is none other than our Renaissance man -- is one who is "critical" in all or nearly all branches of knowledge. Such a person does not have the "critical" ability in some special subject only. He has it in all, or nearly all.

[...] Aristotle was certainly a Renaissance man. Nor should the title be withheld from several other Greek thinkers, among them Democritus and Plato, who was not only the premier philosopher of his time but also the premier mathematician.

[Leonardo da Vinci, Pico della Mirandola, Francis Bacon -- they all tried to know everything about everything, and of course all failed. But they dared to try...]

The Renaissance Man and the Idea of Liberal Education

The Aristotelian ideal of the educated person, "critical" in all or almost all branches of knowlege, survived for centuries as the aim of liberal education. Originally, the student would be taught seven arts or skills, consisting of the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music). The names are antique, but the seven "subjects" were comparable to a modern liberal curriculum of languages, philosophy, mathematics, history, and science. The arts or skills were "liberal" because they were liberating. That is, they freed their possessor from the ignorance that bound the uneducated.

The twentieth century has seen radical change in this traditional scheme of education. The failure of the Renaissance to produce successful "Renaissance men" did not go unnoticed. If such men as Leonardo, Pico, Bacon, and many others almost as famous could not succeed in their presumed dream of knowing all there was to know about everything, then lesser men should not presume to try. The alternative became self-evident: achieve expertise in one field while others attained expertise in theirs. Much easier to accomplish, this course led to a more comfortable academic community. Now an authority in one field need compete only with experts in his field.

The convenient device for accomplishing the change consisted of a divided and subdivided university, with separate departments, like armed feudalities, facing one another across a gulf of mutual ignorance. The remaining competition involved the use of university funds, which were soon distributed according to principles that had little to do with academic values or knowledge as such. The original belief that an educated person should be "critical" in more fields than his own no longer existed. Eventually, as C. P. Snow (1905-1980) pointed out, the university's separate worlds ceased to talk to one another. The "uni" in university also became meaningless as the institution, possessing more and more power as government funds were pumped into it for research, turned into a loose confederation of disconnected mini-states, instead of an organization devoted to the joint search for knowledge and truth.

Until World War II, undergraduate colleges, at least, hewed to the liberal ideal, without always doing so enthusiastically. After the war, the liberal curriculum was discarded almost everywhere, and the departmental organization of the educational establishment was installed at all levels below the university, even in many elementary schools.

All that remained, in the popular consciousness, was the sometimes admiring, sometimes ironic, and sometimes contemptuous phrase "Renaissance man," which was applied to almost anyone who manifested an ability to do more than one thing well. Even then, the phrase was never used in its original, Aristotelian sense. That ideal and the idea have been lost completely.

Excerpt from Charles Van Doren's book
A history of knowledge: Past, present, and future,
1991. New York: Ballantine Books. Check the validity of this page's XHTML Check the validity of this site's Cascading Style Sheet Page maintained by Alex Petrov
Created 2006-05-20, last updated 2006-05-20.