Polymaths — Then and Now
TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 7 Jan 2019
A Polymath is a person who has more than one interest and expertise, which gives such a person a broader perspective of life and society. There have been many individuals in the past who could be categorised by this definition. Today it would be difficult although not impossible to find such individuals, not because people are intellectually less bright and have less expertise, but because of extreme specialisation in any area that one can think of — science, architecture, art and culture , literature and other fields.
One person who everyone would agree to be a polymath is undoubtedly Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) who excelled in different areas such as anatomy, geology, engineering (as it existed then). But more than any other area, he is recognised and revered as a painter. His paintings Mona Lisa and another, The Last Supper, are superb and perhaps unparalleled in the painting genre in the world.
Leon Batista Alberti (1404-1472) was another Renaissance man born in Florence (modern Italy) who excelled as artist, author, architect, linguist as well as a poet.
In India we know of Rabindranath Tagore (1861- 1941) — a polymath who was not only an excellent poet and won a Nobel prize in Literature in 1913 for his book of poems Gitanjali, but also a musician and painter. Apart from poems that he first started writing when he was a child, he wrote a few novels. He is also known to have given music to his poems that is now known as Rabindra sangeet. His poems today are national anthems of India as well as Bangladesh. But his genius was not confined to these fields only ; he started painting portraits and landscapes at the age of sixty which renowned painters have applauded for their originality and finesse.
As a person Tagore was against the British colonialism and met many Indian stalwarts — Gandhi , Nehru and even Einstein in 1930 when he travelled to many parts of the world. His other contribution is to have founded the academic institution Visva Bharati. He is reputed to have given the title of Mahatma to Gandhi.
Talking of Gandhi, one can with an element of Truth say that Gandhi was also a polymath to an extent. Apart from being a lawyer and politician who is credited with getting India to become free of British yoke, he is credited for his original meaning to concepts such as Non-violence, Satyagraha, Truth and religious amity. He was an excellent writer both in his mother tongue Gujarati and English of essays, propaganda materials as well as his Autobiography that he called Experiments with Truth. The date of his birth 2 October is now known as the International Day of Nonviolence. He was a firm believer of the Hindu Dharma and has written an excellent book Anasakti Yoga on the epic Bhagwad Gita. Besides these areas, he was also an amateur astronomer and used to watch the cosmic order on borrowed telescopes.
Some religious saints such as Vivekananda or Gautam Buddha were syncretic in their beliefs and attitudes towards religion itself — not just in the particular form that they believed in. They felt that a true religion is one that makes a person good, truthful and useful in society; they felt that people are unhappy due not only because of societal faultlines but also due to their ignorance of the meaning of God himself. They were not in sync with a tight and unique unchanging meaning of God. They felt that as society changes, so should the attitudes and beliefs in an omnipotent being change. This does not happen in some cases and thus an individual feels lost and unhappy.
Today we have specialisation in all fields — sciences, engineering, history, politics, architecture, music and dance, sports and even film making, not to mention so many other fields. Earlier sciences were not divided into Physics or Chemistry leave aside their finer divisions such as organic, inorganic Chemistry or Nuclear Physics, Solid State Physics. After all, the well known Polish-French scientist Marie Curie won two Nobel Prizes in Physics and the in Chemistry for her pioneering research into radioactive substances and discovery of new elements.
Similarly music and dance were often the realm of individual artistes. Again persons who worked on our past lives and grand monuments, worked in a holistic manner about the kings, monarchs and the people without dividing their work in ancient or medieval or modern periods.
This specialisation is inevitable in today’s complex world where scholars must try to develop new knowledges about various subjects and areas. But this creates inevitably a narrow mindedness among such scholars — a holistic and broad perspective is largely dispensed with.
There are a few exceptions to this trend — Noam Chomsky the American linguist, philosopher, political activist and a commentator of current affairs.
Another person who comes to mind is the Indian scholar Ram Chandra Guha who is well regarded for his contributions to sociology, history, environmentalism besides being a prolific writer. There are a few other scholars of eminence who although being basically economists straddle the areas of politics, and current faultlines. One such person is Subramanian Swami who taught at Harvard University and is today a well established politician of India.
Even cricketers can achieve political heights as Imran Khan has done. He was an outstanding cricketer who captained his side and today has become the Prime Minister of Pakistan.
Thus we have had polymaths earlier and have a few outstanding individuals who can claim to belong to this esoteric category despite our world having become an area of specialisation and super-specialisation.
Dr Ravi P Bhatia is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment, an educationist, Gandhian scholar and peace researcher. Retired professor, Delhi University. His new book, A Garland of Ideas—Gandhian, Religious, Educational, Environmental was published recently in Delhi. firstname.lastname@example.org
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 7 Jan 2019.
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