Who are the New Polymaths?

Leonardo da Vinci Polymath
Polymaths, says Edward Carr, Deputy Editor of Editorial at The Economist, are “people who know a lot,” but it's not enough to know. To be part of this exclusive club, one must do something with that knowledge.

In a fascinating essay published in INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Autumn 2009, Carr sets out to identify modern polymaths:

Carl Djerassi is a polymath. Strictly speaking that means he is someone who knows a lot about a lot. But Djerassi also passes a sterner test: he can do a lot, too.

As a chemist (synthesising cortisone and helping invent the Pill); an art collector (he assembled one of the world’s largest collections of works by Paul Klee); and an author (19 books and plays), he has accomplished more than enough for one lifetime.

It's not enough to have multiple interests and activities under way, however. Because, even though the term polymath describes very different kinds of people, it is still about the act of creation in multiple disciplines:

The word “polymath” teeters somewhere between Leo­nardo da Vinci and Stephen Fry. Embracing both one of history’s great intellects and a brainy actor, writer, director and TV personality, it is at once presumptuous and banal. Djerassi doesn’t want much to do with it.

“Nowadays people that are called polymaths are dabblers—are dabblers in many different areas,” he says.

“We all know a gifted person who cannot stick at anything,” says Carr. “In his book Casanova: A Study in Self-Portraiture Stefan Zweig describes an extreme case:”

Casanova] excelled in mathematics no less than in philosophy. He was a competent theologian, preaching his first sermon in a Venetian church when he was not yet 16 years old. As a violinist, he earned his daily bread for a whole year in the San Samuele theatre.

When he was 18 he became doctor of laws at the University of Padua—though down to the present day the Casanovists are still disputing whether the degree was genuine or spurious…

He was well informed in chemistry, medicine, history, philosophy, literature, and, above all, in the more lucrative (because perplexing) sciences of astrology and alchemy…

As universal dilettante, indeed, he was perfect, knowing an incredible amount of all the arts and all the sciences; but he lacked one thing, and this lack made it impossible for him to become truly productive. He lacked will, resolution, patience.

Thus Carr polls colleagues in an attempt to canvass modern practitioners who can be defined living polymaths “—doers, not dabblers.”

One test I imposed was breadth. A scientist who composes operas and writes novels is more of a polymath than a novelist who can turn out a play or a painter who can sculpt.

For Djerassi, influence is essential too. “It means that your polymath activities have passed a certain quality control that is exerted within each field by the competition. If they accept you at their level, then I think you have reached that state rather than just dabbling.”

They mentioned a score of names—Djerassi was prominent among them. Others included Jared Diamond, Noam Chomsky, Umberto Eco, Brian Eno, Michael Frayn and Oliver Sacks.

It is an impressive list, by anyone’s standards. You can find scientists, writers, actors, artists—the whole range of human creativity. Even so, what struck me most strongly was how poorly today’s polymaths compare with the polymaths of the past.

Our capacity to do important work today pales in comparison with those who came before us. Carr says, “as human learning has flowered, the man or woman who does great things in many fields has become a rare species.”

The dead cast a large shadow but, even allowing for that, the 21st century has no one to match Michelangelo, who was a poet as well as a sculptor, an architect and a painter. It has no Alexander von Humboldt, who towered over early-19th-century geography and science. And no Leibniz, who invented calculus at the same time as Newton and also wrote on technology, philosophy, biology, politics and just about everything else.

[…] Over the past 200 years the nature of intellectual endeavour has changed profoundly. The polymaths of old were one-brain universities. These days you count as a polymath if you excel at one thing and go on to write a decent book about another.

However, breaking new ground is so much harder today, he notes, and especially for scientists, staying in front of research with new discoveries is much harder. We also specialize more and vie for attention is a more crowded pool of candidates, he says.

The arts are thus more forgiving than the sciences. Plus, we have the role of culture to take into account. For example, America and Britain tend to not encourage public intellectuals while France does. Carr says if we did:

Richard Posner would be their standard-bearer. Posner’s day job is as an appeals-court judge in Chicago—a career founded upon his reputation as America’s pre-eminent thinker on anti-trust law.

But Posner is not just a lawyer. In his spare time he has written on sex, security, politics, Hegel, Homeric society, medieval Iceland and a whole lot more. The Wall Street Journal once called him a “one-man think-tank”. Posner thinks like a polymath. “I’m impatient and I’m restless,” he says, in a matter-of-fact way. 

Carr tracks down more modern polymaths and concludes with some parting thoughts:

Part of my regret at the scarcity of polymaths is sentimental. Polymaths were the product of a particular time, when great learning was a mark of distinction and few people had money and leisure. Their moment has passed, like great houses or the horse-drawn carriage.

The world may well be a better place for the specialisation that has come along instead. The pity is that progress has to come at a price. Civilisation has put up fences that people can no longer leap across; a certain type of mind is worth less. The choices modern life imposes are duller, more cramped.

The question is whether their loss has affected the course of human thought.

The full essay makes for an enriching read.