Where are the Renaissance People?

“I wish I knew how it would feel to be free I wish I could break all the chains holding me”. I want to be a Renaissance Woman but I’m all tied up. For now I’ll settle for Coffee Talks* (Nina Simone was really on to something) .

I went to Italy with my friend in 2014. We started planning the trip in matric and it took 3 years to save enough money to go. It was amazing: we ate to our hearts content, had impromptu Italian lessons when we found ourselves trying to order breakfast in a residential area before hotel checkin times, got Italian nicknames (#StellaAndAurora), befriended wonderful people and quite literally had the time of our lives. One question bothered me after the trip: where have all the Renaissance men gone? I don’t think it was something in the water at that place in that time though I can’t entirely rule that out (Florence is the birthplace of a lot of those dudes and the place is so stunning even Hitler couldn’t bring himself to Bomb it without cause).

Florence ❤️❤️❤️

What is clear is that something has shifted culturally since then: there is a production-line model to the way our lives are set up now that wasn’t there before. It goes: school, degree/diploma, job, retirement, death. And these things (your education, qualification and occupation) tend to define you. The renaissance men seemed to be allowed to be many things all at once, things that subsequently became their titles (like, I’d see all these quotes by people who had the title “philosopher” and I would always wonder who decides that you’re a philosopher?).

These guys were free. Interested in astronomy and art? Want to dabble in architecture and philosophy? Right this way. You’re free to work under this expert and then apprentice for this other brilliant guy before temporarily (permanently) losing your eyesight over this gorgoues and detailed painting you’re doing on the roof of the Sistine Chapel. The freedom to shape ones life was definitely supported by talent and dareisay genius but it was allowed. There was no prerequisite degree.

We should all be multi-hyphenates. Publically. Now, I lose sleep over the many things that I want to be and don’t have time to do “the conventional way”. I want an undergraduate degree in physics just because (my brain wants answers to questions we barely scratched the surface of in matric when the goal was just to churn out distinctions) and another one in literature (because my heart says so, case closed): yes, I want to pay to read, dissect and devour (and perhaps churn out a few) written works. I want to paint (badly), dance (adequately) and figure out which one of those things I’d be genuinely good if I had time to them with the haphazard intensity of Michaelangelo and Co (that is to say one or two at a time under the tutelage of a master). The factory model won’t allow me to be that deeply and widely immersed. I don’t have 5-10 years apiece to do each thing exclusively. I genuinely believe that living this way leaves room for you to surprise yourself, to build a life you can’t imagine.

I say this a lot but: I’m a lot of things and sometimes I feel like I’m being forced to choose. “I wish I could give all I’m longing to give wish I could live like I’m longing to live”. There used to be this quote floating around when I was younger that said something along the lines of ‘we’ re only using 10% of our brains’. Nothing I’ve learned from studying the human body has lent any credibility to this theory because the human brain seems to be firing on all cylinders at all times even if there are many cylinders we neither know about nor understand. Yet. I now think it was more of an observation that we as humans have plenty of untapped potential, brain power we don’t utilise if you will. We’re not doing ourselves justice. If you want to test this theory: think of how you do things on autopilot now that once seemed impossible to learn and the inverse being the embarrassing ease with which you used to apply Mathematics first principles and now have to pause when splitting a group restaurant bill.

I know I could get a physics degree via correspondence but I’d love to be taught physics at the knee of a passionate physicst, study classic poetry in the heart of England and do the same for African literature on the very same continent. I want to experience the the love for the subject as well the information. I want to flit about haphazardly immersing myself deeply for brief periods of my life but I am already within a production line: one that requires 60-84 hours of overtime with most roads leading to specialisation (because honestly, this call thing is unsustainable lifelong) which is basically an additional qualification in the same production line. A line I entered when I picked science as a subject at 16 and will presumably end with my retirement. And this isn’t even factoring in my current disillusionment with medicine as it’s practiced in real life. It also doesn’t factor in the fact that I still love it. We are not cattle, this can’t be all there is. In the words of the modern philosopher Stacie Orrico “there’s gotta be more to life.”

One of my favourite quotes is misquoted. I think it’s telling that the tail end has been lopped off. It is beautiful in its entirety: “Jack of all trades master of none oftentimes better than master of one“. We aren’t encouraging Jack’s (and Jacqueline’s) of all trades anymore. We’re actively erasing the 2nd half of that quote and in so doing, have eradicated Renaissance men. Human beings are complex creations capable of holding multiple conflicting ideals and identities simultaneously. We’re also easily indoctrinated. And I’m not just talking about the Renaissance men because while I’m sure they were super talented and well deserving of having ninja turtles named after them, they were just men, free to pursue their varied interests deeply and at their leisure. We could all be Renaissance men and I for one, am going to try.
We need a new model. In high school, the subject limitation after grade 9 meant that I couldn’t take drama: a subject I knew I’d never use in my “career” but loved dearly nonetheless. My friend Biopelo couldn’t take Biology for similar reasons. In English, we’d take turns diving into either subject for the others benefit and it was glorious.

This is a call to all physicists, artists, literature afficiandos and anyone who’s love for what they do is infectious: I am your student. Call me (please), I’m happy to share what moves me and I’ll continue to do so as long as I draw breath (or as long as the interwebs allow me, whichever lasts longer ). My #QuestForBeauty is an expression of this. We can be so much more and we have an obligation to make life interesting; to to decorate the halls of our hearts and minds with beautiful things. Let’s not let a little socialisation get in the way.

“I wish you could Know what it means to be me, then you’d see and agree that every man should be free. “

*Coffee Talks: I’ll take you passionate humans out for Coffe and talk about your profession/passion/area of expertise in guilt-free depth (the beverage is subject to change per individual preference). I might do a series of snapshots in a year when I’ve gathered enough nuggets. Join me!

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