A renaissance man or polymath is a person who is skilled in multiple fields or multiple disciplines, and who has a broad base of knowledge. The term renaissance man is largely based on the various artists and scholars of the European Renaissance, (starting in about 1450 CE), who pursued multiple fields of studies. Perhaps the quintessential renaissance man of this period was Leonardo Da Vinci, who was a master of art, an engineer, an anatomy expert (for the time), and also pursued many other disciplines with great success and aplomb.
The term polymath predates renaissance man and is from the Greek polymathes. To thinking men like Plato, and then Aristotle, the idea of “having learned much,” the literal translation of the Greek word, was extremely important. Aristotle, in his diverse writings, strongly advocated that people who would choose to study rhetoric should be well versed in a variety of fields, since this gave them the opportunity to comment on a variety of situations, and develop “commonplaces,” short prepared remarks that could be used in extemporaneous speech.
Another polymath who followed Aristotle was Archimedes who studied and mastered numerous subjects, from math, physics, philosophy, and engineering. Being a polymath was something to aspire to, and occasionally remains so. Though we have many people who would be considered geniuses in one specific area, the renaissance man or polymath shows skill in numerous areas. A virtuoso violinist like Itzhak Perlman may be considered a genius, but he is not necessarily a polymath. If he also took up philosophy and engineering, then he’d have a better chance of being classed as a renaissance man.
In the actual Renaissance period, men who were educated aspired to become Renaissance men. They were expected to know several languages, understand philosophy and scientific teachings, appreciate literature and art, and further, to be deft sportsmen. Such emphasis was inspired by earlier periods, and for the first time, scholars had access to many of the Greek philosophers and writers whose work had been lost for centuries. Further, becoming a renaissance man was clearly an extension of the earlier knights and courtiers who became educated during the Middle Ages.
There were few Renaissance women, since routinely, women were not educated. Today, women may prefer the term polymath when they are expert in several fields. For men, prejudice may still hold that a man must be both mentally and physically adept. A person who does not have prowess in sports may miss being labeled a renaissance man, and may instead be called a polymath.
You’ll still see the idea of the Renaissance man in a traditional college education. All students, in most cases, regardless of major, are required to take liberal arts classes, where they learn about topics unrelated to their major. This does not mean that most students become polymaths. Generally you have to be considered to have mastery in several different fields in order to be one. True polymaths, and you’ll certainly find a few in any college, are often students who major in multiple subjects and minor in others. Yet this concept of general education expresses ideas dating back to Aristotle, and reinforced in the Renaissance, that broad-based education helps form a more fully developed mind.