The polymathic path

Photo by Cristina Gottardi

“A man can do all things if he will.”

– Leon Battista Alberti

Polymathy & the Renaissance Man

A polymath is a person with a substantial breadth of knowledge across several subjects and often drawing on expertise in one discipline to solve problems in another.  Examples of renowned Polymaths include great intellectuals from the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods and are often referred to as “Renaissance men.”

The Renaissance Man, or Universal Man, is an ideal based on the tenants of Renaissance humanism, which considered humanity to be at the center of the universe with an unlimited capacity for growth and improvement and thus should strive to embrace knowledge and develop individual capabilities to the fullest.  Gifted men of this era sought achievement in intellectual, physical, social, and artistic domains.  The archetypal Renaissance man is Leonardo da Vinci, an exceptional writer, artist, scientist, musician, and inventor. 

Below are some notable, historical examples of poylmaths.

The Developmental Model of Polymathy

Are polymaths born or made? As shown by Michael Araki‘s Developmental Model of Polymathy, (shown below) its a bit of both. There is certainly a level of genius that one needs to be born with to achieve the heights of the historical polymaths shown above, but other factors such as interpersonal environmental also play a role.

Developmental Model of Polymathy by Michael Araki (Wikimedia Commons)

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

-Robert A. Heinlein

Polymathy as the Source of Creativity

According to Robert Root-Bernstein, polymathy is the primary source of one’s creative potential, and is the ability to combine disparate or contradictory ideas, skills, models, and knowledge in innovative and valuable ways.  This perspective goes against the common claim that creativity is specific to one domain, such as poetry or scientific invention.

In “Life Stages of Creativity,” Robert and Michèle Root-Bernstein propose six typologies of creative life stages, including:

  • Type 1: people who develop one major talent early in life and successfully utilize it exclusively for the rest of their lives.  These people are known as prodigies.
  • Type 2: individuals who explore a variety of creative activities and then settle on using one of these for the rest of their life.
  • Type 3: people who are polymathic from the beginning and juggle multiple jobs and projects at once, providing a constant variation in their creativity pattern.
  • Type 4: persons recognized early for one major talent but later explore and diversify into additional creative outlets over time
  • Type 5: individuals that serially devote themselves to one creative field after another.
  • Type 6: people that develop diversified creative skills early and then explore these deeper, one at a time.

Modern Polymaths

Today, the terms Renaissance man and polymath are still used.  However, their usage has become less restricted in pop culture to refer to anyone with proficiency in multiple, but not necessarily all, domains of achievement listed above.  Other terms include generalist, integrator, or multipotentialities.  While these terms are often used interchangeably, a polymath implies mastery in multiple areas.  The others refer to people whose skills and interests span various fields but are not necessarily masters or “gifted” in any particular one.  That said, people in the latter category could develop into polymaths. 

Here are some examples of modern day polymaths:

“The future belongs to the integrators.” 

— Ernest Boyer