I have long been intrigued by the concept of the polymath. Umberto Eco was initially to blame for this interest, which at times has bordered on being an obsession.
It all started with the film of his book, The Name of the Rose; a chance finding on the television late one night, many years ago, as I sat in the company of a gin and tonic. The film was so good it led me to read the book itself. From there I progressed to another of Eco’s books, Foucault’s Pendulum; a tome guaranteed to send the sanest of minds into paroxysms of cerebral contortions as the reader attempts to keep pace with Eco’s brilliant weavings of mysterious plot and arcane symbolism.
On the dust jacket of Foucault’s Pendulum was a short biography, whereby Umberto Eco was described as a polymath and a professor of semiotics. At that stage, I reached for the dictionary.
A polymath can most simply be defined as someone who is ‘greatly learned’. Traditionally, it more particularly describes a person who is very knowledgeable in multiple fields, across the arts and sciences.
The term ‘polymath’ should not be confused with the word ‘genius’. A genius is someone who has an extraordinary creative or intellectual capacity, usually excelling within one particular field. In this respect, Goethe and Leonardo da Vinci may be considered as being polymaths. However, Albert Einstein, albeit a genius, was not a polymath; likewise with Mozart.
During the Renaissance period, gentlemen were expected to become polymaths by having a broad education encompassing the learning of languages, writing poetry, playing a musical instrument, etc. It is thus that the term Renaissance man and polymath have become synonymous.
So, when does one know that they have succeeded in the aim of becoming a polymath? I am not sure that it is a term that can be self-applied. Rather, it is probably best kept as a form of accolade bestowed by others. Apart from the inference of arrogance, which surrounds the idea of the self-bestowed title, anyone who is an aspirant polymath is likely to subscribe to the concept: ‘the more I live, the more I learn; the more I learn, the more I realise the less I know’. True sentiments, reflected in the words of Socrates, who said ‘all I know is that I know nothing’.
Then there is the wit that remarked, ‘if you know the definition of a polymath and think you may be one, then you are not’.
Therefore, an aspirant polymath I will have to remain…unless you know better!
Now, returning to Umberto Eco, just what is a ‘professor of semiotics’?