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Ltryptophan's avatar

When would you prefer to live as a polymath?

Asked by Ltryptophan (11628points) February 28th, 2021 from iPhone

In the present mankind has technological sophistication that is increasing rapidly. Definitely there is infinite opportunity to innovate today, perhaps most notably with the bonus of witnessing your idea rapidly become reality, or shared by millions. On the other hand, as a great polymath in the present many innovations are already achieved by other geniuses.

In the past, the world had fewer of the answers we take for granted, and for me it seems more room to drastically change the human condition in almost every subject. Just one Leonardo might be able to rack up stacks of revolutionary breakthroughs. On the other hand, one would be surrounded by extreme challenges, and possibly insurmountable odds for survival. None of the modern creature comforts would exist unless you were able to conceive of them yourself.

Maybe for a true polymath the challenges of their time define them more than their own gift.

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8 Answers

Jeruba's avatar

I think a true polymath would enjoy himself or herself in any time period. The further back you went, of course, the closer you could have come to mastering multiple disciplines. Now people in parallel fields scarcely know how to talk to each other, never mind integrating the bodies of knowledge in their specialties. I don’t know how anyone can even be a generalist any more.

I remember reading that Aristotle (wasn’t it Aristotle?) was the last person to know all there was to know in all fields of knowledge. But of course that didn’t include the vast stores of learning already accumulated in cultures that the ancient Greeks had not yet gained exposure to. In fact, from a present point of view that seems like a very naive presumption.

Nevertheless, I think Aristotle must have had a blast being Aristotle.

flutherother's avatar

I wouldn’t want to unlearn what has already been discovered but it must have been an exciting time when a simple glass lens could open up whole new worlds for exploration. Now billions of pounds are spent on instruments like the Large Hadron Collider to give minimal results. It seems to require more and more effort to achieve less and less.

ragingloli's avatar

The more science advances, the more you have to specialise and collaborate to get anything done. Not to mention the complex machinery and laboratories you need today.
The days where you could have a small lab and make groundbreaking discoveries are long gone.
A person can jump 2 metres into the air many times, but to get to the moon, they need a rocket.

RedDeerGuy1's avatar

When on Jeopardy.

stanleybmanly's avatar

I believe it would be a grave mistake to assume the genius defining folks like daVinci or Robert Hooke dependent on the era they inhabit. The genius of a polymath is a matter of curiosity driving mastery of understanding across multiple disciplines. The trait is a gift (or curse), the insatiable drive and obsessive curiosity to understand and master all they encounter, combined with the extraordinary faculties facilitating the effort. It seems to me that it is simply a matter of cream rising to the top. And this being the case, the odds must be indisputably better in this age for those possessing the qualifying attributes. This is particularly applicable regarding the liberation of women in the participation and expression of genius. But as I see it, the race is on. As a species, extinction catastrophes loom and multiply visibly in front of us, and genius is no longer merely a luxury over which we should marvel. The world is desperate for the genius to solve the problems confronting it, and the great tragedy of our time lies in the idea of the 7 billion of us which smother the earth. Just consider the potential genius among those numbers destined to find their minds stifled through disease and malnutrition. Think of the waste we cannot afford.

BeeePollen's avatar

I would want to live now, or maybe in the future. The polymath types that I know tend to be really good at weaving together stuff from different disciplines, and I think that stuff like the internet and research universities would amplify their skills a lot. Also, they wouldn’t have to deal with as much day-to-day stuff that polymaths in the past had to, like walking 10 miles uphill both ways to get water and stuff like that. And much less likely to die young.

They might not get as much attention or prestige as they would in the past, because there are more educated people now and they wouldn’t be able to be “the one gal/guy that knows everything” like Shen Kuo or somebody like that (plus our elites don’t seem to revere pure intellectuals the way that some cultures did in the past). But the polymaths I know are more interested in accomplishing stuff than in prestige.

Plus back in the day, if you were a polymath born in a rich society, there was a 50% chance you were a woman and nobody would listen to you. From my experience it seems like female geniuses actually get occasional recognition now!

kritiper's avatar

I heard tell of a great mind and inventor who couldn’t control his bladder.

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