Renaissance Man

Posted Mar 17, 2005
Last Updated Nov 8, 2011

History is flooded with many great names. From warriors and kings to philosophers and artists… human history is largely a tale of great things done by great souls. While the masses always participated in the works of history (where would Alexander the Great have gotten to without a mass of nameless soldiers?) it has always been the dreams, passions and obsessions of singular minds that have spurred wars, dynasties and social movements.

Sometimes I marvel at particular men such as Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. Most of the names that stick out through history are of social geniuses and/or cunning warriors. They command respect in their own rights. But men like da Vinci and Franklin and Jefferson are of an altogether different sort that have always fascinated me.

They are the defined as Renaissance Men.

A Renaissance Man, or polymath, is someone who excels in a wide range of fields. In the case of da Vinci, the fields were art, architecture, engineering and anatomy. Franklin was a journalist, printer, diplomat and scientist. With Jefferson it was politics, philosophy, engineering and archeology.

Modern education is, in some degree, an attempt to turn the masses into polymaths. We try to teach math, science, humanities and language to all students in the hopes that they will become broadly educated. It isn’t until college that education begins to focus onto more specialized knowledge.

But despite the efforts, it doesn’t feel like the modern system is creating many Renaissance Men. That is, unless you consider high competence in operating VCR menus, navigating Internet search engines and cooking grand microwave dinners a form of wide competence.

I don’t know that this is a flaw in our educational system, since I don’t know where Renaissance Men actually come from. Why do most people feel content with narrow fields of proficiency when a few explode into as many fields as they can?

Renaissance Men still exist. I personally know musicians that are artists; musicians that are budding politicians; a writer/engineer who loves sports. In fact, as I come to think of it, a very large portion of the people I know are talented artists (musical or visual) and excel in other professional careers. On further reflection, maybe a large percentage of us are, after all, minor polymaths—we work in one field and play hard in another.

Even so… even if many of us can be classified as minor polymaths, there still seems to be a disparity in the heroic polymath like Jefferson and da Vinci. Where are the people who make noticeable impacts on disparate professional stomping grounds? Sure, we have Bill Gates making a mark on personal computers… but he has yet to step into politics or art; we have George Bush stamping his name on global democracy (or protection of oil fields), but he has failed to excel as a philosopher or diplomat; we have Kobe Bryant dazzling basketball fans… but he lets us down in any other arena.

Maybe the time of complete Renaissance Men has come and gone. Maybe there is just too much information out there for anyone to really become a master in more than one field; maybe the competition has reached a level that high success can only come to single-minded devotion to a single trade. Something tells me that this is the case in our time. Real polymaths have a rough time surviving in any field because their attention is split up… and they won’t be able to compete with the best of the best in specific fields.

In ages past, a man could learn almost all of the officially pragmatic knowledge of humanity, because the scope of human knowledge could be fit into a few tomes. That doesn’t happen anymore. I know that in my own field of web development, there are increasingly large volumes of newly developing technologies every year. Just to stay on top of that is sometimes nigh impossible… what if I also wanted to become highly proficient in molecular biology as well as advanced musical theory?

Time is the reason there are less polymaths in our age than in the past. A human being no longer has the capacity to learn the majority of human knowledge that he had historically. A polymath of our century, to rival a man like da Vinci in his time, would have to live five hundred years to learn enough to stand out in an equivalent number of fields.

Still, I think more people ought to try to follow in the footsteps of the Renaissance Man, simply because there are so many fascinating things for each of us to learn in this world. It’s a shame more people don’t see the wonders that could enthrall their minds as they live their short lives.

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Marq Zimmons

Nov 15, 2010

In essence the article is excellent. What has not covered are the modern day pymath or Renaissance men, that are also referee to as tortured geniuses. It is not the capability of the individual that has changed with progress and evolution, but rather, society in general only capable of one or two interests consider a Polymath is impossible. You will find us out there solving the bug picture problems, often kept in cages or suffocated intellectually.

Dante Mitten

Oct 21, 2010

Examples of Renaissance men in today's society can be found in the ranks of the CIA. Agents are expected to be fluent in multiple languages in addition they are usually well versed in the cultures and customs of several different ethnic groups. They are also masters of weaponry, hand to hand combat, and are all around athletes. Clandestine agents in particular are required to have a charm and wit that allows them to blend in and be accepted in a wide variety of social groups. These people are rarely if ever noticed or seen by the general population, but they are there nonetheless. The Renaissance man in today's society faces the most difficult decisions regarding a career path in today's highly competitive and specialized work environment. That being said, I believe that many people that possess the capacity to become polymaths fail to do so because they feel forced to choose one area to focus on. The problem, then, is rooted in the ideals and structure of the capitalist society we live in. While there are many opportunities to succeed, most require specialization in one area and subsequent disregard for other subjects of thought. Personally, I believe the world would be a much more fulfilling place if more emphasis was placed on the idea of the Renaissance man. A Renaissance man is both intellectually accomplished and physically capable. So if more people aspired to be well rounded, more people would be physically fit and more people would be capable of complex thought, across a wide range of fields. Who doesn't want that?

Marq Zimmons

Nov 18, 2010

What a terrific summary. Well done, I could not have said it better myself. You are quite right about society today, and it should not be the case if everyone fitting into a role or title. I have never been able to do that, nor are a few that I have known since the 70's. The world needs lateral thinkers, flexible and diverse innovators. It has helped me in the last with my own businesses to offer a totally different perspective based upon a wide knowledge base. Why can others not let them self be free to do this. Unfortunately, I am forced to run my own businesses, as others would not employ me, too risky or threatening I guess. But as we spend time testing and building new ideas and solutions. We are generally the nice guys that get walked on by the money grabbers. Would live to see it change, but I doubt it.

Timothy Clark

Sep 29, 2010

The educational system starts off well, training students in a broad variety of subjects. However, as you progress through the system until university, the emphasis is on specialisation.

I'm an aspiring Renaissance Man who was told to 'focus' on my university course, because I engaged in such a wide variety of disciplines. Rebelliously, and proudly, I ignored the advice and, after I graduated, turned my entire university course into an artwork in its own right - promoting polymathy in this age of 'hyperspecialisation'.

You can view my portfolio here:

Saul Rather not say

Feb 8, 2009

Thankyou firstly for writing this essay, because it is definately worth thinking about - I would say to you that, yes it is probably the modern education system that determines the deterioration of the typical 'Renaissance man', but this is not necessarily so bad; perhaps society is more balanced if everyone has more skill in a specific skill (obviously that's debatable). I personally don't think a man can be a TRUE master of all trades; as you said, a lot of us are likely to be minor polymaths, but I don't think being passionate about a certain subject is any less commendable as not achieving a recognisable level of education (legally) in that area, which would mean that in that case, you can still be seen as a renaissance man (sorry if I'm not making ANY sense). Conclusively, nowadays, I think you have every type of man/woman; it is up to the individual and their general enthusiasm. Perhaps, renaissance is too much of a generalist label...i don't know.

michael DiGiacinto

Aug 12, 2008

The renaissance man does indeed thrive in today's society, you must just look harder. Life is there for the taking and learning as much about as much as you can, only makeing for a better soul, a better mind, a better being.

Maybe the modern day renaissance man is in a different form than the heroic polymath. Maybe hiding behind a computer screen or an eisle just not yet discovered for the rest of us to see.

I highly recommend, trying to live in the shoes of a renaissance man. The days are filled with life and the nights are filled with dreams. And each day you can persue you prior nights dream. Life is for the taking.

From strumming a guitar or splashing color or raising a wall to create a room then a building, maybe an invention to dazzle the world, it is all so rewarding, Why only do one thing when you can do everything.

Seth Wilbur

Apr 16, 2008

I believe the Renaissance Men still exsist. Maybe they aren't exhaulted like Franklin, but that's because nobody these days has the guts to stand up to the government.

This is foolish because our nation was formed around taxation with represtation. I'm only eightteen years old, but I have never seen my thoughts represented by any branch of government.

Where are the Renaissance Men when you need them right?

I've been looking into this idea of Renaissance men for a while and strongly believe my generation is turning out Renaissance men but they don't know it yet.

Saul Rather not say

Feb 8, 2009

I completely disagree that nobody stands up to the government these days.

Bilal Corbin

May 7, 2007

Renaissance men still exist. The difference today is that they are not valued or heralded as such. Hip hop impressarios such as Jay Z (Sean Carter) or Sean (Diddy) Combs have both demonstrated extraordinary acumen and creativity in a number of fields both creative and practical. Sean Comb's fashion line (though underappreiated) is genuinely inspired. It reflects his personal input and style and plain and simple, the goods are sharp, smart and world class.

JAY z is really a philanthropist, philosopher, entrepreneur, and CEO of a Fortune 500 company. A poet of enormous fluency.

I am not in any way affiliated with these men, nor am I a "fan" per se. I am a deep , thought ful , and observant person and I can't help but marvel at both their accomplishments across a wide spectrum of fields. Modern Day Renaissance Men.

veronica Cortez

Nov 12, 2006

helllo my name is veronica and I think you are right.Because of all the technology that has been exposed to the world, men must excell even more, today,in order for them to be recognized as "Renaissance Man"

john martinez

Apr 11, 2007

I think your right about the focus point.We are to much into everything to contribute all are time and energy into one unit, and the every expanding

units do not help.

Michael Emery

Aug 20, 2006

Recently I stumbled upon a book by Barbara Sher titled "Refuse to Choose". It talks about a "class" of people called "scanners". From my interpretation of what I have read so far these scanners are the modern representation of the "renaissance man" a jack-of-all-trades so to speak. I agree with you in that it is impossible to attain the level of knoweledge that these previous people have had in the past. I think however that our society pushes us towards the single path and really looks down on the polymath. We are people of unique abilities and our society for the most part doesn't seem to like uniqueness. I think the concept is making a comeback however as a few sites have begun to appear on the net.

I am a scanner and I am at my best when I am working on twenty different things at once. I think that renaissance people are wired differently which allows them to function so well in such a diverse environement. We thrive on the new, trying to learn as much as possible about the world around us. So to reiterate I think that "renaissance people" are still very prevalent but until we are viewed in a different light it is sometimes safer to blend into the crowd.

I look forward to any response.


Shawn Olson

Aug 20, 2006


Thank you for your comment. I am what I like to think of a Renaissance Man in my own right (database programmer, photojournalist, game designer, writer)... so I am not saying that the Renaissance Man is a thing of the past. My only meaning was that fewer people stick out so much than they did in the past because there is no way for anyone to "know it all". And becuase there are so many people that know a lot about many things, it's simply hard to stick out as unique.

I personally think that being a person of wide scope (in both proficiency and activity) is useful and good because it teaches us how to use tools and knowledge that are not normally used in every field.

Anyway... If I gave you the impression that polymaths are "extinct" or not good for society, I apologize for my lack of clarity. That is not what I mean.

Ron Tucker

Aug 14, 2008

I prefer to call today's Renaissance man/woman as The Bright Common Man...The BCM practices key skills & habits that humbly cause her to rise to the top. When she connects with likeminded, complementary folk, globally, they will a cumulative, pronounced effect upon the world.

With technology capabilities and the accessability of knowlege available to many, many are exercizing their power to impact their worlds, improving the quality of life.

We're witnessing an epic renaissance. It's a thrilling privlege to be a part of it.

Timothy Clark

May 20, 2010

We live in an age of 'hyperspecialisation'. The educational system starts off teaching pupils a broad range of sunjects, but then at university the emphasis is on focussing and becoming specialised. I myself am an aspiring Renaissance Man and I've made a website showcasing myself as such:

Check me out if you like!
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