AskDefine | Define polymath

Dictionary Definition

polymath n : a person of great and varied learning

User Contributed Dictionary



First attested in 1806. From etyl grc πολυμαθής from πολύς + μανθάνω.


  • a RP /ˈpɒl.ɪ.mæθ/, /"pQl.I.m

Extensive Definition

A polymath (Greek polymathēs, πολυμαθής, "having learned much") is a person with encyclopedic, broad, or varied knowledge or learning.
The dictionary definition is consistent with informal use, whereby someone very knowledgeable is described as a polymath when the term is used as a noun, or polymath or polymathic when used as adjectives. 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 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. This ideal developed in Renaissance Italy from the notion expressed by one of its most accomplished representatives, Leon Battista Alberti (1404–72): that “a man can do all things if he will”. It embodied the basic tenets of Renaissance Humanism, which considered man the centre 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.

Related terms

A different term for the secondary meaning of hytichi is Renaissance Man (a term first recorded in written English in the early twentieth century). Other similar terms also in use 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 used to contrast this general approach to knowledge to that of the specialist. (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.
The term Universal Genius is also used, taking Leonardo da Vinci as a prime example again. The term seems to be used 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 to be polymaths.

Renaissance ideal

Many notable polymaths lived during the Renaissance period, a cultural movement that spanned roughly the fourteenth through the seventeenth century, beginning in Italy in the late Middle Ages and later spreading to the rest of Europe. They had a rounded approach to education which was typical of 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. During the Renaissance, Baldassare Castiglione, in his The Book of the Courtier, wrote a guide to being a polymath.
The Renaissance Ideal differed slightly from the "Polymath" in that it involved more than just intellectual advancement. Historically (roughly 14501600) it represented a person who endeavored to "develop his capacities as fully as possible" (Britannica, "Renaissance Man") both mentally and physically. Being an accomplished athlete was considered integral and not separate from education and learning of the highest order. Example: Leon Battista Alberti, who was an architect, painter, poet, scientist, mathematician, and also a skilled horseman.

Some Renaissance Men

The following list provides examples of notable polymaths (in the secondary meaning only, that is, Renaissance men). Caution is necessary when interpreting the word polymath (in the second meaning or any of its synonyms) in a source, since there's always ambiguity of what the word denotes. Also, when a list of subjects in relation to the polymath is given, such lists often seem to imply that the notable polymath was reputable in all fields, but the most common case is that the polymath made his reputation in one or two main fields where he had widely recognized achievements, and that he was merely proficient or actively involved in other fields, but, once again, not necessarily with achievements comparable to those of renowned experts of his time in these fields. The list does not attempt to be comprehensive or authoritative in any way. The list also includes 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.
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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826). Jefferson, the third President of the United States, was "the walking, talking embodiment of the Enlightenment, a polymath whose list of achievements is as long as it is incredibly varied.". At a dinner honoring Nobel laureates, John F. Kennedy famously said "I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together in 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."
  • Nasīr al-Dīn al-Tūsī (Tusi) (1201–1274), a Persian Muslim, was one of the greatest scientists, philosophers, mathematicians, astronomers, theologians and physicians of the thirteenth century;
  • Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) "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."

Renaissance ideal today

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 [sic]. 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 (see expertise about research in this area), not to mention to achieve excellence or recognition in multiple fields, the word polymath, in both senses, 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, and many renowned experts have been made famous only for dominating different subfields or traditions or for being able to integrate the knowledge of different subfields or traditions.
In addition, today, expertise is often associated with documents, certifications, diplomas, and degrees attributing to such, and a person who seems to have an abundance of these is often perceived as having more education than practical "working" experience. Autodidactic polymaths often combine didactic education and expertise in multiple fields with autodidactic research and experience to create the Renaissance ideal.
Many fields of interest take years of singleminded devotion to achieve expertise, often requiring starting at an early age. Also, many require cultural familiarity that may be inaccessible to someone not born and raised in that 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.
However, those supporting the ideal of the Renaissance man today would say that the specialist's understanding of the interrelation of knowledge from different fields is too narrow and that a synthetic comprehension of different fields is unavailable to him, or, if they embrace the Renaissance ideal even more deeply, that the human development of the specialist is truncated by the narrowness of his view. 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.

Polymath and polyhistor compared

Many dictionaries of word origins list these words as synonyms or, as words with very similar meanings. Thomas Moore took the words as corresponding to similarly erudite "polys" in one of his poems "Off I fly, careering far/ In chase of Pollys, prettier far/ Than any of their namesakes are, / —The Polymaths and Polyhistors, Polyglots and all their sisters."
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the words 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.
The root terms histor and math have similar meanings in their etymological antecedents (to learn, learned, knowledge), though with some initial and ancillarily added differing qualities. Innate in historíā (Greek and Latin) is that the learning takes place via inquiry and narrative. Hístōr also implies that the polyhistor displays erudition and wisdom. From Proto-Indo-European it shares a root with the word "wit". Inquiry and narrative are specific sets of pedagogical and research heuristics.
Polyhistoric is the corresponding adjective. The word polyhistory (meaning varied learning), when used, is often derogatory.

List of recognized polymaths

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" (see Some Renaissance Men above for prime examples of "renaissance men" or "universal geniuses").
  • Aristotle (384–322 BC); "Aristotle was an extraordinary polymath..."
  • Athanasius Kircher (b. 1601), "a 'polymath' if there ever was one. He studied a variety of subjects including... music, Egyptology, Sinology, botany, magnetism"; Athanasius Kircher: The Last Man Who Knew Everything (book title)
  • Mikhail Lomonosov (1711–1765), "Lomonosov was a true polymath—physicist, chemist, natural scientist, poet and linguist...."
  • Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), some sources describe him as "polymath and President," putting "polymath" first; 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."
  • Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859), Humboldt's quantitative work on botanical geography was foundational to the field of biogeography. An inveterate explorer and a prolific author, von Humboldt was a complex figure: the archetypic modern, rational, and international scientist.
  • Rafael Francisco Osejo (1790–1848) "Born in Nicaragua and a prominent figure in the Independence of Central America, knowledgeable about mathematics, philosophy, politics, history and geography, was chamberlain of the Santo Tomas University in Costa Rica and occupied many positions in the government of several central American countries."
  • Joseph Pomeroy Widney (1841-1938); "[i]n a similarly polymathic vein, Joseph Widney was an early president of the University of Southern California...."
  • Henri Poincaré, physicist and mathematician who dabbled extensively in practically every field in mathematics.
  • José Rizal (1861-1896), a Filipino polygot, linguist, novelist, poet, journalist, opthalmologist, anthropologist, ethnologist, artist, sociologist and national hero. Rizal's 1896 military trial and execution made him a martyr of the Philippine Revolution. He is considered to be the "Pride of the Malay race".
  • Edward Heron-Allen (1861–1943) "Heron-Allen is better described as a polymath..." 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 analysed 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."
  • 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..."
  • Epifanio de los Santos (1871-1928), a Filipino historian, linguist, translator, biographer, poet, journalist, writer, editor, publisher, musician, expert pianist, master guitarist, violinist, artist, philologist, philosopher, bibliographer, literarian, jurist, government executive, lawyer, politician, outstanding civil servant, philantropist, antique/art/phonograph collector, bibliophile and great Filipino patriot. EDSA, a famous historical highway, was named in honor of him. Some of the highest titles given by his biographers, notable scholars and foreign critics would be "The First Filipino Academician", " Great among the Great Filipino scholars" and "Genius." His libraries and Filipiniana collections is one of the best in the world. Member of learned societies and man of so many talents and skills.
  • C. B. Fry (1872-1956), "Footballer, cricketer, politician and polymath"
  • Albert Schweitzer (1875–1965), an Alsatian-German theologian, musician, philosopher, humanitarian, and physician. He is perhaps most famous for founding and sustaining the Lambaréné Hospital in Gabon, west central Africa, where he spent most of his life. He received the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize for his philosophy of Reverence for Life ("Ehrfurcht vor dem Leben"), based on the conviction that the respect for life is the highest principle. His "The Problem of Peace" lecture is considered to be one of the best speeches ever given.
  • Le Corbusier (1887–1965), a Swiss-born architect, designer, urbanist, writer, painter, poet, theorist, sculptor, who is famous for his contributions to what now is called Modern Architecture. In his 30s he became a French citizen. He was a pioneer in theoretical studies of modern design and was dedicated to providing better living conditions for the residents of crowded cities. His career spanned five decades, with his iconic buildings constructed throughout central Europe, India, Russia, and one structure each in North and South America. He was also an urban planner, painter, sculptor, writer, and modern furniture designer.
  • André Malraux (1901-1976), French novelist, art historian, adventurer and politician;" France's first minister of culture and polymath extraordinaire"
  • John von Neumann (1903–1957), Physicist, mathematician, contributions to game theory, economics, 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..."
  • 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."
  • Richard Feynman (1918-1988), physicist, mathematician, author, artist and musician.

"'Polymath' sportsmen"

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. (One whose accomplishments are limited to athletics would not be considered to be a "polymath" in the usual sense of the word). Examples would include:
"...I really never imagined myself being a professional athlete."
Polymaths in fiction often have a certain eccentricity about their knowledge, e.g., Doctor Who: "He claims he's (a doctor) of everything."
In the film Phenomenon, John Travolta plays a character who has inexplicably and suddenly become a budding polymath-type individual, somewhat akin to the character in Flowers for Algernon.

References and notes

Further reading

polymath in Danish: Polyhistor
polymath in German: Polyhistor
polymath in Modern Greek (1453-): Homo Universalis
polymath in French: Polymathe
polymath in Italian: Uomo universale
polymath in Hebrew: איש אשכולות
polymath in Lithuanian: Mokslininkas universalas
polymath in Malay (macrolanguage): Polymath
polymath in Dutch: Uomo universale
polymath in Japanese: 博学者
polymath in Norwegian: Polyhistor
polymath in Norwegian Nynorsk: Polyhistor
polymath in Polish: Polihistor
polymath in Portuguese: Polímata
polymath in Simple English: Polymath
polymath in Slovak: Polyhistor
polymath in Finnish: Yleisnero
polymath in Swedish: Universalgeni
polymath in Chinese: 通才
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