OT: The Polymath: A Cultural History from Leonardo da Vinci to Susan Sontag

“The Polymath: A Cultural History from Leonardo da Vinci to Susan Sontag,” by Peter Burke, Yale Univ Press, New Haven, CT, 2020. The dictionary defines polymath as one with encyclopedic knowledge or those with expertise in three or more fields. In this 327-page paperback Peter Burke elaborates. He collects a list of 500 polymaths and presents them with brief biographies in chronological order. His list is based on their writings especially in academic terms. He notes that until about 1850, it may have been possible for an individual to know “everything.” After about 1850 the explosion of knowledge made that impossible. He attributes that to the expansion of universities and surprisingly to the development of cheap paper from wood pulp. He does not mention the printing press.

Burke then characterizes polymaths from his data. His portrait section lists key aspects as curiosity, concentration, memory, speed, imagination, restless energy, work, timeliness (in a hurry), competitive, and playful. In the work section there is suggestion that Protestant work ethic may be part of it, but then discounts that notion as Catholics, Jews and others also qualify. He cites Leonardo Syndrome as an aspect. That seems to be procrastination. The inability to complete projects. There always seems to be another better idea to examine.

He explores many other characteristics. Early exposure to knowledge as in an encyclopedia is often a factor. Groups as in families or groups of friends contributes. Especially in the sciences groups that review new developments, scientific societies that hold meetings, and journals that publish results are pluses.

His list of polymaths includes many we know. Leonardo da Vinci is perhaps best known. Others include Copernicus, Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke, Isaac Newton, Voltaire, Samuel Johnson, Adam Smith, Joseph Priestly, Thomas Jefferson, Lavoisier, Goethe, Wilhelm and Alexander von Humbolt, Charles Babbage, Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Freud, HG Wells, John Maynard Keynes, Aldus Huxley, Buckminster Fuller, Leo Szilard, Linus Pauling, John Von Neumann, Peter Drucker, Alan Turing, and Richard Feynman.

No doubt this list is subject to much discussion. Exactly what criteria are used and who was overlooked.

This is an interesting study. You will find it thought provoking. Photos. References. Index.


Cheap paper? Interesting, and cheap internet is going to do something even more significant, though it is too soon to know just what that something will look like.