The Italian Renaissance was the cradle of modern civilization. Is that because it freed people from medieval superstition? Not by a long shot: superstition continues to thrive right up to the present and shows no sign of waning. Something else happened to make that time and place consequential. It was the advent of natural science.
The Renaissance isn’t notable for reinventing religion. It merely stopped inventing nature and instead turned people’s attention from the imaginary to the existential. At first this code switch probably felt like a comedown, because the natural world seems uncomplicated and familiar; it’s all around us, there for everybody to see and use rather than a symbol of things mysterious, unseen and desired.
That rustic perspective may have preceded the Quattrocento but for sure it ended there, with the emergence of scientific acumen. Because when patiently and attentively considered, nature is not uncomplicated and familiar; it is not mostly palpable to the senses, not intuitive or logical or even fathomable at its extremities. Nature is an enigma so mind-boggling that relatively few people can or even want to think about it. Instead we take it for granted, and wonder what’s for dinner.
Nature is the material world, spanning particles so small that they pass through our porous membranes as though we aren’t there; and stardust so diffuse that we don’t know where (or if) it ever ends. Beginning in the Italian Renaissance, artists and scientists have investigated material in order to understand what it truly is, why it sometimes comes to life and lives on, how it may be controlled and used for practical purposes.
A celebrated artist-scientist of that era was Michelangelo. He wrote of his art that “The sculpture is already complete within the marble block, before I start my work. It is already there, I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.” What did he mean?
He meant that material is us and we are material. We may look at and into ourselves to discover the meaning of the universe; we may look at and into the universe to discover the meaning of ourselves. Fearful symmetry!
This insight came forcefully to mind as I surveyed human metabolism and asked myself, “What may people come to know or know about, that they didn’t already know, by the time they finish Diabetes Agonistes? And how much of that will be useful to them.”
The answers are pretty exciting. People will suddenly know that their life is their body: neither the soul everlasting nor the face in the mirror, but a unique and beautiful and transitory expression of their genes. They will know that the genes encode biochemical activities so numerous and subtle and complex and quick and precise and certain that miraculous is not an exaggeration.
When our game posits that the body is a miracle worthy of their greatest care and respect and love, they will not scratch their head and wonder how that can be. They will not sign up for a class or call a doctor or a priest to explain life to them. They will instead look out on the world – the seas, the mountains and valleys, the forests and pathways through the forest, and they will believe, “That is me. I can now find myself in the world where I live, and understand the world where I live as the body I inhabit. For a time, until the material that is me returns to stardust and finds another fascinating way to emerge and continue.”
“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free,” wrote Michelangelo about another sculpture. We know it when we view his art. We know that his genius was to let the human emerge from material; and for material to teach us something ineffable about the human that nobody before the Italian Renaissance understood, and which few of us today understand. Tomorrow will be different.