The term renaissance man refers to those great thinkers throughout history whose advancements in a multitude of areas have helped shape modern humanity. Their contributions in such disciplines as the arts, literature, engineering, mathematics, philosophy, theology, and other subjects that propelled the value of man are unrivaled and can be seen throughout modern society. In order to understand why the Renaissance period became linked to people of such distinction, we must first look at the world up to and then during that period, as well as the specific people of that time and their many contributions to our world.
Following the developments of history that allowed for the establishment of societies, mankind was able to pursue more academic ventures. No longer concerned with meeting basic needs, people could instead direct their energies to academics and arts. This spurred a period of creativity known as the Classical era, from which some of history’s foremost scholars emerged. Intellectuals during the Classical era, such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, touted the belief that man could reach his fullest potential by learning as much as he could about the world around him. The Classical era lasted until the fall of the Roman Empire in the 6th century A.D. At that time, the pursuits of the Classical era thinkers diminished and the period that followed was one of great turmoil, war, and political and societal shifts. That period was known as the Middle Ages and ended when the Renaissance began.
While the Middle Ages is typically thought of as one with little cultural advancement, the societal shifts during that era paved the way for a renewal of academic pursuits. The spread of Christianity that typified the Middle Ages led to increased literacy among the people. This, coupled with the rediscovery of texts by the ancient scholars of the Classical era, helped spawn one of the most dynamic periods of history, the Renaissance.
The Renaissance era is defined by explosive growth in academic pursuits that went beyond non-secular studies. Once again, as in the Classical era, scholars and students alike pursued the idea that man could reach his fullest potential by exploring his place as the center of the universe. This included philosophical and political studies, as well as more creative disciplines such as architecture, engineering, art and literature, natural science and mathematics. The more one knew about as many of these subjects as possible, the closer he embodied the true ideology of the Renaissance era.
It is generally agreed upon by scholars that the Renaissance began in Europe; specifically, because of its location and political, economic and cultural importance, Italy. Most trade routes included Italy because of its geographical location, so the cultural movement occurring there quickly disseminated throughout all of Europe and, eventually, the world.
What made the Renaissance period so dynamic was that people of all classes could become involved. Literacy had expanded to the masses, as opposed to being limited to members of the Church, so anyone with the desire to fully explore man’s place in the universe was free to do so.
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What made the Renaissance so important was the extent of its reach, which can be seen throughout modern society. All areas of civilization were studied, and the advancements made during that period in the plethora of creative and philosophical disciplines have helped us achieve our current understanding and model of humanity.
When we look at all that was achieved during the Renaissance period, we can clearly see why individuals whose never-ending pursuit of knowledge earned them the distinction of being a renaissance man. While the phrases polymath and universal man are used in additoin to renaissance man, all of these terms characterize someone who takes a broad base of knowledge and uses it to solve specific issues in society. By taking a closer look at some of the most notable of renaissance men, we will gain an even clearer understanding of the term and its significance.
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Leonardo da Vinci is probably the most well-known of all renaissance men. True to the spirit of the Renaissance, da Vinci was skilled as a painter, philosopher, scientist, mathematician, architect, and engineer. While best known for his artistic endeavors, Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings of prototypes of various aircraft, natural subjects such as rock formations, water characteristics, and numerous human figures, and a plethora of other inventions and subjects, reveal his expansive engineering, scientific, mathematical and artistic abilities. This well-rounded education in so many disciplines is what makes Leonardo da Vinci the premier renaissance man.
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Michelangelo, another of the most well-known renaissance men, was skilled in the disciplines of painting, sculpting, architecture, and literature. As did Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo used his broad knowledge base to further man’s understanding of the human condition, and his works continue to influence artists of all genres even today. According to Wikipedia, his artistic versatility was of such high caliber that he often rivals da Vinci as the typical renaissance man.
Galileo Galilei, yet another true renaissance man, lauds mathematician, physicist, engineer, and astronomer among his expertise. His many contributions include the discovery that the Earth moved around the sun, which was in direct conflict of the Church’s theory that the Earth was the center of the universe. He postulated that the laws of nature are mathematical, which aided in his discovery of various planets and their moons. He also invented such things as the military compass, the thermometer, and the refracting telescope. Again, the diverse knowledge he had is a major contributor to the basis of modern civilization, and the reason Galileo is a true representation of the typical renaissance man.
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