Polymaths have strange, winding life paths when looked at in hindsight. But there is quite a bit that we can learn simply from analyzing the lives and approaches of some particularly notable polymaths from history. They show what can be done through a combination of knowledge, hard work, and pure curiosity that must be satiated.
First we must start with the most famous polymath of them all, Leonardo da Vinci. He excelled in just about everything, though you probably know him for his artwork. But he was also a military strategist, sculptor, anatomist, and machinist to name a few. Johann von Goethe was referred to as the inventor of the German language because his literary works were so influential and important to German culture. However, he also found time to become a famous botanist, and rose in the ranks of German political structure to become the war commissioner and oversaw a series of tax reforms.
Keep the words flowing by buying me a coffee.
As the now popular maxim goes, we can see far if we stand on the shoulders of giants— even if our own efforts are small, when we add them to the collected understanding and knowledge gained by the great thinkers who have gone before us, we can advance further than even they did, and in a sense continue their journey.
It’s important to thoroughly understand your own strengths, weaknesses, context and goals.
If striving for polymathy in your own life is important to you, there’s no other way but to approach it with your own unique idiosyncrasies and curiosities.
However, there are countless giants who have come before us.
In looking at high achievers from history, we can find patterns, inspiration or encouragement.
Take what resonates, and leave the rest.
Admittedly, you may see that the polymaths we’ll investigate in the pages below were mostly born into wealth and were well connected, if not literally nobles and aristocrats.
Many of them lived so comfortably that they were able to devote themselves to learning instead of survival, and more than a handful were noted philanderers, substance abusers and gamblers.
Nevertheless, there are some lessons we can learn from these figures, even though our lives are very different from theirs.
We can make historical and cultural adjustments and learn from these giants how best to apply our own talents to arrive at the modern-day equivalent of a historical polymath.
The Original Renaissance Man
Leonardo da Vinci, born in 1 in Tuscany, Italy, is arguably the most famous and accomplished polymath in the history of the world, as well as someone recognized for massive creativity.
Science, math, the arts, politics, culture, history—you name it and he cultivated an interest in it and likely gained a level of proficiency.
His list of accomplishments is staggering, and the variety of fields he mastered is beyond belief.
Da Vinci reshaped what human beings knew about themselves.
He was the first person to create detailed views of the internal organs of the human body.
He made casts of the brain and ventricles from a deceased ox, paving the way for such models of human organs.
He was the first to describe the S-shaped structure of the human spine.
He completed numerous dissections of both human and animal bodies, meticulously documenting and drawing everything he saw.
Imagine how valuable those diagrams were, coming from someone so artistically skilled.
Even today, da Vinci’s many illustrations of human anatomy are still necessary studies.
Innovation and invention.
Da Vinci’s foresight was incredible.
He came up with drafts of several inventions that were finally brought to life almost five hundred years after he lived—the helicopter, the parachute, the military tank, the robot, and scuba gear all sprang from ideas first put forth by da Vinci.
And that’s just a partial list.
He had a particular interest in military and defense inventions, and biographers have speculated that his various artistic endeavors were only meant as stopgaps so he could find more work in warfare.
Da Vinci was fascinated with large-scale construction projects and served as a consultant to builders of his time.
He designed a system for canal locks that wound up being extremely close to the types that are used today.
He even dove into urban planning with his conception of “the ideal city.” Art.
Da Vinci painted a couple of masterpieces you may have heard of: the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper.
His iconic Vitruvian Man drawing of the human body is as much a piece of art as a scientific explanation.
Da Vinci also revolutionized the use of landscapes in his art and was an early innovator in the use of oil paint.
He was a sculptor as well.
Da Vinci’s expertise made him a key figure in the development of studies in several different sciences.
He was the first to speculate that fossils would prove that Earth was far older than those of his time believed.
His detailed depictions of plants influenced how botany was studied.
He made intensive studies on the motion of water.
He designed mills, machines and engines that were powered by water.
He even designed a musical keyboard that played bowed strings.
Occasionally he slept, we can assume.
The Inventor of the German Language
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was a celebrated German writer and polymath born in 1749.
He wrote lauded dramas, poems, novels and an autobiography, as well as participated extensively in botany and human anatomy.
On top of all this, he was an accomplished statesman and political figure, and was ennobled by the Duke of Saxe-Weimar before the age of forty.
As was common at the time, Goethe received a classical, well- rounded education where his father encouraged him to embrace languages (including Greek, French, English, Latin and even Hebrew, among others) as well as a thorough physical education that included horse riding, fencing and dance.
He originally studied law at Leipzig but disliked it hugely—his real passions were drawing and literature.
In later life Goethe devoted himself exclusively to writing; in his seventies, however, he met frequently with the child musical prodigy Felix Mendelssohn, and helped him become recognized by comparing him to a young Mozart.
Goethe himself inspired many of the great composers and was known to have a lifelong love for music.
Today, Goethe is considered a national German treasure and requisite reading for any education in literature.
So extensive and impactful was his work, that he is frequently referred to as having invented the German language.
Goethe gained enormous recognition for his two early novels, Götz von Berlichingen and The Sorrows of Young Werther in 1774.
These books were so influential they’ve been called “the first bestsellers,” with Goethe being identified as the founder of the literary movement of Romanticism.
This movement still has effects on the way we think of literature and poetry today.
If people recognize the name Goethe, however, they often associate it with his best-known work, Faust.
Later in life, he wrote Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (which the philosopher Schopenhauer believed was one of the four greatest novels ever written—high praise indeed) as well as some plays and his own fable.
In his late sixties Goethe dabbled with poetic “orientalism,” proving that a true polymath never stops learning, discovering and changing.
Botany and physics.
Goethe is best-known for his immense literary impact, but he was a prolific writer in the sciences too, devising optics experiments and a color theory of his own that went directly against the Newtonian framework.
For Goethe, light was to be understood relativistically, and not mechanically, and his intimidatingly large Theory of Colors treatise explains how he believed color is perceived according to the way our nervous systems interpret it, and not because of factors in the external environment.
Today, physicists understand that both environment and individual perception are important in color perception, but perhaps Goethe’s real achievement was in being courageous enough to question and challenge dominant theories of the time.
We can still see philosophical echoes of his theory in modern disciplines today.
Goethe was also an accomplished scientist in his own right and did research in botany, geology, psychology and meteorology— setting the stage, according to some, for the later development of modern-day weather forecasting technology.
He made a noteworthy anatomical discovery about the inter-maxillary bone that went against conventional scientific knowledge at the time.
Goethe was known even in his time as an autodidact and Renaissance man, never for a second believing that his literary talents should exclude him from looking deeply into matters of medicine or anatomy.
Goethe’s literary successes won him some celebrity and wealth, which in many ways landed him in the court of the Duke of Saxe-Weimer, where he soon climbed the ranks and earned successive titles and greater social liberties.
He was at one point the war commissioner and for a shirt while the chancellor of Saxony—that’s where the “von” in his name came from—a title and rank equivalent to being a prime minister today.
He managed the development of roads, oversaw the maintenance of mines and even participated in certain noted tax reforms of the period.
Goethe was never a retiring and whimsical artiste, but an active and powerful member of his social world.
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Peter Hollins is a bestselling author, human psychology researcher, and a dedicated student of the human condition.
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