A polymath (Greek polymathēs, πολυμαθής, "having learned much") is a person with encyclopedic, broad, or varied knowledge or learning.
The dictionary definition is consistent with informal use, whereby someone very knowledgeable is described as a polymath when the term is used as a noun, or polymath or polymathic when used as adjectives. It especially means that the person's knowledge is not restricted to one subject area. The term is used rarely enough to be included in dictionaries of obscure words.
Renaissance Man and (less commonly) Homo Universalis are related terms to describe a person who is well educated, or who excels, in a wide variety of subjects or fields. This ideal developed in Renaissance Italy from the notion expressed by one of its most accomplished representatives, Leon Battista Alberti (1404–72): that “a man can do all things if he will”. It embodied the basic tenets of Renaissance Humanism, which considered man the centre of the universe, limitless in his capacities for development, and led to the notion that men should try to embrace all knowledge and develop their own capacities as fully as possible. Thus the gifted men of the Renaissance sought to develop skills in all areas of knowledge, in physical development, in social accomplishments, and in the arts.
A different term for the secondary meaning of hytichi is Renaissance Man (a term first recorded in written English in the early twentieth century). Other similar terms also in use are Homo universalis and Uomo Universale, which in Latin and Italian, respectively, translate as "universal person" or "universal man". These expressions derived from the ideal in Renaissance Humanism that it was possible to acquire a universal learning in order to develop one's potential, (covering both the arts and the sciences and without necessarily restricting this learning to the academic fields). Further, the scope of learning was much narrower so gaining a command of the known accumulated knowledge was more feasible than today. When someone is called a Renaissance Man today, it is meant that he does not just have broad interests or a superficial knowledge of several fields, but rather that his knowledge is profound, and often that he also has proficiency or accomplishments in (at least some of) these fields, and in some cases even at a level comparable to the proficiency or the accomplishments of an expert. The related term Generalist is used to contrast this general approach to knowledge to that of the specialist. (The expression Renaissance man today commonly implies only intellectual or scholastic proficiency and knowledge and not necessarily the more universal sense of "learning" implied by the Renaissance Humanism). It is important to note, however, that some dictionaries use the term Renaissance man as roughly synonym of polymath in the first meaning, to describe someone versatile with many interests or talents, while others recognize a meaning which is restricted to the Renaissance era and more closely related to the Renaissance ideals.
The term Universal Genius is also used, taking Leonardo da Vinci as a prime example again. The term seems to be used especially when a Renaissance man has made historical or lasting contributions in at least one of the fields in which he was actively involved and when he had a universality of approach. Despite the existence of this term, a polymath may not necessarily be classed as a genius; and certainly a genius may not display the breadth of knowledge to qualify as a polymath. Albert Einstein and Marie Curie are examples of people widely viewed as geniuses, but who are not generally considered to be polymaths.
Renaissance idealMany notable polymaths lived during the Renaissance period, a cultural movement that spanned roughly the fourteenth through the seventeenth century, beginning in Italy in the late Middle Ages and later spreading to the rest of Europe. They had a rounded approach to education which was typical of the ideals of the humanists of the time. A gentleman or courtier of that era was expected to speak several languages, play a musical instrument, write poetry, and so on, thus fulfilling the Renaissance ideal. During the Renaissance, Baldassare Castiglione, in his The Book of the Courtier, wrote a guide to being a polymath.
The Renaissance Ideal differed slightly from the "Polymath" in that it involved more than just intellectual advancement. Historically (roughly 1450–1600) it represented a person who endeavored to "develop his capacities as fully as possible" (Britannica, "Renaissance Man") both mentally and physically. Being an accomplished athlete was considered integral and not separate from education and learning of the highest order. Example: Leon Battista Alberti, who was an architect, painter, poet, scientist, mathematician, and also a skilled horseman.
Some Renaissance Men
The following list provides examples of notable polymaths (in the secondary meaning only, that is, Renaissance men). Caution is necessary when interpreting the word polymath (in the second meaning or any of its synonyms) in a source, since there's always ambiguity of what the word denotes. Also, when a list of subjects in relation to the polymath is given, such lists often seem to imply that the notable polymath was reputable in all fields, but the most common case is that the polymath made his reputation in one or two main fields where he had widely recognized achievements, and that he was merely proficient or actively involved in other fields, but, once again, not necessarily with achievements comparable to those of renowned experts of his time in these fields. The list does not attempt to be comprehensive or authoritative in any way. The list also includes the Hakeem of the Islamic Golden Age (also known as the "Islamic Renaissance"), who are considered equivalent to the Renaissance Men of the European Renaissance era.
The following people represent prime examples of "Renaissance Men" and "universal geniuses", so to say "polymaths" in the strictest interpretation of the secondary meaning of the word.
- Abū Rayhān al-Bīrūnī (973–1048), a Persian scientist, physicist, anthropologist, astronomer, astrologer, encyclopedist, geodesist, geographer, geologist, historian, mathematician, natural historian, pharmacist, physician, philosopher, scholar, teacher, Ash'ari theologian, and traveller; "al-Biruni was a polymath and traveler (to India) who introduced indians to sceintific knowledge, making contributions in mathematics, geography and geology, natural history, calendars and astronomy"; "al-Biruni, a scholar in many disciplines - from linguistics to mineralogy - and perhaps medieval Uzbekistan's most universal genius."
- Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543); among the great polymaths of the Renaissance, Copernicus was a mathematician, astronomer, physician, classical scholar, translator, Catholic cleric, jurist, governor, military leader, diplomat and economist. Amid his extensive responsibilities, astronomy figured as little more than an avocation — yet it was in that field that he made his mark upon the world.
- Al-Farabi (Alfarabi) (870–950/951), a Turkic or Persian Muslim who was known as The second teacher because he had great influence on science and philosophy for several centuries, and was widely regarded to be second only to Aristotle in knowledge in his time. Farabi made notable contributions to the fields of mathematics, philosophy, medicine and music. As a philosopher and Neo-Platonist, he wrote rich commentary on Aristotle's work. He is also credited for categorizing logic into two separate groups, the first being "idea" and the second being "proof." Farabi wrote books on sociology and a notable book on music titled Kitab al-Musiqa (The Book of Music). He played and invented a varied number of musical instruments and his pure Arabian tone system is still used in Arabic music.
- Abbas Ibn Firnas (Armen Firman) (810–887), an Andalusian Berber aviator, inventor, technologist, chemist, humanitarian, musician, physician and poet; "Ibn Firnas was a polymath: a physician, a rather bad poet, the first to make glass from stones (quartz?), a student of music, and inventor of some sort of metronome"; "had he lived in the Florence of the Medici, [Abbas ibn Firnas] would have been a “Renaissance man”."
- Galileo Galilei (1564–1642), "Italian scientist, physicist, and philosopher. Galileo was a true Renaissance man, excelling at many different endeavors, including lute playing and painting."
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) "Germany's greatest man of letters—poet, critic, playwright, and novelist—and the last true polymath to walk the earth" "Goethe comes as close to deserving the title of a universal genius as any man who has ever lived". "He was essentially the last great European Renaissance man." His gifts included incalculable contributions to the areas of German literature and the natural sciences. He is credited with discovery of a bone in the human jaw, and proposed a theory of colors. He has a mineral named in his honor, goethite. He molded the aesthetic properties of the Alps to poetry, thus, changing the local belief from "perfectly hideous" and an "unavoidable misery," to grandeur of the finest most brilliant creation.
- Ibn al-Haytham (Alhacen) (965–1039), an Iraqi Arab scientist, physicist, anatomist, physician, psychologist, astronomer, engineer, mathematician, ophthalmologist, philosopher, and Ash'ari theologian; "a devout, brilliant polymath"; "a great man and a universal genius, long neglected even by his own people"; "Ibn al-Haytham provides us with the historical personage of a versatile universal genius."
- Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826). Jefferson, the third President of the United States, was "the walking, talking embodiment of the Enlightenment, a polymath whose list of achievements is as long as it is incredibly varied.". At a dinner honoring Nobel laureates, John F. Kennedy famously said "I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together in the White House—with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone."
- Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406), an Arab social scientist, sociologist, historian, historiographer, philosopher of history, demographer, economist, linguist, philosopher, political theorist, military theorist, Islamic scholar, Ash'ari theologian, diplomat and statesman; "a still-influential polymath"; "in any epoch ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) would deserve the accolade Renaissance man, a person of many talents and diverse interests."
- Gottfried Leibniz (1646–1716); "Leibniz was a polymath who made significant contributions in many areas of physics, logic, history, librarianship, and of course philosophy and theology, while also working on ideal languages, mechanical clocks, mining machinery..." "A universal genius if ever there was one, and an inexhaustible source of original and fertile ideas, Leibniz was all the more interested in logic because it ..." "Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz was maybe the last Universal Genius incessantly active in the fields of theology, philosophy, mathematics, physics, ...." "Leibniz was perhaps the last great Renaissance man who in Bacon's words took all knowledge to be his province."
- Isaac Newton (1643–1727) was an English physicist, mathematician, astronomer, theologian, natural philosopher and alchemist. His treatise Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, published in 1687, described universal gravitation and the three laws of motion, laying the groundwork for classical mechanics, which dominated the scientific view of the physical universe for the next three centuries and is the basis for modern engineering. In a 2005 poll of the Royal Society of who had the greatest effect on the history of science, Newton was deemed more influential than Albert Einstein. "When we see Newton as a late Renaissance man, his particular addiction to classical geometry as ancient wisdom and the most reliable way of unveiling the secrets of nature, seems natural."
- Abū Alī ibn Sīnā (Avicenna) (980–1037), a Persian physician, pharmacologist, philosopher, metaphysician, aromatherapist, astronomer, chemist, Hanafi jurist and theologian, physicist, scientist, and universalist; "The Persian polymath-physician Avicenna"; "Avicenna (973–1037) was a sort of universal genius, known first as a physician. To his works on medicine he afterward added religious tracts, poems, works on philosophy, on logic, as physics, on mathematics, and on astronomy. He was also a statesman and a soldier."
- Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) "In Leonardo Da Vinci, of course, he had as his subject not just an ordinary Italian painter, but the prototype of the universal genius, the 'Renaissance man,' ..."; "prodigious polymath.... Painter, sculptor, engineer, astronomer, anatomist, biologist, geologist, physicist, architect, philosopher, actor, singer, musician, humanist."
Renaissance ideal todayDuring the Renaissance, the ideal of Renaissance humanism included the acquisition of almost all available important knowledge. At that time, several universal geniuses seem to have come close to that ideal, with actual achievements in multiple fields. With the passage of time however, "universal learning" has begun to appear ever more self-contradictory. For example, a famous dispute between "Jacob Burckhardt (whose Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien of 1860 established Alberti as the prototype of the Renaissance Man) and Julius von Schlosser (whose Die Kunstliteratur of 1924 expresses discontent with Burckhardt's assessments on several counts)" deals with the issue of whether Alberti was indeed a dilettante or an actual Universal Man; while an 1863 article about rhetoric said, for instance: "an universal genius is not likely to attain to distinction and to eminence in any thing [sic]. To achieve her best results, and to produce her most matured fruit, Genius must bend all her energies in one direction; strive for one object; keep her brain and hand upon one desired purpose and aim".
Since it is considered extremely difficult to genuinely acquire an encyclopaedic knowledge, and even more to be proficient in several fields at the level of an expert (see expertise about research in this area), not to mention to achieve excellence or recognition in multiple fields, the word polymath, in both senses, may also be used, often ironically, with a potentially negative connotation as well. Under this connotation, by sacrificing depth for breadth, the polymath becomes a "jack of all trades, master of none". For many specialists, in the context of today's hyperspecialization, the ideal of a Renaissance man is judged to be an anachronism, since it is not uncommon that a specialist can barely dominate the accumulated knowledge of more than just one restricted subfield in his whole life, and many renowned experts have been made famous only for dominating different subfields or traditions or for being able to integrate the knowledge of different subfields or traditions.
In addition, today, expertise is often associated with documents, certifications, diplomas, and degrees attributing to such, and a person who seems to have an abundance of these is often perceived as having more education than practical "working" experience. Autodidactic polymaths often combine didactic education and expertise in multiple fields with autodidactic research and experience to create the Renaissance ideal.
Many fields of interest take years of singleminded devotion to achieve expertise, often requiring starting at an early age. Also, many require cultural familiarity that may be inaccessible to someone not born and raised in that culture. In many such cases, it is realistically possible to achieve only knowledge of theory if not practical experience. For example, on a safari, a jungle native will be a more effective guide than an American scientist who may be educated in the theories of jungle survival but did not grow up acquiring his knowledge the hard way.
However, those supporting the ideal of the Renaissance man today would say that the specialist's understanding of the interrelation of knowledge from different fields is too narrow and that a synthetic comprehension of different fields is unavailable to him, or, if they embrace the Renaissance ideal even more deeply, that the human development of the specialist is truncated by the narrowness of his view. What is much more common today than the universal approach to knowledge from a single polymath, is the multidisciplinary approach to knowledge which derives from several experts in different fields.
Polymath and polyhistor comparedMany dictionaries of word origins list these words as synonyms or, as words with very similar meanings. Thomas Moore took the words as corresponding to similarly erudite "polys" in one of his poems "Off I fly, careering far/ In chase of Pollys, prettier far/ Than any of their namesakes are, / —The Polymaths and Polyhistors, Polyglots and all their sisters."
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the words mean practically the same; "the classical Latin word polyhistor was used exclusively, and the Greek word frequently, of Alexander Polyhistor", but polymathist appeared later, and then polymath. Thus today, regardless of any differentiation they may have had when originally coined, they are often taken to mean the same thing.
The root terms histor and math have similar meanings in their etymological antecedents (to learn, learned, knowledge), though with some initial and ancillarily added differing qualities. Innate in historíā (Greek and Latin) is that the learning takes place via inquiry and narrative. Hístōr also implies that the polyhistor displays erudition and wisdom. From Proto-Indo-European it shares a root with the word "wit". Inquiry and narrative are specific sets of pedagogical and research heuristics.
Polyhistoric is the corresponding adjective. The word polyhistory (meaning varied learning), when used, is often derogatory.
List of recognized polymaths
The following people have been described as "polymaths" by several sources—fulfilling the primary definition of the term—although there may not be expert consensus that each is a prime example in the secondary meaning, as "renaissance men" and "universal geniuses" (see Some Renaissance Men above for prime examples of "renaissance men" or "universal geniuses").
- Aristotle (384–322 BC); "Aristotle was an extraordinary polymath..."
- Geber (Jabir ibn Hayyan) (721–815), an Arab Muslim chemist, alchemist, astrologer, astronomer, engineer, pharmacist, physician, philosopher, and physicist; "Jābir was a polymath who wrote 300 books on philosophy, 1,300 books on mechanical devices and military machinery, and hundreds of books on alchemy."
- Al-Kindi (Alkindus) (801–873), an Arab astronomer, geographer, mathematician, meteorologist, musician, philosopher, physician, physicist, scientist, and politician; "he (Al-Kindî) was an omnivorous polymath, studying everything, writing 265 treatises about everything—arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, meteorology, geography, physics, politics, music, medicine, philosophy."
- Su Song (1020–1101), a Song Dynasty Chinese statesman, astronomer, cartographer, horologist, pharmacologist, mineralogist, zoologist, botanist, mechanical engineer, architect, and ambassador to the Liao Dynasty; his most famous achievement was applying an escapement mechanism and the world's first known endless-power transmitting chain drive to operate the armillary sphere, opening doors, and mechanical-operated manikins (who announced the time on plaques and by sounding drums and bells) of his astronomical clock tower; the British historian, sinologist, and biochemist Joseph Needham stated that Su Song published "the greatest horological treatise of the Chinese middle ages."
- Shen Kuo (1031–1095), a Chinese scientist, statesman, mathematician, astronomer, meteorologist, geologist, zoologist, botanist, pharmacologist, agronomist, ethnographer, encyclopedist, poet, general, diplomat, hydraulic engineer, inventor, academy chancellor, finance minister, and inspector; "Chinese polymath and astronomer who studied medicine, but became renown for his engineering ability."
- Ibn al-Nafis (1213–1288), an Arab physician, anatomist, biologist, physiologist, surgeon, ophthalmologist, Ulema, Hafiz, Muhaddith, Shafi`i jurist and lawyer, Sunni theologian, philosopher, litterateur, logician, novelist, psychologist, scientist, science fiction writer, astronomer, cosmologist, futurist, geologist, grammarian, linguist, historian, philosopher of history, philosopher of religion, natural philosopher and sociologist; "Ibnul-Nafees was not only a great physician and discoverer of the minor blood circulation (pulmonary circulation), but he also had many interests, views and works about many other branches of knowledge."
- Leone Battista Alberti (1404–1472), "often considered the archetype of the Renaissance polymath"
- Athanasius Kircher (b. 1601), "a 'polymath' if there ever was one. He studied a variety of subjects including... music, Egyptology, Sinology, botany, magnetism"; Athanasius Kircher: The Last Man Who Knew Everything (book title)
- Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790), "The ultimate creole intellectual... A true polymath of the Enlightenment style, he distinguished himself on both sides of the Atlantic by researches in natural sciences as well as politics and literature." He was a leading author, political theorist, politician, printer, scientist, inventor, civic activist, and diplomat.
- Mikhail Lomonosov (1711–1765), "Lomonosov was a true polymath—physicist, chemist, natural scientist, poet and linguist...."
- Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), some sources describe him as "polymath and President," putting "polymath" first; John F. Kennedy famously commented, addressing a group of Nobel laureates, that it was "the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House—- with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone."
- Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859), Humboldt's quantitative work on botanical geography was foundational to the field of biogeography. An inveterate explorer and a prolific author, von Humboldt was a complex figure: the archetypic modern, rational, and international scientist.
- Rafael Francisco Osejo (1790–1848) "Born in Nicaragua and a prominent figure in the Independence of Central America, knowledgeable about mathematics, philosophy, politics, history and geography, was chamberlain of the Santo Tomas University in Costa Rica and occupied many positions in the government of several central American countries."
- William Whewell (1794-1866)
- ...Prince Born June 7, 1058.
- Charles Peirce (1839–1914), was a mathematician, astronomer, chemist, geodesist, surveyor, cartographer, metrologist, spectroscopist, engineer, inventor; psychologist, philologist, lexicographer, historian, economist, lifelong student of medicine; book reviewer, dramatist, actor, short story writer; phenomenologist, semiotician, logician, rhetorician and metaphysician.
- Joseph Pomeroy Widney (1841-1938); "[i]n a similarly polymathic vein, Joseph Widney was an early president of the University of Southern California...."
- Henri Poincaré, physicist and mathematician who dabbled extensively in practically every field in mathematics.
- José Rizal (1861-1896), a Filipino polygot, linguist, novelist, poet, journalist, opthalmologist, anthropologist, ethnologist, artist, sociologist and national hero. Rizal's 1896 military trial and execution made him a martyr of the Philippine Revolution. He is considered to be the "Pride of the Malay race".
- Edward Heron-Allen (1861–1943) "Heron-Allen is better described as a polymath..." Not only was Heron-Allen a lawyer by trade, he also wrote, lectured on and created violins, was an expert on the art of chiromancy or palmistry, having read palms and analysed the handwriting of luminaries of the period. He wrote on musical, literary and scientific subjects ranging from foraminifera, marine zoology, meteorology, as a Persian scholar translated Classics such as the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and The Lament of Baba Tahir, also wrote on local geographic history, archeology, Buddhist philosophy, the cultivation, gourmet appreciation of and culture of the asparagus, as well as a number of novels and short stories of science fiction and horror written under his pseudonymn of "Christopher Blayre."
- H. G. Wells (1866–1946); "Fifty years ago, the British polymath and amateur historian was able to compress the history of the world up to 1920 into one volume..."
- Epifanio de los Santos (1871-1928), a Filipino historian, linguist, translator, biographer, poet, journalist, writer, editor, publisher, musician, expert pianist, master guitarist, violinist, artist, philologist, philosopher, bibliographer, literarian, jurist, government executive, lawyer, politician, outstanding civil servant, philantropist, antique/art/phonograph collector, bibliophile and great Filipino patriot. EDSA, a famous historical highway, was named in honor of him. Some of the highest titles given by his biographers, notable scholars and foreign critics would be "The First Filipino Academician", " Great among the Great Filipino scholars" and "Genius." His libraries and Filipiniana collections is one of the best in the world. Member of learned societies and man of so many talents and skills.
- C. B. Fry (1872-1956), "Footballer, cricketer, politician and polymath"
- Albert Schweitzer (1875–1965), an Alsatian-German theologian, musician, philosopher, humanitarian, and physician. He is perhaps most famous for founding and sustaining the Lambaréné Hospital in Gabon, west central Africa, where he spent most of his life. He received the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize for his philosophy of Reverence for Life ("Ehrfurcht vor dem Leben"), based on the conviction that the respect for life is the highest principle. His "The Problem of Peace" lecture is considered to be one of the best speeches ever given.
- Muhammad Iqbal (Urdu: محمد اقبال) born (November 9 1877 – April 21 1938) was a Muslim poet, philosopher, Islamic scholar, writer, lawyer, revolutionist, political thinker, mystic and politician born in Sialkot, British India (now in Pakistan), whose poetry in Urdu and Persian is considered to be among the greatest of the modern era, and whose vision of an independent state for the Muslims of British India was to inspire the creation of Pakistan.
- Le Corbusier (1887–1965), a Swiss-born architect, designer, urbanist, writer, painter, poet, theorist, sculptor, who is famous for his contributions to what now is called Modern Architecture. In his 30s he became a French citizen. He was a pioneer in theoretical studies of modern design and was dedicated to providing better living conditions for the residents of crowded cities. His career spanned five decades, with his iconic buildings constructed throughout central Europe, India, Russia, and one structure each in North and South America. He was also an urban planner, painter, sculptor, writer, and modern furniture designer.
- William James Sidis (1898-1944), a child prodigy who wrote on such varied subjects as mathematics, cosmology, psychology, Native American history, and public transportation. "His sister, Helena, said of him that, as an adult, he could learn a new language in one day, and as an adult, he was a true polymath, a 'Renaissance man'."
- André Malraux (1901-1976), French novelist, art historian, adventurer and politician;" France's first minister of culture and polymath extraordinaire"
- John von Neumann (1903–1957), Physicist, mathematician, contributions to game theory, economics, pioneering computer scientist. "It isn't often that the human race produces a polymath like von Neumann, then sets him to work in the middle of the biggest crisis in human history..." "Other luminaries would follow Einstein to New Jersey, including the dazzling Hungarian polymath, John von Neumann..."
- Herbert Simon (1916-2001), "Simon is a very distinguished polymath, famous for work in psychology and computer science, philosophy of science, a leader in artificial intelligence, and a Nobel Prize winner in Economics."
- Richard Feynman (1918-1988), physicist, mathematician, author, artist and musician.
- Robert Nozick (1938-2002), American philosopher, political theorist, and economist. Famous for his "unusual method" of drawing upon disciplines outside of the social sciences (such as biology, mathematical statistics, and theology) for analysis within his writings and classes he taught at Harvard University.
- Rowan Williams (born 1950), Archbishop of Canterbury,"the polymath primate" of All England, a "poet who speaks a dozen languages,"systematic theologian, former dean of Clare College, Cambridge, co-founder and patron of Affirming Catholicism and The Society of Catholic Priests, Bard of the Welsh Gorsedd.
"'Polymath' sportsmen"In Britain, phrases such as "polymath sportsman," "sporting polymath," or simply "polymath" are occasionally used in a restricted sense to refer to athletes that have performed at a high level in several very different sports. (One whose accomplishments are limited to athletics would not be considered to be a "polymath" in the usual sense of the word). Examples would include:
- Howard Baker – "Similar claims to the title of sporting polymath could be made for Howard Baker" (who won high jump titles, and played cricket, football, and water polo):
- Maxwell Woosnam - "Sporting polymath is a full-time post..."
- Jackie Robinson - collegiate football, baseball, basketball, track and field, tennis; professional baseball
- Bo Jackson - Professional football, professional baseball, collegiate track and field.
Fictional polymathsSherlock and Mycroft Holmes, Nero Wolfe, Gregory House of House M.D., Robert Goren of Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Citan Uzuki of Xenogears, Buckaroo Banzai, Artemis Fowl II, Grand Admiral Thrawn of Star Wars, Dunstan Ramsay of Robertson Davies's novel Fifth Business, Professor Abraham Van Helsing of Bram Stoker's Dracula, Batman, Mister Peabody, Gil Grissom of CSI: Las Vegas, Agent Pendergast, Hannibal Lecter, Doc Savage, Mr. Spock of Star Trek, James Bond, Jarod of The Pretender, Dess of Midnighter's Trilogy by Scott Westerfeld, Charlie of Heroes, MacGyver and many main characters in the novels of Robert A. Heinlein could fairly be described as polymaths.
Polymaths in fiction often have a certain eccentricity about their knowledge, e.g., Doctor Who: "He claims he's (a doctor) of everything."
In the film Phenomenon, John Travolta plays a character who has inexplicably and suddenly become a budding polymath-type individual, somewhat akin to the character in Flowers for Algernon.
References and notes
polymathic in Danish: Polyhistor
polymathic in German: Polyhistor
polymathic in Modern Greek (1453-): Homo Universalis
polymathic in French: Polymathe
polymathic in Italian: Uomo universale
polymathic in Hebrew: איש אשכולות
polymathic in Lithuanian: Mokslininkas universalas
polymathic in Malay (macrolanguage): Polymath
polymathic in Dutch: Uomo universale
polymathic in Japanese: 博学者
polymathic in Norwegian: Polyhistor
polymathic in Norwegian Nynorsk: Polyhistor
polymathic in Polish: Polihistor
polymathic in Portuguese: Polímata
polymathic in Simple English: Polymath
polymathic in Slovak: Polyhistor
polymathic in Finnish: Yleisnero
polymathic in Swedish: Universalgeni
polymathic in Chinese: 通才