A Lost Renaissance?
Where is our new renaissance? A recent comment by Helen Blunden on my post on the hidden damage of the pandemic reminded me of our overdue post-pandemic renaissance. We have the inequity, the warfare and the monsters of Harry Lime’s quote, what will it take to bring on the new renaissance?
Talk of a new renaissance is not new. I remember the early days of the pandemic and discussion of Isaac Newton’s plague years and his breakthroughs in optics, gravity and calculus. We also had the optimistic forecasts of renewal of our cities and economies, even the contribution of lockdowns to the recovery of nature, mitigation of global warming and reductions in pollution. Our embrace of working from home, delivery services and digital life was a transformative breakthrough.
The disappointment that these have not generated a radical change yet ignores both the shortness of the time since 2020 in terms of cultural changes and that the adjustment to the pandemic is very much ongoing. As much as our world is globalised and rapid in change now, change in worldview still takes time. The Renaissance was not a Davos-style conference that changed the world in a few days or weeks. The influence developed across generations, disciplines, and multiple countries. Perhaps one could argue that its significance is more for the influence it had on the subsequent secular Enlightenment and its consequences in revolution and societal liberation. The humanism of the Renaissance and the rise of scientific methods helped set the stage in a religious society.
It is new, always, no matter what it says above the doorway, cracked by the usual irony; it’s new anyway.Kay Ryan, Renaissance
New Ideas Rediscovered
Here on the table near the window is a vase of peonies
and next to it black binoculars and a money clip,
exactly the kind of thing we now prefer,
objects that sit quietly on a line in lower case,Billy Collins, The Death of Allegory
The Renaissance was also inspired by the rediscovery of ancient ideas enhanced and developed through the Arab world. Translating ancient classical works lost to Europe back from Eastern sources inspired changes, as did the healthy borrowing from the development of those ideas by Oriental philosophers, mathematicians, scientists and society as a whole.
Willingness to challenge the prevailing cultural ideas did not arise simply because of the existence of new ideas. Those ideas needed to land in fertile minds exploring changes under the sponsorship of wealthy and powerful city states and political rulers seeking to use soft power as part of wider political, economic and even military power battles. One needs only to consider the ongoing debates about Machiavelli’s meaning, intent and influence in writing The Prince to see the complexity of the time. Massive wealth, absolute power, religious absolutism, a lack of social mobility, violence, and incredible inequity provided the prevailing cultural environment in which the seeds of the Renaissance took root.
Today we tend to treat those concepts like abstract nouns capitalised for our amusement. In past eras, they had deadly and specific meanings that were unchallengeable by most. The miracle of the Renaissance and the subsequent Enlightenment is that they happened at all. Forces today still fight for their repeal.
Our governments today are hardly havens of social change or funding new research and ideas. The great contest of ideas seems largely abandoned post the ‘End of History’. Governments are trapped between neoliberalism and resurgent neo-fascism while trying to survive a daily news cycle. Our extraordinarily wealthy billionaires seek political influence and for a few male billionaires their scientific research funding is mostly funding a phallic space race as a way for themselves off a dying planet. The expenditure of their wealth as patrons for social purposes, arts and sciences come predominantly from the efforts of their partners, ex-wives and widows. Our intellectuals and elites have lost the credibility and connection to the world to advocate for new ideas and to drive change. Thought leaders, charlatans, and mob leaders are not a path to a better world. Many work tirelessly as a force for good but they feel isolated and unsupported. There is too much to do for the few.
What Needs to be New?
In this vexed context, the question arises as to what needs to be new, renewed, or newly embraced to found our new renaissance? The Renaissance offered a dazzling escape from stultifying cultural and religious uniformity in the pursuit of new ways of seeing the world. For us in this time, it is unclear to many that anything is agreed enough to be a restraint on our ways of seeing the world. Our problem is not a unifying ideology but a hyper-personalisation of reality and an abdication of the idea that government and economic society will benefit the individual.
Late stage capitalism has no obvious competitor, despite its inequities. It is hardly collapsing, even facing a harsh climate reality, and the contradictions lie with its foes. Democratic government has absorbed the themes and recommendations of its competitors. Both fit the model of being ‘the worst form but better than everything else that has been tried.’ There are no easy alternative .
I have no personal answer or I would not be exploring my thinking in this post. I doubt that there are a simple set of steps, a single rallying cry, or a piece of magical science or technology. The disappointment of much recent innovation has been its focus on getting rich quick or simply capturing attention for advertising. Where is the work to meet the world’s challenges?
Over and over again Wittgenstein frets the problem of translucence.
Why is there no clear white?
He wants to see the world through white-tinted glasses,
but all he finds is mist.Kathryn Neeurenberger, Translations
The frustrations of our time call for new sense making. We need to look beyond the mainstream and seek novelties and innovations growing shoots at the edges. Just as the Renaissance found ideas beyond its historical sources so can we. The Renaissance was a specifically narrow European phenomenon. My concerns and perspectives may be to large extent shaped by a similar narrowness of context. Innovations are out there in a diverse world and we need to embrace that capacity to make sense and innovate.
Naming the need for change, finding new practices and approaches that work and fostering them to widespread appeal to replace the old is part of the work of generations. Like it or not, we will all be drawn into the work of exploring the world for answers and becoming change agents.
Path to the New
How long is my minus life,
nonexistence so much resembles immortality.Anna Swir, Woman Unborn
I may not have the answer, but I have faith in the creative potential of people supported and liberated to make change in systems for the betterment of all. I have faith that on a diverse planet we can come together around better ideas and better ways. Two and a half years ago when a pandemic loomed I called for focus on our need to foster and build our agency to tackle the challenges confronting us. Two and a half years later, we still need work on those challenges but there are promising signs that change can occur when people come together to work for something better.
More recently Power and Love have risen to the forefront of my consideration. We need more time examining and discussing power dynamics and our capacity to support others to achieve. Many of the great themes of our working life from engagement, to inclusion, to collaboration, innovation and performance fall in those considerations. Perhaps the next political and social revolution lies beyond these considerations.
If I add anything to our next Renaissance it is our sense of shared Belonging. In many dimensions our society, our organisations and our lives are fractured. We have lost a widely shared sense of belonging. Nationalism threatens even a shared global community. We can find our own small cliques and engage more intensely than ever. Is our lost belonging the result of fifty years or more of ‘bowling alone’?
If we are seeking a new Renaissance in agency, love, power and belonging then it feels to me that we are seeking a renaissance of civil society. Civil society defines our relations and how we come together as a society, a community and a nation. Perhaps that is where we must focus our new revival.
This post remains an exploration. Let me know your ideas and thoughts.
Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.Philip Larkin, An Arundel Tomb