A polymath is a person with broad knowledge or learning. Renaissance Man and (less commonly) Homo Universalis are related terms to describe a person who is well educated, or who excels, in a wide variety of subjects or fields. It is based on the Humanistic view of human beings as the center of the universe, unlimited in their capacity. The ideal person, therefore, in this view is one who attains all knowledge and develops all their abilities to the greatest extent, abilities which should encompass the full spectrum of human nature.
The ideal of the polymath Renaissance Man is embodied in the Italian Leon Battista Alberti, an accomplished architect, painter, classicist, poet, mathematician, and horseman, and Leonardo da Vinci, renowned in fields as diverse as art, science, invention, music, and writing.
Today, the ever continuing growth of knowledge has led to a situation where it is next to impossible for any single person to attain a complete knowledge and the ideal is now often regarded as a person expert in one field but with a sufficiently broad base to network effectively with experts in other fields. Also, studies of intelligence have revealed that a single, unitary intelligence is not adequate to account for all human intellect. Instead, the idea of multiple intelligences has gained ground, in which there are various types of intelligence, such as linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, and so forth, with different people displaying differing levels of each type. In this view, the ideal is to develop one's own unique talents and abilities to the fullest, without needing to be an expert in all areas.
A polymath (Greek polymathēs, πολυμαθής, "having learned much") is defined as a person with encyclopedic, broad, or varied knowledge or learning. It especially means that the person's knowledge is not restricted to one subject area. The term is used rarely enough to be included in dictionaries of obscure words.
Renaissance Man (a term first recorded in written English in the early twentieth century) is a related term to describe a person who is well educated, or who excels, in a wide variety of subjects or fields.
This ideal developed in Renaissance Italy from the notion expressed by one of its most accomplished representatives, Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472), that “a man can do all things if he will.” It embodied the basic tenets of Renaissance Humanism, which considered man the center 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. Thus the gifted men of the Renaissance sought to develop skills in all areas of knowledge, in physical development, in social accomplishments, and in the arts.
Other similar terms are Homo universalis and Uomo Universale, which in Latin and Italian, respectively, translate as "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 learning to the academic fields). Further, the scope of learning was much narrower so gaining a command of the known accumulated knowledge was more feasible than today.
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 term Generalist is often used to contrast this general approach to knowledge to that of the specialist.
The term Universal Genius is also used, taking Leonardo da Vinci as a prime example, 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 as polymaths.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the words "polymath" and polyhistor 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.
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.
Renaissance Ideal Today
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. It is important to note, however, that some dictionaries use the term Renaissance man as roughly synonym of "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.
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 in any thing. 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, not to mention to achieve excellence or recognition in multiple fields, the word polymath 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. Many fields of interest take years of single-minded devotion to achieve expertise, often requiring starting at an early age.
In addition, today, expertise is often associated with documents, certifications, diplomas, and degrees and a person who has an abundance of these is often perceived as having more education than practical "working" experience. However, true expertise may require practical familiarity that may be inaccessible to someone who has little or no actual experience in the field or who was not born and raised in the relevant culture. In many such cases, it is realistically possible to achieve only knowledge of theory if not practical experience. For example, on a safari, a jungle native will be a more effective guide than an American scientist who may be educated in the theories of jungle survival but did not grow up acquiring his knowledge the hard way.
Today it is generally considered that the specialist's understanding of knowledge is too narrow and that a synthetic comprehension of different fields is unavailable to him. 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 in different fields working together to pool their knowledge and abilities.
Most of the historical figures considered polymaths would most likely not be so regarded today based on the level of knowledge that they possessed. Much of their knowledge was basic and purely theoretical. For example, a gentleman educated in various fields such as math, history, literature, art, and science during the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries may be only the equivalent of an average modern person with a secondary school education. In ancient times, an expert on medicine may be the equivalent of knowing basic modern first aid. In contrast to modern times, knowledge was also condensed and comprehensive information on a particular field could often be found in single volumes or texts.
Caution is necessary when interpreting the word "polymath" since there is always ambiguity regarding what the word denotes. Nevertheless, there are a number of scholars who are recognized as polymaths and/or Renaissance men; some examples follow.
The following people have been described as "polymaths" by several 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."
- Abhinavagupta (fl. 975–1025), an Indian philosopher, literary critic, Shaivite, aesthetist, [[music]ian, poet, dramatist, dancer, exegetical theologian, and logician; "the great Kashmiri philosopher and polymath, Abhinavagupta."
- Akbar the Great (1542-1605), an Indian Mughal emperor, "polymath," architect, artisan, artist, armorer, blacksmith, carpenter, construction worker, engineer, military general, inventor, lacemaker, technologist, theologian, and writer.
- Leone Battista Alberti (1404–1472), "often considered the archetype of the Renaissance polymath."
- Al-Kindi (Alkindus) (801–873), an Arab astronomer, geographer, mathematician, meteorologist, musician, philosopher, physician, physicist, scientist, and politician; "he (Al-Kindî) was an omnivorous polymath, studying everything, writing 265 treatises about everything—arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, meteorology, geography, physics, politics, music, medicine, philosophy."
- Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834), poet, critic, and philosopher; "Coleridge was unquestionably a polymath, with a universal knowledge unequalled by any thinker of his day."
- Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790), a leading author, political theorist, politician, printer, scientist, inventor, civic activist, and diplomat. "The ultimate creole intellectual…. A true polymath of the Enlightenment style, he distinguished himself on both sides of the Atlantic by researches in natural sciences as well as politics and literature."
- Geber (Jabir ibn Hayyan) (721–815), an Arab Muslim chemist, alchemist, astrologer, astronomer, engineer, pharmacist, physician, philosopher, and physicist; "Jābir was a polymath who wrote 300 books on philosophy, 1,300 books on mechanical devices and military machinery, and hundreds of books on alchemy."
- Edward Heron-Allen (1861–1943) Not only was Heron-Allen a lawyer by trade, he also wrote, lectured on and created violins, was an expert on the art of chiromancy or palmistry, having read palms and analyzed the handwriting of luminaries of the period. He wrote on musical, literary and scientific subjects ranging from foraminifera, marine zoology, meteorology, as a Persian scholar translated Classics such as the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and The Lament of Baba Tahir, also wrote on local geographic history, archeology, Buddhist philosophy, the cultivation, gourmet appreciation of and culture of the asparagus, as well as a number of novels and short stories of science fiction and horror written under his pseudonymn of "Christopher Blayre." "Heron-Allen is better described as a polymath…"
- Imhotep (fl. 2650–2611 B.C.E.), Egyptian chancellor, physician, and architect; "Imhotep, circa 2650 B.C.E. (who was revered as being at least semi-divine until the Late Period, although some of this reverence may be due to his status as physician and all-round polymath)."
- Mikhail Lomonosov (1711–1765), "Lomonosov was a true polymath—physicist, chemist, natural scientist, poet and linguist…."
- Shen Kuo (1031–1095), a Chinese scientist, statesman, mathematician, astronomer, meteorologist, geologist, zoologist, botanist, pharmacologist, agronomist, ethnographer, encyclopedist, poet, general, diplomat, hydraulic engineer, inventor, academy chancellor, finance minister, and inspector; "Chinese polymath and astronomer who studied medicine, but became renown for his engineering ability."
- Herbert Simon (1916-2001), "Simon is a very distinguished polymath, famous for work in psychology and computer science, philosophy of science, a leader in artificial intelligence, and a Nobel Prize winner in Economics."
- Mary Somerville (1780–1872), "Somerville was the most celebrated woman scientist of her time. A polymath, she wrote on astronomy, mathematics, physics, chemistry, mineralogy, and geology, among other subjects." "Somerville was the most celebrated woman scientist of her time. A polymath, she wrote on astronomy, mathematics, physics, chemistry, mineralogy, and geology, among other subjects…" 
- Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941), an Indian Bengali polymath; "He was a polymath: a poet, fiction writer, dramatist, painter, educator, political thinker, philosopher of science."
- John von Neumann (1903–1957), physicist, mathematician, game theorist, economist, and pioneering computer scientist. "It isn't often that the human race produces a polymath like von Neumann, then sets him to work in the middle of the biggest crisis in human history…" "Other luminaries would follow Einstein to New Jersey, including the dazzling Hungarian polymath, John von Neumann…"
- H. G. Wells (1866–1946); "Fifty years ago, the British polymath and amateur historian was able to compress the history of the world up to 1920 into one volume…"
- Thomas Young (1773–1829), British polymath, scientist, and Egyptologist, after whom Young's modulus, Young's double-slit experiment, the Young-Laplace equation and the Young-Dupré equation were named. He also studied vision and coined the term Indo-European languages.
The following people represent prime examples of "Renaissance Men" and "universal geniuses," so to say "polymaths" in the strictest interpretation of the secondary meaning of the word. The list also includes some of the Hakeem of the Islamic Golden Age (also known as the "Islamic Renaissance"), who are considered equivalent to the Renaissance Men of the European Renaissance era.
- Al-Farabi (Alfarabi) (870–950/951), a Turkic or Persian Muslim who was known as The second teacher because he had great influence on science and philosophy for several centuries, and was widely regarded to be second only to Aristotle in knowledge in his time. Farabi made notable contributions to the fields of mathematics, philosophy, medicine and music. As a philosopher and Neo-Platonist, he wrote rich commentary on Aristotle's work. He is also credited for categorizing logic into two separate groups, the first being "idea" and the second being "proof." Farabi wrote books on sociology and a notable book on music titled Kitab al-Musiqa (The Book of Music). He played and invented a varied number of musical instruments and his pure Arabian tone system is still used in Arabic music.
- Ibn Rushd (Averroes) (1126–1198), an Andalusian Arab philosopher, doctor, physician, jurist, lawyer, astronomer, mathematician, and theologan; "Ibn-Rushd, a polymath also known as Averroes;" "Doctor, Philosopher, Renaissance Man."
- Abū Rayhān al-Bīrūnī (973–1048), a Persian scientist, physicist, anthropologist, astronomer, astrologer, encyclopedist, geodesist, geographer, geologist, historian, mathematician, natural historian, pharmacist, physician, philosopher, scholar, teacher, Ash'ari theologian, and traveler; "al-Biruni was a polymath and traveler (to India), making contributions in mathematics, geography and geology, natural history, calendars and astronomy;" "al-Biruni, a scholar in many disciplines - from linguistics to mineralogy - and perhaps medieval Uzbekistan's most universal genius."
- Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543); among the great polymaths of the Renaissance, Copernicus was a mathematician, astronomer, physician, classical scholar, translator, Catholic cleric, jurist, governor, military leader, diplomat and economist. Amid his extensive responsibilities, astronomy figured as little more than an avocation—yet it was in that field that he made his mark upon the world.
- Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519)"The following selection… shows why this famous Renaissance polymath considered painting to be a science…" "In Leonardo Da Vinci, of course, he had as his subject not just an ordinary Italian painter, but the prototype of the universal genius, the 'Renaissance man,' …"; "prodigious polymath…. Painter, sculptor, engineer, astronomer, anatomist, biologist, geologist, physicist, architect, philosopher, actor, singer, musician, humanist."
- Galileo Galilei (1564–1642), "Italian scientist, physicist, and philosopher. Galileo was a true Renaissance man, excelling at many different endeavors, including lute playing and painting."
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) "Germany's greatest man of letters—poet, critic, playwright, and novelist—and the last true polymath to walk the earth" "Goethe comes as close to deserving the title of a universal genius as any man who has ever lived." "He was essentially the last great European Renaissance man." His gifts included incalculable contributions to the areas of German literature and the natural sciences. He is credited with discovery of a bone in the human jaw, and proposed a theory of colors. He has a mineral named in his honor, goethite. He molded the aesthetic properties of the Alps to poetry, thus, changing the local belief from "perfectly hideous" and an "unavoidable misery," to grandeur of the finest most brilliant creation.
- Ibn al-Haytham (Alhacen) (965–1039), an Iraqi Arab scientist, physicist, anatomist, physician, psychologist, astronomer, engineer, mathematician, ophthalmologist, philosopher, and Ash'ari theologian; "a devout, brilliant polymath;" "a great man and a universal genius, long neglected even by his own people;" "Ibn al-Haytham provides us with the historical personage of a versatile universal genius."
- Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406), an Arab social scientist, sociologist, historian, historiographer, philosopher of history, demographer, economist, linguist, philosopher, political theorist, military theorist, Islamic scholar, Ash'ari theologian, diplomat and statesman; "a still-influential polymath;" "in any epoch ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) would deserve the accolade Renaissance man, a person of many talents and diverse interests."
- Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), some sources describe him as "polymath and President," putting "polymath" first, he is also described as "the walking, talking embodiment of the Enlightenment, a polymath whose list of achievements is as long as it is incredibly varied." John F. Kennedy famously commented, addressing a group of Nobel laureates, that it was "the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House—- with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone."
- Gottfried Leibniz (1646–1716); "Leibniz was a polymath who made significant contributions in many areas of physics, logic, history, librarianship, and of course philosophy and theology, while also working on ideal languages, mechanical clocks, mining machinery…" "A universal genius if ever there was one, and an inexhaustible source of original and fertile ideas, Leibniz was all the more interested in logic because it …" "Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz was maybe the last Universal Genius incessantly active in the fields of theology, philosophy, mathematics, physics, ...." "Leibniz was perhaps the last great Renaissance man who in Bacon's words took all knowledge to be his province."
- Isaac Newton (1643–1727) was an English physicist, mathematician, astronomer, theologian, natural philosopher and alchemist. His treatise Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, published in 1687, described universal gravitation and the three laws of motion, laying the groundwork for classical mechanics, which dominated the scientific view of the physical universe for the next three centuries and is the basis for modern engineering. In a 2005 poll of the Royal Society of who had the greatest effect on the history of science, Newton was deemed more influential than Albert Einstein. "When we see Newton as a late Renaissance man, his particular addiction to classical geometry as ancient wisdom and the most reliable way of unveiling the secrets of nature, seems natural."
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- Alden Whitman, (1972): "A World History by 42 Professors," The New York Times, July 18, 1972, 23: "Fifty years ago, the British polymath and amateur historian was able to compress the history of the world up to 1920 into one volume of 1171 pages weighing 3 pounds 3 ounces…. Now a somewhat similar book, concededly inspired by Wells, has been published. It is the work not of one man, but of 42."
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