To Flounder or Flourish

We can learn a lot from our past, and we can be the creators of our futures.

| January 2018

In Age Of Discovery: Navigating the Risks and Rewards of Our New Renaissance (St. Martin's Press, 2016) Da Vinci, Galileo, Copernicus, Raphael, and Michaelangelo are names that recall an era in which an unprecedented rush of discovery broke through long-standing barriers of ignorance and connected the whole world, politically and economically, for the first time. We still think of such surges of human ingenuity as rare. But they don't have to be.

The Moment We're In

If Michelangelo were reborn today, amidst all the turmoil that marks our present age, would he flounder, or flourish again?

Every year, millions of people file into the Sistine Chapel to stare up in wonder at Michelangelo Buonarroti’s Creation of Adam. Millions more pay homage to Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Through five centuries, we have carefully preserved such Renaissance masterpieces, and cherished them, as objects of beauty and inspiration.

But they also challenge us.

The artists who crafted these feats of genius five hundred years ago did not inhabit some magical age of universal beauty, but rather a tumultuous moment—marked by historic milestones and discoveries, yes, but also wrenching upheaval. Their world was tangling together in a way it had never done before, thanks to Gutenberg’s recent invention of the printing press (1450s), Columbus’s discovery of the New World (1492) and Vasco da Gama’s discovery of a sea route to Asia’s riches (1497). And humanity’s fortunes were changing, in some ways radically. The Black Death had tapered off, Europe’s population was recovering, and public health, wealth and education were all rising.

Genius flourished under these conditions, as evidenced by artistic achievements (especially from the 1490s to the 1520s), by Copernicus’s revolutionary theories of a sun-centered cosmos (1510s), and by similar advances in a wide range of fields, from biology to engineering to navigation to medicine. Basic, common-sense “truths” that had stood unquestioned for centuries, even millennia, were eroding away. The Earth did not stand still. The sun did not revolve around it. The “known” world wasn’t even half of the whole. The human heart wasn’t the soul; it was a pump. In mere decades, printing boosted the production of books from hundreds to millions per year, and these weird facts and new ideas traveled farther, faster than had ever been possible.

1/29/2018 1:22:08 PM

The result is that I feel continually off-balance. My neck and face, like David's statue, are tense as I look forward - but, I'm afraid I lack any clear sense of purpose or direction. I expected to feel like this in my twenties when, in hindsight, I felt so much more sure and purposeful, raising five children certainly gave my life focus for years, and now - I find myself adrift. "I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now."