My granddad was born in 1908. In his lifetime, he saw the lights turn on (with a newfangled toggle switch), saw the first supermarket open (Piggy Wiggly, I hear it was), saw cars overtake horses as the dominant mode of transport in the streets, saw wages go from 22 cents to 26 dollars per hour on average, saw a man set foot on the moon, saw enough wars to lose count, and saw the temperature of the earth increase nearly a degree and a half Fahrenheit. He saw a lot more than that, most especially in the last 25 or so of his 104 years, when the speed at which things changed hit what we might call breakneck.
Things didn’t always move so fast. Before the vast changes that came with the period known as The Renaissance, time in some ways stood still. William Manchester wrote of this pre-Renaissance period, calling it a “melange of incessant warfare, corruption, lawlessness, obsession with strange myths, and an almost impenetrable mindlessness.” He went on to describe the pace of human and technological development during that time, noting that “nothing of real consequence had either improved or declined. Except for the introduction of water wheels in the 800s and windmills in the 1100s, there had been no inventions of significance. No startling new ideas had appeared, no territories outside Europe had been explored. Everything was as it had been for as long as the oldest European could remember.”
It was no real disaster for the good people of the Middle Ages then, that mechanical clocks did not exist. These were invented during The Renaissance and changed the way that commerce was conducted, by, as Michael Gelb writes in How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, “allowing people to experience time as a controllable commodity.” Because time was not a concept particularly familiar to Medieval folks, “the vast majority of people didn’t know what year it was or even what century they lived in.”
With the dawn of The Renaissance, change seemed to come fast and furious (by Middle Ages standards, in any case). The world saw the emergence of the printing press, as well as pencil and affordable paper, which changed the way that individuals could access and study information and gain personal knowledge. The invention of the compass and development of the forge sailing ship facilitated travel over the sea, accelerating international trade and informational and cultural exchange. And emergence of long-range weapons changed the geo-political landscape and even the type of governance of nations. Gelb notes that these developments were preceded by the Black Plague, a great equalizer among people which, for whatever reason, led to a democratization of and hunger for knowledge that created a “surging intellectual energy, dammed for a millennium in ecclesiastical reservoirs” which flooded through the “pestilence-inspired breach.”
The people of the Middle Ages had no reason to be concerned that they were standing still. That “almost impenetrable mindlessness” that so dominated the era allowed them to be unbothered by the passing of time. They seemed not to consider how history would view them; this would require a thoughtfulness, a mindfulness, that (at least some judge) they did not have. It is this “mindlessness” that seems most interesting as a primary source of the dearth of inspiration of the Middle Ages. The rapid and profound growth of industry, technology and scholarship of The Renaissance points to a newfound mindfulness that spurred on a period of great transformation.
Gelb writes of the transformation of our time, and of the character of today’s Renaissance Man or Woman, or as I like to say, Renaissance Person. Today’s uomo universale, he observes, is a “well-rounded person, comfortable with both art and science.” He notes that they would be computer literate, “attuned to developments in information technology and increasingly at home on the World Wide Web.” Additionally, they are mentally literate, concerned with an “evolving understanding of the workings of the human mind.” Finally, the Renaissance Person is globally aware. They possess an appreciation for the “global links in communication, economies, and ecosystems.”
When we consider creativity, we often think in terms of the arts. Perhaps we consider the ways in which we boost creativity by long walks in the woods, by reading poetry, by wandering through a museum, by sipping tea in view of a patch of wildflowers in the park. Gelb will have us believing that creativity — the kind that brings about transformation in our lives and our world — calls for a certain kind of intellectual engagement. One that expects us to hold a familiarity with world events, that feels comfortable around technology, that opens oneself up to various other cultures, identities and worldviews.
My granddad was a tinkerer and homegrown inventor of sorts. A true uomo universale, he had a comfort with the global and technological advances of his time. He lived to see the birth and explosive growth of the Internet, but it came just past the age when he could really engage with it. He often reflected that he wished he could have understood it better. Had it come a few years earlier, I like to think he would have had his own startup. Had it, and he, come a few centuries earlier, I like to think he and da Vinci would have swapped sketches over a glass of wine and an Italian meal.
Photo by Naoki Natsume/Ishii, Creative Commons via Flickr. Post by Will Willingham.