Modern Renaissance Person: A Piece of Cake

Modern Renaissance Person: A Piece of Cake

To the self-actualizing self-learner who has studied briefly the high points in human history the prospect of ever comprehending the human condition seems overwhelming. Where to begin? Perhaps some comprehension as to why the ancients could only propose eschatological solutions becomes apparent. Explanations for the human condition can come only from the beyond; perhaps only the will of God can be a starting point.

When we realize this we perhaps will be less condescending regarding the errors of the early thinkers when they began to seek a human solution for a crisis in human knowledge. How to set a coherent path to alleviate the chaotic drift in education and the fragmentation of thought?

The term ‘Renaissance Man’ suggests a wo/man of many accomplishments. S/he is a person who is not a specialist but a generalist, a person who knows a significant amount about many domains of knowledge rather than knowing more and more about less and less as does the specialist.

We might consider two classifications of knowledge similar to Aristotle’s definition. Accordingly one can have a ‘scientific knowledge’ of a matter or one can have an ‘educational acquaintance’ with that matter. Scientific knowledge is the possession of the specialist who knows not just general principles and conclusions of the field but also many of the detailed findings included therein. Educational acquaintance comes with a comprehension of the methods of the subject, not just the details, particulars, and conclusions. A person with an educational acquaintance with a domain of knowledge is a person who is “critical” in that field.

To quote Aristotle “It will, however, of course, be understood that we only ascribe universal education to one who in his own individual person is thus critical in all or nearly all branches of knowledge, and not to one who has a like ability merely in some special subject. For it is possible for a man to have this competence in some one branch of knowledge without having it in all.”

The individual with an educational acquaintance in a field of knowledge is one who is capable of sorting out sense from non-sense in that field.

Some will whine that today, with all of our knowledge, it is impossible for anyone to become a Renaissance Person. I say non-sense! With the world’s accumulated knowledge at our finger-tips anyone who has practiced the art and science of navigating knowledge can quickly gain an educational acquaintance with any domain of knowledge in a matter of weeks rather than a matter of years as would be required in ancient times. Today becoming a Bacon or a Thomas is, relatively, a piece of cake.

a question that plays to the issue you lay out;

Why would a Philosophy Major score better on grad entrence exams than a Business Major?

The breadth of knowledge the philosophy major attains(if i can say knowledge)is much wider than that of the business major, but the depth of particular knowledge the business major would have in his field would be greator.


Your conclusion is not obvious to me. It may be the case that a person getting an undergraduate degree in philosophy might have a more diverse set of courses but I tend to doubt it.

Interesting thought. What fields of knowledge would you say are obligatory material to the modern Renaissance man?

I have been studying the author Earnest Becker. He has written four books in which he attempts to make an argument regarding this matter. I have some way to go yet before I reach his final answer and will give you his results a bit later. But here are my thoughts at the present.

The phrase ‘liberal education’ has passed from common usage in our American culture in the last several decades. There are still Liberal Arts Colleges in America but they seem to be less in demand by today’s students. Parents and students want universities and colleges to focus on matters of importance, how to get a good job.

It seems that few recognize that education has an extrinsic and an intrinsic value. The extrinsic value is contained within the fact that a practical education is the key to making a better living.

What is the intrinsic value of learning? Why study history or literature? Of what value is philosophy? Why study logic or how to think when I only care about learning how to build a bridge? Of what value is it for me to become a critically self-conscious thinker?

Everybody comprehends how the intellect can be used to build bridges, or repair a broken bone, or be an accountant but our culture has slowly removed from our comprehension the purpose of an ordered intellect in matters of providing meaning and purpose to life.

It appears that the mind has its own ‘grammar’ (system of rules). Many forms of thinking, i.e. math and music or logic, help us construct a solid structure for exercising this grammar. Other types of knowledge, i.e. history, help us because we understand the present through analogies with the past.

Creativity is greatly enhanced by the cross-fertilization of multiple sources and kinds of knowledge. The broad scope afforded by a liberal education prepares us to see things in ‘the whole’; we see things holistically (in combination, in completeness, not dissected or fragmented).

Some consider that wisdom is “seeing life whole”, every realm of knowledge is necessary for discovering ‘full truth’.

John Henry Newman wrote that the pursuit of knowledge will “draw the mind off from things which will harm it,” and added that it will renovate man’s nature by rescuing him “from that fearful subjection to sense which is his ordinary state.”

Self-directed intellection can increase a person’s net worth. An autodidactic can increase his/her net worth in two ways: a) acquiring interested knowledge as a means to qualify for a new career, b) acquiring ‘disinterested knowledge’ as an end thereby creating a newly developing self in a newly apprehended world.

Disinterested knowledge is an intrinsic value. Disinterested knowledge is not a means but an end. It is knowledge I seek because I desire to know it.

I mean the term ‘disinterested knowledge’ as similar to ‘pure research’, as compared to ‘applied research’. Pure research seeks to know truth unconnected to any specific application.

I think of the self-learner of disinterested knowledge as driven by curiosity and imagination to understand certain matters. The self-learner seeks to ‘see’ through intellection directed at understanding the self as well as the world. That knowledge and understanding that is sought by the autodidactic is only determined by personal motivations.

The self-learner of disinterested knowledge is in a single-minded search for truth. The goal, truth, is generally of insignificant consequence in comparison to the single-minded search. Others must judge the value of the ‘truth’ discovered by the autodidactic. I suggest that truth, should it be of any universal value, will evolve in a biological fashion when a significant number of pursuers of disinterested knowledge engage in dialogue.

There is a great difference between knowing and understanding. Everyone can answer “yes” when asked if they know music. Of course, ‘all god’s chilin’ know music. We receive answers that go on forever when we ask a teenager if they know music. We awaken instant and sentimental memories when we ask an older person to tell what they know about music. A great deal of emotion is contained in our ‘knowing’ about music.

Silence and puzzlement is our response when we ask a person “do you understand music?” Occasionally the question “do you understand music?” receives an expression of delight and a verbal outpouring. The person who understands music–they are few and far between–has studied music in a way very few of us have. I suspect such a person is not only a lover but also a student of music. I do not understand music but I do understand the meaning of “understanding music”.

I create this musical metaphor for the purpose of illuminating a state of affairs of which we are seldom conscious.

Our formal educational system teaches us the knowledge required for making a living. Our formal education does not teach us the understanding required to live well. The development of understanding is something each of us must create on our own. If we do not recognize this fact we will not pursue this understanding and if we do not pursue this understanding we will remain intellectually naive.

We start our formal education experience as intellectually naïve children and end it twelve to eighteen years later as well informed intellectually naïve grown ups.

After formal education ends our understanding begins. The task of understanding is a private enterprise by me and for me. Understanding begins with this recognition and continues as one creates a process for the solitary activity of self-learning. I think a person could look at self-learning as a hobby, it could be one of your hobbies like tennis or golf, just a few hours each week and I suspect after a while it will become a very important part of your life style. Developing a sophisticated intellect is a solitary study lasting a lifetime.

Carl Sagan is quoted as having written; “Understanding is a kind of ecstasy.”

[b]I would like to find a book that might define the characteristics of a domain of knowledge that a person might need to meet the criteria of “educated acquaintance” that Aristotle speaks of. A person with an educational acquaintance with a domain of knowledge is a person who is “critical” in that field. It appears that Aristotle means the general principles and conclusions of the field that a person who is “critical” in that field would have.

Can anyone suggest a book that I might read that would spell out what one might need to know and why they would need to know it to meet the criteria of having an “educational acquaintance” with a domain of knowledge?[/b]

I entirely agree thant intrinsic is much, much more valuable to man than extrinsic learning. For different reasons, perhaps, than the man you quote. I definitely don’t see that the passions are curbed because of natural learning. Rather, directed - certainly, enhanced.
I immediately thought of Goethe when I read your initial post

You have meantioned logic, mathemathics, music, history. These are without a doubt necessities to the renaissance man, but the modern homo-universalis has not only more means of aquiring knowledge, but also a much broader scope of knowledge than Goethe or Leonardo - and that is why I disagree that becoming one is easy.

I’m personally convinced that, for instance, a modern Renaissance man must have a solid grasp of Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan and Indian teachings, in theory and in practice. This takes a lot of time alone. Physics haven’t gotten easier. A renaissance man should at least superficially graps the struggle between relativity and quantumphysics, to give an example. Then there are media as involved in the arts, and not unimportantly the mechanisms of golobal economics. All of these fields could well have bewildered Goethe and Leonardo, but I think they are fundamental to a comrehensive picture of the world we live in. These are just four examples that come to mind.
What do you think?


Ernest Becker has reserved the last 50 pages of his book “Beyond Alienation” to give a description of what he considers to be a required crriculum for a university that would teach this unity of knowledge he speaks of. There is much work yet for me to do before I get to that section. His answer will not be in the form that you might think so I must understand step by step his argument before I can give you his answer.

At this point I guess we all can make up any list that seems desirable to us.

I’ve looked him up, he appears very brave, warlike.

I’ll keep an eye on this thread. Assuming this is where you will be exposing your further ideas.


Becker has written four books that are related to his argument. I am slowly working through these four books and posting as I go. It is not evident to the casual observer that these posts are all related. Several of my last posts are part of the argument and most of my future posts will be also, at least for the next several weeks. I am setting the stage so the reader can comprehend his argument if the reader wishes to.