Why being a Renaissance Man or Woman is essential.
I was reading the latest issue of Psychology Today and in it an article about the lost art of many valuable things like crafting, letter writing, and being “cultivated.”
I put “cultivated” in quotes because it suffers assaults from so many sides. In between beating all the levels at Super Mario Brothers Wii, keeping up with Gawker articles, and trying to secure marketable job skills, there is little time left for pursuing what traditionally qualified someone a Renaissance Man or Woman. What use is crocheting, Latin, or quoting Emily Dickinson when you must have a deep knowledge of how to quickly fill out an excel spreadsheet for your job?
Perhaps we feel efficient, shedding these outmoded time suckers like canning, sewing, and reading poetry. After all, women have jobs now. And men have Fantasy Football seasons to keep up with.
Not according to Hillsdale Professor and author of Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin, Tracy Simmons, who says the uncultivated person
goes for the carrots in life. They want to be beautiful, loved, rich. None of those things are bad, but what we do to get them can be bad. The Greeks would call such people doulos, or slaves: slaves to passions and appetites. The cultivated person doesn’t want to get rid of his appetites, he wants to control them.
I never before had seen such a clear line drawn between a lack of learning and misguided attachment. But what exactly does he mean? Is it true that becoming versed in history and literature while learning to play the piano can help us gain distance from our base appetites?
Absolutely, and there are two reasons why:
First, the more you learn, the more you can enrich your life and practice. You could confine your study to just Buddhism and the Bhagavad Gita, but when you have a good knowledge of cultural history, you can see parallels in Greek, Renaissance, Chinese, Japanese, and so many other traditions that reinforce and build on what we learn through the yogic tradition. We can find human truths in the musings of Romantic writers, inspiration in the traditions of Native Americans, and learn lessons from the mistakes of history. Our own life struggles are not new. To go through life without the help of all of the great thinkers that come before you is to deny yourself the opportunity of a life well-lived, and to weaken yourself to the buffeting winds of popular, crass culture.
Second, just as your practice requires discipline, so does becoming a Renaissance Man or Woman. Learning to play an instrument, memorizing tracts of Shakespeare, and becoming skilled at making decorative tassels: they may seem like useless pursuits in today’s society, but they are essential in that they require us to sit down and concentrate on a task for at least an hour or two per week, if not more. The art of concentrating on a task in itself is becoming obsolete, as we flit from TV to internet to cell phone. Your friends may think it quaint or even pretentious that you indulge in reading The New York Times from cover to cover, but it seems like a much better use of time than watching The Real Housewives of New Jersey or playing Angry Birds.
I admit that I have given up on cultivated pursuits in the name of time-spent-efficiently. I took several semesters of piano in college, only to decide it was too much to keep up with. After all, I had a double major in communications and business that required my attention. But I regret that I cannot now sit down when I need a break from thinking and run my fingers over the keys. I can play any number of piano songs on my iPod, but that isn’t the point, is it?
Perhaps this is finally the inspiration I need to crack open that giant book of poetry that has been sitting on my shelf for ages, and give it a go. What will you do to earn the title of Renaissance (Wo)man?