Picture Leonardo da Vinci as your ultimate polymath: painter, sculptor, architect, musician, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist, and writer. It seems almost greedy of him to have so many abilities, what with the rest of the population in those days being unable to read let alone paint masterpieces and invent stuff. Even Michelangelo, though arguably not quite touched with the same brush of genius as Leonardo, did paint the Sistine Chapel (though obviously not all by himself) and carved some decent sculpture, including David, as well as being an accomplished architect, poet and engineer.
The Renaissance – which means rebirth – was a great time of learning, enlightenment and flourishing creativity in the arts and sciences. So it makes sense that the term Renaissance Man derives from this age, where men were experts in many fields of art and science (and indeed, the division between the two wasn't as marked as it is now).
Victorian times also embodied many of these Renaissance elements, with great leaps in knowledge, science, engineering and the arts. It seems polymaths flourished in these times too, and some were autodidacts (I imagine the Victorian polymath as a gentleman – always a man – of means, pottering around in his laboratory or on the Devon coast with his geology hammer and notebook).
In the sciences there was Thomas Young (1773-1829) who made important discoveries in the fields of vision, light, solid mechanics, energy, physiology, language, musical harmony and Egyptology. Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911) was an explorer, meteorologist, statistician, biometrician and expert in personal identification. William Whewell (1794-1866) was Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, as well as being a scientist, Anglican priest, philosopher, theologian, and historian of science who also achieved distinction in both poetry and mathematics.
Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890) was an explorer, geographer, translator (most famously of the Kama Sutra and A Thousand and One Nights), writer, soldier, orientalist, cartographer, ethnologist, spy, linguist (he apparently spoke 29 languages), poet, fencer, and diplomat.
Even if they weren't actually 'officially' deemed polymaths, Victorians such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle packed an awful lot into their days: he was rather dismissive of his most famous character Sherlock Holmes, and thought he would be remembered instead for the dozens of other sci-fi, fantasy, historical and romance novels he wrote, as well as plays, poetry and non-fiction works. Conan Doyle was also a physician (before he became a full-time writer) and prolific public speaker who dabbled in politics. He was a tireless campaigner for justice (see Julian Barnes' book Arthur & George) and in his later years, advocate of Spiritualism. Likewise, William Morris (1834-1896) was a textile designer, poet, novelist, translator and socialist activist.
Nowadays we don't stay at jobs as long as we used to, so we ought to all be seasoned polymaths, but going from, say, admin assistant in one company to marketing assistant in another, doesn't exactly embody the spirit of the term. The contemporary polymath is more likely to be a pop star who also acts in Eastenders.
There is so much knowledge floating around at the click of a button (or swipe of a screen) that there's really no time or reason to become a polymath: if we want to understand something, we look it up, then move onto the next thing. Instead of polymaths, we now have generalists (the opposite of specialists) who aren't as
bright as polymaths, but like to know a little bit of everything.
For me, it's enough to get out of bed in the morning, commute to work, perform a
soul-destroying pointless activity all day, go back home, eat, go to
sleep, wake up and do it all over again. That's being a polymath in my