Peter Burke defines a polymath as “someone who is interested in and learning about many subjects.” Burke also invokes Isaiah Berlin’s famous remark about scholars that he called “foxes” who know “many things” and “hedgehogs” who know “one important thing.” Essentially, this is a book about people who are good at many things (think Sherlock Holmes and Elon Musk) rather than those who specialize and concentrate on one area (think Einstein and Dr. Fauci).

Burke generates a list of 500 polymaths from history. He discusses how culture can encourage the development of polymaths. And Burke shows that polymaths, like Leibniz and Francis Bacon, impact their countries with their far-reaching discoveries.

When I was a college professor, I had the choice of concentrating on a single area of Business (like teaching multiple sections of ACCOUNTING like some of my colleagues did) or teach a variety of courses (MARKETING, MANAGEMENT, ORGANIZATIONAL BEHAVIOR, etc.). I chose variety so perhaps there’s a little polymath in me. Are you a polymath? GRADE: B+


List of Plates viii

Preface and Acknowledgements x

Introduction: What is a Polymath? – 1

1 East and West – 10

2 The Age of the ‘Renaissance Man’, 1400-1600 – 26

3 The Age of ‘Monsters of Erudition’, 1600-1700 – 47

4 The Age of the ‘Man of Letters’, 1700-1850 – 83

5 The Age of Territoriality, 1850-2000 – 127

6 A Group Portrait – 170

7 Habitats – 191

8 The Age of Interdisciplinarity – 213

Coda: Towards a Third Crisis – 240

Appendix: 500 Western Polymaths – 247

Notes – 278

Further Reading – 316

Index – 318


  1. Cap'n Bob Napier

    I am, though not as educated as some of those people! I also had a girlfriend named Polly if that counts!

  2. Steve Oerkfitz

    I do know about a lot of different things which makes me at least pretty good at trivia or Jeopardy, but I don’t know if I would consider myself a polymath. In college I majored in literature and minored in history. This left me well educated but not qualified for anything.( I couldn’t teach because of my fear of public speaking).

    1. George Kelley

      Steve, I consider you to be a polymath after reading your comments and admiring your range of interests. Today, you could pursue a teaching career with on-line courses. It’s pretty much like blogging!

  3. Jerry House

    I’m real good at forgetting things from a wide variety of subjects, often within seconds of learning them. Does that count?

  4. Michael Padgett

    I have the sort of liberal arts education that a lot of people now think isn’t worth having, but they’re wrong. I majored in English Lit with minors in Philosophy and History. Subjects that interest me, like the arts and politics, are easy for me to learn about and remember. Technology and electronics don’t interest me at all, as long as I know enough to make the tv work. A few years ago I was hit with the double whammy of Bitcoin and 3-D Printers and have never understood either, not that I’ve tried very hard. At this point it’s pretty unlikely that I’ll change in any significant way.

    1. George Kelley

      Michael, why fix what’s not broken. I share your interest in English Lit., philosophy, and history along with Art and politics. I’m also interested in technology, but I have no skills in that area.

  5. Jeff Meyerson

    Not on the level of a Da Vinci, but yes, I have always had very wide interests. That always serves me well on things like Jeopardy! and Trivial Pursuit.

    1. George Kelley

      Jeff, just the vastness of your reading and movies/TV you’ve seen, the concerts you’ve attended, and the all the theater you’ve experienced qualify you has a polymath!

      1. Todd Mason

        That’s OK, Sontag isn’t within shouting distance of Da Vinci, either. Or perhaps, within shouting distance of Hedy Lamarr. (Though ahead of Harvey Korman.)

  6. Patti Abbott

    I think everyone that responds to this blog and to mine is a polymath of sorts, with George leading the way. I am always impressed by wide-ranging minds. How dull to just be interested in one area. Even if you are an expert in that area there is too much else to wonder about and pursue.

  7. George Kelley

    Patti, you are so right about the commenters on our blogs! They are knowledgeable, educated, and articulate. Thank you for your kind words. I’m a voracious reader, love movies and theater, and listen to music every day. I’m always confounded when I encounter people who don’t read or have any interest in the Arts.

    1. Deb

      Reminds me of when Victoria Beckham (aka, “Posh Spice”) said she hadn’t read a book since leaving high school. I just couldn’t imagine how limiting that life would be. My idea of Hell is a place where there is absolutely no access to reading material.

      1. Deb

        To be fair, Posh Spice would probably look at my Walmart-inspired wardrobe and say something along the lines of, “My idea of Hell is having nothing but tunic tops and leggings to wear.”

      2. George Kelley

        Deb, there was a push in the 1990s at my College to “infuse” Literature in Business classes. So one semester I assigned Charles Dickens’ HARD TIMES as our “enrichment” book. At the end of the semester, a student came up to me after class and told me, “Dr. Kelley, this is the first book I’ve ever read from cover to cover.”

      3. Jeff Meyerson

        Forget Victoria Beckham – what about Donald Trump? Has he ever read a book in his life? Questionable. One thing I inherited from my parents was a love of reading. When we were kids my mother always had books in the house. I would just pick out something that sounded interesting – THE YEAR THE YANKEES LOST THE PENNANT (made into DAMN YANKEES), THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY, COMPULSION, etc. We went to the library often. After they moved to California and later Arizona, she practically lived at the library, and befriended the librarians to the extent that they would call her whenever something came in that they thought she’d like! It did drive me a little crazy when she “discovered” a writer – Michael Connelly was one I remember – and would call me to tell me of her find and ask if I’d ever heard of him, only to discover that I’d read him from book one. My father read a lot more once he retired – when he was working he didn’t have a lot of time. He read plenty of non-fiction (they both read biographies of people like Truman) but also liked thrillers and the like – Lee Child, Joseph Finder, etc. I really can’t say how much if anything my siblings read, though my younger sister always did read a lot when she was younger, and her daughters do now.

      4. Deb

        Jeff—our family was very much post-WWII-Austerity-Britain working-class, but there were always books and magazines everywhere (partly because my Dad worked at one of the newsagent distribution centers for London & the Home Counties and books were always “falling off the back of the lorry”) even when it was marmite sandwiches for dinner! My Mum was an avid reader—especially mysteries—and took me to get my first library card when I was about three (I remember I checked out THE CAT IN THE HAT). Reading & books were fixtures of my life (and I’ve tried to pass the love of reading down to each of my children). I can’t imagine being without something to read—even if it’s more likely to be on a Kindle these days.

  8. Wolf

    Since I was a child I’ve been interested in many things like different kinds of literature – classics (at least 300 years old), contempary and Science Fiction.
    And also science and engineering but I realised you can’t be good at everything unless you’re a genius.
    So I gave up hardware, concentrated on software, gave up physics, concentrated on maths and after finishing my studies went into IT.
    And there are just too many other interesting and important aspects of life – from Rock music to s** … 🙂
    Over the last years with all the information sources avalable life has become even more interesting.
    Totally forgot traveling …

  9. George Kelley

    Jeff, my mother read to us as kids. We always had plenty of books in our house. When we were in elementary school, my parents would take me and my sisters to the Library each week. We all became prodigious readers.

  10. Wolf

    What I just read here brought back memories.
    My parents were hard working, didn’t have too much time for reading but at least they had a subscription to the book club.
    I had several sources, of course no money for buying books, but …
    – First I read almost all of my parents’ books
    – Then I went to the city library which wasn’t far from where we lived at least every second day.
    The lady who worked there allowed me to also read “adult” books, nothing about sex of course but complicated stuff like Walk on the wild side etc.
    – The America House brought new US titles (translated of course) every two weeks.
    – A friend of the family (pensioner with some money) had hundreds of books, mainly detective novels like Edgar Wallace and allowed me to come to their house in the afternoon after they were done sleeping, around 4 pm
    Btw he also had a collection of Disney comics (Mickey Mouse as well as Cinderella etc) for his granddaughter who was in my age. I really enjoyed those as a light” alternative.
    – A relative of my mother worked in a small bookstore and allowed me to read science fiction paperbacks after school, so at least two more books a week
    – Later at high school I befriended a guy (he’s an egyptology prof now, we’re still friends) whose father had special editions of classics which I was allowed to read over the weekend – books with sometimes 1000 pages:
    1001 nights, Cervantes’ Don Quichote and even Djing Ping Meh!
    – As a student I couldn’t pass the America House without having a look at the latest stuff they had!
    So I was an extreme “bookworm” …

  11. Cap'n Bob Napier

    Both today’s and yesterday’s comments are still awaiting moderation! And I was first in line!!!

    BTW, thanks for the Wild West magazines! I subscribed for many years but finally let it drop in one of my useless austerity moves!


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