The Renaissance ideal of "Homo universalis" l'uomo universale — health of body, strength of character, wealth of mind.

Some polymaths that will 
inspire you!


Written By  Axinia Samoilova 12/10/2018
When we watch small children develop we see how interested they are in various subjects, from art to science, and this all seems very natural to us. When children start being schooled we strangely enough expect they will manifest interest and aptitude in only one or two subjects. Why does this adoration for versatility vanish?

The phenomenon of polymaths has existed since people started exploring the world of knowledge. The word polymath comes from the Greek polymathēs, "having learned much." The Latin version is homo universalis, "universal man" and means a person who is educated in a variety of subjects that are seemingly unrelated to each other. Throughout history most learned men were polymaths simply because of the nature of learning. Before the European Enlightenment one would naturally embrace several disciplines: philosophy was interwoven with biology, physics, mathematics, architecture, arts, pedagogy, etc. The holistic approach to life and thought was natural; people saw “ the unity of knowledge reflecting the unity of the cosmos”. The most learned men and women of the past were polymaths and did not view it as something extraordinary. 

Another term for Homo Universalis is “Renaissance man", brilliantly illustrated by the archetypical polymath Leonardo Da Vinci who was knowledgeable enough to excel in a wide variety of subjects or fields: painting, sculpture, architecture, stage design, music, military, civil engineering, mathematics, statistics, dynamics, optics, anatomy, geology, botany, and zoology.
In the European tradition, the idea of Homo Universalis was first articulated by an Italian humanist and teacher, Vittorino da Feltre (1378 -1446), who spoke of the complete man, or l'uomo universal who enjoyed the trinity — health of body, strength of character, and wealth of mind. A great Italian humanist of the 15th century, Leon Battista Alberti, who epitomized the Renaissance man by being an author, artist, architect, poet, priest, linguist, philosopher and cryptographer, famously stated: 
"Man can do anything if he but willst it." 

If we journey into the history of mankind we will find quite a number of polymaths in all civilizations, but since the Industrial Revolution the idea of the Homo Universalis went out of fashion because the world needed "manufactured" personnel. 
As Ellwood P. Cubberly, Dean of Stanford University School of Education pointed out in 1898: 
"Our schools are, in a sense, factories, in which the raw materials, children, are to be shaped and fashioned into products. The specifications for manufacturing come from the demands of 20th century civilization, and it is the business of the school to build its pupils according to the specifications laid down."

There was no space left for a Renaissance man in this brave new world!

But that was in the recent past. Today, especially under the threat of AI (Artificial Intelligence) the trend moves away from specialization towards universalization. The increasingly globalized and technological world needs people whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas, known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems. It is well known that the most exciting inventions occur at the boundaries of disciplines.
As Leonardo da Vinci wisely recommended:

“Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses—especially learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.”

I believe that everyone has infinite potential for development, and can maximize his/her skills in all areas of knowledge. This means that even if you have a distinct talent in one area, you can explore your abilities in other fields as well. History knows many examples, and not only during the Italian Renaissance - a whole bunch of such polymaths like Al-BIruni, Ibn-Kahldun, Al-Farabi, Ibn-Rushdd, Ibn-Sina etc. lived during the Islamic Golden Age (8-13th century), since the Islamic educational tradition of that time offered a fertile soil for such growth.

Ultimately, what counts for me is that the polymath's knowledge and skills enable them to see the unity in diversity, see the interconnectedness, and the bigger picture. The uniqueness of the polymathic approach is the ability to see interconnectedness need not be taught, like some educators suggest, but occurs naturally as a result of profound knowledge in various disciplines.

The polymathic approach to learning can be easily compared to a child’s curiosity. One of the most famous living polymaths today, Hamlet Isakhanli, brings it to the point:

“My childhood nature of wanting to know everything - my hunger to learn, the way I would get excited as I learned, and would always search out the answers to questions like “then what?” and “how?” - never left me when I grew up and grew older. 

Wouldn’t it be most natural to sustain the polymathic approach in education and let people unfold according to all their inborn interests and talents? Our current education system and job market do not allow us to embrace this method. Not yet. But things will change; they will have to change!

"The existence of polymaths (or lack thereof) has very important social consequences. No society can live and survive without the vision of the whole. The polymath renders a service that is absolutely essential for the survival of a civilization in the long term."
(Philosopher, Seyyed Hossein Nasr).

P.S. During my research on this topic I realized how little is written about polymaths in history and especially in society today. One excellent book however is recently out there: "The Polymath: Unlocking the Power of Human Versatility" by Waqas Ahmed (2018). The annotation to the book says:

"We've been sold a myth, that to 'specialize' is the only way to pursue truth, identity, or even a livelihood. Yet specialization is nothing but an outdated system that fosters ignorance, exploitation and disillusionment and thwarts creativity, opportunity and progress. 
Following a series of exchanges with the world’s greatest historians, futurists, philosophers and scientists, Waqas Ahmed has woven together a narrative of history and a vision for the future that seeks to disrupt this prevailing system of unwarranted ‘hyper-specialization.’

The book cover: