Thursday, January 13, 2011

Drilling Down - What it Means to Be Renaissance Man

"If you want to know how big of a douche you are, Google yourself."

Luke Burbank, of Too beautiful to Live said something to this affect a few weeks ago on an episode of Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me!. I didn't think to write it down, but you get the gist of the statement. Sometimes you don't realize how people see you until you do a little introspection or, internet-spection.

So, In what is potentially a self-serving curiousity, I've been looking up what the phrase Renaissance Man means to the rest of the world. I've got a very specific idea of the concept, but I'm not sure that this definition is shared by the masses out their on the interwebs. This is my attempt to distill the term for the good of all.


I was always taught that Wikipedia is an unacceptable source for academic research. That being said, I've found that it is an ideal starting point for basic information. You want to know the average population of Green Bay? How about the entire discography of Wilco? I would recommend you vet the information through other, more reliable sources, but the overarching disdain of Wikipedia among academics does seem to be a bit more hype than reality.

When I plugged Renaissance Man into the Wiki, I got a much shorter answer than I anticipated:
As much as I love Danny DeVito and Star Trek, neither of the latter entries were the answer to my query. The top link, however, was intriguing. So I probed further:

"A polymath (Greek: πολυμαθής, polymathēs, "having learned much")[1] is a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas. In less formal terms, a polymath (or polymathic person) may simply be someone who is very knowledgeable. Most ancient scientists were polymaths by today's standards."

Entry for Polymath, Wikipedia

This definition also describes my understanding of Renaissance man - A person who knows a great deal about a variety of subjects. But I don't think this explanation fully embodies what I imagine a renaissance man to be. Isn't a renaissance man more than just a thinker? I believe there is more to the story here.

So on to the next modern-day reference point we go.

Stop Googling yourself - You'll Go Blind!

After wading through more Wikipedia entries, Danny DeVito references, and other semi-redundant links about 15th century Italians and Polymaths, I found a couple of perspectives that stood out.

The blog entitled The Rawness has a series called Becoming a Renaissance Man. This seven part series is the authors thoughts on virility and true manhood in the 21st century. As I parsed the message of the series, I noticed an aggressive voice, seemingly shouting

"Grow a pair, men of the world!"

The author speaks to the emasculation of our society, offering life changing tips such as,

I'll admit that this series comes across as terse, combative, and at times even misogynistic. Coupled with other series' on The Rawness, such as The Guide to Becoming the Perfect Woman, The Myth of The Middle-Class Alpha Male Series, this site comes across as down-right offensive at times. But it makes some very valid points. Some of the other tips for Renaissance status include,

Although he claims to be prescribing the elements of a renaissance man, none of these entries explicitly pinpoint what it is to be such a character. They seem to lift up chivalry and an antiquated type of masculinity that I appreciate, but do not fully buy into. the borderline sexism of The Rawness can be a dangerous thing, if read by the naive viewer.

But these entries do touch upon an idea that isn't explored in the polymath description. What appeals to me in The Rawness' perspective is the call to action. The need to be a decisive, forward thinking, self assured character. A renaissance man looks at the world differently. Going with the flow is not in the vocabulary of the such an entity.

The renaissance man is a doer.

Be a Thinker and a Doer

In my mind, a renaissance man is not only a person that has amassed a great wealth of knowledge. They also use that knowledge to make a mark on society. They build things. They create things. A renaissance man is one who observes, collects, and then processes that knowledge to create something new. They are doers. They contribute to society. And that is what is missing from the polymath description.

Combining the two ideas is what I want to do. I thrive on collecting knowledge, and cannot help but apply that knowledge to everything I see. Adapt, transform, and reinvent. Isaac Newton once said,

"If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants."

Merely knowing the giants is not enough. Taking the experiences of others and building upon them to contribute new ideas to the world is the true definition of a renaissance man.

And I'll keep training.

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