Living Up to the Renaissance Ideal

In my previous post in this category, Know Everything, I expressed my desire to know every fact there is about the universe, to know how to solve every problem that has been solved. This goal is, of course, impossible. We cannot do that, so what can we do?

I have always admired the Renaissance ideal – the person who is knowledgeable in many areas, and constantly learning about more. Given that we can never know everything, this is probably the best we can achieve, and I think it is what we should aspire to. It is better to know a little about a lot, in my view, than a lot about a little.

There is nothing wrong with specializing, of course; human knowledge will never increase otherwise. But I also firmly believe that every educated person should have at least some exposure to a broad diversity of fields of knowledge. Spreading one’s experience over as many fields has possible has numerous advantages: it makes it more likely that one’s knowledge will have useful everyday applications; it makes it easier to perceive important connections that may help the field where one does specialize; and it offers a person the best chance to formulate a worldview that they can justify and defend themselves, without recourse to blind appeals to authority, and minimizes the chances of overlooking some important, potentially worldview-altering fact.

With that in mind, here is my modest proposal for the fields of knowledge with which a modern-day Renaissance human should be acquainted. (I should note that the points listed below are the same ones about which I have been and still am striving to educate myself. Imperfect though my efforts may be, the ideals I advocate are the same ones I strive to live by.)

First, and most important, I believe that every person should receive a thorough grounding in the principles of reasoning, both inductive and deductive, and in the scientific method. Although it is important that people understand science’s findings, it is more important that they know how to think and how to correctly evaluate an argument; in this way they can judge the merits of any claim, even in subjects with which they are unfamiliar, and are less likely to be duped by the fallacious and biased arguments so common in our society.

Second, once a foundation of scientific thinking exists, I believe every person should work toward a basic, if not a technical, understanding of the major theories in every scientific field. In physics, this would be relativity and quantum mechanics and the attempts to merge them; in chemistry, atomic theory and the periodic table; in biology, the theory of evolution; in geology, plate tectonics and continental drift; in cosmology, the Big Bang. These are the unifying ideas that give structure to entire disciplines of science, and all people should at least be acquainted with what they say and why scientists consider them likely to be true.

Third, people should understand and know something about mathematics and philosophy. Though these areas do not in themselves reveal truth about the world, they are, when used correctly, tools that can be used to assist in gaining this understanding. Mathematics gives our thoughts precision and elegance, while philosophy wielded with skill can clarify the boundaries of our knowledge, give shape to the possible, and point the way toward further refinement of our understanding.

Fourth, I believe that every person should read some of the great works of human literature, including if possible the sacred texts of several major world religions. Regardless of whether these texts contain truths about the world, they do if nothing else contain truths about the minds of the species that created them. I would of course also advocate study of the writings of history’s most prominent freethinkers, as well as a selection of literature from every era and culture.

Finally, I believe every person should know how to create something – whether it be to manage a garden, program a computer, play a musical instrument, or whatever else. Working with one’s mind is important to keep it in thinking shape, but there is also a subtle joy in creating with one’s hands. In an age of mass production and mechanization, the value of the handcrafted, the personal, is all the greater. It allows us to express our individuality in a way that hopefully brings benefit and happiness to oneself and to others. That is, after all, the chief purpose, the highest end, served by gaining knowledge or by any other human endeavor.

Useless Money: A Humanist Sermon
The Clock of the Long Now
A More Diverse Humanism Is a Stronger Humanism
Have We Hit the Limits of Growth?
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.