What is a Renaissance Man?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

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.

A portrait of Leonardo Da Vinci, who is often considered a Renaissance man.
A portrait of Leonardo Da Vinci, who is often considered a Renaissance man.

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.

Michelangelo, who sculpted the statue depicting David during the Renaissance period, was also a painter.
Michelangelo, who sculpted the statue depicting David during the Renaissance period, was also a painter.

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.

Plato was a polymath, an early version of a renaissance man.
Plato was a polymath, an early version of 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.

Aristotle, in his diverse teachings and writings, was a renaissance man.
Aristotle, in his diverse teachings and writings, was a renaissance man.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


Noam Chomsky.


Many people alive today can be considered a renaissance person.

I have several areas in which I personally studied and am an accomplished successful business advisor/coach. I know of many others who are even better than I, so I respect these kinds of people who have gifts of knowledge and are willing to share it with others. That's good character.


Lorenzo de Medici was an exceptional example of a Renaissance Man.


@anon31517: The Dalai Lama is not fluent in English. His vocabulary is quite limited, actually. Watch the interviews.


Benjamin Franklin: Postmaster General; Poor Richard's Almanac; Hellfire Club; electrical engineer; statesman; Master Freemason.


I think Vladamir Putin should be on the list because he stopped Syria.


Chuck Norris, anyone?


What about Frank Zappa?


The only real renaissance man, relative to his era, is Leonardo Da Vinci. No one even comes close. Nowadays, it is virtually impossible to be a renaissance man, relative to our times. Too much stuff. I prefer to learn the basic solid points in many areas that are interesting to me. Otherwise, it's just a function of ego.


Folks have left out the artist Sting.


I am amazed at the discipline required to achieve this level of knowledge. Less TV and video games and those nasty household chores and work. Although are they included in the modern definition of a polymath?


What about Thomas Jefferson?


Many men are true renaissance men (me included). The renaissance man is not a rare species. The mass of modern society in which we live, does not place real value on a renaissance man's true attributes, thus many who fit the definition are not recognized as such.

The mechanic who repairs your vehicles or the individual who rids your street of garbage just might be much more multifaceted than one could imagine. Always think and strive to evolve.


I have to say that I love this topic, but I'm a fan of not only looking at Renaissance men of the past but also trying to incorporate that spirit into a modern lifestyle. That's why I'm blogging about my journey to being a modern-day Renaissance man.


Where is Michelangelo?


what about Elizabeth I? She spoke several languages,rode horses, sang, danced, read several languages, and ruled a country. OK, so she's a woman, but women have been able to master several things at once. She gets my vote!


RIP, Owsley Stanley, the definitive American Renaissance Man of the late 20th Century.


it was, of course, baldassarre castiglione "book of the courtier" that introduced the concept of a renaissance man to europe.


My boyfriend is a true renaissance man. He is skilled in so many areas, from being a successful father, business owner, mechanic, engineer, artist, and completely based on skill not a formal education, but true genius and determination. I very much admire all his qualities and abilities. He amazes me.


paul gasgoigne?


Leonardo DaVinci is the original renaissance man.


Ali Fahmi Khushaim is definitely a renaissance man. He is a historian, philosopher, linguist, translator and a writer.


I would choose Red Skelton as a renaissance man; he was not only America's favorite clown, he was an accomplished writer, wrote most of his own music for his performances. And because of the "slapstick" comedic routines, was very athletic. His knowledge of leverage and physics helped him in his routines that required physical abilities that appeared far stretched to normal behavior.


I think Michelangelo would be more of a Renaissance man than Leonardo because Michelangelo was talented in a lot more fields than Leonardo. Like sculpting, music, architect, painting and poetry.


David Bowie.


i think a lot of people who are 'nominating' names for this list, don't really understand the meaning fully. i think MC Hammer should be on this list because of his pants.


I think Paulo Coelho should be on the list too.


Anthony Hopkins should be on the list.


Nowhere on here does it say, "Hello, I'm going to list all the renaissance men I can think of. If you can think of some, tell me if I missed them."

Plato, Aristotle, Socrates: these three men came one after the other in ancient Greece as well known philosophers. Though many of these people are renaissance men as well, many comments are mostly irrelevant and redundant.

This article was well written, and helps you understand the origin of the term "renaissance man." Though I'm looking for something to help me get started, career wise.


I totally think Leonardo Da Vinci should be on the list.


That Chris Zins guy is the closest thing to a modern day renaissance man.


I think Michaelangelo should be on the list.


These are just a few of the "requirements." There are also more that aren't listed.

A renaissance man has to be more than intelligent. He has to also have a level of charm and attraction in his personality as well. It's a combination of every good trait known to man combined into one physical body.


what about sir thomas more?


I think Nikola Tesla should also be on the list. I doubt that too many people know of him. Although they should.


Don't forget Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina!


i think leonardo da vinci should be because he is the best renaissance man -- even better than all those other men who claim they should be on the list. but leonardo da vinci should be on it and he should never ever come off the renaissance men list because he is the best ever!


Baldassare castilone


i think that Baldassare Castilone should be there. he did lots and knew lots!


filippo brunelleschi should also be up there.


i think henry suttor should be in the list


I think the Dali Lahma should be in this list too.


i think Thomas Jefferson also has to be included in the list of renaissance men.

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