Birthday of a Polymath

I took an online vocabulary quiz some time ago (I forget at what site, I was trying out several of their quizzes), and one word I was unfamiliar with was polymath. My first thought was of mathematics, and then of polynomials, but as the quiz was multiple choice (what other kind can you put on the web and have it scored by computer?), I could tell that wasn’t the answer. But I was able to figure it out: a person whose knowledge is not restricted to one subject area, and generally used to refer to someone who excels in a wide variety of subjects or fields. (I wondered where the “math” fit in, but I just learned that it comes from the Greek polymathēs, πολυμαθής, “having learned much” – and now I remember from my New Testament Greek that mathētēs, μαθητής, means “learner” or “disciple.”)

I also just learned that today, besides being Tax Day in the U.S., is the birthday of probably the most famous polymath in Western civilization, Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci. Usually he is referred to as the quintessential Renaissance Man, rather than a polymath, but I rather like the shorter term. He certainly knew math – along with being a scientist, engineer, inventor, anatomist, painter, sculptor, architect, botanist, musician and writer. I never had any ambition to study engineering, anatomy, or botany, but I did aspire to study both broadly and deeply. I’m not sure how well I have achieved that, but I’ve also learned that just learning a lot is not worth all that much unless you can do something worthwhile with your life.

I think da Vinci might have agreed with that. I found a variety of interesting quotations by him at (under April 15, his birthday), including this one:

Shun those studies in which the work that results dies with the worker.

If the learning only benefits me by giving me more knowledge and the satisfaction of knowing many things, then certainly all that will die with me. On the other hand, attempting to do worthwhile things without having the proper knowledge is not good either.

Those who are in love with practice without knowledge are like the sailor who gets into a ship without rudder or compass and who never can be certain whether he is going. Practice must always be founded on sound theory, and to this Perspective is the guide and the gateway; and without this nothing can be done well in the matter of drawing.

He seems to have been speaking of drawing in this context, but the principle applies equally well to other fields of study and practice. He had quite a bit to say about study, knowledge, and wisdom.

He who thinks little, errs much.

Learning acquired in youth arrests the evil of old age; and if you understand that old age has wisdom for its food, you will so conduct yourself in youth that your old age will not lack for nourishment.

Wisdom is the daughter of experience.

The acquisition of any knowledge is always of use to the intellect, because it may thus drive out useless things and retain the good. For nothing can be loved or hated unless it is first known.

I know little about da Vinci except what we had to learn in a class on Western Civilization, and what I remembered from that gave me little interest in learning more of him. But after looking through the entry on him in wikipedia, I think I may look for a biography of da Vinci.


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