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A polymath (Greek polymathēs, πολυμαθής, "having learned much") is a person, with superior intelligence, whose expertise spans a significant number of subject areas. In less formal terms, a polymath (or polymathic person) may simply refer to someone who is very knowledgeable. Most ancient scientists were polymaths by today's standards.

The terms Renaissance man and, less commonly, homo universalis (Latin for "universal man" or "man of the world") are related and used to describe a person who is well educated or who excels in a wide variety of subjects or fields. The idea 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.” It embodied the basic tenets of Renaissance Humanism which considered humans empowered, limitless in their capacities for development, and led to the notion that people should embrace all knowledge and develop their capacities as fully as possible. Thus the gifted humans of the Renaissance sought to develop skills in all areas of knowledge, in physical development, in social accomplishments and in the arts.

Related terms

A different name for the secondary meaning of polymath is Renaissance Man (a term first recorded in written English in the early 20th century). Other similar terms also in use are Homo universalis (Latin) and Uomo Universale (Italian), which translate to "universal person" or "universal man". These expressions derived from the ideal in Renaissance Humanism that it was possible to acquire a universal learning in order to develop one's potential, (covering both the arts and the sciences and without necessarily restricting this learningto the academic fields). When someone is called a Renaissance Man today, it is meant that he does not just have broad interests or a superficial knowledge of several fields, but rather that his knowledge is profound, and often that he also has proficiency or accomplishments in at least some of these fields, and in some cases even at a level comparable to the proficiency or the accomplishments of an expert. The related termGeneralist is used to contrast this general approach to knowledge to that of the specialist. The expression Renaissance man today commonly implies only intellectual or scholastic proficiency and knowledge and not necessarily the more universal sense of "learning" implied by the Renaissance Humanism. Note, however, that some dictionaries use the term Renaissance man as roughly synonymous with polymath in the first meaning, to describe someone versatile with many interests or talents, while others recognize a meaning which is restricted to the Renaissance era and more closely related to the Renaissance ideals.

The term Universal Genius is also used, taking Leonardo da Vinci as a prime example again. The term seems to be used especially when a Renaissance man has made historical or lasting contributions in at least one of the fields in which he was actively involved and when he had a universality of approach. Despite the existence of this term, a polymath may not necessarily be classed as a genius; and certainly a genius may not display the breadth of knowledge to qualify as a polymath. Albert Einstein and Marie Curie are examples of people widely viewed as geniuses, but who are not generally considered to be polymaths.

Renaissance ideal

Many notable polymaths lived during the Renaissance period,a cultural movement that spanned roughly the fourteenth through the seventeenth century, beginning in Italy in the late Middle Ages and later spreading to the rest of Europe. They had a rounded approach to education which was typical of the ideals of the humanists of the time. A gentleman or courtier of that era was expected to speak several languages, play a musical instrument, write poetry, and so on, thus fulfilling the Renaissance ideal. The idea of a universal education was pivotal to achieving polymath ability, hence the word University was used to describe a seat of learning. At this time Universities did not specialise in specific areas, but rather trained their students in a broad array of science, philosophy and theology. This universal education, as such, gave them a grounding from which they could continue into apprenticeship to a Master of a specific field. It is important to note that a university education was highly regarded. A person was not considered to need this broad knowledge to apprentice as a carpenter, but to apprentice in the sciences or philosophy it contributed hugely to their being able to comprehend the universe as it was understood at the time. During the Renaissance, Baldassare Castiglione, in his The Book of the Courtier, wrote a guide on becoming a polymath.

Castiglione's guide stressed the kind of attitude that should accompany the many talents of a polymath, an attitude he called "sprezzatura". A courtier should have a detached, cool, nonchalant attitude, and speak well, sing, recite poetry, have proper bearing, be athletic, know the humanities and classics, paint and draw and many other skills, always without showy or boastful behavior, in short — with "sprezzatura". The many talents of the polymath should appear to others to be performed without effort, in an unstrained way, almost without thought. In some ways, the gentlemanly requirements of Castiglione recall the Chinesemarker sage, Confucius, who far earlier depicted the courtly behavior, piety and obligations of service required of a gentleman. The easy facility in difficult tasks also resembles the effortlessness inculcated by Zen, such as in archery where no conscious attention, but pure spontaneity, produces better and more noble skill. For Castiglione, the attitude of apparent effortlessness should accompany great skill in many separate fields. In word or deed the courtier should "avoid affectation … (and) … practice … a certain sprezzatura … conceal all art and make whatever is done or said appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it".

This Renaissance ideal differed slightly from the "Polymath" in that it involved more than just intellectual advancement. Historically (roughly 1450–1600) it represented a person who endeavored to "develop his capacities as fully as possible" (Britannica, "Renaissance Man") both mentally and physically, and, as Castiglione suggests, without "affectation". For example, being an accomplished athlete was considered integral and not separate from education and learning of the highest order. For example, Leon Battista Alberti, who was an architect, painter, poet, scientist, mathematician, inventor, and sculptor, was in addition a skilled horseman and archer.

Renaissance men

The above list provides examples of notable polymaths (in the secondary meaning only, that is, Renaissance men). Caution is necessary when interpreting the word polymath (in the second meaning or any of its synonyms) in a source, since there's always ambiguity of what the word denotes. Also, when a list of subjects in relation to the polymath is given, such lists often seem to imply that the notable polymath was reputable in all fields, but the most common case is that the polymath made his reputation in one or two main fields where he had widely recognized achievements, and that he was merely proficient or actively involved in other fields, but, once again, not necessarily with achievements comparable to those of renowned experts of his time in these fields. The list does not attempt to be comprehensive or authoritative in any way. The list also includes the Hakeem of the Islamic Golden Age (also known as the "Islamic Renaissance"), and other polymaths from other parts of the world.

Renaissance ideal today

During the Renaissance, the ideal of Renaissance humanism included the acquisition of almost all available important knowledge. At that time, several universal geniuses seem to have come close to that ideal, with actual achievements in multiple fields. With the passage of time however, "universal learning" has begun to appear ever more self-contradictory. For example, a famous dispute between "Jacob Burckhardt (whose Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien of 1860 established Alberti as the prototype of the Renaissance Man) and Julius von Schlosser (whose Die Kunstliteratur of 1924 expresses discontent with Burckhardt's assessments on several counts)" deals with the issue of whether Alberti was indeed a dilettante or an actual Universal Man; while an 1863 article about rhetoric said, for instance: "an universal genius is not likely to attain to distinction and to eminence inany thing [sic]. To achieve her best results, and to produce her most matured fruit, Genius must bend all her energies in one direction; strive for one object; keep her brain and hand upon one desired purpose and aim".

Since it is considered extremely difficult to genuinely acquire an encyclopaedic knowledge, and even more to be proficient in several fields at the level of an expert (see expertise about research in this area), not to mention to achieve excellence or recognition in multiple fields, the word polymath, in both senses, may also be used, often ironically, with a potentially negative connotation as well. Under this connotation, by sacrificing depth for breadth, the polymath becomes a "jack of all trades, master of none". For many specialists, in the context of today's hyperspecialization, the ideal of a Renaissance man is judged to be an anachronism, since it is not uncommon that a specialist can barely dominate the accumulated knowledge of more than just one restricted subfield in his whole life, and many renowned experts have been made famous only for dominating different subfields or traditions or for being able to integrate the knowledge of different subfields or traditions.

Today, expertise is often associated with documents, certifications, diplomas, and degrees attributing to such, and a person who seems to have an abundance of these is often perceived as having more education than practical "working" experience. Autodidactic polymaths often combine didactic education and expertise in multiple fields with autodidactic research and experience to create the Renaissance ideal.

Many fields of interest take years of single-minded devotion to achieve expertise, often requiring starting at an early age. Also, many require cultural familiarity that may be inaccessible to someone not born and raised in that culture. In many such cases, it is realistically possible to achieve only knowledge of theory, without practical experience. For example, on a safari, a jungle native will be a more effective guide than a scientist who may be educated in the theories of jungle survival but did not grow up acquiring his knowledge first-hand.

However, those supporting the ideal of the Renaissance man today would say that the specialist's understanding of the interrelation of knowledge from different fields is too narrow and that a synthetic comprehension of different fields is unavailable to him, or, if they embrace the Renaissance ideal even more deeply, that the human development of the specialist is truncated by the narrowness of his view. What is much more common today than the universal approach to knowledge from a single polymath, is the multidisciplinary approach to knowledge which derives from several experts from different fields collaborating together.

Polymath and polyhistor compared

Many dictionaries of word origins list these words as synonyms or, as words with very similar meanings. Thomas Moore took the words as corresponding to similarly erudite "polys" in one of his poems titled The Devil Among Scholars :
Off I fly, careering far
In chase of Pollys, prettier far
Than any of their namesakes are
—The Polymaths and Polyhistors,
Polyglots and all their sisters.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the words mean practically the same; "the classical Latin word polyhistor was used exclusively, and the Greek word frequently, of Alexander Polyhistor", but polymathist appeared later, and then polymath. Thus today, regardless of any differentiation they may have had when originally coined, they are often taken to mean the same thing.

The root terms histor and math have similar meanings in their etymological antecedents (to learn, learned, knowledge), though with some initial and ancillarily added differing qualities. Innate in historíā (Greek and Latin) is that the learning takes place via inquiry and narrative. Hístōr also implies that the polyhistor displays erudition and wisdom. From Proto-Indo-European it shares a root with the word "wit". Inquiry and narrative are specific sets of pedagogical and research heuristics.

Polyhistoric is the corresponding adjective. The word polyhistory (meaning varied learning), when used, is often derogatory.

Notable polymaths

A number of people have been described as "polymaths" by reliable sources, fulfilling the primary definition of the term, although there may not be expert consensus that each is a prime example in the secondary meaning, as "renaissance men" and "universal geniuses" (see the list of renaissance men above for prime examples of "renaissance men" or "universal geniuses").

Other uses of "Polymath"

In Britain, phrases such as "polymath sportsman," "sporting polymath," or simply "polymath" are occasionally used in a restricted sense to refer to athletes that have performed at a high level in several very different sports. (One whose accomplishments are limited to athletics would not be considered to be a "polymath" in the usual sense of the word). Examples would include:

  • Howard Baker – "Similar claims to the title of sporting polymath could be made for Howard Baker" (who won high jump titles, and played cricket, football, and water polo):
  • Maxwell Woosnam — "Sporting polymath is a full-time post…"

The term can also be used loosely in other ways, for example, Rolf Harris (whose fame has come as a popular artist, television presenter and singer) has also been described by the Daily Mail as "the People's Polymath".

Polymaths in popular media

The supergenius is a popular figure in common media, cinema and literature. In terms of contemporary fiction, the 'term' polymath is easily applicable to the following fictional individuals.

Sherlock Holmes - Perhaps the quintessential polymath, Sherlock Holmes is a musician, linguist, chemist, historian, mathematician, and engineer in alternate focuses during his stories. His 'retirement' is ostensibly spent working on the development of radar. His rival, Moriarity, and Holmes' older brother, probably also fit within the parameters of a Polymath.

Comics/Marvel Universe - The quintessential polymath is Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four, so intelligent he can become the leading authority in any field of endeavor with merely a week or two of intensive study. His ability has been explained as his brain being able to stretch and expand to embrace any level of required learning. Victor Von Doom is nearly his rival in scientific endeavor, supplemented by ability at magic that Reed Richards has never pursued. Tony Stark of Iron Man fame is a polymath in fields of engineering and high tech, but noticeably lacking in more organic fields such as genetics and biochemistry.

Comics/DC Universe - The two primary polymaths are Lex Luthor, the world's smartest man, and Bruce Wayne/The Batman, sitting at #2. Both are massively successful businessmen, inventors and masters of multiple endeavors of science. Lex Luthor, in addition, successfully ran for President of the United States.

Polymath/Classic - For fans of the old pulps, Doc Savage is the quintessential polymath, being a man far ahead of his time in all manner of scientific endeavor, as well as a master of estoeric fighting arts. Dr. Hans Zarkov of the Flash Gordon serials would also be considered a polymath, with his ability to embrace multiple fields of science without blinking an eye.

Polymath/Current - While there are displayed many brilliant people in current or recent popular fiction, probably the one that best fits the polymath concept is MacGuyver, of the series so named. The main character is experienced in all manner of science, to the extent of being a genius of bricoleur, the art of making something out of virtually nothing. Indeed, the inventiveness of MacGuyver and the popularity of the series has his ubiquitous Swiss Army knives called 'MacGuyver knives' in the Phillipines!

See also

References and notes

  1. The term was first recorded in written English in the early seventeenth century
  2. 1 Introduction: Greek Science in Context
  3. Encarta dictionary.
  4. Renaissance man (definition)
  5. Renaissance man. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000
  6. va=Renaissance man — Definition from the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary
  7. Oxford concise dictionary
  8. Castiglione, Baldassare. The Book of the Courtier: The Singleton Translation, ed. D. Javitch, (New York: Norton, 2002), 32).
  9. D'Epiro, Peter and Desmond Pinkowish, Mary. Sprezzatura. (New York, Anchor Books, 2001).
  10. Muse.jhu
  11. Google books
  12. The Complete Poems of Sir Thomas Moore by Thomas Moore, Project Gutenberg.
  13. p. 15
  14. : "I read a book by Mick Collins called All-Round Genius: The Unknown Story of Britain's Greatest Sportsman. It is about a man called Max Woosnam, who…toured Brazil with the famous Corinthians football team in 1913… won an Olympic gold medal for tennis, played golf off scratch, scored a century at Lord's, and made a 147 break on the snooker table."
  15. Tanya Gold, His lust for fame drove his wife to the brink of suicide. So why is Rolf Harris STILL chasing the limelight? The Daily Mail, 3 January 2008.

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