Monday, June 11, 2012

Who's a Polymath?

When I saw the Da Vinci exhibit, I was stunned by the breadth and depth of his varied areas of interest. I knew he was an artist, inventor and scientist, but I didn't know he was a "polymath," that is, until recently.The term was used by someone to describe a multi-talented individual and I wondered if it was interchangeable with "genius."

Upon further checking, I found out that the terms are different. It seems that a genius is a specialist; whereas a polymath is a generalist, but not "a jack of all trades and master of none."

Actually, like Da Vinci, a polymath has several areas of profound knowledge. And, no, it doesn't have anything to do with math. The word comes from the Greek (poly="many" and mathanein="to learn").

Examples of people considered to be geniuses are*:
Marie Curie (1857-1934), Scientist;
Albert Einstein (1879-1955), Physicist;
Itzhak Perlman (1945-), Musician.

Those considered to be polymaths, in addition to Da Vinci (1452-1519), are*:
Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), Scientist, Inventor, Architect, Stateman, Writer;
Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472), Architect, Poet, Linguist, Cryptographer, Author;
Mary Somerville (1780-1872), Astronomer, Mathematician, Science Writer.
*(partial lists)

There's no clear definition of how many areas someone needs to be knowledgeable to be called a polymath. While some think that a deep interest in many subjects is enough, others think it applies only to the highest achievers.

What do you think? Should the title of "polymath" be given to people while they're alive or should it be granted in retrospect when the whole of one's life is considered? Either way, can you think of someone who is/was a polymath?


  1. Never heard the term before... the only one that comes to mind is Benjamin Franklin. Author, printer, diplomat, inventor and probably more that I can't think of. BR

  2. I don't see why you need to be dead to be recognized.


  3. My husband is one. Kate

  4. Very interesting. Thanks. Mary S.