A polymath (Greek: πολυμαθής, polymathēs, "having learned much"; Latin: homo universalis, "universal man") is an individual whose knowledge spans a significant number of subjects, known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems. The earliest recorded use of the term in English is from 1624, in the second edition of The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton; the form polymathist is slightly older, first appearing in the Diatribae upon the first part of the late History of Tithes of Richard Montagu in 1621. Use in English of the similar term polyhistor dates from the late sixteenth century.
In Western Europe, the first work to use polymathy in its title (De Polymathia tractatio: integri operis de studiis veterum) was published in 1603 by Johann von Wowern (de), a Hamburg philosopher. Von Wowern defined polymathy as "knowledge of various matters, drawn from all kinds of studies [...] ranging freely through all the fields of the disciplines, as far as the human mind, with unwearied industry, is able to pursue them". Von Wowern lists erudition, literature, philology, philomathy and polyhistory as synonyms.
Polymaths include the great thinkers of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, who excelled at several fields in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and the arts. In the Italian Renaissance, the idea of the polymath was expressed by Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472) in the statement that "a man can do all things if he will".
Embodying a basic tenet of Renaissance humanism that humans are limitless in their capacity for development, the concept led to the notion that people should embrace all knowledge and develop their capacities as fully as possible. This is expressed in the term Renaissance man, often applied to the gifted people of that age who sought to develop their abilities in all areas of accomplishment: intellectual, artistic, social, physical, and spiritual.
"Renaissance man" was first recorded in written English in the early 20th century. It is now used to refer to great thinkers living before, during, or after the Renaissance. Leonardo da Vinci has often been described as the archetype of the Renaissance man, a man of "unquenchable curiosity" and "feverishly inventive imagination". Many notable polymaths lived during the Renaissance period, a cultural movement that spanned roughly the 14th through to the 17th century that began in Italy in the Late Middle Ages and later spread to the rest of Europe. These polymaths had a rounded approach to education that reflected 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 essential to achieving polymath ability, hence the word university was used to describe a seat of learning. At this time, universities did not specialize in specific areas, but rather trained students in a broad array of science, philosophy and theology. This universal education gave them a grounding from which they could continue into apprenticeship toward becoming a master of a specific field.
When someone is called a "Renaissance man" today, it is meant that rather than simply having broad interests or superficial knowledge in several fields, the individual possesses a more profound knowledge and a proficiency, or even an expertise, in at least some of those fields.
Some dictionaries use the term "Renaissance man" to describe someone with many interests or talents, while others give a meaning restricted to the Renaissance and more closely related to Renaissance ideals.
Aside from "Renaissance man" as mentioned above, similar terms in use are homo universalis (Latin) and uomo universale (Italian), which translate to "universal man". The related term "generalist"—contrasted with a "specialist"—is used to describe a person with a general approach to knowledge.
The term "universal genius" or "versatile genius" is also used, with Leonardo da Vinci as the prime example again. The term is used especially for people who made lasting contributions in at least one of the fields in which they were actively involved and when they took a universality of approach.
When a person is described as having encyclopedic knowledge, they exhibit a vast scope of knowledge. However, this designation may be anachronistic in the case of persons such as Eratosthenes, whose reputation for having encyclopedic knowledge predates the existence of any encyclopedic object.
References and notes
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- "polymath, n. and adj.". OED Online. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Accessed December 2019.
- "polymathist, n.". OED Online. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Accessed December 2019.
- "polyhistor, n.". OED Online. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Accessed December 2019.
- Murphy, Kathryn (2014). "Robert Burton and the problems of polymathy". Renaissance Studies. 28 (2): 279. doi:10.1111/rest.12054.
- Burke, Peter (2011). "O polímata: a história cultural e social de um tipo intellectual". Leitura: Teoria & Prática. ISSN 0102-387X.
- Wower, Johann (1665). De Polymathia tractatio: integri operis de studiis veterum.
- "Renaissance man – Definition, Characteristics, & Examples".
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- Gardner, Helen (1970). Art through the Ages. pp. 450–456.
- "Renaissance man — Definition from the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary". M-w.com. Retrieved 6 April 2012.
- "Oxford concise dictionary". Askoxford.com. Retrieved 6 April 2012.
- Burns, Peter, "What makes a Renaissance Man?".
- Carr, Edward (1 October 2009). "Last Days of the Polymath". Intelligent Life. The Economist Group. Retrieved 12 January 2017.
- Edmonds, David (August 2017). Does the world need polymaths?, BBC.
- Frost, Martin, "Polymath: A Renaissance Man".
- Grafton, A, "The World of the Polyhistors: Humanism and Encyclopedism", Central European History, 18: 31–47. (1985).
- Jaumann, Herbert, "Was ist ein Polyhistor? Gehversuche auf einem verlassenen Terrain", Studia Leibnitiana, 22: 76–89. (1990) .
- Mikkelsen, Kenneth; Martin, Richard (2016). The Neo-Generalist: Where You Go is Who You Are. London: LID Publishing Ltd. ISBN 9781910649558. Retrieved 6 August 2019.
- Mirchandani, Vinnie, "The New Polymath: Profiles in Compound-Technology Innovations", John Wiley & Sons. (2010).
- Sher, Barbara (2007). Refuse to Choose!: A Revolutionary Program for Doing Everything that You Love. [Emmaus, Pa.]: Rodale. ISBN 1594866260.
- Twigger, Robert, "Anyone can be a Polymath" We live in a one-track world, but anyone can become a polymath – Robert Twigger | Aeon Essays.
- Waqas, Ahmed (2019). The Polymath: Unlocking the Power of Human Versatility. West Sussex, UK: John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 9781119508489. Retrieved 6 August 2019.
- Waquet, F, (ed.) "Mapping the World of Learning: The 'Polyhistor' of Daniel Georg Morhof" (2000).
- Wiens, Kyle, "In defense of polymaths".