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A New Renaissance?

It’s possible to imagine all data, all ‘bits’ of knowledge, including skills or extended experiences, floating around in space, randomly.

Human beings, over time, gradually compartment these into ‘subjects’. Anything to do with numbers goes into the Maths box; words and meanings get grouped together in Languages; anything to do with our understanding of the material universe tends to be gathered into a box called Science. People, who through prolonged experience in one field or another have become more knowledgeable about that field, are then given the task of transmitting or transferring elements of a particular field into a set of people, usually younger, who have much less familiarity with it. This has been the nature of education since the human race first realised that it possessed knowledge of enough value to want to transmit it outward to others and forward in time.

This process of compartmenting has gone on for as long as human beings have been around. The boxes which we call subjects have become rigid; the data in them are not often allowed outside to mix with that from other boxes. Knowledge of fields is contained in set texts, in physical libraries, in classrooms and in locations around the world, as well as in experts’ heads. However, in the last couple of decades, we have begun to see something new: the boxes are breaking down, bleeding, in effect, mainly because of the internet. This isn’t always conducive to better understanding: the internet isn’t a disciplined space. Open to entry by anyone of whatever level of education in any field, the quality of data available on it is not necessarily high. We see examples in the open encyclopaedia Wikipedia, in which data can be accessed at large and altered by anyone; or in the media networks, traditional and social, where what is taken to be true is open to speculation, emotion, contribution and distortion. Conventional sources and gatekeepers of collective knowledge and experience are no longer what they were: schools, universities, institutions of learning which also had the function of cataloguing and protecting knowledge, are now not the central players they were in years gone by. Things are escaping; Pandora’s Box is opening.

This can be seen to be a bad thing. But it also throws open some positive possibilities. If those floating bits of knowledge and experience are escaping from confinement, and are now, uncaged, able to be accessed by anyone with a computer connection or a smart phone, humanity might be on the threshold of a new creative explosion. If individuals can gain access to facilities, facts, formulae and forms of wisdom and experience previously held apart and hidden, might there not be a recombination and rejuvenation of culture, science, philosophy and the arts?

Just as in the Middle Ages the knowledge held by a few in isolated and privileged locations leaked out into the world through new inventions such as the printing press, leading to a European revolution which was later called the Renaissance, today we see a similar melting down of boundaries and fences. Viewpoints shifted, centres of gravity of thinking changed, old ideas were challenged in both good and bad ways in the Renaissance - might not the same thing be happening now?

Can we learn anything from this period to prepare ourselves?

After the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, the new king Henry Tudor started the 16th Century by chopping back expenditure, making deals between the warring factions, and effectively settling overseas disputes. He made astute alliances through other marriages and built some of the last of the Gothic cathedrals of the country with part of the wealth he had managed to save. In effect, unknowingly of course, Henry VII had made it safe for the ideas of the Italian Renaissance to be entertained in England.

Think of the intellectuals involved in that Renaissance as the ‘cutting edge’ of technologists today: a small group of humanists which was intimately connected with the Royal family - Lord Mountjoy the group’s patron, Linacre, Grocyn and Colet, some of whom had studied in Padua, Florence and Rome - brought over to Cambridge the greatest scholar of Northern Europe of that time, Erasmus, and also employed the Florentine sculptor Torrigiano in London, where he was creating the first Renaissance tombs in Northern Europe for Henry VII and his wife. But their legacy was to be more than tombs.

As the influence of the Italian Renaissance spread north of the Alps it changed in character, and deeply Christian thinkers were keen to use the ideas of the Classical Age - which were now in relative abundance through the new invention of the printing press, just as ideas flow freely today through the internet - to revise and rehabilitate Christian thought. The ideas of such great thinkers as Plato and Aristotle were incorporated into the Christian world view. What this also meant, though, was that the Bible could now be reviewed in its original form without the interpretation of centuries of priests, and it began to be felt that a direct line could be opened up between the individual and truth, or God. In 1517, Luther hammered his Protestant thesis to the church door at Wittenburg and the Reformation effectively began.

England, under Henry VIII, was quick to feel its effects: Henry saw the Pope’s refusal to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon as an excuse to divorce the entire country from the 'corrupt' practices of the Roman Catholic Church. He dissolved the monasteries, claiming their lands and wealth for the throne, and a massive redistribution of wealth took place in England, the main beneficiaries being merchants and lawyers. A new class of relatively affluent non-aristocrats, riding the wave of not only new wealth but the discoveries of the New World across the Atlantic, became interested in the thinking of the Renaissance and had the freedom to become more involved in the arts.

By the late 16th Century, the first Elizabethan Age was flourishing. Many of the plots used by Marlowe, Shakespeare and the other dramatists were borrowed directly from the works of Italian Renaissance poets and writers, but everything was infused with the sceptical, nationalistic or metaphysical interests of the day. The lists of gentry swelled in England as people bought titles, coats of arms and country houses. The wealthy now felt safe enough to build their homes as houses rather than fortified castles. It was in this historical setting and atmosphere that Shakespeare wrote his great plays and poems.

Knowledge was formerly held onto by only a few who could read and write: books were precious repositories of truth, protected in monasteries built like fortresses, regarded as holy. Once the barriers began to break down - through the invention of printing, through the spread of literacy, through the travels of intelligent people - all kinds of things changed, from politics to economics, from religion to social structure, from customs to architecture.

The rest of the 21st century might reveal the same kind of fundamental shifts.


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