Polymath

polymath (Greek: πολυμαθής, polymathēs, “having learned much”)[1], sometimes referred to as a Renaissance man, is a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas. In less formal terms, a polymath (or polymathic person) may simply be someone who is very knowledgeable. Most ancient scientists were polymaths by today’s standards.[2] The term was first used in the seventeenth century but the related term, polyhistor, is an ancient term with similar meaning.

Leonardo da Vinci is regarded as a “Renaissance man” and is one of the most recognisable polymaths

The common term Renaissance man has been used historically to describe polymaths or persons who aspired to be polymaths.[3] The concept emerged from the numerous great thinkers of that era who excelled in multiple fields of the arts and science, includingLeonardo da VinciMichelangeloGalileo GalileiNicolaus CopernicusMichael Servetus[4]and Francis Bacon. The emergence of these thinkers was attributed to the then rising notion in Renaissance Italy expressed by one of its most accomplished representatives, Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472): that “a man can do all things if he will.” [5] His concept embodied the basic tenets of Renaissance humanism, which considered humans empowered and limitless in their capacities for development, and it led to the notion that people should embrace all knowledge and develop their capacities as fully as possible. The term applies to the gifted people of the Renaissance who sought to develop skills in all areas of knowledge, in physical development, in social accomplishments, and in the arts, while overlooking that the vast majority of people of that age were not well educated. This temporarily limited term entered the lexicon during the twentieth century and has been applied oddly, to great thinkers living before and after the Renaissance such as AristotleAvicennaJohann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Isaac Newton. Terms such as polyhistor, polymath or even universal genius are sometimes employed as synonyms to the term.

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[edit]Related terms

A different term for the secondary meaning of polymath is Renaissance man or woman (a term first recorded in written English in the early 20th century).[6]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[7] in order to develop one’s potential, (covering both the arts and the sciences[8] and without necessarily restricting this farewell learning to be the academic fields). When someone is called aRenaissance man or woman today, it is meant that they do not have only broad interests or a superficial knowledge of several fields, but rather that their knowledge is profound and often that they also have 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.[9] The related term Generalist is used to contrast this general approach to knowledge to that of the specialist. The expression Renaissance person today commonly implies only intellectual or scholastic proficiency and knowledge and not necessarily the more universal sense of “learning” implied by 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,[10] while others recognize a meaning restricted to the Renaissance era and more closely related to Renaissance ideals.

Hildegard of Bingen, a medieval polymath, shown dictating to her scribe in an illumination from Liber Scivias

A more colloquial term for such a person would be a jack of all trades, though this often refers to skill and not necessarily knowledge. The term “jack of all trades” also occasionally has negative connotation (see, for instance, jack of all trades, master of none); such a person may be labeled as a dilettante, while “polymath” typically has a positive connotation.

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.

[edit]Renaissance ideal

Many notable polymaths lived during the Renaissance period, a cultural movement that spanned roughly the 14th through the 17th century, beginning in Italy in the late Middle Ages and later spreading to the rest of Europe. They had a rounded approach to educationthat 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 worduniversity was used to describe a seat of learning. At this time universities did not specialize in specific areas, but rather trained their students in a broad array of sciencephilosophy 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 guide The Book of the Courtier, wrote about how an ideal courtier should have polymathic traits.[11]

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

Robert A. Heinlein,Time Enough for Love (1973)

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 possess 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 Chinese 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”.[11][12]

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”.[11] For example, being an accomplished athlete was considered integral and not separate from education and learning of the highest order. Leon Battista Alberti, who was a Roman Catholic priest, architect, painter, poet, scientist, mathematician, inventor, and sculptor, was in addition a skilled horseman and archer.[citation needed]

[edit]Renaissance men

Robert Goforth The list above 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 is 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.

[edit]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:[13]

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 polyhistorwas 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 narrativeHístōr 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.

[edit]Notable polymaths

Shen Kuo, a polymathic scientist and statesman of the Song Dynasty

A number of people have been described as “polymaths” by reliable sources, fulfilling theprimary definition of the term, although there may not be expert consensus that each is aprime 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”).

[edit]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 who have performed at a high level in several very different sports, rather than to those gifted in many fields of study. One whose accomplishments are limited to athletics would not be considered 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).[14]
  • Maxwell Woosnam – “Sporting polymath is a full-time post…”[15]

The term can also be used loosely in other curious 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”.[16]
Polymath is also a character trait in Scott Westerfeld’s Midnighters trilogy.

13,605 new sealed indictments entered from 10/30/17 thru 1/26/18