Become a Renaissance Man Without Spending a Dime

by Brett & Kate McKay on May 28, 2009 · 24 comments

in A Man's Life, Personal Development


Awhile back, we posted about the importance of striving to fulfill your complete potential by becoming a true Renaissance man. While we live in a world that encourages specialization, a man should seek to learn about as many subjects as he can and expand his mind to its outermost limits.

Centuries ago, being a Renaissance man was a pursuit preserved solely for the well to-do. It was only the upper-classes who could afford private tutors and expensive books. Today, happily,  the spread of technology has placed the goal of being a true polymath within any man’s reach. A modern man can spend a lifetime educating himself on everything from philosophy and religion to cooking and music, all without ever spending a dime. If you desire to enrich your mind without ever opening your wallet, here are some avenues to pursue, with some personal recommendations for each. Of course, not everything a Renaissance man needs to know can be taught in books or on the internet, but this is a worthy start to supplement your hands-on training.

The Teaching Company’s Great Courses Series

If you’re like the average man and spend 10 hours a week driving around in your car, then you’re spending 520 hours a year in the driver’s seat. That’s 22 days a year, which means you are annually spending almost a month of your life behind the wheel! What are you doing with that time? Listening to the morning show DJ’s crack jokes about Lindsey Lohan?

The Teaching Company’s Great Courses are sets of CD (and sometimes DVD) recordings of professors giving college-level lectures.  If there’s a course in college you wish you had taken or a subject you wish you knew a lot more about, then driving around listening to these CD’s is a painless way to do it. From history and art to economics and philosophy, there’s something for everyone.

These CD sets are quite expensive to buy, but the public library in your area probably has most of them ready to check out for free.

Although the Teaching Company claims that all their courses are  taught by the professorial cream of the crop, in reality, some of these guys could cause you to drift off and smash into a tree (at least the prof can’t see you doze off). So you just have to try them out and find the ones you like; check out the reviews on the Teaching Company’s website for guidance. Here are a few I’ve personally listened to and enjoyed:

Famous Greeks

Famous Romans

Books That Have Made History: Books That Can Change Your Life

-Taught by Dr. J. Rufus Fears.

I got to experience Dr. Fears in the flesh as a student at the University of Oklahoma; his classes always filled within minutes and students would sit on the floor and in the aisles hoping to get into his class. Listening to Dr. Fears on CD isn’t quite the same as the live-action version; part of the experience is seeing this bald little fat man pretend to decapitate and stab students. But if you want to be inspired by the heroes of the ancient world, his lectures will give you a nice kick in the pants. While many history professors these days concentrate only on the “sins” of our past, Dr. Fears is an old school guy who skillfully examines the lives of history’s great men, distilling out their lessons in how to live a more moral and ethical life.

American Religious History

-Taught by Dr. Patrick N. Allitt.

Emerson, Thoreau, and the Transcendentalist Movement

-Taught by Dr. Ashton Nichols

European Thought and Culture in the 19th Century

European Thought and Culture in the 20th Century

-Taught by Dr. Lloyd Kramer

University Podcasts

Many colleges and universities have started to put out free podcasts of their professors’ lectures. You get to listen in on some of the best professors in the world, and you don’t have to do any homework or write a single term paper. Here a couple of sites to check out, the second is particularly helpful as it breaks the lectures down by school and subject:

University & College Podcasts-Free Educational Podcasts (@openculture)

Skip the Tuition: 100 Free Podcasts from the Best Colleges in the World. (@The Online Education Database)

iTunes U: 170 Colleges offer free lectures for you to download and listen to on the go.


You won’t find a kid hopped up on laughing gas on YouTube Edu, but you will find tons of videos from colleges and universities. You’ll have to sort through the videos as universities post not just  lectures, but also random videos that have to do with their school. Here’s a couple I enjoyed:

Integrative Biology 131 – Lecture 01: Organization of Body by Professor Marian Diamond

Modern Physics: Special Relativity by Professor Leonard Susskind

How to Make Fish Tacos: Culinary Institute of America with Chef Joe DiPerri

Classic Books in the Public Domain

Perhaps you were inspired by our list of 100 must-read books, but didn’t want to plunk down the money needed to start amassing that kind of library. The public library is always a great option, but you can also get many of the books on the list and tons more online. Books that are in the public domain are now available free to download and read. Google Books tends to be my go-to place when I’m looking for something, but there are many other sites out there. Mashable has a great run-down of these sites, and there are even more suggestions in the comments:

20+ Places for Public Domain E-books (@mashable)

TED complies speeches and lectures not only by professors but interesting people from many different walks of life. TED talks are lighter than academic lectures, often quite funny, and concentrate on interesting ideas and concepts. And most are 20 minutes or less, so they’re great for those with a short attention span. Here are a couple I’ve enjoyed lately:

Dan Ariely asks, Are we in control of our own decisions?

Dan Gilbert asks, Why are we happy?

Joachim de Posada says, “Don’t eat the marshmallow yet”

{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Ryan May 28, 2009 at 7:00 pm

Great list of resources!

Along the lines of TED is, well worth checking out. Lots of current affairs from a variety of perspectives. FORA also has full video of the Long Now Foundation Seminars, some of which are very interesting.

2 Matt May 28, 2009 at 8:55 pm

Making AOM my home page was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

3 rommy May 28, 2009 at 9:44 pm

Great article. Although, you’re implying that a renaissance man is purely right-brained and academic. A true renaissance man is just as practical and hands-on (left-brained) as he is a learned man in the liberal arts (right-brained).

4 Justin Luddington May 29, 2009 at 1:58 am

Excellent, excellent, excellent article. The pursuit of knowledge and self-ameliorisation should a goal for every man. I’ve subscribed to this site’s feed since the beginning, and I must say I haven’t regretted it for a second.

5 Morgan May 29, 2009 at 3:00 am

For those looking for some economics-related online course material – Brad Delong (Berkeley) posted a good list of free resources recently.–video-etc.html

6 David Allen May 29, 2009 at 4:10 am

In the same vein as these sites, you have to check out – fantastic video lecture series from the top Universities in the world.

7 Andrew May 29, 2009 at 4:15 am

Fantastic resource! As a 50-mile-each-way commuter, I know how much mind-expansion one can do in that otherwise wasted time. Here are a few other resources I have found:

Big Ideas Podcast:
A collection of lectures on a huge range of random subjects.

A colossal catalog of free audiobooks of literature in the public domain. They’re recorded solely by volunteers who love the books. Plenty of classics.

Language podcasts:
If your idea of being a Renaissance Man includes speaking multiple languages, there are plenty of language education podcasts out there. I’ve had good experiences with the RadioLingua, but there are others as well.

8 Chuck May 29, 2009 at 5:44 am

There’s also the “In Our Time” Podcast on BBC4. Same deal, but free.

Show from this week:

A long time ago, a man called Saul was travelling to Damascus when a light flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

This is the original Damascene conversion; one that blinded Saul and then transformed him from a persecutor of Christians into a founder of churches. We know him as St Paul.

The spirit of St Paul infuses Christianity still, but his life and his letters reveal the very early church; a community dealing with the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Without Paul’s energy, his encouragement and his ideas, Christianity as we know it would simply not exist.


John Haldane, Professor of Philosophy at the University of St Andrews

John Barclay, Lightfoot Professor of Divinity at Durham University

Helen Bond, Senior Lecturer in the New Testament at the University of Edinburgh

9 Ryan May 29, 2009 at 5:46 am

Good source for the Great Books style reading, your Library, or

They have the “Harvard Classics” – read through all 50 books and have what would be considered a well rounded education recommended by Harvard circa 1910.

10 The Plainsman May 29, 2009 at 5:54 am

Oftentimes, I will use TED as background music while I am working. I find their lectures fascinating.

11 Chris May 29, 2009 at 6:16 am

With a 40 mile commute each direction, I’ve jumped into audiobooks over the past couple of years. I’ve listened to tons of non-fiction from the library, including many self-help books, historical books, and biographies. “The Mayflower” was my first, and it was worth every minute.

As I started the 100 Essential Manly Books list a few months ago, I’ve been listening to more fiction as of late. I’ve listened to 1984, A Farewell to Arms, On the Road, and several others just within the last month. Catch-22 was a great listen, and so far has been my favorite book.

Finally, you should also check out the course “Listening to and Appreciating Jazz”. It’s either a Great Course or one of the Modern Scholar books. While I don’t listen to jazz regularly, it was certainly interesting to learn some of its history and to learn what it’s about. It comes with a few listening discs, too, so I could listen to a lecture one direction and the music the next!

12 Darrell May 29, 2009 at 6:42 am

I’ve been listening to classes from MIT OpenCourseware on my commutes:

There are over 1900 courses with materials on a variety of topics.

For the theologically minded Reformed Theological Seminary also has many of its courses available for free:

13 Brett May 29, 2009 at 6:54 am

Thanks for the fantastic additions everyone. I was hoping that commenters would help me uncover even more great resources and I haven’t been disappointed.

@ The Plainsman-
I like putting on TED as my “background music” too. One would think it would be distracting, but it’s great.


I totally agree with you. I tried to address that point here: “Of course, not everything a Renaissance man needs to know can be taught in books or on the internet, but this is a worthy start to supplement your hands-on training.”

14 RO May 29, 2009 at 9:40 am

You may want to check out Alan Kay’s reading list:

He has a library of 5000 books about all sorts of subjects. He’s a computer scientist but also into biology, media, teaching/education, etc.

15 Matt May 29, 2009 at 11:30 am

I just wanted to add a link to a great free book resource! This one has both text and audio books.

16 Mike M. May 30, 2009 at 7:31 pm

I would also recommend for a good overview of physics. It makes doctoral-level concepts understandable to an intelligent layman – a tour de force.

17 Omar June 1, 2009 at 4:51 pm

It’s funny how people seem to be impressed when one knows a lot about varied topics. I will check out the resources. Good post.

18 Ben June 3, 2009 at 11:43 am

I love!!

19 Dave June 25, 2009 at 6:48 am

I have been very satisfied with The Teaching Company’s products and enjoy MIT open courseware and TED, etc. Also look at the Avalon project form Yale – hundreds of essential documents from Magna Carta to Federalis papers etc. I also like econtalk – podcasts about economics really facinating stuff.

20 Oz November 7, 2009 at 9:58 pm

it’s all well and good to try to encourage people but people who are as inept and shit as me will never be able to reach those lofty goals

21 L. K. Lambert January 25, 2010 at 10:13 pm

I’ve been buying from the Teaching Company for a few years, and they are fabulous! Just a few corrections: MOST of their courses are available on DVD, and with very few exceptions, ALL are available on CD. Also, while the DVD courses are quite expensive, the Teaching Company offers selected courses each month (over the year, all their courses) at a substantial discount. Subscribe to their monthly catalog to know when the course(s) that interests you is available.

22 David March 9, 2010 at 11:29 pm

Another great site is Academic Earth:

It compiles single lectures and entire courses form open course sites of universities like Stanford, Yale and MIT. Some also have additional material available for download.

23 Joseph J. Pippet March 21, 2013 at 3:47 pm

JMJ Only through the Grace of God You will not have an Accident!

24 L. T. April 20, 2013 at 1:16 am

I would also like to add one more resource for education that is free – as long as you have access to a computer and the internet. It is They have a collection of excellent videos from many different topics, that explain the topic thoroughly, and understandable.

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