Thomas Jefferson is one of many polymaths in a long historic line. In fact, the Renaissance was known for the number of polymaths that were publicly recognized at the time. These men and women exhibited many talents that appeared to be effortless. Polymaths, therefore, were something of a spectacle for their time and highly sought after.
Origins of the Word
There is no clear point in history that defines when humanity first recognized this phenomenon, but the Greeks admired and appreciated it enough to give it a word. They called it polymaths, which meant “having learned much”. The term came into popular use during the seventeenth century alongside another word polyhistor, which had a similar meaning to it.
Throughout the Enlightenment and Renaissance, the term was utilized when talking about people who were well versed in the arts and sciences. The idea evolved into the term “Renaissance Man”, which was used to describe well-rounded individuals.
Variations on the Renaissance Ideal
Part of the reason the term was spun off was because the ideals behind it were a bit different than what a polymath actually is. It’s not accurate to call every polymath a genius, although some could be, but they can perform a number of tasks in various disciplines without effort. During the Renaissance, the ideal was someone who could write poetry, play music, speak a variety of languages, was well-traveled and often advocated education.
The Renaissance did have a series of notable polymaths, Da Vinci being only one of them, which does explain the level of human progress we’d made in some ways.