Being a Renaissance Man in the Digital Age

The Renaissance movement was a time of cultural rebirth, transforming the arts, literature, science, and much more. The period is notable for works like Michelangelo’s renown Sistine Chapel and creating a climate ripe for Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, which inaugurated what is today known as the Protestant Reformation.

In recent times, the Digital Age, has ushered its own transformation. It is now possible to nearly carry the sum of human knowledge in the palm of a hand. Global correspondence happens instantaneously — from a device in the same hand. The news cycle no longer is a cycle. Connectivity is a constant. Information has become a commodity.

The commodization of information has had serious consequences. Many are now overwhelmed by the sheer volume and constancy of information bombarding them from every angle. In his book, How to Think like Leonardo da Vinci, published in 1998, Michael J. Gelb has incredible foresight into the ever increasing commoditization of information:

Perhaps, like many of my friends, you feel that your greatest challenge is living a balanced, fulfilling life in the face of increasing stress from every direction…[i]n the Middle Ages, information was unavailable to the average person and the few books that existed were in Latin…[n]ow we are awash in an unprecedented, unrelenting overflow of data…

One of the most famous men of the Renaissance, and the primary focus of Gelb’s book, is Leonardo da Vinci. The painter behind The Last Supper *and the mysterious *Mona Lisa, da Vinci didn’t stop with the brush nor the arts. Da Vinci the scientist dissected cadavers to understand the anatomy of the body. Da Vinci the innovator was obsessed with flight and sketched a flying machine. That’s only scratching the surface.

Da Vinci was not solely interested in these subjects and occupations. He desired mastery. Dubbed in Italian Uomo Universale (literally, “universal man”), da Vinci is described as the epitome of a Renaissance Man, a man dedicated to expanding and perfecting his abilities and knowledge across multiple subjects. A Renaissance Man determined to be a life long learner, a scholar, and a gentleman.

Most people neither have the resolve nor aptitude to be a Leonardo da Vinci. More importantly is that in today’s world, they would need to find a way to fight hyperconnectivity and the overflow of information to protect their intellectual pursuits. As Gelb writes:

We have more possibilities, more freedom, more options than any people who have ever lived. Yet there is more junk, more mediocrity, more garbage to sort through than ever too.

In the buzzing, ringing, dinging, chiming, beeping world that exists today, could a da Vinci or can a Renaissance Man even exist? Some conclude that a connected world leads to more occupational specialization, niche focus, and a progressive demise of the Renaissance Man.

The problem with such perspectives is twofold. The first lies in the idea that being a Renaissance Man is somehow tied to one’s occupation. Put in another way, being a Renaissance Man today has negative career implications because of the diversification of occupations and thus the specialization required to succeed. The idea starts with a false assumption. Namely, a Renaissance Man was never an occupation but rather a way of living.

True, some given the label of “Renaissance Man” received wages for their various interests and occupations. Yet it was their desire of mastery that compelled them. They did not labor to receive the title of “Renaissance Man.” It was because they labored as such that history rewarded them with this title.

There is a second issue with linking innovations like the Internet with the extinction of the Renaissance Man. Placing unequal blame on technology over the consumer of technology.

One cannot deny the temptation of digital technology. The temptation to only search for agreeable opinions. The temptation to only listen to preferred music. The temptation to only watch favorite programming. The temptation to engage in distraction. Although perhaps worse today, the temptations of technology have always existed in some form or another.

Digital technology is not all about fighting temptation. Realizing the good, the benefits, and the hope it offers while still acknowledging its temptation is the start to seeing how it is possible to be a Renaissance Man in the Digital Age.

Gelb was on the right track when he wrote, “Yet there is more junk, more mediocrity, more garbage to sort through than ever too.” He did not go far enough. To embrace the Renaissance Man mentality in the Digital Age requires more than filtering and even more than shielding. It demands disengagement.

Being a Renaissance Man does not mean that someone knows everything. It does not mean that someone has mastered all skills and abilities in the world. It does mean dedication to some number of disciplines and a commitment to mastering them.

That is where disengagement becomes applicable.

To be a Renaissance Man in the Digital Age requires disengagement from the inane, from the futile, from the time wasters, from the tyranny of the urgent, from the noise, and even from the signal. Tim Ferriss, perhaps a modern day Renaissance Man of sorts and author of the best selling 4-Hour Work Week, describes this practice as “selective ignorance.” Ignore not just what is irrelevant. Ignore anything that is irrelevant to achieving one’s goals. Does it work? Ask the tango record holding, Chinese kickboxing champion, multilingual, best selling author Ferriss.

In the Digital Age, if information is a commodity, time is a precious treasure and one that must be guarded and focused. Technology does not prevent the allowance of a Renaissance Man. It is man that must embrace the Renaissance Man mindset, using the advancements of technology to his benefit, in achieving the mastery of his pursuits.