Renaissance Man: Dead or Alive?

Christopher Wren by Godfrey Kneller 1711 - National Portrait Gallery

Wren, Newton, da Vinci and Galileo, to name a few,  were “renaissance men”.  They were able to master and practice a number of widely different professions.  Can it still be done in today’s highly specialised world?

David Deutsch in the Fabric of Reality puts a slightly different slant on the question and it remains one of the most interesting and convincing  books I have ever read.  As a child, like many scientists, Deutsch wanted to “know everything” and wondered whether that could ever be possible.

To qualify his ambition he did not require knowledge of “where every sparrow fell” – a wonderful biblical allusion to Matthew 10:29-30.  He did not aspire to be god.

Many of us have this unquenchable thirst for knowledge. We want to know where we came from, how the universe began, the nature of time and consciousness. What is the “meaning” of maths? Its object, its goal, its range of competence?  It is all so mysterious and complex and many experts seem to spend their entire lives ruminating on just one tiny piece of the puzzle.

A Renaissance Man living in the 21st Century on planet earth has to curtail his ambition somewhat. We no longer live in the days of Galen and should not expect to become surgeon barbers.  You have to specialise.  But that does not mean we can not, as laymen, understand at least the rudiments of modern medicine.

Roger Penrose By Cirone-Musi, Festival della Scienza, CC BY-SA 2.0
Roger Penrose By Cirone-Musi, Festival della Scienza, CC BY-SA 2.0

Roger Penrose has spent a lifetime as a distinguished mathematical physicist and as laymen we should not expect to attain his grasp of cosmology or quantum mechanics.

And yet we can and should know in broad general terms about all these things. We should at least aim to have a broad understanding of what the outlines of current human knowledge actually are.

So yes, Renaissance Man lives on. He can not be expected to both build Cathedrals and replace broken hearts (or mend arms or legs) but he can at least have a broad and cultured knowledge about what it is his colleagues in other fields practice.

I will never grasp the minutiae but I do at least want to understand what such men do.

Leonardo da Vinci The Last Supper (1498)‍—‌Convent of Sta. Maria delle Grazie, Milan, Italy
Leonardo da Vinci – The Last Supper (1498)‍—‌Convent of Sta. Maria delle Grazie, Milan, Italy

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