A Renaissance Man is a man who is skilled at all tasks he attempts and has wide-ranging knowledge in many fields. Top Renaissance Man characteristics include being highly educated, a gentleman, cultured in the arts and charismatic. On top of this, he must do all of these things effortlessly.
Definition of a Renaissance Man
A renaissance man is defined as a man with well-rounded skills in cognitive, physical and social pursuits. The term came about during the Renaissance and emerged from the humanist tradition. Traditionally, Renaissance men were excellent philosophers but also strong, handsome and charismatic. We sometimes call a Renaissance Man a ‘polymath’.
Top Renaissance Man Characteristics
#1 A Well-Rounded Education
Renaissance men are very well educated. They should be as comfortable talking about mathematics as they are talking about philosophy or sociology. Today, you can get a Renaissance man education by studying a liberal arts degree. With a liberal arts degree, you can (and often are required to) study a variety of subjects from many different disciplines.
The traditional Renaissance men didn’t only rely on organized classes to get an education. In fact, universities were very rare back in the Renaissance era! So, some of the best Renaissance men in history taught themselves. Today, you can be self-taught by conducting research online, reading books or listening to podcasts (my preferred method!). We sometimes use the term ‘auto-didactic’ to refer to people who are self-taught.
#3 A Free Thinker
The Renaissance men of history often had ideas that were controversial or even dangerous for their days! Some questioned the authority of the Church or created artworks that went against the trends of the day. They proposed revolutionary solutions to the problems of their days and were bold in promoting their ideas to friends and colleagues in high social circles.
Renaissance men have enough knowledge that they can analyze concepts from perspectives that their peers can’t. They can apply ideas from their diverse fields to develop their ideas. While a mono-math is only expert in one thing, a polymath (aka Renaissance man) can apply ideas he learned in philosophy to his architecture or engineering pursuits. To learn more about critical thinking, click here.
Men from the Renaissance traversed Italy, France, Spain and Britain to promote their books and artwork. They were, like many Europeans of today, able to easily switch between European languages effortlessly. Their accents were almost perfect in each language they spoke, and of course they would read literature in the language in which it was originally written.
#6 Well Read
A renaissance man needs to be able to discuss the latest literature and news at any moment. In a social event, he may be asked his opinion on politics and he should skillfully and inoffensively show his knowledge. Similarly, he should be able to contribute his thoughts on a new novel in a way that shows he has put a great deal of thought into the topic.
A Renaissance man should be able to befriend and socialize with people of all social classes. He should be equally as comfortable speaking to the poor as he is to the king. However, Renaissance men tend to socialize with the powerful, wealthy and well-connected. The upper-class love to be entertained by a Renaissance man, who always has a remarkable anecdote to share on any topic.
#8 A Sportsman
As a well-rounded person, the Renaissance man’s impressive skills do not end with his superior intellect. He is also skilled at higher-class sports such as Polo, Sailing and Rugby. He is well above average on all sports he attempts from Day 1.
Today, posh boys’ boarding schools (particularly in England and Scotland) still attempt to breed Renaissance men by encouraging their young men to compete against each other in one or more of these higher-class sports.
While the Renaissance man may express his bravery on the sports field, he is also expected to be able to fight for his honor and his nation whenever the time comes. Many of the greatest Renaissance men in history such as Benjamin Franklin were not just of high intellect, but also were warriors on the battlefield.
When we think of Renaissance men, we often think of men who are at their physical peak. Renaissance men are expected to have well-sculpted muscles forged through their many physical pursuits. Furthermore, they should be able to effortlessly prepare their hair (both on the head and face!) to complement their chiseled jaw and well-framed body.
#11 Well Dressed
A man of class should always dress to impress. When we look back in history, paintings of Renaissance men depict them in the great fashions of the day. Today, you should expect to see a Renaissance man in a three-piece suit, and possibly with a mustache comb in his breast pocket.
Perhaps it goes without saying at this point, but the greatest of men from the Renaissance era could charm the socks off of an entire room of swooning women (and men!). While so far we have mostly looked at the Renaissance man’s intellect and physical prowess, we must not forget that the Renaissance man is also very hard to say ‘no’ to once he turns on his charm offensive!
#13 A Gentleman
The Renaissance man has not forgotten the lost art of swooning women. He will remember to open doors for ladies, ask a father for a woman’s hand in marriage, and be ever-so-charming when he meets his girlfriend’s wife. Once he sets his eyes on a lady, it won’t be long before he has her swooning!
The great Renaissance men of history were artists whose artworks still adorn the walls (and roofs) of the greatest buildings in Europe. Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci come to mind, I’m sure. Their paintings were not the end of their artistic works: many Renaissance men were great poets and musicians of their time.
To become a Renaissance man, you need to be comfortable with many different cultures. You shouldn’t just know about your own culture, but also the cultures of the world. When you come across someone from Italy, you should be able to understand their culture and talk with them about it. The same goes for people from France, or China, or anywhere else!
#16 Well Traveled
One way to become cultured is to travel the world. If the cultured men of the 1600s could traverse their worlds on horseback, you shouldn’t have an excuse not to get yourself around the world! You’ll come back with stories of the world to show off your Renaissance man bonafides.
#17 An Explorer
While on his travels, the Renaissance man should push the boundaries and search over the horizon. He should go places others dare not. He should fancy his chances against the elements and the cruelest of wildlife. Leon Battista Alberti, another Italian Renaissance man, the ideal Renaissance man “amused himself by taming wild horses and climbing mountains.” So, go climb a mountain!
#18 An Inventor
Many of the original Renaissance men were inventors. The quintessential Renaissance man, Leonardo Da Vinci, invented primitive models of tanks and helicopters. Today, people who fancy themselves Renaissance men such as Elon Musk and Richard Branson continue to attempt to invent new things such as environmentally friendly cars and spaceships!
Some of the greatest modern-day Renaissance men are great entrepreneurs. You may have heard of Charlie Munger, investment partner with Warren Buffett of the investment firm Berkshire Hathaway. Munger considers himself a Renaissance man and Entrepreneur. Another who comes to mind is founder of Amazon, Jeff Bozos (who you may have noticed has worked hard on his physique in recent years – see point 10).
This one is vital. Above, I have listed for you a range of traits of a Renaissance man. They are all individually difficult to achieve – imagine being both a philosopher and mathematician, nerd and jock! Well, to top it all off, you need to be able to do all of this effortlessly! You can’t look like you’re trying too hard or you’ll lose your Renaissance man charm.
Baldassare Castiglione describes this effortlessness of the Renaissance man in his book The Book of the Courtier. In the book, he uses the term “sprezzatura” to explain effortlessness. According to Castiglione, the Renaissance man needs “an easy facility in accomplishing difficult actions which hides the conscious effort that went into them.”
In the 20th Century, we might have looked at people like James Dean who embodied this effortless cool … and of course, who can look past James Bond?
Despite being the ideal man – masculine, intellectual, charming and sporting – the Renaissance man cannot brag. He needs to be able to tell stories of himself and his exploits in ways that are self-effacing, relaxed, and most certainly do not give off the impression of arrogance.
Examples of Renaissance Men throughout History
#1 Leonardo Da Vinci
Leonardo Da Vinci is without doubt the most famous Renaissance man from the Renaissance era. Born the illegitimate son of a high class man from Florence, he quickly showed aptitude for painting.
At age 14, Da Vinci became apprentice to the painter Verrocchio. Verrocchio encouraged Da Vinci to explore anatomy and chemistry to become a better painter. Through the study of anatomy, Da Vinci learned to paint the human form. Through chemistry, he learned to create color palates for his paintings.
While Da Vinci is best known for his painting of Mona Lisa which now hangs in the Louvre, Paris, there was far more to this Renaissance man. Da Vinci was deeply interested in humanist philosophy, art history, engineering and science. It is also said that Da Vinci was a handsome man who was devoted to maintaining his bodily physique.
#2 Sir Winston Churchill
Lauded as the savior of the allies in World War 2, Churchill is best known for guiding a war ravaged Britain through its darkest hours. However, Churchill was more than just a great military mind. He was a politician and two-time Prime Minister of Britain. He was a confidante to the Queen, a novelist and historian, and in his younger days was known to be an adept sportsperson. In his later years, he also proved himself to be a skilled painter.
#3 Thomas Jefferson
You may best know Thomas Jefferson as an American president. But, like all good Renaissance men, Jefferson tried his hand at many different fields – and excelled at each. He was interested in horticulture, architecture and archaeology. He also founded a university, showing his deep interest in intellectual pursuits.
Examples of Renaissance Men in Films
#1 James Bond
Many films present the hero of a story as a well-rounded, unobtainably perfect masculine ideal. James Bond is perhaps the archetype here. Bond is a charming womanizer, greatly skilled fighter and detective extraordinaire. His broad range of skills are expressed effortlessly, making him the quintessentially cool Renaissance man of our time.
#2 Captain America
While Bond represents the masculine British archetype, Captain America embodies ideal American masculinity. He is a superior soldier who always fights on the side of good. He is also in impeccable physical condition and a great charmer of women. When around women, he also shows his gentle side and is always a old-fashioned gentleman.
#3 Iron Man
Iron man embodies the great traits of the intellectual Renaissance man. In his home, he is often seen with a great collection of books that he devours. He invents all manner of things, including his suits of armor that he uses to fight bad guys, showing off his superior fighting skills.
Examples of Renaissance Men in Books
#1 The Great Gatsby
An aloof fellow, we hear more about Gatsby than we ever see. Gatsby is lauded for his great parties, showing off his social skills. He is also known as a wealthy and wise recluse of higher social class in 1920s New York.
#2 Albus Dumbledore
While we only get to know Dumbledore in his older years, we learn much about him in his younger days. He is a gentle and wise man but also a formidable wizard. His office is full of books and he frequently shows off his broad range of intellectual interests to Harry – from birds to spells to history of wizardry. We also hear of his great battles of the past where he proved his skills in dueling.
Origins of the concept of the Renaissance Man
The concept of the Renaissance man originated in the Renaissance era in Italy. Back then, they called this ideal man ‘homo universalis’ which translates from Latin to “universal man” or “man of the world”.
During the Renaissance era, many great thinkers tried to dig up the ancient humanist ideals of antiquity. They tried to revive ancient philosophy and thought processes of great thinkers like Socrates.
One key idea from Renaissance humanist times is that humans should be considered holistically. We should focus on developing our intellect, strength, social skills and spirituality all at once.
Another idea from humanism is that all humans have innate abilities. We all have free-will and inherent worth as humans. Therefore, we all can work on ourselves to become the best we can be. You might have heard of a similar concept called the ‘growth mindset’ by Carol Dweck.
Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man
Leonardo Da Vinci is the most famous of Renaissance men. When writing about and researching the ideal man, Da Vinci created the now famous image of the Vitruvian Man. This image is supposed to visually sum up the ideal man of the Renaissance era.
The Vitruvian man image is based on the writings of Vitruvius, a Roman architect from antiquity. Vitruvius described how the ideal man’s physical proportions fit perfectly within a circle and a square.
What’s the Difference between a Renaissance Man and a Polymath?
A polymath is a person who is knowledgeable in a wide range of topics. They are the opposite to a ‘mono-math’, who is an expert in only one topic.
A polymath is very much like a Renaissance man. However, the term ‘polymath’ refers only to expertise in a range of topics. Renaissance men are much more well-rounded. They not only have this broad intellect. They also are the ideal men socially and physically. They are handsome, charismatic and sportspeople.
How to become a Renaissance Man
#1 Read Books
You need to read a wide range of books – including fiction and non-fiction. Try reading one of each per month: a classic novel like To Kill a Mockingbird or Great Expectations as well as a book on philosophy like Sophie’s World or A Concise History of Philosophy.
#2 Keep up to date with the News
You’ll need to be able to share your opinions on current events. Why not download a daily news podcast or bookmark the New York Times on your computer to keep up to date with what’s going on in the world?
#3 Watch Documentaries
Documentaries will help you to learn about more obscure things than what’s in the news of today. Learn about history by watching History Channel documentaries or subscribe to Vice on HBO to get some great documentaries on interesting stories around the world.
#4 Work Out
You’ll need to be visibly physically fit. Work on your upper body and core strength a couple of times a week to maintain the ideal body type of the masculine man.
#5 Take up a Sport
You’ll need to be able to show off your sporting skills as well. Many Renaissance men do elite sports like sailing, rowing, skiing and polo. This will also help you to develop your social capital by getting you in touch with other Renaissance-type people.
#6 Take classes in mathematics, history, literature and philosophy
The mix of hard science and soft science skills is central to a Renaissance mindset. There are tons of classes online on all of these topics (Try Coursea as a good starting point), or simply go to your local community college and take some classes that look interesting to you.
#7 Become an Entrepreneur
Entrepreneurship shows some attractive traits that worldly men possess – like self-confidence and a competitive spirit.
#8 Take up Painting, Pottery or a Musical Instrument
You’ll need to be able to show your artistic prowess. Painting is the quintessential Renaissance man art but music and poetry will also suffice. YouTube tutorials can get you started, but you might want to get some formal training in one of these skills sooner or later.
#9 Learn a new Language
Download Duolingo and start learning a language! Because Renaissance men were traditionally Italian, that’s a great language to start with! If you’re game, teach yourself a little Latin as well,
If you want to be able to impress people with your worldliness, you need to have experiences immersed in other cultures. Travel to places where people speak different languages to you, or go on adventurous trips that involve plenty of hiking or adventure sports.
#11 Do a Liberal Arts Degree
If all of the above seems too daunting to you, try to do it in a more structured way – by doing a liberal arts degree! It’ll give you a broad base of worldly knowledge and you’ll leave the course with a well-respected certificate.
Criticisms of the Renaissance Man Concept
#1 It Reinforces Gender Norms
It is not too common that we hear of a “Renaissance woman”. Back in Renaissance Italy, there were of course very chauvinistic gender norms. Women were widely excluded from the sporting and intellectual arenas.
Still today, we think of the Renaissance man as embodying the typical masculine archetype. Many may complain that this idealization of the masculine norm is not right. We come in all shapes and sizes and we all have inherent worth. Perhaps, one might argue, intelligence or physical prowess should not be seen as the mark of a superior man.
#2 Expertise is Better than Broad Knowledge
Today, we tend to specialize in one specific thing. Some of us go off to be engineers, and others go off to be writers.
We can thank Henry Ford for the growth of specialization. Ford showed us that factories (and indeed society) seem to work more efficiently when each person has a specialized purpose. Each person can gain deep knowledge and skill in one thing which is of great worth to society.
When we want to get a well paid job today, we need to specialize. We go to university to gain the skills for that one thing, which puts us in good stead for applying for our jobs of the future.
It might be a dying art, but being a worldly man still comes with social benefits. If you get it right, you’ll be loved and respected by your peers. But, perhaps being a Renaissance man is more than about social status. Like the humanists of the Renaissance era, the goal should be the best you can be.