What makes a polymath, a genius, or a man who knows everything?

JMS Pearce
Hull, England, United Kingdom

 

Albert Einstein, polymath, playing violin Lina
Fig 1. Einstein playing his violin. From CMUSE via Quora. Public domain.

The question posed in this title is of course imponderable and ridiculous, but nevertheless fascinating. Until the Enlightenment (c. 1750–1800), an intellectual “Renaissance man” could have read most of the important books printed. He might well have known most of the medical, scientific, and mathematical facts of the day, and be well versed in the arts, history, philosophy, and religion. Such a person might vaingloriously boast that he knew almost everything. Thomas Young’s biography1 is emblazoned with the accurate if not concise title: The Last Man Who Knew Everything: Thomas Young, the Anonymous Polymath Who Proved Newton Wrong, Explained How We See, Cured the Sick and Deciphered the Rosetta Stone Among Other Feats of Genius.

Peter Burke’s book The Polymath lists 500 polymaths.2 Another detailed list comes from Waqas Ahmed in his densely written book The Polymath: Unlocking the Power of Human Versatility (2018).3

Plainly, any selection of such gifted polymaths is arbitrary and subjective.* Crucially, the title of Thomas Young’s biography contains the words knowledge, polymathy, and genius: words to ponder. Academicians, lexicographers, and psychologists have long tried but failed to provide satisfactory definitions of these terms. Some would add intelligence, which has defied both definition and any fitting measurement. Or cleverness, a word we vaguely apply to talented people who are able adroitly to use hand or brain readily and effectively.

It may be a futile question, but many have asked: what makes a genius, polymath, or a man who knows everything?

The word polymath comes from Ancient Greek πολυμαθής—“having learned much.” It refers to widely based or extensive learning. But nobody can be dogmatic about how advanced those learnings should be and in how many disciplines. In an exhaustive review, Ahmed attempts to identify the qualities that allow polymaths to achieve their greatness (another judgmental word). Unsurprisingly, high intelligence is an asset that facilitates or catalyzes polymathic learning, says Ahmed.3 He pinpoints open-mindedness and curiosity. Curiosity is obviously a vital ingredient, driven by unfathomable inner quests for understanding. It can produce original ideas and discoveries but some pragmatists insist that they should be of some practical or theoretical value.

Serendipitous discoveries, original ideas, and logical thinking may all help to initiate the polymath’s creative processes, which are integrated into a single coherent theory.4 Peter Medawar explained, “Scientific thought…is not the language of induction…Scientists are building explanatory structures, telling stories which are scrupulously tested to see if they are stories about real life.”5 p. 133 By “telling stories,” Medawar implied that scientists piece together and hand on information in a way that (subject to testing) makes sense.

The fields to be explored by the curious mind rely on many factors: inherited traits, past training, knowledge, and the problems facing the individual in the prevailing zeitgeist. Single-mindedness and resilience are other ingredients needed by polymaths to pursue their quests, often in the face of conventional, ultra-structured, orthodox notions.6

It is here that we may postulate an integral, fundamental element of polymathy and genius, namely the alchemy of imagination. Curiosity, the will to investigate, and the desire to understand will not materialize without the ability to pick from the commonplace the unusual and the unexplained, to wonder about its basis, and to imagine its significance. Imagination is the genesis of creativity, taking us to worlds we never knew existed. George Bernard Shaw advised: You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine and at last you create what you will.

Ahmed claims that polymaths were often individualists, driven by a great desire for personal fulfillment. This I doubt. As a motive, imagination and curiosity have primacy. Such imaginative qualities are often part of a wider and deeper questioning of the world and the cosmos. In a 1929 interview, Einstein observed:

I’m enough of an artist to draw freely on my imagination, which I think is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.

Perhaps this capacity for imagination underlies much that passes as intelligence. Alexander von Humboldt is widely quoted as saying:

People say I am curious about too many things at once…But can you really forbid a man from harboring a desire to know and embrace everything that surrounds him?

Leonardo da Vinci, perhaps above all others, epitomized this attitude, as even a glance at his prolific drawings and mirror-writing reveals.

We may hope that education plays a role in nurturing originality, imaginative ideas, and the forces needed to pursue the multitude of unanswered questions that surround us. William Butler Yeats said that education is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire.

However, the days of the scientist poring over problems in the armchair, and experimenting in a converted Nissen hut are over. Schools, universities, and workplaces nowadays incline to ever greater material facilities, specialization, and often a blinkered outlook.7 Polymathy and genius are not formally cultivated. This is no new complaint, since in 1901 the journal Science stated that perhaps it was not possible to include biology as a compulsory subject in the polymathic curriculum that was forced upon the student at that time.

There may be some who hesitate to pursue multiple interests, fearful to spread their talents too thinly and become a “Jack of all trades but master of none.” However, the polymath’s multiple interests may shift between different tasks and this may enhance new ideas and creativity. For example, studies have found that Nobel Prize-winning scientists are more likely than others to sing, dance, act, create art or music, or write poetry. Perhaps such shifting attention serves to inspire innovation. Some research in education shows that when concentrating on one topic, the brain often appears saturated with diminished attention and novel thinking. Turning to an unrelated activity may then enhance efficiency, new ideas, and problem solving. Einstein was devoted to playing Mozart and Bach on his violin “Lina” (Fig 1). According to his son and daughter, he would play music whenever he faced an intractable mathematical problem. He would often finish playing by saying, “There now, I’ve got it.” 8

As an instance, it has been suggested that Leonardo’s knowledge of anatomy, mathematics, and geometry improved the precision of his paintings, and his visual imagination fueled his creativity in mechanical engineering,3 but this is mere conjecture.

 

Conclusion

Many of our currently most pressing challenges, such as warfare and climate change, require highly creative problem-solving that demands knowledge in multiple areas, thus encouraging polymathy.8 It is often asked: can the polymaths’ protean know-how benefit some of society’s unsolved problems? This question misses the point; the polymath primarily seeks further knowledge and ideas for their own sake, not because they may be practical in application. He or she may be a visionary, who sees or understands something as if it was something else, or a part of some quite different concept.

Many writers sensibly assert that multiple interests bring personal satisfaction, productivity, and creativity. But diversity can occasionally bring its own problems. Few would doubt da Vinci’s diverse and original contributions yet Vasari in his time commented, perhaps unkindly:

In learning and in the rudiments of letters he would have made great proficiency, if he had not been so variable and unstable, for he set himself to learn many things, and then, after having begun them, abandoned them.9

Although there are still people of wisdom and polymathy, it has been asked: can today’s physicians, scientists, and artists return to the polymath models of the Renaissance?10 Given our preoccupation with new technology and the exponential growth of information via our computers, this may seem uncertain. But time will tell. What is certain is that studying the works or reading the thoughts of polymaths still delight us by opening our minds to unexplored vistas.

 

End note

* Amongst a boundless galaxy of candidates are Leonardo da Vinci, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Desiderius Erasmus, Alexander von Humboldt, Athanasius Kircher, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Robert Hooke, Thomas Young, and Augusta Ada Byron. More recently are Wilfred Trotter, William Osler, Harvey Cushing, Richard Feynman, Stephen Fry, and many others.

 

References

  1. Robinson A. The Last Man Who Knew Everything: Thomas Young, the Anonymous Polymath Who Proved Newton Wrong, Explained How We See, Cured the Sick and Deciphered the Rosetta Stone Among Other Feats of Genius. New York: Pi Press 2006.
  2. Burke P. The Polymath: A Cultural History from Leonardo da Vinci to Susan Sontag. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2020. https://doi.org/10.12987/9780300252088.
  3. Ahmed W. The Polymath: Unlocking the Power of Human Versatility. Wiley 2019.
  4. Simonton DK. Creativity in science: Chance, logic, genius, and zeitgeist. Cambridge University Press.
  5. Medawar, PB. The Strange Case of the Spotted Mice and Other Classic Essays on Science. Oxford, New York. Oxford University Press 1996. p.30.
  6. Cotellessa Angela J. In Pursuit of Polymaths: Understanding Renaissance Persons of the 21st Century Paperback. Independently published (22 Jun. 2020) – 22 Jun. 2020. See also: https://confidecoaching.com/an-interview-with-dr-angela-cotellessa-polymath-evangelist/.
  7. Pearce JMS. “Polymathy in decline?” Hektoen International 2013;Volume 5, Issue 4.
  8. Robson D. The Intelligence Trap: Revolutionise your thinking and make wiser decisions. Hodder Paperbacks (6 Feb. 2020).
  9. Vasari G. Delle Vite De’ Più Eccellenti Pittori Scultori Et Architettori. Firenze: Giunti; 1568. Translated by Gaston Du C. de Vere. New York: Alfred A. Knopp; 1996.
  10. Piko BF, Stempsey WE. “Physicians of the future: Renaissance of polymaths?” The Journal of The Royal Society for the Promotion of Health; December 2002; 122 (4):233-237.

 


 

JMS PEARCE is a retired neurologist and author with a particular interest in the history of medicine and science.

 

Winter 2022  |  Sections  |  History Essays