The polymath and the “Renaissance man”

Somebody wrote: “That got me thinking about the difference between a polymath and a Renaissance Man. Is there any?” and, in turn, that got me thinking: what so these labels really mean?

Faced with questions of definition, what I do is consult a few of my collection English dictionaries to see what they say.

A polymath is clearly “a person of great and varied learning.”

On the precise force of Renaissance man there is less unanimity. Collins merely says he's “a man of any period ...” (so that is Omar Khayyam included OK) “... who has a broad range of intellectual interests”. The Times English Dictionary too has that, verbatim. I say “merely” because you can have an intellectual interest in a subject without actually knowing very much about it technically. One can have an intellectual interest in science but know no more about science than what is got reading the stories by the science editor in a Sunday newspaper. I disagree with them because it is too weak.

Encarta says a Renaissance man is “a man who has a wide range of accomplishments and intellectual interests”. This is stronger than Collins: here, he is not only interested but also able to contribute something. The Concise Oxford says “a person with many talents or pursuits esp. in the humanities”. Now we know Oxford is determinedly descriptive, never prescriptive and this last may reflect the frequent application of the term to such entertainment industry luminaries as Peter Ustinov and latterly Stephen Fry, not to mention people with even narrower accomplishments. However I still disagree.

By the way Oxford implies a woman can be a Renaissance man but (if memory serves) I have yet to see it used of one in print.

It is all very well for them to rave over these admittedly talented men. However what did they accomplish? Although brilliant in their way -- each was/is an actor, a writer, a raconteur and humorist, also a theatre or movie director -- but neither is also a scientist or engineer. Fry reads copiously and has scientific facts (sometimes essentially trivia) at his fingertips when chairing the humorous celebrity quiz show (with entertainers -- mainly comedians and actors -- as contestants), but he hasn't to my knowledge done anything in science or engineering, or practical; by this last I mean I am pretty sure he hasn't done any plumbing or electrical wiring even in his own house (no doubt if he had we would have heard of it).

I write this having just seen the Mark Thomas take on Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo was really the true Renaissance man and, to my mind, the only really complete example of one. The great thing that he, and some other artists of the Renaissance who were also architects, mathematicians, engineers, did was to bridge the gulf between “the arts” on the one hand and science and engineering on the other. Leonardo did pioneering work in aeronautics, anatomy, optics, physics, and his inventions from the hang glider and the helicopter to the military tank (or armoured personnel carrier) and submarine diving apparatus and automatic firearms are legendary. He wrote in his diaries comments and statements that science at large would only come to years or centuries later. And like many artist of his era he knew that mathematics was essential to the artist doing the sort of work they were often preoccupied with: city scapes, buildings drawn with the precision of the architect's design (many, of course, designed revolutionary buildings that were actually built and the first in certain ways ever attempted despite their classical -- ancient Roman or Greek -- ancestry).

That gulf grew in the 20th century to the point that in Britain C.P.Snow famously wrote of the “two cultures” in the British education system. There are modern famous people who bridge the gap: once could argue that Dr Jonathan Miller does so because he is a qualified doctor of medicine and writer/TV presenter on subjects in the history and popularization of science.

The British comedian Dave Gorman is a mathematician turned entertainer, so although he rarely uses anything from that university specialism in his current work perhaps he comes somewhere in there. However in terms of the other term he is more a duomath than a polymath: mathematics and comedy, with no link between them, and both fairly narrowly circumscribed as far as I can tell from watching him.

I like to think I'm a polymath and a Renaissance man because I bridge the gap, and include among my interests maths, physics, electronics and IT (creating software), linguistics and languages (fluent in 2 foreign ones, know something of several others including Latin + ancient Greek -- enough to read slowly with a dictionary), practical building (I have done fairly respectable bricklaying, electric wiring to IEEE code, plumbing, plastering, woodwork), music (playing several instruments to private hobby level and writing compositions in traditional score notation, plus singing including performing in opera), and art (having become a self employed abstract artist and selling work for viable sums), inventing and building of scenery devices and special effects gadgetry for opera and pantomime, and writing. The latter included a new book for a Mozart opera that was performed with great success 1984, editing a Mensa newsletter that sometimes meant writing many (warmly acclaimed) articles on a variety of subjects to fill empty pages, over many years writing (sometimes vast and intricate) manuals in the IT industry, fiction and verse to entertain friends and colleagues, and so on ...

But that's just boasting. Still it does annoy me a little when some actor who has also written a script or turned his hand to directing some stage or movie production is acclaimed as a “Renaissance man” when he has done nothing else since leaving school in his teens!