Created | Updated Aug 4, 2005
The word itself comes from Ancient Greek, poly meaning 'many', and mathanein meaning 'to learn'. In many ways, it is fitting that Ancient Greek should be the root of the word, as many of the greatest polymaths were Greek.
A polymath is someone who is particularly knowledgeable in many subjects, and the word is most frequently attached to people who have excelled in more than one field of intellectual or artistic endeavour. However, it is not clear just how many fields one must excel in, nor the extent to which one must excel, before one can be called a polymath. Some people hold that a strong interest in a wide variety of fields is enough to earn this most prized epithet, while others would reserve it for a few truly great achievers.
One argument is that a polymath is not a state of being, but a state of becoming. Being a polymath is not what one knows now, but what one desires to know; not a matter of intelligence, but a matter of intellectual and creative ambition and curiosity.
A further question is how wide a range of excellences are needed. Thomas Edison, for example, is perhaps the greatest all-round inventor ever, but does his proficiency in a wide range of sciences and crafts qualify him as a polymath?
There is no hard-and-fast definition of a polymath; but it's a title that should be given to someone by others, and not self-appointed. Perhaps there's a sliding scale of polymathy...
How to Become More of a Polymath
The most important thing to do when attempting this is not to confuse polymathy with pretention. Whatever being a polymath is, it certainly isn't showing off.
One school of thought holds that if you want to be a genuine, top of the range, premier league, elite polymath, the chances are that you've left it far too late. As the sum of human knowledge grows, scientific discoveries become not the work of one person sitting under an apple tree and watching the fruit fall, but of teams of people working on collaborative projects in massive laboratories. The individual is nothing, and the research project is everything. As humans now know so much, it's arguably impossible for one person to know enough to advance knowledge a great deal without considerable effort and a startling new angle on something. The old joke about academic research, that 'one learns more and more about less and less until one knows everything about nothing' might be all too true.
Another problem is that the competition is much fiercer. It's all very well being a rich bright spark with too much time on your hands in a time of general poverty and ignorance, when there's still lots to discover. However, it's rather more difficult at a time where a university education (in the 'developed' world at least) is become more and more common.
Another school of thought holds that polymaths are needed, now more than ever. Even if it is the case that it's more difficult than ever to make telling contributions in one field, never mind two, it could be that people with broader interests are needed to hold things together. The alternative is a technocracy - government by expert - a prospect that most people will find worrying.
How do you become more of a polymath? Read magazines. Read books. Read (quality) newspapers. Look for connections and form your own opinions. It's the connections that are really important. Many people may have the knowledge, but the connections are your own - they are the work of creation. Seek out those who seem wise and knowledgable, but don't leave your critical faculties (nor your cynicism) at home.
Something common to all polymaths is a refusal to be conveniently pigeon holed. It's tempting, after achieving in one field, to either continue in that field, and invest time and energy in becoming better and better at something you're already good at. This is often the case because that's what people will expect you to do. However, you should follow your own interests - even if they seem to be leading in bizarre and even contradictory directions!
Some People Who are Generally Regarded as Polymaths - a Non-exclusive List
Aristotle must number among the greatest polymaths of all time. His work covered philosophy, politics, ethics, biology, astronomy, literary criticism and the forgotten art of rhetoric. Not to mention a massive contribution to the development of formal logic.
Leonardo Da Vinci was the archetypal Renaissance man. Apart from painting, he studied anatomy, biology, maths, and engineering. His notebooks contained detailed plans for what look like a submarine, a tank and a helicopter.
Albert Camus was an Algerian-French existentialist philosopher, novelist, playwright, essayist, member of the French resistance, and a promising goalkeeper until tuberculosis ended his football career.
Richard P Feynman assisted in the development of the atomic bomb, expanded the understanding of quantum electrodynamics, translated Mayan hieroglyphics, and was also a fine painter and musician.
Douglas Adams was a writer, environmentalist, and visionary. A modern polymath.
Benjamin Franklin was a journalist, politician, revolutionary, scientist and inventor. He invented bifocal lenses, and nearly fried himself investigating lightning. What a guy!
Terry Jones is a film director, author, television presenter, literary critic and historian. Not to mention a member of the Monty Python team.
Andrei Sakharov was a brilliant nuclear physicist, human rights campaigner and a fearless advocate for international understanding and world peace.
Umberto Eco is one of the foremost of modern polymaths. A man of truly awesome intellect, he combines being Professor of Semiotics at Bologne University with writing best selling novels, and is also an expert on literature, medieval philosophy, and pop culture.
Alexander Porphyrievich Borodin was a 19th Century chemist and composer, who wrote three symphonies, conducted scientific research, and campaigned for women to be allowed to study medicine.
And Finally... Some Words of Wisdom
Know something about everything and everything about something
The only thing that I know is that I know nothing