Dec 7, 2020
When we speak about people who have achieved a lot in their lives, we usually apply a single noun to describe them. Winston Churchill - politician; Nicolaus Copernicus - astronomer; Isaac Newton - mathematician; Christopher Wren - architect; Omar Khayyam - poet.
In The Polymath, Waqas Ahmed reminds us that this is a misrepresentation of their lives. Did you know that Winston Churchill won the Nobel Prize - for literature? That Copernicus also had discoveries in economics and mathematics, while spending most of his time managing Church estates? That Newton's main occupations were alchemy and biblical exegesis, and that he ran the Royal Mint? That Khayyam was in fact an astronomer and mathematician who wrote poetry on the side? Wren's career was variegated enough not to be able to fit inside a single sentence.
Ahmed introduces us to a compendious collection of famous and not-so-famous historical figures with great accomplishments, and shows us just how varied their lives, careers, and output were. They were all Renaissance men and women, polymaths, polyhistors, universal geniuses... It seems as though half the world are poets and polyglots, and most of the rest are lawyers, doctors, diplomats, revolutionaries, or businesspeople, at the same time as they make great strides in the fields which they become famous for.
At least, that's the history. Waqas Ahmed makes the further point that most people don't do it this way anymore, even though there's no good reason why we shouldn't - even the rapidly growing body of human knowledge makes this approach neither impossible nor unprofitable. His arguments about education and the fate of the world seem under-researched and based heavily on speculation, but the sheer volume of biography and variety of historical and cultural perspective that he brings to the task is immense.
While I take issue with some of his ideas about education, the broad thrust in the first half of the book - that breadth is much more common among great thinkers than we assume, and that therefore extreme specialisation is not a prerequisite for doing important work at the top of one's field - seems irrefutable. The book also serves as a fount of biographical knowledge about great people from the past.
Enjoy the episode.