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.

New on the Guardian: Beyond Debating God’s Existence
Weekend Coffee: March 28
TV Review: Cosmos, Episode 13
Atlas Shrugged: Bring Me a New Black Guy
About Adam Lee

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

  • tobe38

    I agree with all of this, except maybe the omission of history (as a subject in itself as opposed to the writings of historical figures). History, like science and philosophy is a quest for truth. I believe that it is very much a subject which promotes and rewards critical thinking skills, particularly in the analysis of historical sources. Arguments need to be evaluated for bias, flaws in reasoning and their perspective, empathy etc. It is also a subject that, like science, has an evil twin – pseudo-history, which has lead to obscenities like Holocaust denial and even, I think it could be argued, certain conspiracy theories like Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. Finally and perhaps most importantly, I believe it is a subject that demands intellectual honesty and integrity in order to be done properly. In investigating the past, it is often difficult not to have private beliefs about one would perhaps like to find. A good historian will always report what he finds to be true, not what he wants to be true.

    I’m thoroughly enjoying the site, Adam, and relish each new entry I find. Keep up the good work.


  • Psychobunny

    Your post was great (as usual!), but I would add one more thing: a working knowledge of behavior analysis in psychology. Being able to see both the contingencies and schedules under which an organism behaves and to see the modification of environmental conditions that likely produced the current behaviors in question gives a person the ability to interpret and modify skillfully the behavior of others and thereby a better picture of how to interact peacefully and work for change when it is necessary.

    Then again, as a specialist-to-be, my views could be biased. ;)

  • Ebonmuse

    Hah, my readers keep me honest!

    You’re both absolutely right: history and psychology are important areas of inquiry in their own right, and I do agree that everyone should have some exposure to them. In fact, I would say that they’re both aspects of a greater whole: understanding how humans’ minds work and why they make the decisions they do, which is definitely a vital area for everyone to be acquainted with. You can’t choose wisely if you don’t know how we think, what sort of errors we’re prone to make, and what the result was when people made similar choices in the past. Thank you to both of you for bringing this to my attention – it was thoughtless of me to overlook them in the first place.

  • BlackWizardMagus

    I recall reading that cosmology is literally not science, but considered philosphy, in one of my books. I wish I knew where to check that. Anyway, pretty good post. I have to say that, in my opinion, the social sciences as a whole need to be stressed. I fully respect hard science, math, philosophy, etc, but one of the most important things for our everyday lives and for society as a whole is for people to understand history, sociology, psychology, and especially political science, so they can understand people and vote in such a way as to guarantee individual rights. It would be best if the concept of the unbendable religious right were to fade, but since that’s unlikely, the next best thing would be to ensure that most people, of all faiths, know enough to seperate religion and state and vastly overrule the right.

  • andrea

    bravo for putting in the ability to create something. I think that’s incredibly important. There are people who can spout facts and figures but honest creation, that’s what seperates the geniuses from the very intelligent. A comic book I read names people with that quality “sparks”.

    IMO, political science is just an outgrowth of psychology. Once you understand people, you can make them do pretty much what you wish.

  • Quath

    I like this. I think we get this by better high school education or by getting more people to go to college.

    I would like to see some history taught where it repeats itself. It is one thing to claim it, it is another to demonstrate it. Maybe the Iraq War would not have happened if the Bush administration had more knowledge of history.

  • BlackWizardMagus

    andrea; well, political science does not always stem from making others do as you wish. Some people, yes, use politics for that, but others, such as myself, want to limit the ability of the government to affect people.

    I don’t think creating is a good requirement, even in our hopes. To make requires alot of inborn abilities. I can’t make much of anything. I have no…vision for things, and my hands are sloppy, to be honest. Over the years, I have dedicated time to learning to play the viola, to do woodworking, to mechanical jobs, etc. It takes certain abilities to this, and some of them I do not have, and there are alot of people like this.

  • andrea

    ah, but doesn’t even wanting to limit gov’t’s effect on people mean manipulating people in some way? If anything, to make them more responsible for themselves so they don’t want government interference? :)

    And I didn’tmean that that anyone had to be “good” or a master at creating, just willing. I have my strengths and my weaknesses in my abilities to create. I’m pretty good at sewing, cooking and brewing mead. I really really am awful at writing, singing, and a multitude of other things. I think it’s the willingness to try that it the most important part. Many people are the classic couch potato and want everything done for them.

  • Mrina

    I agree with what you wrote. I also made a list of categories from which I strive to know at least a little of each. My list seems more expansive than your own but the idea is the same and I think you’ve got the important stuff right on. Relieved to know other people feel the same.

    History is an absolute must. Is love? Or is that something totally out of our hands? I wonder if Leonardo da Vinci felt love?

  • Christopher

    I’m rather intrigued that you made no mention of the importance of the learning of languages, especially since this was an important part of the ideal education during the Renaissance period. What is your opinion on language learning and what place – if any – should it be given in the stages of one’s education, formal or otherwise? Do you place much importance on it at all?

    “The first duty of a scholar is to learn languages!” – Paraphrased from William of Baskerville.