There are, of course, many reasons to criticize this question. The Renaissance was but one step, and not even the most important one in the formation of the modern world. The question’s pithiness borders on the cuteness of pop culture/journalistic attention-grabbing. More fundamentally, what do I mean by “it” and “worth”?
So, I’ll grant you the first two points, if you will acknowledge that “is modernity worth it?” is a bit more academic and off-putting phrasing. I could pitch the question in terms of whether the “scientific revolution” was worth it or “the Enlightenment,” or the “industrial revolution,” but the underlying issue comes back to the complex of developments, principally in Europe during the period from 1500-1900 that drove the principal components of how we live (or aspire to live) today; what I will loosely call the “modern world.”
Another way of framing the question of “Was it worth it?” is to adapt the standard political query every election cycle: “Are we better off now than we were 500 years ago?”
Even before we get to the intractable question of “worth” or “better,” it’s an immensely difficult question to tackle. We are the proverbial fish who swim around with little (no?) sense of the fact that we’re in water. It takes a lot of attention to contemplate living in a world without all the toys and tools and trials that we take for granted: vaccinations and travel, and longer lives and more knowledge, cultural diversity and globalization, electric pick-up trucks and telecommunications—a seemingly endless list of technological and cultural developments that many of us enjoy (or at least make use of) constantly. Even those (billions and billions) people today who are not at the higher end of the economic scale are still (mostly) not living in abject subsistence poverty. And the well-documented proclivity of humans to forget history means that with rapidly increasing populations over the past century, the percentage of folks who are aware of what life was like twenty years before they were born (to pick an arbitrary marker) is pretty small; a fortiori, 200 years before.
Being aware of who/what/where we are is tough enough. It is no easier to take a second step and imagine the life of the “pre-modern” person by way of comparison. We’re not talking cave persons here, but your average Ting, Dietrich, or Hassina who was born along with Leonardo da Vinci in 1452. Even in terms of material life, comparison is difficult. The only stuff we can measure is…the stuff we can measure. The first people to ride a train in the 1820s thought it was amazing to go 30mph; for us going that fast is mundane (except trying to go cross-town in Manhattan during rush hour). Technology, standards of living, longevity/health, scope of knowledge are all stunningly (and reasonably accurately) known to be better.
Happiness is another matter as are human nature/morals. We have no way to measure these criteria and, indeed, we have trouble even figuring out the units of measurement, not to mention the profound differences in what those concepts meant to Ting, Dietrich, and Hassina vis-à-vis each other or vis-à-vis us, born 500 years later.
It’s easy to dismiss this axis of comparison as being unmeasurable (and therefore meaningless) and sticking to the “hard” countable standards. But, of course, that’s mechanistic nonsense. In addition, it’s useful to remember that (per human nature) much of human happiness is perceived in relation to our perceptions of others, not by any absolute standard. In the kingdom of the flushable toilet, there is still plenty of room for resentment and envy for those better off (and, of course, billions of people don’t even have flushable toilets).
Aphorisms like: “human nature never changes” might be true in some ways, but beg more questions than they resolve. For one thing, if human nature doesn’t change (certainly not over a span of a few hundred years), then the scope of potential human improvement has to be sharply limited. In other words, if we’re still the same “humans,” how can we be better off compared to 500 years ago?
In terms of morality, there might be a case for being better off. Yes, Martin Luther King did tell us that the “arc of history bends towards justice,” and in terms of our own (modern, liberal) standards, the relative status of women and people of color are demonstrably better. Still, we need to be careful, for nowhere is it more clear that it is difficult to see and assess ourselves than in terms of our epistemological ethos. Pretty much every culture has felt self-satisfied with their own morality, only to be looked down on by subsequent generations for their relative barbarism. To argue that this is a reflection of moral improvement looks dangerously like the victors writing their own history; it’s not to be fully trusted.
Finally, I have to mention all the stress, pain, and madness that seems to be part of modern life. I doubt that there is any way to assess mental health over centuries, but it does seem clear that the inherent discontents of civilization (as Freud described it (1929)) are piling up. I rather suspect that these are not due the current (i.e. last 50 years) state of the world, with globalization, consumerism, and techno-overload. Instead, these recent developments are but the accumulation of disorientation, alienation, and a general acceleration of the pace of life which seems increasingly overwhelming to so many. This is not just a matter of school shootings and election-deniers, but can be seen more broadly in the general crisis of governability and social cohesion which is plainly evident in many (most?) countries around the world. The creeping sense of climate fatalism only makes it worse.
There is, of course, no way to go back and “re-boot” the system. Nor am I a fan of gratuitous “Luddite-ism.” However, to the extent we can make choices about our future direction as a species, we need to consider those who, over the centuries have called for greater attention to the art of living well; not merely being “well-off.” Perhaps, at the least, we might slow down and shift our priorities away from the material. Maybe we have enough “stuff.” The frenetic drive for “improvement” is, after all, pretty narrowly focused. It’s partner—the drive for “growth”—(as I have argued earlier) is similarly suspect.
Was the Renaissance worth it? It’s hard to argue with Leonardo, Newton, and Watt/Edison/Tesla et al.; particularly from the comforts of the modern 21C home office. As a historian, I understand the nonsensical nature of such a question. As a person, I have to say that there are significant costs for the road we’ve been marching down and we need to stop pretending otherwise.