The world’s greatest polymaths

In English Matters 46/2014, there was an interesting article about Vanessa-Mae, a one-time child prodigy who excels in many areas. She is a virtuoso violin player and recently surprised the world by competing in the Sochi Winter Olympics. But she is not the only person who is particularly good in more than one area. Such people are called polymaths, and history has had a few.

Renaissance men

Perhaps the most famous of the polymaths is Leonardo da Vinci, who was a marvel, even at a time when artists shone in several areas of life. He was said to be not only extremely talented, but also very handsome. His contemporary, Vasari, wrote this about him: “Leonardo’s disposition was so loveable that he commanded everyone’s affection.” Apart from painting some of the world’s most iconic masterpieces, da Vinci was also a botanist, engineer, draughtsman, musician and writer.

During da Vinci’s life, another genius was hard at work further up North. In the kingdom of Poland, Nicolaus Copernicus was looking through his telescope when he discovered that the planets do not turn around the Earth (as most of the world believed at that time), but around the sun. This was a breakthrough in scientific and religious circles. But Copernicus was not only interested in celestial bodies. He was also a lawmaker, diplomat and economist. As the latter, he developed a ground-breaking monetary theory which is the basis of much of today’s financial markets.

About three hundred years later, another man was breaking barriers with his hard work, theories and ingenious extrapolations of established knowledge – Thomas Jefferson. He travelled far and wide to expand his understanding of wide-ranging topics such as architecture, astronomy, linguistics and (not surprisingly) politics. He went on to become the third president of the United States, penned the Declaration of Independence, and designed buildings – including his famous house, Monticello.

In present times, Nathan Myhrvold is a modern polymath. He was once the chief technology officer at IT giant Microsoft. He founded a company which holds one of the largest patent inventories on the planet. But he did not rest on his laurels. Mr Myhrvold wrote a book on cooking which is revolutionising the way we look at food.

When we look at these individuals, it’s hard not to stop and think, what have I done today?

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