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The Polymath


The author lays out some historical examples of polymaths and some of the benefits to this approach to life. "Humans of exceptional versatility, who excel in multiple, seemingly unrelated fields. That’s the superficial definition. Put differently, polymaths are multi-dimensional minds that pursue optimal performance and self-actualisation in its most complete, rounded sense. Having such a mindset, they reject lifelong specialisation and instead tend to pursue various objectives that might seem disparate to the onlooker – simultaneously or in succession; via thought and/or action. The inimitable complexity of their minds and lives are what makes them uniquely human. As such, they have shaped our past and will own our future. This book explains how.

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Key Takeaways

  1. Leonardo's mathematical polymathy was of a particular kind, but I do think it likely that most polymaths see more unity in their diversity than we can readily discern. They are better at seeing relationships, analogies, commonalities, affinities, relevancies, underlying causalities, structural unities.
  2. We are aware of the stigma that a polymath is a ‘jack of all trades and a master of none’. But there is an older expanded version, ‘A jack of all trades is a master of none, but often better than a master of one’. So many of the great innovations in the arts and sciences arose when outside wisdom was brought to bear on a discipline that had become complacent in its own criteria. Biology in the era of DNA was reformed by the arrival of physicists and chemists. Copernicus's sixteenth-century revolution was driven as much by concepts of beauty as innovatory observation.
  3. In all cases the prerequisite, as mentioned earlier, is an ‘exceptional cross-domain versatility’, but the greatest, most influential, most self-actualised polymaths are essentially self-seeking, holistically minded, connection-forming humans characterized by a boundless curiosity, outstanding intelligence and wondrous creativity.
  4. Physician Sir William Osler said it was Imhotep who was the real ‘Father of Medicine … the first figure of a physician to stand out clearly from the mists of antiquity’. Imhotep's legacy in the medical profession can be seen in the origins of the Hippocratic oath (an oath taken by all physicians upon practising) in which it refers to Asclepius – the god that the Greeks associated with Imhotep – as a god to be sworn by.
  5. It is they – the likes of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle – who came to define the Greek philosophy we are so indebted to. During the Roman Era, the culture of otium (‘leisure time’ undertaken by politicians, lawyers, merchants and soldiers in order to pursue intellectual or artistic activities) gained currency and the development of a multifaceted lifestyle became the goal, especially amongst the elite.
  6. So a great leader is not merely a bold decision-maker, but a holistically informed decision-maker, one who is able to understand the significance of context and have a sense of perspective.
  7. Intellectual polymaths are either scholars that excel in multiple unrelated disciplines (multidisciplinary), or thinkers who synthesise seemingly disparate areas of knowledge in order to make a serious contribution to one of more of them (interdisciplinary). Interdisciplinary scholars thoroughly acquaint themselves with different disciplines (understanding how they fit into the puzzle) rather than necessarily making specific contributions to the understanding of each. That is, they synthesise in order to contextualise, and vice versa.
  8. Vincent of Beauvais produced the Speculum Maius (or ‘The Great Mirror’); the most widely read encyclopaedia in the Middle Ages. It was a compendium of all the knowledge of the Middle Ages in three parts: the Speculum Naturale (natural sciences), Speculum Doctrinale (practical knowledge) and Speculum Historiale (History of the known world).
    1. Interesting corollary to the three buckets framework
  9. Research at Bristol University by educational psychologists Shafi and Rose showed that many mature students did not feel that their initial education instilled any excitement or even understanding of education; they had to wait to experience ‘life’ before realising the value of education and consequently returning to it later in life. This clear disconnect between the student and the modern education system is a result of what Whitehead referred to as ‘inert ideas’ – compartmentalised, fragmented information thrown at students at school without any unifying framework. As a result, students are not only less able to make sense of how these fragments of knowledge transmitted to them in various classes are relevant to each other, but more importantly, how they are relevant to their own lives. There is simply no context and therefore no internalisation. This predicament continues to this day. Children are sitting in classrooms, listening to lectures and reading books wondering what relevance geometry or medieval history or plate tectonics has for them.
  10. Prior to the modern Western paradigm, other world views (such as the African Ubuntu philosophy – ‘I am because we are’) focused on the co-operative, cohesive side of man, which nineteenth-century Russian evolutionist Peter Kropotkin and more recently genome expert Matt Ridley confirmed is just as deep-rooted a part of human nature as individualistic selfishness might be. Polymaths were generally less driven by competition than by an inner drive to develop the ‘self’, and that too not necessarily vis-à-vis, or at the expense of another.
  11. Not only is specialisation becoming a redundant method of understanding truth, it is also a poor strategy for survival – whether for the individual, an organisation, a society or indeed an entire species. Simply put, then, Homo sapiens run the severe risk of perishing within the next two centuries unless the mind is reconditioned to allow for a vanguard of polymaths – if not an entire generation – to give humans a sense of purpose.
  12. We must all begin with an introspective journey to establish our individuality. In exploring your essential uniqueness (Einzigkeit), you have then to be willing to go against the grain – reject formal, traditional, official ways where necessary and be ready to suffer the consequences. The resultant marginalisation should drive you to become as self-sufficient as possible in all that you do. Then, and only then, will you be prepared to pursue your optimal self – an optimum set by none other than you. This inner journey must then convert to an outer one.
  13. To discover and to develop the Self is the primary aim of the polymath.
  14. British educationalist Ken Robinson insists that the focus of an individual should be on those areas where talent or capacity meets passion or desire; it is at this intersection, as proven time and time again, where success brews.
  15. Polymaths have always minimised their reliance on standard education systems for practical and intellectual knowledge. They have come in the form of freethinkers or ‘freedoers’. In fact, polymath and educationalist Hamlet Isakhanli highlighted ‘self-education, the lifelong desire to learn, a strong will and endurance’ as being the most important steps to becoming a polymath. It is not surprising then that most polymaths over history have been autodidacts.
  16. Polymaths like Alberti constantly strove to attain their optimal state of being. Optimality is the fullest realisation of one's potential; it is different from pursuing an illusory ‘perfection’. Maslow said that ‘what a man can be, he must be’ and that one only attains a state of self-actualisation when ‘one becomes everything that one is capable of becoming’. For the great psychologist Carl Rogers, human optimality came from closing the gap of incongruence – between what a person is and could potentially be. According to Rogers, the ‘good life’ is lived by the ‘fully functioning person’:“This process of the good life is not, I am convinced, a life for the faint-hearted. It involves the stretching and growing of becoming more and more of one’s potentialities. It involves the courage to be. It means launching oneself fully into the stream of life.”
  17. As the Hawaiian proverb goes: ‘Not all knowledge is learned in one school’.
  18. E.O. Wilson suggests this as being the best methodology of uncovering reality: Only fluency across the [disciplinary] boundaries will provide a clear view of the world as it really is, not as seen through the lens of ideologies and religious dogmas or commanded by myopic response to immediate need … A balanced perspective cannot be acquired by studying disciplines in pieces but through pursuit of the consilience among them.
  19. David E. Cooper highlights as the ‘syncretic’ attitude: the belief that ‘the way to truth is to gather together many, many perspectives, from which will emerge a common core, which is where “truth” lies’.
  20. Michel de Montagne said, ‘the only learning I look for is that which tells me how to know myself, and teaches me how to die well and to live well’.
  21. Ziauddin Sardar, a champion of critical thinking and himself a writer on many subjects, says such a method can allow any intelligent individual to penetrate so-called ‘specialist’ fields: Once the jargon, which is designed to mystify the outsiders, is stripped away one finds a methodology and a thought process which can be mastered by anyone who is determined to understand it. In this respect, the true intellectual is a polymath: his basic tool is a sharp mind and a transdisciplinary methodology which can lay bare any discipline, any subject, any segment of human knowledge.
  22. Jan Smuts, who in his book Holism and Evolution (1927) called for the unity of all things and knowledge. It alludes to what scientists, artists and philosophers have long considered to be a ‘vanishing point’ – a geometric notion with philosophical implications, where all of our particular areas of enquiry, knowledge and understanding eventually converge.
  23. Things derive their being and nature by mutual dependence and are nothing in themselves. – Nagarjuna, Buddhist philosopher (150–250)
  24. Love all things equally: the universe is One. – Hui Ssu
  25. Yet educational institutions have not progressed from their centuries-old role relating to the collation and distribution (transfer) of knowledge in order to teach how best to organise, understand and use it. Critical thinking is needed equally, if not more, today than in the past in order to discern what information is needed, when, to what extent and in what context.
  26. Urgently needed today is an education system which encourages curiosity (by encouraging autonomy), unity (by encouraging holistic, contextualised learning) and creativity (by not forcing monomathic specialisation upon the multitalented).
  27. Education is the ability to perceive the hidden connections between phenomena. – Václav Havel, Czech playwright and statesman
  28. Alexander von Humboldt, introduced the notion of Wissenschaft, which connotes the all-round development of the individual and the need to cultivate the whole personality rather than just the mind. The purpose of the university, Humboldt insisted, should therefore be to ‘lay open the whole body of knowledge and expound both the principles and foundations of all knowledge’. 
  29. Indeed, we are witnessing a global boom in e-learning: examples of popular platforms include W3Schools, Khan Academy, University of the People, Open University, Academic Earth, Luminosity Brain Training, Mind Gym, Gems Education, EdX, Sillshare, Udacity, Udemy, TeacherTube, MIT Opensource and CK-12. This is a promising trajectory, but one with two important limitations: first, it can never serve as an effective substitute for the physical exchange of ideas, and second, none of the platforms provide a unifying framework that connects different fields. Students are left to do the synthesis and integration on their own.
    1. That's what we're solving for!
  30. As they are displayed in listed form, the subjects seem as though they are separated and codified, but ideally they should be presented in a complete, connected form – like a cosmic constellation or a neural network – that properly illustrates the intrinsic connectivity of everything. The subjects are organised according to eight fundamental facets of the human condition: Nature, Society, Mind, Body, Survival, Work and Expression and Transcendence. There is no order or hierarchy as they too are interconnected and of equal importance to one another. The objective is to achieve perspective. This perspective can then allow the student to make a well-informed choice about what he or she feels they ought to focus on in future study.
    1. Interesting way to group disciplines of knowledge
  31. On acquiring each portion of knowledge, the student will be encouraged to reflect on a series of questions to the point that the necessary learning methods become instinctive: why is this important? How does it fit into my life? What's its connection with everything else? What new insights does this give me? How can this enhance my life? How can I use this to help others? What might be worth further investigation? What could my potential contribution to the field be?

What I got out of it

  1. I didn't get too much out of the various examples of polymaths throughout history, but I very much resonated with the author's arguments for the benefits of aiming to become a polymath

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