What is a Polymath?

Mary McMahon

A polymath is someone who has a very extensive knowledge of a wide range of topics. Unlike a generalist, who knows a little bit about a lot of things, a polymath knows a great deal about a number of things. You may also hear a polymath described as a Renaissance Man (or Woman), or homo universalis, a term which was used at the time of the Renaissance. Some notable polymaths from history include: Galileo, Copernicus, Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, Su Song, Leonardo Da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, Imhotep, and Hildegard.

Polymaths are usually skilled in activities like horseback riding.
Polymaths are usually skilled in activities like horseback riding.

The term "polymath" comes from the Greek roots poly-, for "many," and manthanein, "to learn." A polymath, in other words, is someone who has learned much. People have been using this term since the 1600s, when the Renaissance in Europe triggered a redevelopment in interest in classical learning, and society began to prize people with a number of skills and a wide knowledge base.

Thomas Jefferson is considered a polymath.
Thomas Jefferson is considered a polymath.

Polymaths are not just knowledgeable about a wide range of topics; they also have an assortment of skills. For example, a polymath might be skilled on several musical instruments, and he or she might also be a talented visual artist. Polymaths often have athletic skills as well, in sports like fencing, horseback riding, and so forth. History, the law, the sciences, literature, and a wide variety of topics may all be in the purview of a polymath, and he or she may perform independent research or experiments to learn more about the fields in which he or she is interested.

Leonardo Da Vinci, who painted "The Last Supper," was a polymath.
Leonardo Da Vinci, who painted "The Last Supper," was a polymath.

In Classical Greece, Rome, and China, the polymath was highly valued. Members of the aristocracy worked very hard to have an extensive knowledge of a range of topics, retaining specialized tutors to educate them and engaging in dialog and information exchanges with other members of educated society. The tradition of well-rounded scholarship has persisted in China to this day; in Europe, it experienced a brief period of suppression during the Dark Ages, until the Renaissance, when learning came into vogue again.

A portrait of Leonardo Da Vinci, a famous polymath.
A portrait of Leonardo Da Vinci, a famous polymath.

Many polymaths start out very young, and some people argue that the ability to become a polymath is a born, rather than an acquired, trait. In order to become a polymath, someone must have the drive to acquire information, and the skills to do it quickly and efficiently. Some individuals lack the intellectual potential or the time to turn into true polymaths, and they may be forced to settle for reputations as generalists; both polymaths and generalists can be useful people to have around, as they are a lot like walking encyclopedias.

Galileo Galilei was a noted polymath.
Galileo Galilei was a noted polymath.

You might also Like

Discussion Comments

anon89628

How about it, wiseGEEK? A wannabe or a fully formed polymath. A subscriber poll is in order.

anon89616

I am a kind of polymath myself.

derf

"PolyMANTH" is the term used to describe a "polymath" who believes he is more manly and less mathematical than the general polymath, although the polyMANTH is actually better at mathematics than he gives himself credit for, and yet does not enjoy manly pastimes like watching sporting events, except horseracing, nor does he enjoy participating in sports, except sex with a "polyWOMANTH". A polymanth is not prone to constipation or loss of appetite. Most polymanths love to sing but cannot carry a tune.

anon89403

The most famous and wonderful contemporary polymath is Steven Fry. It's amazing what that man knows!

Post your comments
Login:
Forgot password?
Register: