We must learn our limits. We are all something, but none of us are everything. - Blaise Pascal
Today many people have easier access to 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 the sheer quantity of this 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 canon 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 (Kristeller). 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, in most anything considered 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 engaged in meaningful studies across multiple fields which they often saw as fundamentally connected. 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 as a wise figure, however this construction of what is knowledge is the very thing that allowed them to exist. Without this the polymath cannot exist.
Along with this universalist way of interacting with the world, the polymath also had a very limited set of texts considered necessary to have internalized in order to gain access to what was seen as total world knowledge. This canon containing works on the various subjects of science, math, history, biology, and philosophy created standard which defined knowledge. While it was clear that there was much missing from these texts, the canon created a proof of educational literacy (Kristeller). From here the polymath was able to reach out into the world and discover new and exciting things. This use of the canon was an obvious rationale considering the limited number of both texts and the copies of these texts. It also was able to provide an informal level of achievement in a time which lacked more universal educational standards.
The polymath also conducted a large amount of research in multiple areas, often advancing the fields considerably. Considered by many to be the best example of a polymath, Leon Battista Alberti was an architect, architectural historian, mathematician, artist, fiction writer, and cryptographer. While the more creative of these endeavors were not very influential, he did contribute significantly to optics, codes, and town planing (Kelly). This constant search and experimentation was the hallmark of the polymath. Thus learning and mastery was meant to go beyond the canon into personal discovery.
The Death of the Polymath
The polymath was the mode of mediation by which discovery was made. While successful at first, the polymath became a less and less practical way of furthering knowledge as a whole. To paraphrase the German romantic Novalis, in the polymath's ardent search for the absolute he found only things (Zielinski). Without the absolute the polymath was forced to keep searching, making his world more and more complex. This led to the polymath reaching its break boundary and falling to a technological reversal.
The Limits of the Human
As more polymaths came about, more new things were discovered. As this happened the canon could only increase, requiring more time be put into knowing what was already known. Eventually, there came a point at which learning everything simply became impossible, especially if one wanted to contribute to this new, vast pool of knowledge. This meant that in order for anyone to ever make any kind of impact on world knowledge they had to specialize. This provided the focus necessary to increase the total world knowledge, but it ensured that no specialized man could ever exert a direct influence quite that was quite as wide as the polymaths of old.
The law of diminishing returns also comes into play as so much new information is discovered. As more information is found, the next piece of meaningful information takes more effort to find. This upward curving trend means that is becomes much harder for anyone to contribute anything significant to the knowledge pool. Eventually, the polymath’s ability to make contributions just hit its break boundary. This means that even if people studying how the world works are today more informed than the polymaths were, they are less likely to be able to make impacts anywhere near the intensity of those made by the polymath.
A Matter of Records
In the polymath’s era documents existed, but were not conveniently made into records yet. There were some libraries and universities that converted documents into records, but these records were not freely accessible in the way we consider records to be today. Because of this, in order to have easy access to any information the polymath had to be able to recall it with ease. The affordability of books after the creation of the printing press made this less of an issue though, and soon records were becoming more and more convenient than ever before. As literacy increased there were more people who could recall (even if not instantly) various bits of knowledge that might be needed. This removed the importance of the polymath’s ability to internalize knowledge, which was also seen as more subject to failure than the static pages of a book.
Knowledge, having been removed from its privilege position has since become nothing more than records and files to be called for as needed. This approach to information and learning goes directly against what might best be called the polymath's holistic view of the world by eliminating the need of an individual to know about the world in a wide sense in order to be successful. In this new paradigm the polymath, even if he could consume all the information within our cultural records, can only impress in game show situations. In the age of Google the polymath is nothing more than a novelty.
Knowledge in Black Boxes
In the age of the polymath the world was seen as a a cypher box which anyone with the education could somehow open up and expose. Unfortunately, while the polymath did act as a key to this box the contents of this cypher were less than satisfying. As polymaths studied the world as deeply as they could they reached a point from which the individual perspective simply failed. Some of the biggest questions about the world can only be understood as the results of chains of events simply beyond the individual’s perspective. With this revolution the world suddenly become a function box. This new limit on human knowledge then made the polymath ideal seem less than acceptable, calling for a new mode of mediation to shape the way in which we view knowledge.
- Bramly, Serge, and Sian Reynolds. ‘’Leonardo’’. London: Penguin Books, 1994
- Castiglione, Baldassare. ‘’The Book Of The Courtier From The Italian Of Count Baldassare Castiglione’’. London: David Nutt, 1900.
- Kelly, Joan. ‘’Leon Battista Alberti: universal man of the early Renaissance’’. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969.
- Kristeller, Paul. ‘’Renaissance Thought and the Arts’’. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990.
- Zielinski, Siegfried. Deep Time of the Media.Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2006.