in: Behavior, Character, Featured

• Last updated: June 30, 2023

Become a Renaissance Man Without Spending a Dime

Vitruvian man illustration from renaissance old book page.

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.

Listen to our podcast on how to think like a renaissance man: 

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”

Related Posts