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What is a Polymath?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A polymath is someone who has a very extensive knowledge of a wide range of topics. Unlike a generalist, who knows a little bit about a lot of things, a polymath knows a great deal about a number of things. You may also hear a polymath described as a Renaissance Man (or Woman), or homo universalis, a term which was used at the time of the Renaissance. Some notable polymaths from history include: Galileo, Copernicus, Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, Su Song, Leonardo Da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, Imhotep, and Hildegard.

The term "polymath" comes from the Greek roots poly-, for "many," and manthanein, "to learn." A polymath, in other words, is someone who has learned much. People have been using this term since the 1600s, when the Renaissance in Europe triggered a redevelopment in interest in classical learning, and society began to prize people with a number of skills and a wide knowledge base.

Polymaths are not just knowledgeable about a wide range of topics; they also have an assortment of skills. For example, a polymath might be skilled on several musical instruments, and he or she might also be a talented visual artist. Polymaths often have athletic skills as well, in sports like fencing, horseback riding, and so forth. History, the law, the sciences, literature, and a wide variety of topics may all be in the purview of a polymath, and he or she may perform independent research or experiments to learn more about the fields in which he or she is interested.

In Classical Greece, Rome, and China, the polymath was highly valued. Members of the aristocracy worked very hard to have an extensive knowledge of a range of topics, retaining specialized tutors to educate them and engaging in dialog and information exchanges with other members of educated society. The tradition of well-rounded scholarship has persisted in China to this day; in Europe, it experienced a brief period of suppression during the Dark Ages, until the Renaissance, when learning came into vogue again.

Many polymaths start out very young, and some people argue that the ability to become a polymath is a born, rather than an acquired, trait. In order to become a polymath, someone must have the drive to acquire information, and the skills to do it quickly and efficiently. Some individuals lack the intellectual potential or the time to turn into true polymaths, and they may be forced to settle for reputations as generalists; both polymaths and generalists can be useful people to have around, as they are a lot like walking encyclopedias.

PublicPeople is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a PublicPeople researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon89628 — On Jun 11, 2010

How about it, wiseGEEK? A wannabe or a fully formed polymath. A subscriber poll is in order.

By anon89616 — On Jun 11, 2010

I am a kind of polymath myself.

By derf — On Jun 10, 2010

"PolyMANTH" is the term used to describe a "polymath" who believes he is more manly and less mathematical than the general polymath, although the polyMANTH is actually better at mathematics than he gives himself credit for, and yet does not enjoy manly pastimes like watching sporting events, except horseracing, nor does he enjoy participating in sports, except sex with a "polyWOMANTH". A polymanth is not prone to constipation or loss of appetite. Most polymanths love to sing but cannot carry a tune.

By anon89403 — On Jun 10, 2010

The most famous and wonderful contemporary polymath is Steven Fry. It's amazing what that man knows!

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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