Epistemology, the theory and study of knowledge and how it is acquired, is unsatisfactory on the subject of the polymath, or the person of extraordinarily wide-ranging knowledge. Nor is it very helpful about what is required to be learned, or cultured, or knowledgeable, or even educated. May one call oneself learned without having ancient Greek and Latin, cultured without being able to read music, knowledgeable without knowing the history of China? As for being educated, given the state of the contemporary university outside its scientific departments, no one today can claim to be educated because he or she has graduated from a college or university. Then there are the questions of what is the difference between information and knowledge and, in turn, knowledge and wisdom. A rich field, epistemology, one that has scarcely been plowed.

Peter Burke, an English cultural historian and author of a new study called The Polymath, defines his subject as “someone who is interested in learning about many subjects.”1 To qualify for the title, one needs to have exhibited a reasonable mastery over several subjects, a mastery generally evidenced by published works upon them or by inventions that issued from them. The goal of the true polymath is encyclopedic in the sense that he desires to get round as large a portion of the circle of knowledge as he can. Other terms for the polymath over the years have included polyhistor, Renaissance man, generalist, man of letters. Pansophia, or universal wisdom, is the often unspoken-of, and even less often achieved, goal of much polymathy. The distinction between learning and wisdom is one of the leitmotifs that plays through The Polymath.

The subtitle of the book is “A Cultural History from Leonardo da Vinci to Susan Sontag,” which suggests a long sad slide downhill in the history of polymathy. But, then, knowledge has greatly widened, without, alas, having notably deepened. The goal of universal knowledge itself has long been seen as foolish or exhibitionistic. Even as early as the mid-18th century, Diderot’s and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie defined polymathy as “often nothing more than a confused mass of useless knowledge” offered “to put on a show.”

Why would anyone wish to be a polymath? Wide and relentless curiosity is one answer. Intellectual competitiveness and snobbery might be another. A third, grander reason has been the strong impulse to discover the unity, if such unity exists, of all knowledge. Burke sets out the qualities that go to make the polymath: high concentration, powerful memory, speed of perception, imagination, energy, a competitive sense, and more. He also divides the many polymathic careers he considers between passive, clustered, and serial polymaths. The Greek poet Archilocus’s well-known dichotomy of hedgehogs and foxes—“the fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing”—is another theme that plays throughout Burke’s book.

The Polymath is in itself a polymathic performance. Burke takes up the careers of hundreds of polymaths through all eras, offering potted biographies of scores of these often wildly disparate figures. Ibn Khaldun, Erasmus, Newton, Bacon, Leibniz, Vico, Montesquieu, Buffon, Renan, Germaine de Staël, the brothers von Humboldt, Comte, George Eliot, Max Weber, William James, Patrick Geddes, Roman Jakobson, James Frazer, Joseph Needham, Lewis Mumford, and many others march through these pages in an immensely impressive cavalcade of intellect. Burke appreciates the strengths and knows the weaknesses of all these figures. At the book’s close, he provides the names of 500 people he feels qualify as polymaths, and the closer he gets to our own time, the more one is likely to argue with his choices. David Riesman, Ronald Dworkin, Jacques Derrida—polymaths? I don’t think so. And why, one wonders, is J. Robert Oppenheimer missing?

On the subject of Jewish polymaths, Peter Burke cites Thorstein Veblen’s essay “The Intellectual Pre-eminence of the Jews” and himself notes that Jews turn up with any frequency on his list of polymaths only in the mid-19th century onward, or roughly with the onset of the Haskala, the movement to introduce Jews to Western secular learning and culture. First among the Jewish polymaths may well have been that famously anti-Semitic Jew named Karl Marx. Burke notes that among those 500 polymaths he lists in his appendix, of those born in 1817 or later, “55 out of 250 were Jewish.”

The great boom period for polymathy generally was the 17th century, a period, Burke reports, when “Europeans enjoyed an extended moment of freedom from the traditional suspicion of curiosity on the one side and from the rise of division of intellectual labor . . . on the other.” New worlds had opened up, and “new knowledge was arriving at a rate that excited the curiosity of scholars without overwhelming them.” Before the mid-19th century, the preponderance of Jewish intellect doubtless went into Talmudic and other more strictly Jewish studies. The Baal Shem Tov and the Vilna Gaon and their disciples were taken up with matters thought to be well beyond mere polymathy.

Then there are what I think of as the freaks of intellect, most of these before reading The Polymath unknown to me. William Jones (1746–1794) was said to have known no fewer than 30 languages. Thomas Young (1773–1829), thought to be “the last man who knew everything,” was a physician who had Hebrew, Syricac, Samaritan, Arabic, Persian, and Turkish, and published on such various subjects as life insurance, acoustics, and optics. Benjamin Jeronimo Feijoo (1676–1764) was a Benedictine monk described as “a monster of learning,” who wrote on (I quote from Burke) “theology, philosophy, philology, history, medicine, natural history, alchemy, astrology, mathematics, geography, law, political economy, agriculture, literature, and hydrology.” William Henry Fox Talbot (1800–1877) was a distinguished mathematician interested in optics, chemistry, photography, astronomy, etymology, and the reliability of translations, who had time enough left over to serve as a member of Parliament for Chippenham. Otto Neurath (1882–1945), a philosopher of science, sociologist, political economist, and inventor of the isotype method of pictorial statistics, was said to have read two books a day. Merely reading about these men leaves one intellectually exhausted. These and a number of others portrayed in The Polymath make Goethe, himself a genuine polymath, seem like Wolf Blitzer.

Polymaths are at their best, according to Burke, “viewing the big picture and pointing out connections that specialists had missed.” Many polymaths over the years have been interested in the question of the unification of knowledge. Jacob Bronowski (1908–1974), another of Burke’s polymaths, wrote: “All that I have written, though it seemed to me so different from year to year, turns to the same center: the uniqueness of man that grows out of his struggle (and his gift) to understand both nature and himself.” Thus far polymaths have done much better with the former than with the latter.

Specialization of intellectual life, especially that brought on by the archipelago of academic departments and specialties in the modern university, is anathema to the polymath. Yet figures as impressive as Immanuel Kant, Adam Smith, and Max Weber, the latter two on Burke’s list of polymaths, extolled the virtues in specialization, Smith noting: “Each individual becomes more expert in his own special branch, more work is done upon the whole, and the quantity of science is considerably increased by it.” A century later Weber added: “Limitation to specialized work, with a renunciation of the Faustian universality of man which it involves, is a condition of any valuable work in the modern world.”

Polymaths are also likely to be criticized, specifically by specialists, for being dilettantes or amateurs, if not frauds. One thinks here of Isaiah Berlin’s description of George Steiner (also on the list) as “that very rare thing, a completely genuine charlatan.” Berlin said something similar about Jacques Derrida, and while Berlin himself makes Burke’s list of polymaths, I am less than sure he would be pleased to find himself there.

Burke writes of what he calls the Leonardo Syndrome, or the fact that “a recurrent theme in the life of the polymath is a dispersal of interests that has sometimes prevented them from producing books, completing investigations or making the discoveries to which they were close.” He adds that “a number of polymaths failed to finish projects owing to the dispersal of their interests and energy.” Perhaps the greatest of all polymaths was da Vinci, whose interests were so wide that he inevitably left many useful projects undone. Burke notes that among these “the giant crossbow did not work in practice, the circle was not successfully squared, and the poor condition of the famous Last Supper, already visible a few years after it was painted, is the result of failed experiments in chemistry.”

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IF ONE HAS the least intellectual pretensions (and mine would never be described as “the least”), one cannot read The Polymath without wondering where one stands on the polymathic spectrum. In an era of high intellectual inflation, I have been called a Renaissance Man (the renaissance in Andorra, perhaps, I thought at the time) and a man of letters (a mantle I wear more easily), but I have never remotely felt any of the standard motives behind the impulse to polymathy. Neither, I must add, have I felt any impulse toward specialization. I am, alas, that dull fellow, content to learn only what happens to interest him or gives him pleasure to read and think about.

And since no one can claim to be a polymath without a serious interest in science, I am disqualified at the outset by having no aptitude, and less interest, in the subject—though I am grateful for the rewards of applied science. I am content merely to live in the universe, and leave it to others to describe it, from the molecular to the planetary levels. I do, though, take a certain mild amusement in noting how often science, and just as often pseudoscience, gets things wrong, and sometimes seriously so. In 1949, for example, a Portuguese neurologist named Antonio Egas Moniz won the Nobel Prize in medicine for the invention of the prefrontal lobotomy. And who can say how much human damage the mistaken doctrines of Sigmund Freud, during their roughly 75-year reign, have caused? The much-vaunted new field of brain studies turns out to be unable to tell us anything valuable about consciousness, which may well be the brain’s most fundamental and interesting function.

My curiosity, tempered by a remark of Samuel Johnson’s—“the circle of knowledge is too wide for the most active and diligent intellect”—has never driven me to depart the bounds of my abilities. I am content not to dream in Javanese, write in Cyrillic, or make love according to the instructions of the Kama Sutra while shunning all interest in the production of iodine from seaweed and in the language of dolphins.

Burke notes that in the 17th century, encyclopedias were written by single authors. The word encyclopedia breaks down to mean circle of knowledge; the notion of full circle, or the fullest available, is implied. Later, of course, encyclopedias would be the works of many hands. I worked for a few years as an editor at Encyclopedia Britannica, when it was being reorganized by Mortimer Adler. Adler does not make Burke’s list of polymaths, nor does he get mentioned in The Polymath, though his pretensions were clearly polymathic. He had an exceedingly high IQ—IQ, I have come to believe, measures chiefly one’s ability to handle abstraction, little more—matched only by his exceedingly low level of common sense. (Attempting to hang a picture in his Lake Shore Drive apartment, Adler discovered he owned no hammer, so he went out to nearby Dunhill’s, which didn’t sell hammers, and instead he bought a golden showerhead, with which he returned home to pound in the nails to hang the picture.) I sat in countless meetings in which Adler, a dynamo of intellectual energy, attempted to divide all world knowledge into nine parts, which he did, chiefly to the effect of lessening the literary and overall quality of the earlier versions of the Britannica. Knowledge, it turns out, is nowhere near as malleable as once it seemed.

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TODAY, in the so-called Digital Age, it seems less so than ever. Consider only the Internet, that glut of information, some of it true, much of it false; some injudicious, a fair amount malicious; more of it kinky than kindly. In the Digital Age, Wikipedia has replaced the Britannica and Google the Yellow Pages, and nearly everyone who owns a cellphone walks around with the equivalent of a vast library in his pocket. Who would wish to take on the project of unifying this ungainly field of knowledge?

Peter Burke is well aware of the obstacles the Digital Age has posed for the survival of polymathy. Most of the most recent polymaths listed in his appendix were born before the advent of the World Wide Web. As he also points out, so many of the jobs that once helped maintain polymaths are now gone or on the way out: among them, librarians, used-bookshop owners and workers, museum curators. Nor is the contemporary university, with its compartmentalization of knowledge and so much given over to political correctness, an encouragement to the free-range learning that the polymath requires.

Instead, the Digital Age has supplied a vast overload of information. “A well-informed citizenry is the best defense against tyranny,” wrote Thomas Jefferson. But are we now living in a time when so much free-floating information has in subtle ways become a tyranny in itself? One could argue that this overflow of information has been accompanied by a simultaneous reduction of intellectual talent. Are Edward Said, Susan Sontag, and Stephen J. Gould, all on Peter Burke’s list, truly polymaths? Said turned out a book with a strong political slant about Western colonialism and wrote some music criticism; Sontag read philosophy and wrote about photography and lowbrow culture from a highbrow standpoint; Gould wrote about science for a popular audience. How do they compare with such earlier polymaths as Gottried Wilhelm Leibniz, Mary Wortley Montagu, and Francis Bacon? Not well.

The obvious petering out of polymathic talent does not come up in The Polymath. In his closing pages, Burke continues to hold out hope for a revival of the polymath, quoting Leibniz, who noted that he who can “connect all things can do more than ten people.” The final words of The Polymath are: “In an age of hyper-specialization, we need such individuals more than ever before.” Do we, though, really?


1 Yale University Press, 353 pages

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