What Is a Renaissance Man?

Da Vinci. Pascal. Descartes. Newton. Einstein. They broke molds. They pushed boundaries—not just the boundaries of their disciplines, but of themselves, of who they were. Discontented with the gap between the What Is and the What Could Be, they pressed on; they persevered; they made progress; they advanced. And as they did, they brought with them their disciplines, their peers, and their societies; their advances advanced humanity. We owe them a great debt, these renaissance men.

Now, I in no way want to make the claim that I am or ever will be as influential, reputable, or knowledgeable as da Vinci or Newton; but, like them, I don’t fit nicely into a mold—never have. Being a musician and lover of literature, I don’t well fit the archetype of scientist; being so scientific and logical, I don’t well fit the archetype of romantic; and I could go on. I wouldn’t have it any other way. That’s because I’m a renaissance man. It is innate to a renaissance man to not fit molds, for the renaissance man ideal of self-improvement results in growth, and as things grow, they will necessarily break their molds.

This desire to grow and this insatiable curiosity to know more are at the heart of every renaissance man. He is not content with the way things are, neither for himself nor for the world around him. He wants to know, for he knows that knowledge is power—power to change things for the better. He also knows that by knowing more, he can know more, so he desires widespread knowledge and devotes himself to this endeavor. In modern parlance, the term renaissance man has come to refer to one who notably excels in his field, who is a renowned master of his craft. I feel this does a disservice to the term and to those who truly embody the renaissance man ideal. True to my anachronistic tendencies, I prefer the old-fashioned meaning, and that’s the meaning I have in mind when I use the term: one who is interested and proficient in a wide variety domains—that is, a polymath (a Greek term roughly translated as “much learning”) or an uomo universale (Italian for “universal man”).

This renaissance man ideal flows from the humanist beliefs of the Renaissance that mankind has unbounded potential for knowledge and growth and so should strive to continue learning and growing. Back during the Renaissance, such a universal approach to education was taken, not training people solely for a specific field, but producing well-rounded and diversely knowledgeable individuals who would then—and only then—be competently equipped to pursue mastery in a specific field. Hence our term “university”: a universal approach to education so as to produce a well-rounded and competently equipped individual. Sadly, today’s universities have lost sight of those roots, investing instead in developing narrowly focused experts. Don’t get me wrong: there’s nothing wrong with having such experts or in gaining expertise. As a Ph.D. graduate, I’m one of those people. And I certainly want our doctors and lawyers and top researchers to excel in their field. I just think it comes at a cost when we push people to specialize too early and that we would do well to encourage learners to become more well-rounded before they focus on a discipline. That is, I think we would all do well to be renaissance men, polymaths, uomini universali.

That, in a nutshell, is what a renaissance man is. This blog, however, focuses more on what a renaissance man does. After all, growth is the ideal of a renaissance man, and growth is a process; it is active. To keep a blog on what a renaissance man is would be dull and stagnant; but, to live as a renaissance man is inherently dynamic and exciting. I want to capture the latter. Thus, this blog is not about what it means to be a renaissance man; rather, it is about being a renaissance man and what I discover and learn along that journey and how that gives meaning to life. With that in mind, I won’t dwell further on defining renaissance man-dom; if you want to read more about what a renaissance man is and what that looks like, I’m going to refer you to this excellent post on the Art of Manliness, which does a superb job (assuredly better than I could do) of describing what a modern renaissance man is, what that looks like, and some tips on how to do it.

Discussing what it is to be a renaissance man, I am reminded, with fresh pangs, that I still occasionally feel shame and dishonesty when I call myself a renaissance man. (But, to my credit, I do believe that I was not the first to call myself a renaissance man, that that label was applied to me before I ever dared apply it to myself.) I’ve few notable achievements to my name, save the Ph.D.; I’m no expert in my field, much less in multiple fields; my accomplishments in various domains are more hobby than anything else. And then I think about the Renaissance Man himself, Leonardo da Vinci, and I feel absolutely incompetent. But, as he undoubtedly would have argued, being a renaissance man isn’t about being an expert in everything, but about being curious and developing skills and growing in knowledge and, in general, improving oneself. So, I don’t need to worry about being the best in all—or even any—of these domains; what matters is that I’m being the best me I can be. What matters is not the pursuit of an ideal, but that the pursuit itself is the ideal. That’s what being a renaissance man is all about. As someone who has had a lifelong struggle with perfectionism and achievement-mindedness, this emphasis on improvement and progress over achievement and perfection is a welcomed breath of fresh air; I hope it continues to prove liberating.

So that’s what this blog will be about: my journey of growth as a renaissance man. Hopefully, through the process, I will live up to that moniker, self-imposed though it may be (sorry for the presumption in that, but there’s no denying that the term describes my approach to life and learning). And that’s where I hope this blog will serve another purpose: it will hold me accountable to pursue these ideals (or, I should say, to idealize the pursuit). It will help me to ever be curious, to ever study and learn, to ever appreciate art and beauty, to ever increase my own potential, to ever be the best me I can be. I’m a big believer in saying what you mean and meaning what you say, so if I say I’m going to do it, that’s going to go a long way to motivate me to do it. I hope that in doing this blog and having asserted myself as a renaissance man, I will now be more motivated to live up to that ideal and order my life according to that belief, for I do believe it—or, at the very least, I want to believe it—so I want to make it true; I want to turn that hope into reality.

So, having now proclaimed to all the world (leastways those in the world who are reading this) that I consider myself a renaissance man, and having declared intentions to pursue the ideals of renaissance man-dom (ideals of continual growth and learning and improvement), I intend to pursue those ideals, and I have the world to keep me accountable—but also to share in it with me, that we might all be a bit more renaissanced. Some of these pursuits will be hard to share via blog. For example, we can’t all go for a run together or attend the symphony together. But, those experiences are vital to a well-rounded life, and so I encourage us all to engage in them. As I experience them and they are relevant to what I post, I will share about them. Otherwise, posts will be more or less limited to things in the academic domains, for those domains find themselves more amenable to dissemination and collective experience via such a blog format. Also, those domains are the ones I most enjoy thinking and writing about. After all, my initial purpose for this blog, lest I stray too far from that, is about seeking and sharing knowledge.

So, I’m considering this a new chapter in my life, a baptism into the life of a polymath, the beginning of a life of dedicated and disciplined growth and self-improvement. It is a rebirth—that is, a renaissance. Here’s to the new me. Here’s to being the best me I can be. Care to join me? Let’s renaissance!

Yours truly,
D. R. Meriwether
Renaissance Man

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