We live in dubious times, when great men and women of the past are being “canceled” by a few politically correct or “woke” fanatics, or, perhaps worse still, their work is being neglected or forgotten. It’s important, then, to remember some of the most remarkable persons of the past, especially those with the most amazing skills, and who made the greatest contributions to civilization.
A group of extraordinary individuals known as “polymaths” perfectly fit this category of world-changing intellects. A polymath is someone with very wide-ranging knowledge and prescient accomplishments. They are rare individuals, and every age seems to have a few of them. Sometimes they are called “renaissance men” (or women) because perhaps the greatest and most famous polymath was the iconic figure of the European Renaissance period, Leonardo Da Vinci.
A polymath’s polymath, Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519) did so many extraordinary things, it takes one’s breath away. He was one of the greatest painters of all time; his Mona Lisa and The Last Supper are two of the world’s most famous masterpieces. He was also a notable architect and sculptor. He was a visionary inventor, drawing models of a helicopter, flying machine, parachute, gear shift, bicycle, snorkel, monkey wrench, canal locks system, hydraulic jacks, and automated instruments decades or even centuries before technology caught up with Da Vinci’s boundless imagination. His extendable ladder remains in use today. Although he hated war, he drew tanks, machine guns, and submarines long before they were put into use. He was the father of automation; his automated looms foreshadowed the Industrial Revolution by 300 years.
But that’s not all. As a scientific figure, he pioneered botanical science and comparative anatomy studies. In physics, he anticipated modern mechanics, optics, and hydrostatics. As author Michael J. Gelb points out in How To Think Like Leonrdo da Vinci, he also intimated some of the great scientific discoveries and breakthroughs of Copernicus, Newton, Galileo and Darwin long before they made them.
But the influence of polymaths on Western culture extends back further than da Vinci. In the ancient western world, the most notable polymath was the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384 B.C. – 322 B.C.). He was a student of Plato and the teacher of Alexander the Great. His interests included, and he is considered the father of, many of the classical subjects of philosophy, science and scholarship. His writings and discoveries would have a major impact a thousand years later in propelling the West from the Medieval Age to the Renaissance. Only a third of his writings survive, but he is still widely read and regarded as a genius today, 2,500 years later.
America’s great polymath – and another student of Aristotle – was Ben Franklin (1706-1790). He was a scientist, inventor, diplomat, politician, author, and philosopher. Although most Americans today know him as a founding father of our country, his first demonstration of electricity had global scientific impact. He was the foremost printer and publisher in colonial America. He founded the University of Pennsylvania, and was the first U.S. Postmaster General. His diplomatic successes during the U.S. Revolutionary War, particularly winning French support for the American cause, were vital to securing independence. He is considered by many today to have been the most influential American of his age.
Perhaps the least known mega-polymath was Satyendra Nath Bose (1894-1974), a Bengali genius from the Indian subcontinent. He was a physicist and mathematician who also did serious work in chemistry, biology, philosophy, art, literature, and music. He collaborated with Albert Einstein on early studies of quantum mechanics. The key sub-atomic particle, the boson, was named after him. He spoke several languages and promoted Bengali literature. His work was seminal in the new field of quantum statistics. Self-effacing, he was nominated for the Nobel Prize which he did not receive, but which many peers felt he should have won. He worked with Marie Curie on X-ray radiation during a stay in Europe before returning to Calcutta to head a university department of physics, teach and do further research. As if that were not enough, he was also an accomplished musician.
Of course, few as they have been, there are other great visionary figures whose significant achievements and wide-ranging abilities could be cited, such as Helen Keller, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Albert Schweitzer, Copernicus, George W. Carver, Albert Einstein, Nikola Tesla, Galileo, and Winston Churchill — to name only some of them.
Many of these, and other great innovators, achieved so much despite physical handicaps, Helen Keller and the deaf Beethoven for example, that their natural gifts are magnified by their indomitable wills and human spirit.
No matter how the dictates of political correctness change, the lives and work of these extraordinary individuals cannot be erased.