The Polymath

What do you call someone who knows a lot about many different subjects?

And the answer: a polymath.      

The phrase "Renaissance man" is synonymous with "polymath." As Vocabulary.com explains: A polymath is a person who knows a lot about a lot of subjects. If your friend is not only a brilliant physics student, but has also published a poetry collection and won prizes at political debates, you can describe her as a polymath.

Photo credit: public domain. 

Though you may not be familiar with this not-particularly-mathematical phrase, it's played an influential role in the Western world since the 15th century. A work by Johann von Wowern, a Hamburg philosopher, was the first to use and define the phrase, stating it to be:

"knowledge of various matters, drawn from all kinds of studies ... ranging freely through all the fields of the disciplines, as far as the human mind, with unwearied industry, is able to pursue them"

Though the word is of a relatively more modern conception, its notions have been expressed throughout history. During the Renaissance, the idea of the polymath was expressed by Leon Battista Alberti in the statement that "a man can do all things if he will." Many Enlightenment and Renaissance thinkers are thought today to have been polymaths, due to their wide-ranging skills and interests. What's more: the concept of a polymath relies largely on Renaissance ideals of humanism – that humans are limitless in their capacity for development and that people should embrace all knowledge and develop their capacities as fully as possible.

Today, the term is most prominently circulated in academic environments; however, modern access to boundless informational resources suggests that just anyone possesses the ability to be a polymath. You, for one, are reading this Question of the Day article – perhaps trivia-lovers are indeed the polymaths of the modern day. Cheers!

Learn more about polymaths here.


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