Alain de Botton column; A good idea from ... Burckhardt

Click to follow
FOR the past week, I've been desperate to change my life. I want to learn how to do more things: to build a cathedral, bake bread, understand the universe, measure the stars, map the seas, translate Ancient Greek, deliver funny after-dinner speeches and ride a horse.

The cause: I've been reading The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy by the Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt. Since it was first published in 1860, it has routinely been described as one of the most profound and inspiring history books ever. Burckhardt's bold thesis proposed that the Renaissance witnessed the birth of a new and remarkable kind of individual: Renaissance Man.

Before the 14th century, it was assumed that people should gain expertise in just one area, then never stray beyond it. Merchants should stick to trade, scholars to interpreting the Bible and architects to designing buildings. Then, from about 1300, in the city states of the Italian peninsula, certain gifted men began to argue that a truly fulfilled life would have to involve activity in a vast range of areas. The Renaissance men weren't content with doing only one thing well, they wanted to develop every side of their personalities, and so made contributions in art, architecture, sculpture, poetry, politics, science and scholarship. They were at ease in a court and in a library, in a marketplace and in a concert-hall. Designing a cathedral was no bar to taking an interest in law; it was possible to be both a great statesman and a great poet, a scientist and a businessman. Pursuing different objectives was far from dilettantism: it was a natural attempt to make use of all one's talents. The goal was to become an uomo universale - an all-sided man.

For examples, Burckhardt pointed to Dante, Lorenzo il Magnifico and Leon Battista Alberti. Alberti was an artist and architect, but also an expert at gymnastics, horse-riding, cooking, physics, mathematics and canonical and civil law. He wrote dozens of humorous speeches and penned a funeral oration to his dog, praising it for its wisdom and forebearance. His credo was: "A man can do all things if he wants."

Of course, we may find that we can't do both the long-jump and maths, but it's nice to hear that we should resist the push towards specialisation under which we labour, just like our pre-1300 ancestors. Experts always have an investment in persuading outsiders that what they are doing is impossibly hard. The Renaissance men knew that it was worth trying to prove them wrong.

Burckhardt has often been accused of grossly simplifying Renaissance history (and of not providing enough footnotes). Clearly not every Italian male of the period was a Renaissance Man, but the rare examples who were encourage us to be more ambitious, and suggest that if we're good at law or architecture, we can still have a shot at writing a funeral oration for a deceased Labrador.

Comments