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A polymath is a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas. In less formal terms, a polymath (or polymathic person) may simply be someone who is very knowledgeable. Most ancient scientists were polymaths by today's standards.

The common term Renaissance man is used to describe a person who is well educated or who excels in a wide variety of subjects or fields. The concept emerged from the numerous great thinkers of that era who excelled in multiple fields of the arts and science, including Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci was an Italian Renaissance polymath: painter, sculptor, architect, musician, scientist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist and writer whose genius, perhaps more than that of any other figure, epitomized the Renaissance...

, Michelangelo
Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni , commonly known as Michelangelo, was an Italian Renaissance painter, sculptor, architect, poet, and engineer who exerted an unparalleled influence on the development of Western art...

, Galileo Galilei
Galileo Galilei
Galileo Galilei , was an Italian physicist, mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher who played a major role in the Scientific Revolution. His achievements include improvements to the telescope and consequent astronomical observations and support for Copernicanism...

, Copernicus and Francis Bacon
Francis Bacon
Francis Bacon, 1st Viscount St Albans, KC was an English philosopher, statesman, scientist, lawyer, jurist, author and pioneer of the scientific method. He served both as Attorney General and Lord Chancellor of England...

; the emergence of these thinkers was likewise attributed to the then rising notion in Renaissance Italy expressed by one of its most accomplished representatives, Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472): that "a man can do all things if he will." It embodied the basic tenets of Renaissance humanism
Renaissance humanism
Renaissance humanism was an activity of cultural and educational reform engaged by scholars, writers, and civic leaders who are today known as Renaissance humanists. It developed during the fourteenth and the beginning of the fifteenth centuries, and was a response to the challenge of Mediæval...

, which considered humans empowered, limitless in their capacities for development, and led to the notion that people should embrace all knowledge and develop their capacities as fully as possible. Thus the gifted people of the Renaissance sought to develop skills in all areas of knowledge, in physical development, in social accomplishments, and in the arts. The term has since expanded from original usage and has been applied to other great thinkers before and after the Renaissance such as Aristotle
Aristotle was a Greek philosopher and polymath, a student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great. His writings cover many subjects, including physics, metaphysics, poetry, theater, music, logic, rhetoric, linguistics, politics, government, ethics, biology, and zoology...

, Johann Goethe, and Isaac Newton
Isaac Newton
Sir Isaac Newton PRS was an English physicist, mathematician, astronomer, natural philosopher, alchemist, and theologian, who has been "considered by many to be the greatest and most influential scientist who ever lived."...


Related terms

A different term for the secondary meaning of polymath is Renaissance man or woman. (a term first recorded in written English in the early 20th century). Other similar terms also in use are Homo Universalis (Latin) and Uomo Universale (Italian
Italian language
Italian is a Romance language spoken mainly in Europe: Italy, Switzerland, San Marino, Vatican City, by minorities in Malta, Monaco, Croatia, Slovenia, France, Libya, Eritrea, and Somalia, and by immigrant communities in the Americas and Australia...

), which translate to "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). When someone is called a Renaissance
The Renaissance was a cultural movement that spanned roughly the 14th to the 17th century, beginning in Italy in the Late Middle Ages and later spreading to the rest of Europe. The term is also used more loosely to refer to the historical era, but since the changes of the Renaissance were not...

 man or woman today, it is meant that they do not have only broad interests or a superficial knowledge of several fields, but rather that their knowledge is profound and often that they also have 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 person today commonly implies only intellectual or scholastic proficiency and knowledge and not necessarily the more universal sense of "learning" implied by Renaissance humanism. Note, however, that some dictionaries use the term "Renaissance man" as roughly synonymous with polymath in the first meaning, to describe someone versatile with many interests or talents, while others recognize a meaning restricted to the Renaissance era and more closely related to Renaissance ideals.

A more colloquial term for such a person would be a jack of all trades
Jack of all trades
Jack of all trades may refer to:*Jack of all trades, master of none, an aphorism*Jack of All Trades , an American syndicated comedy/action program*Jack of All Trades , a 2007 album by Wildchild...

, though this often refers to skill and not necessarily knowledge. The term "jack of all trades" also occasionally has negative connotation (see, for instance, jack of all trades, master of none
Jack of all trades, master of none
"Jack of all trades, master of none" is a figure of speech used in reference to a person that is competent with many skills but is not necessarily outstanding in any particular one....

); such a person may be labeled as a dilettante
An amateur is generally considered a person attached to a particular pursuit, study, or science, without pay and often without formal training....

, while "polymath" typically has a positive connotation.

The term Universal Genius is also used, taking Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci was an Italian Renaissance polymath: painter, sculptor, architect, musician, scientist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist and writer whose genius, perhaps more than that of any other figure, epitomized the Renaissance...

 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
Genius is something or someone embodying exceptional intellectual ability, creativity, or originality, typically to a degree that is associated with the achievement of unprecedented insight....

; and certainly a genius may not display the breadth of knowledge to qualify as a polymath. Isaac Newton
Isaac Newton
Sir Isaac Newton PRS was an English physicist, mathematician, astronomer, natural philosopher, alchemist, and theologian, who has been "considered by many to be the greatest and most influential scientist who ever lived."...

, Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein was a German-born theoretical physicist who developed the theory of general relativity, effecting a revolution in physics. For this achievement, Einstein is often regarded as the father of modern physics and one of the most prolific intellects in human history...

, and Marie Curie
Marie Curie
Marie Skłodowska-Curie was a physicist and chemist famous for her pioneering research on radioactivity. She was the first person honored with two Nobel Prizes—in physics and chemistry...

 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
The Renaissance was a cultural movement that spanned roughly the 14th to the 17th century, beginning in Italy in the Late Middle Ages and later spreading to the rest of Europe. The term is also used more loosely to refer to the historical era, but since the changes of the Renaissance were not...

 period, a cultural movement that spanned roughly the 14th through the 17th century, beginning in Italy in the late Middle Ages and later spreading to the rest of Europe. They had a rounded approach to education
Education in its broadest, general sense is the means through which the aims and habits of a group of people lives on from one generation to the next. Generally, it occurs through any experience that has a formative effect on the way one thinks, feels, or acts...

 that was typical of the ideals of the humanists
Humanism is an approach in study, philosophy, world view or practice that focuses on human values and concerns. In philosophy and social science, humanism is a perspective which affirms some notion of human nature, and is contrasted with anti-humanism....

 of the time. A gentleman
The term gentleman , in its original and strict signification, denoted a well-educated man of good family and distinction, analogous to the Latin generosus...

 or courtier
A courtier is a person who is often in attendance at the court of a king or other royal personage. Historically the court was the centre of government as well as the residence of the monarch, and social and political life were often completely mixed together...

 of that era was expected to speak several language
Language may refer either to the specifically human capacity for acquiring and using complex systems of communication, or to a specific instance of such a system of complex communication...

s, play a musical instrument
Musical instrument
A musical instrument is a device created or adapted for the purpose of making musical sounds. In principle, any object that produces sound can serve as a musical instrument—it is through purpose that the object becomes a musical instrument. The history of musical instruments dates back to the...

, write poetry
Poetry is a form of literary art in which language is used for its aesthetic and evocative qualities in addition to, or in lieu of, its apparent meaning...

, and so on, thus fulfilling the Renaissance ideal
Ideal (ethics)
An ideal is a principle or value that one actively pursues as a goal. Ideals are particularly important in ethics, as the order in which one places them tends to determine the degree to which one reveals them as real and sincere. It is the application, in ethics, of a universal...

. The idea of a universal education was pivotal to achieving polymath ability, hence the word university
A university is an institution of higher education and research, which grants academic degrees in a variety of subjects. A university is an organisation that provides both undergraduate education and postgraduate education...

 was used to describe a seat of learning. At this time universities did not specialize in specific areas, but rather trained their students in a broad array of science
Science is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe...

, philosophy
Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental problems, such as those connected with existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. Philosophy is distinguished from other ways of addressing such problems by its critical, generally systematic approach and its reliance on rational...

 and theology
Theology is the systematic and rational study of religion and its influences and of the nature of religious truths, or the learned profession acquired by completing specialized training in religious studies, usually at a university or school of divinity or seminary.-Definition:Augustine of Hippo...

. This universal education, as such, gave them a grounding from which they could continue into apprenticeship to a Master
Master (form of address)
Master is an archaic masculine title or form of address in English.- In English and Welsh society :Master was used in England for men of some rank, especially "free masters" of a trade guild and by any manual worker or servant employee to his employer , but also generally by those lower in status...

 of a specific field. It is important to note that a university education was highly regarded. A person was not considered to need this broad knowledge to apprentice as a carpenter
A carpenter is a skilled craftsperson who works with timber to construct, install and maintain buildings, furniture, and other objects. The work, known as carpentry, may involve manual labor and work outdoors....

, but to apprentice in the sciences or philosophy it contributed hugely to their being able to comprehend the universe as it was understood at the time. During the Renaissance, Baldassare Castiglione
Baldassare Castiglione
Baldassare Castiglione, count of was an Italian courtier, diplomat, soldier and a prominent Renaissance author.-Biography:Castiglione was born into an illustrious Lombard family at Casatico, near Mantua, where his family had constructed an impressive palazzo...

, in his The Book of the Courtier
The Book of the Courtier
The Book of the Courtier is a courtesy book. It was written by Baldassare Castiglione over the course of many years, beginning in 1508, and published in 1528 by the Aldine Press just before his death...

, wrote a guide on becoming a polymath.

Castiglione's guide stressed the kind of attitude that should accompany the many talents of a polymath, an attitude he called "sprezzatura
Sprezzatura is an Italian word originating from Baldassare Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier, where it is defined by the author as “a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it.” It is...

". A courtier should have a detached, cool, nonchalant attitude, and speak well, sing, recite poetry, have proper bearing, be athletic, know the humanities and classics, paint and draw and possess many other skills, always without showy or boastful behavior, in short, with "sprezzatura". The many talents of the polymath should appear to others to be performed without effort, in an unstrained way, almost without thought. In some ways, the gentlemanly requirements of Castiglione recall the Chinese
Chinese civilization may refer to:* China for more general discussion of the country.* Chinese culture* Greater China, the transnational community of ethnic Chinese.* History of China* Sinosphere, the area historically affected by Chinese culture...

 sage, Confucius
Confucius , literally "Master Kong", was a Chinese thinker and social philosopher of the Spring and Autumn Period....

, who far earlier depicted the courtly behavior, piety and obligations of service required of a gentleman. The easy facility in difficult tasks also resembles the effortlessness inculcated by Zen, such as in archery where no conscious attention, but pure spontaneity, produces better and more noble skill. For Castiglione, the attitude of apparent effortlessness should accompany great skill in many separate fields. In word or deed the courtier should "avoid affectation ... (and) ... practice ... a certain sprezzatura ... conceal all art and make whatever is done or said appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it".

This Renaissance ideal differed slightly from the "polymath" in that it involved more than just intellectual advancement. Historically (roughly 1450–1600) it represented a person who endeavored to "develop his capacities as fully as possible" (Britannica
Encyclopædia Britannica
The Encyclopædia Britannica , published by Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., is a general knowledge English-language encyclopaedia that is available in print, as a DVD, and on the Internet. It is written and continuously updated by about 100 full-time editors and more than 4,000 expert...

, "Renaissance Man") both mentally and physically, and, as Castiglione suggests, without "affectation". For example, being an accomplished athlete was considered integral and not separate from education and learning of the highest order. Leon Battista Alberti, who was a Roman Catholic priest, architect, painter, poet, scientist, mathematician, inventor, and sculptor, was in addition a skilled horseman and archer.

Renaissance men

The list above 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 is 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
Islamic Golden Age
During the Islamic Golden Age philosophers, scientists and engineers of the Islamic world contributed enormously to technology and culture, both by preserving earlier traditions and by adding their own inventions and innovations...

 (also known as the "Islamic Renaissance"), and other polymaths from other parts of the world.

Polymath and polyhistor compared

Many dictionaries
A dictionary is a collection of words in one or more specific languages, often listed alphabetically, with usage information, definitions, etymologies, phonetics, pronunciations, and other information; or a book of words in one language with their equivalents in another, also known as a lexicon...

 of word origins list these words as synonym
Synonyms are different words with almost identical or similar meanings. Words that are synonyms are said to be synonymous, and the state of being a synonym is called synonymy. The word comes from Ancient Greek syn and onoma . The words car and automobile are synonyms...

s or, as words with very similar meanings. Thomas Moore
Thomas Moore
Thomas Moore was an Irish poet, singer, songwriter, and entertainer, now best remembered for the lyrics of The Minstrel Boy and The Last Rose of Summer. He was responsible, with John Murray, for burning Lord Byron's memoirs after his death...

 took the words as corresponding to similarly erudite "polys" in one of his poems titled The Devil Among Scholars:
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
Oxford English Dictionary
The Oxford English Dictionary , published by the Oxford University Press, is the self-styled premier dictionary of the English language. Two fully bound print editions of the OED have been published under its current name, in 1928 and 1989. The first edition was published in twelve volumes , and...

, the words mean practically the same; "the classical Latin word polyhistor was used exclusively, and the Greek word frequently, of Alexander Polyhistor
Alexander Polyhistor
Lucius Cornelius Alexander Polyhistor was a Greek scholar who was enslaved by the Romans during the Mithridatic War and taken to Rome as a tutor. After his release, he continued to live in Italy as a Roman citizen...

", 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
Greek language
Greek is an independent branch of the Indo-European family of languages. Native to the southern Balkans, it has the longest documented history of any Indo-European language, spanning 34 centuries of written records. Its writing system has been the Greek alphabet for the majority of its history;...

 and Latin) is that the learning takes place via inquiry
An inquiry is any process that has the aim of augmenting knowledge, resolving doubt, or solving a problem. A theory of inquiry is an account of the various types of inquiry and a treatment of the ways that each type of inquiry achieves its aim.-Deduction:...

 and narrative
A narrative is a constructive format that describes a sequence of non-fictional or fictional events. The word derives from the Latin verb narrare, "to recount", and is related to the adjective gnarus, "knowing" or "skilled"...

. Hístōr also implies that the polyhistor displays erudition
The word erudition came into Middle English from Latin. A scholar is erudite when instruction and reading followed by digestion and contemplation have effaced all rudeness , that is to say smoothed away all raw, untrained incivility...

 and wisdom. From Proto-Indo-European
Proto-Indo-European language
The Proto-Indo-European language is the reconstructed common ancestor of the Indo-European languages, spoken by the Proto-Indo-Europeans...

 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.

Notable polymaths

A number of people have been described as "polymaths" by reliable 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 the list of renaissance men above for prime examples of "renaissance men" or "universal geniuses").

Other uses of "polymath"

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:
  • Howard Baker – "Similar claims to the title of sporting polymath could be made for Howard Baker" (who won high jump titles, and played cricket, football, and water polo):
  • Maxwell Woosnam
    Maxwell Woosnam
    Maxwell "Max" Woosnam was an English sportsman is sometimes referred to as the 'Greatest British sportsman' in recognition of his achievements ....

     – "Sporting polymath is a full-time post..."

The term can also be used loosely in other ways, for example, Rolf Harris
Rolf Harris
Rolf Harris, CBE, AM is an Australian musician, singer-songwriter, composer, painter and television personality.Born in Perth, Western Australia, Harris was a champion swimmer before studying art. He moved to England in 1952, where he started to appear on television programmes on which he drew the...

 (whose fame has come as a popular artist, television presenter and singer) has also been described by the Daily Mail
Daily Mail
The Daily Mail is a British daily middle-market tabloid newspaper owned by the Daily Mail and General Trust. First published in 1896 by Lord Northcliffe, it is the United Kingdom's second biggest-selling daily newspaper after The Sun. Its sister paper The Mail on Sunday was launched in 1982...

 as "the People's Polymath".

See also

  • List of polymaths
  • Philomath
    A philomath + Greek manthanein, math- ) is a lover of learning. It is similar to but distinguished from philosophy in that "soph," the latter suffix, specifies "wisdom" or "knowledge."...

  • Polyglot (disambiguation)
  • Polymath (novel)
    Polymath (novel)
    Polymath is a science fiction novel by John Brunner, first published in 1974 by DAW Books, an expansion of Castaways' World .-Plot summary:...

  • Competent man
    Competent man
    In literature, the competent man or competent woman is a stock character who can do anything perfectly, or at least exhibits a very wide range of abilities and knowledge, making him a form of polymath. While not the first to use such a character type, the heroes of Robert A...

  • Opsimath
    An opsimath can refer to a person who begins, or continues, to study or learn late in life. The word is derived from the Greek οψε , meaning 'late' and μανθανω , meaning 'learn'....

Further reading