become a little more of a universal man than we are permitted to be

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Senior Member

I am quite confused about the meaning of "without trying to become a little more of a universal man than we are permitted to be" in the following context:

Between the ages of twenty and forty we are engaged in the process of discovering who we are, which involves learning the difference between accidental limitations which it is our duty to outgrow and the necessary limitations of our nature beyond which we cannot trespass with impunity. Few of us can learn this without making mistakes, without trying to become a little more of a universal man than we are permitted to be.(Quoted from W. H. Auden's The Dyer's Hand)

Thanks very much!
  • Kwistax

    Senior Member
    français - Belgique
    I understand it so:

    If we akcnowledge and accept our limitations as human beings, imposed by nature -or some divinity if you're a believer (permitted to be), you go on in life NOT trying to overcome your potentialities, what would be, according to the author you're quoting, all in vain anyways.


    Senior Member
    English - United States
    I think it will make the most sense if we look at the entire last sentence, rather than just the part in blue.

    "Few of us can learn this" - what is this that we are learning? As per the previous sentence, we learn the difference between the limitations we can overcome (e.g. I am not good at talking to people on the phone) and those limitations we cannot (I wish I were able to breathe underwater). These are stupid examples, but perhaps give you an idea of what Auden means.

    "without making mistakes" - we will believe that things we cannot change (e.g. our ability to breathe underwater) are changeable.

    "without trying to become a little more of a universal man" - the term universal man seems more or less synonymous with renaissance man; i.e. a person who has well-developed talents in many diverse fields. Here's what the Encyclopaedia Britannica says about it:

    Renaissance man, also called Universal Man, Italian Uomo Universale, an ideal that developed in Renaissance Italy from the notion expressed by one of its most accomplished representatives, Leon Battista Alberti (1404–72), that “a man can do all things if he will.” The ideal embodied the basic tenets of Renaissance Humanism, which considered man the centre of the universe, limitless in his capacities for development, and led to the notion that men should try to embrace all knowledge and develop their own capacities as fully as possible.
    "than we are permitted to be" - we are not permitted to become an entirely universal man. What stops us? According to the previous sentence, it is "our nature." Auden must be invoking some notion of human nature, those laws which supposedly govern or limit the capabilities of human beings. What is that nature and what are the laws? It's not said hear, but it is clear that Auden rejects the premise put forth by Alberti, that "a man can do all things if he will." A man, says Auden, cannot be perfect or perfected. Yet he can be improved.
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