I have always been fascinated by the European Renaissance, a time when there were seemingly great leaps of discovery and knowledge in science, medicine, philosophy and the arts. Life indeed became better for many of the people, but those who toiled in the fields and did the hard labor may not have enjoyed the explosion of progress that developed between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries as much as those in the upper class and those who had begun to carve out a kind of middle class. There was still much ignorance and lack of equality. The ground gained in that period of time mostly belonged to men, while women still remained creatures of the kitchen and maternal duties. Still, the wondrous developments of the era catapulted humankind forward in such a dramatic way that it is often seen as the European flowering of scientific endeavors, medical progress, literature, painting and sculpture.
The so called Dark Ages probably were not as void of light as we sometimes think, but they were marked by pandemics, war and conflict. Gutenberg had not yet invented the printing press, so only priests who created manuscripts and the most wealthy had access to books and educations. Life was mostly about lots of hard work and very short lives.
I always enjoy the Renaissance Festivals that travel across the country. They are exceptionally entertaining with their turkey legs, and jousting and music, but what I would most like to see from the Renaissance are the products of the great minds who changed the world in that time. It would be fun to have someone create a play in which Galileo tells his story to an audience and then takes questions from the crowd. Having an old time Shakespearean play would be delightful, especially if it was totally authentic. I’d like to see people dressed as characters from the Canterbury Tales and be able to go to a studio filled with works from Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. I’d like to sit with someone playing Descartes and find out how he came up with his mathematical processes and what led him to his philosophies. A real Renaissance Festival would be enlightening and educational.
It is no accident that many of the founders of our country were well versed in the work of the great thinkers and artists of the Renaissance. They valued books and science. Ben Franklin was considered one of the great scientists and engineers of his time as well as being a writer and printer. He was a learned man who had no doubt studied Copernicus and understood that the earth was not the center of the universe. Thomas Jefferson devoured books and ideas, many of which had been developed during the Renaissance, and he was in the Americas because of the explorations of adventurers from across Europe.
As I noted, not everyone benefited immediately from the progress of the Renaissance. I can tell by studying my family tree that my ancestors mostly remained poor and ignorant, especially the women. Neither of my grandmothers were educated beyond elementary school as late in as at the end of the nineteenth century. My grandfathers were farmers and laborers who knew how to read but mostly self-educated themselves. They never rose into the middle class in spite of all of their hard work. It would be left to my mother and father to become the first in each of their families to earn a college degree, although a somewhat distant branch of my father’s family tree indeed boasts a doctor. Nonetheless I know that some of my ancestors benefited from the Renaissance because some of them found their way to the new world in the earliest days of colonization. They brought what they knew across the ocean and then learned from the native people who were already here. Sadly, mistakes were made by them and others who had the bad assumptions that they were doing the original tenants of this land a favor by changing their ways. This was an arrogant attitude that was widely accepted as gospel when Europeans conquered people in the Americas, Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Their seemingly well meaning ways did not always work out so well for the people who were already living where they went or those that they used as slaves to work the land.
I suppose that calling me a progressive is accurate because I firmly believe that discovering new and better ways of living and thinking are what make humans great. I even think that God gave us our minds as a gift for improving the world for its people and for preserving this great planet. I have always felt that it is our duty to use our minds for the betterment of humanity, not just for enriching ourselves. The great minds of the Renaissance often understood this by performing great deeds and demonstrating great courage in search of truths. I am certain that each of us possess a certain level of greatness of our own and when we use share our talents to help make all people better we are developing our intellects the way we were meant to do.
We are at a watershed moment right now. Our world is threatened with pandemics, wars, climate change, violence and ignorance just as it was in the Dark Ages. We can look away and move backward into another dark age of our own or we can do as the geniuses of the Renaissance did and bring light, beauty and innovation into the world. Our future is depending on science and great thoughts. We must be certain to cherish and support the new Renaissance men and women among us whose breakthroughs will catapult our world into a future that is bright. We should not be afraid for we now know that the world is not flat and that all humans are linked together in our hopes and dreams. Opportunity beckons us, but only if we listen to its call.