We live in an era where Renaissance Man must live again

Renaissance Man

This morning, as a part of the Personal Due Diligence Project, I published a piece entitled “Why you go to school”. In it, I laid out the argument for attending schooling on a cash basis, fundamentally to allow you to first, take the elements of learning that will hold you up for a lifetime and, second, be able to afford the School of Life just as much as the School of Diplomas.

There’s a reason for taking this position, and it has little to do with some of the societal problems we’re currently facing (although, frankly, all of those are real, too: jobs are evaporating, never to return as we knew them, energy supplies continue to constrict, debt repayment cannot yet must occur, and a host of other transition points). Rather, it has to do with something a little more critical that we’re facing: one of those moments where all our assumptions about how the world is get overturned.

The last time this happened in Western civilisation was the Renaissance, that period when the Christendom of the Mediaeval, with its Free Cities, its landed knights and peasants, and the Church as the pathway began to convert into the nation-state as we’ve known it. The time before that, was when Western civilisation emerged out of the Dark Ages — and the time before that the fall of the Western Roman Empire of Latin Orthodoxy into the beginnings of Europe.

(Different civilisations have their own recurring cycles, but, being a settler Canadian whose family is from Europe, it’s the West whose cycles are part of my lived experience.)

These moments in time are moments of collision and reformation. Old institutions falter, crumbling under their barnacles of systemic rigidity, while ideas from other civilisations and other times are injected in, until we come to see the world differently.

Perspective — that way of “seeing the world” that lets you see the railway tracks come to a point ahead of you, even though they are (and are always) parallel lines — was born in the last Renaissance. Before that, we literally did not see that way.

At a time like this, the broadest possible background is often the most helpful, whereas the knowledge of a specialist often gets in the way. The problem of linking different things into a new and emergent whole is very different from the one of analysing and teasing out the edges of new knowledge from more stable times.

I promise you, no self-respecting university would allow you to do a doctorate in anything emergent. You are supposed to slightly add on to what we already know. (How else do you explain the “review of the literature” which with all dissertations add weight?)

What this means is that, as with the Renaissance past, we will make advances toward a new future not by doubling down on efficiently doing what we know how to do, nor by trying to convert it a bit at a time, but by breaking the mould.

The problem (one starving artists know well) is that jumping well ahead of your time into a new way of seeing the world doesn’t pay the bills, doesn’t get you hired, doesn’t often get recognised until after you’re buried.

The last Renaissance took two centuries to make its way from its start to its capstone. It encompassed, as the art world moved slowly from the Italian boot to the shores of the North Sea, the fracturing of the Church, multiple wars (including a thirty year long one that laid waste to one in three Europeans), a sudden explosion outwards across the oceans (nothing like military needs to stimulate ship-building and exploration), a shift in the economic model, new ways of building towns, houses, the arrival of glassed windows and a host of other innovations.

How we weighted and prioritised the influences of the elements of the arts, manufactures, culture, religion, the sciences and the making of war changed dramatically over that two century long journey. We were not who we were at the start of it.

W. R. Clement pointed all this out in Quantum Jump back in the 1990s. He expressed it as a need to see in a new dimension. John Ralston Saul did likewise in Voltaire’s Bastards. Neither can tell us much about what this brave new world looks like, only that it is coming. Before them, we had Heidegger (“Die Frage nach der Technik” [The Question Concerning Technology]), and before him, Spengler saying the West as we knew it was dying. So, at this moment, we are somewhere in another long journey, neither at its beginning, nor, it appears, near its end.

Now there are those who think that progress is essential, perhaps inevitable, so therefore when we come out the other side it will be more so — more technology, more power, more of whatever. But the previous Renaissances have shown that this is not so.

The last Renaissance, for instance, as Lawrence R. Brown noted (The Might of the West), saw us scrap what we knew about the mathematics of motion and dynamics — a fourteenth century invention — and to this day teach it was invented by Leibniz or Newton. We gave up, for three centuries, our medical knowledge, and went back to bleeding people rather than treating them. The major political player of the fourteenth century, the Church, was never again one — and never again a political figure of import. The idea of local production for consumption, was replaced by global dreams with first mercantilism, then great industry, and now financialisation. Shall I go on with what was lost?

Believe me, we’re far more likely to come out of this one closer to James Howard Kunstler’s World Made by Hand than we are the technological singularity. One thing’s for sure, the type of education talked about in “Why you go to school” will serve better either way, than gambling on just one road forward.

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