We must learn our limits. We are all something, but none of us are everything. - Blaise Pascal
The polymath or Renaissance man was an expert at everything. He (as few women were given the chance to be educated to this degree) had total world knowledge and made direct contributions to every field of study from arts to sciences to athletics to philosophy. In this way he was to maximize his physical and mental potential. The classic example of this person is Leonardo da Vinci who while best known today for his paintings also spent much of his time time doing research on topics as diverse as aerodynamics, anatomy, and architecture (XX).
Today many people have easy access to more knowledge than any polymath might have had, so it might be expected that many more polymaths should exist. However, they no loner exist because of this very quantity of information. To make any lasting achievement in any field today one must invest such a large quantity of time to that specific focus that there is simply no time left to devote to any other kind of study. Clearly then potential within a person becomes much more focused than the polymathic idea. This depth of knowledge has also destroyed the romantic notion of a cultural or literary cannon by both extending and in some ways eliminating its boundaries.
While the idea of a master of all fields of human ability might be traceable back to King David if not earlier, the idea of the polymath as the ultimate ideal of human came about through the movement of Renaissance Humanism. As a reaction to the Medieval educational system which set out to train men into very specific occupations, this movement sought to change education into a process which created not just professionals, but also citizens (XX). This required training not just practically, but also in areas which became known as the liberal arts. While this education was often only taken by those looking to be involved in the sciences or philosophy, it became seen as the primary way by which people could fully understand the world.
Beyond just having the knowledge as provided by a liberal arts education, the ideal renaissance man possessed the ability to put forth effort in a seemingly effortless way. This ideal known as ‘sprezzatura” was discussed in some detail in The Book of Courtier, one of the richest description of Italian Renaissance courts. To be able to truly perform this effortless effort one must fully internalize the one’s knowledge and training. This ideal way of doing things is still with us today, from sports to anything cool, but those original possessors of sprezzatura were dedicated to have this in every one of their actions.
How the Polymath Knew
For the polymath the world was an open book that just needed to be read. Both the liberal arts and sprezzatura provided some outlines for world literacy, but they were not the ultimate sources of knowledge. The polymath searched for knowledge seeing everything in the world as something whose basic properties could be seen if looked at in the right way. In this way many polymaths were able to engage in meaningful studies across multiple fields. However, this knowledge was both basic and limited by today’s standards. This is not to say that the polymath should not be remembered fondly, however this construction of what is knowledge is the very thing that allowed them to exist. Without this the polymath cannot exist.
To become expert in any field one must have a working knowledge of those facts and ideas within that field.