Back to the Future, with Renaissance Man

1470-1500

The Renaissance brings together a bunch of Logarithmic History themes:

Human beings understand abstract concepts in terms of concrete concepts. Possession is like location: “Ivan has a hat” = “The hat is at Ivan.” And time everywhere is understood as a kind of abstract space: “The meeting went from two to three,” “The meeting was moved to Tuesday.” Most languages, including English, equate space and time by putting the future in front of us. This makes sense, because then when we walk forward we walk toward the future. But in some languages, what’s before us is the past. This makes sense in its own way, because then the past is what we can see, and the future is behind us, out of sight.

The Renaissance walked backward into the future, with eyes fixed on the past, scorning the Middle Ages for Antiquity. The Renaissance was not the first or last epoch to be blinded by “the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome,” but the Renaissance, at the beginning of the modern age, caught a particularly bad case of nostalgia. This period is famous for recovering a sense of history. (Donald Brown argues that this has to do with Italians – and then urban Westerners in general – moving from a closed to an open class system; this in turn has to do with the decline of serfdom and the rise of cities in the West.) The Renaissance also coincided with the beginning of the modern scientific revolution. Not coincidentally, the pioneers of the scientific revolution, all the way up to Newton, considered that they were doing intellectual archaeology, recovering the Lost Wisdom of the Ancients. Leonardo da Vinci – not quite a scientist, but equally fascinated by art and technology – is an early example from the time when the Two Cultures were one. Lucio Russo, who argues that the Hellenistic age produced a Forgotten Revolution in science, puts it this way:

The oft-heard comment that Leonardo’s genius managed to transcend the culture of his time is amply justified. But his was not a science-fiction voyage into the future so much as a plunge into a distant past. Leonardo’s drawings often show objects that could not have been built in his time because the relevant technology did not exist. This is not due to a special genius for divining the future, but to the mundane fact that behind those drawings there were older drawings from a time when technology was far more advanced.

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One thought on “Back to the Future, with Renaissance Man

  1. Pingback: The Last of the Magicians | Logarithmic History

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