How To Become a Renaissance Person?


A Renaissance person is somebody with a wide-range of interests, talents, skills and knowledge. Alternative terms are a polymath, a Renaissance man/woman or informally a jack of all trades. Let’s discuss what you should know to become one!

Here are the skills and subjects that I believe a Renaissance person should have or be knowledgable in:

  • Languages: I have once written a post discussing what languages you should know to travel the word freely. I would say you would have to know all of these languages mentioned there at least up to a communicational level because these are the biggest languages of the world and to know enough about the world, you should also know them. Moreover, at least basic knowledge of Greek (especially Ancient) and Latin would also be welcome since a lot of terms come from these languages. I would also say that the person should be familiar with the basic structure and the common roots of the vocabulary of the biggest language groups in the world (such as Indoeuropean, Afro-Asiatic, Sino-Tibetic, Japonic and others). The main focus in all of these languages should be on speaking (since speaking is the core of the language) but literacy would also be required.
  • Physics – Physics is probably the most fundamental science of nature and great emphasis should be put on it. A Renaissance person should absolutely be knowledgeable in Classical Physics. They should know both the concepts and how to do calculations. Moreover, this person should also have some active understanding in Special Relativity, at least a passive understanding of General Relativity, an understanding of Particle Physics (learning about the Standard Model would probably be sufficient) and also they should know the basic concepts of Quantum Mechanics (such the particle-wave duality, quantum tunelling, the impossibility of having locality+hidden variables, etc.). Then a huge subfield of this would be Astronomy. A knowledge of both our current best theories of cosmology (big bang) and evolution of the universe (galaxy and star creation, processes in the stars, supernovae, planet formation, etc.) and of the phenomena present in the universe (black holes, quasars, neutron stars, etc.) would be necessary. Knowing not only the ideas but how they came about would be preferable.
  • Philosophy – a Renaissance person should be familiar with all the prominent theories of Philosophy and the development of Philosophical thought (the Greek philosophers… everything in the middle, all the modern schools, etc. there are just too many to list). A study of comparative religion would also be welcome.
  • Mathematics – a Renaissance person should have a fair understanding of Mathematics since Mathematics provides the rules that our world seems to follow. They would need to know pure mathematics and its application to some biggest fields. Knowledge of mathematical branches such as the number theory, geometry (Euclidean and basic non-Euclidean), calculus, and those such as combinatorics or trigonometry would be required. A history of Mathematics would also be needed to understand how these ideas developed.
  • History – I would say that the person should have a knowledge of both Big History and History as we usually understand it. The History of human migration, Ancient civilizations (such as Greece and Rome), middle ages and new ages should be well-known and well-understood by a Renaissance person. They should know the most important events of at least the last 5 millenia in all major continents of the Earth and should be able to follow the development of all biggest civilizations (the Western civilization, Asian civilizations, etc.). and point out the most important dates (at least relative dating), events and people in human history.
  • Music – a Renaissance person should know the basics of music (how it works, how it is played, what are the principles under which different musical instruments work).
  • Arts – this person should know the history of arts, should be able to understand common techniques of drawing, sculpture and similar arts and be able to at least replicate the most simple of them to some extent.
  • Biology – a good understanding of the classification and evolution of most life-forms would be needed. Moreover, the deep underlying principles of Biology such as DNA chains, cells, etc. would also be required. Specifically, this person should understand pretty well the anatomy of human beings and be able to give first aid or treat humans from the most common illnesses or wounds.
  • Cultures – A Renaissance person should not also know a lot of things about the cultural anthropology, the formation of cultures and their relations to each other, etc. but they should also be well-traveled and have visited most of the current broad regions of the world (such as North America, East Asia, Middle East, Western Europe, Southern Europe, etc.).
  • Sports – knowing at least the rules of all basic sports (basketball, football, ice hockey, baseball) and some skill in playing at least some of them would be needed
  • Economics – this person should know economical theory and its development. This includes the works and ideas of Adam Smith, Robert Malthus, David Ricardo, Karl Marx, Joseph Schumpeter, Alfred Marshall, Milton Freedman, John Meynard Keynes and the likes. The knowledge should include an understanding of how markets work in different systems.
  • Psychology – although a social lore, a Renaissance person should know it too. The knowledge of psychology should include understanding of basic schools of psychology (such as Freudians, behaviorists or cognitivists), basics of neuropsichology and so forth.
  • Chemistry– it goes without saying that knowing chemistry would be a must for a Renaissance person. The periodic table and the principles under which these elements are classified would indeed need to be well understood. Basic chemical reactions as well.
  • Literature – this person must be well-read as well. I couldn’t possibly do any justice to it by trying to list all the authors that should be read here (perhaps this could be a topic of another post) but briefly all the classical and most prominent modern literature would be in the list.

What else? Well, I have left out a lot of things which would also be needed. These could be things such as skills in dancing, fighting or knowledge of politics (both in theory and in practice), Law, programming, teaching and a lot of other fields! Perhaps someday I will add to this list and refine it (or make a second post). Whatever the case, I am sure I have missed a lot of things.

Do you have something else that you believe would be necessary for a Renaissance person to know? Do you disagree with something I said? Could you make any of the points I mentioned more specific?

Do you have personal skills in any of these? How far have you gotten in terms of becoming a Renaissance person?

Share that with everybody in the comments!

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  1. ·

    Very interesting post! Ideally I’d love to be a renaissance person, but I don’t know how well I’d do with the science stuff. :)
    Right now and over the next few years I will be working on the language, cultures, literature and history parts.

  2. ·

    My strong points would be Languages, History, Culture. Sadly, Science and Mathematics are my weak points. I think my high school teachers pretty much scared me off from these areas. Although, I am guilty of never really trying to improve on my own.

  3. ·

    I’ve got a TTC Linguistics course on my laptop, I need to get around to watching it! (and every other course they have! :))

  4. ·

    McWhorter is an excellent professor.

  5. Aidan

    I’d be more inclined to think that someone worth listening to would be an expert in a fewer, more focused areas – while anyone can indeed learn anything, this shouldn’t be confused with any notion that they have anything interesting to say. There will doubtless be people who’ll just seize upon a ‘to learn’ list, without actually reflecting on any of the deeper values or purposes of it, or passion for the subject.

    But for the purposes of the list (which could be better approached as ‘valuable assets in the modern world’?), I think that lack of knowledge of television, cinema and advertising seems to jump out at me, especially in this day and age, and I think skill as a writer is crucial in the age of the internet.

  6. ·

    Aidan: an old saying which my father told me goes:

    “Know a little bit about many things and much about one”

    This blog post is about the “many” part.

  7. ·

    Wow, that is completely impossible! I know only 5 and a half from that list :P

  8. Akatsuki

    I would suggest (cautiously) adding movies to this list–film is quickly becoming both an art form and an important piece of any culturally-aware person's information base. Classic films and international films are a must, and I might even include culturally significant (if not so erudite) films like Star Wars, the Matrix, etc.

  9. ·

    Yeah, I had forgotten that one. I guess popular music too.

    I'm not sure about SW – I haven't even seen it and I'm doing fine. But.. perhaps. But then you have to add TV shows like Lost or whatnot and the list gets progressively bigger.

    Perhaps it's fair to say that you should be acquainted with at least the IMDB TOP movies.

  10. Aster

    Hey! I think you forgot a fundamental one: Informatics.

    Do you really think a renaissance person of today would be complete without knowing how computers, software, hardware, Internet work?

  11. Randlesc

    For the math part, has any one seen the Khan Academy videos at YouTube. One guy explaining one aspect of math at a time; pretty amazing I think.

  12. ·

    I really liked the idea of Khan academy. He promised he would put the videos on YouTube by August though and still hasn’t: I would download the history stuff for a start.

  13. JimmytheConqueror

    Really? My saying is “Anything is possible, you just haven’t tried hard enough.” I’ve studied well in all of these except for Astronomy, I just haven’t the time in my schedule. If you’re a driven individual, you should be proficient in all of them. The things they did not teach me in school I studied independantly. I’d reccomend striving for intellectual advancement, quite worth it in my opinion.

  14. ·

    I believe that actually playing at least one musical instrument well and speaking a second language fluently should be part of being a Renaissance person. It would also seem that some knowledge of computer science would be appropriate.

  15. J McA

    Rennaissance person: not just knowing about things but accomplished in them. Foreign languages, playing musical instruments, and skills/crafts eg needlecraft, painting, cookery, writing. Also physical skills, eg ski-ing, horse-riding, climbing, dancing etc. Add to this social graces and use to society (job, parenting, care of elders, land custodian, politics, duty etc). Rennaissance person would also have a spiritual side I think, and this is where appreciation of art science and literature would come in, as well as quality of personal relationships (friends and family)

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