The art of learning: Detail from Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Atlanticus

Slow death of the know-it-all

Peter Burke’s new book helpfully provokes the reader to think about the proper place of a broad education in an age unfriendly to polymathy

This article is taken from the January/February 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

Polymathy thrives on an eccentric sense of priority, and so it is perhaps not surprising that polymaths are involved in a rather nervous competition to see who can be last to cross the finishing line. That race, as Peter Burke’s new book reminds us, has often been prematurely concluded, with the embarrassing result that the freshly-crowned “last polymath”, “last renaissance man”, or “last man to know everything”, must forfeit his insecure title as another late entrant crawls into view. 

Still, any claim to truly encyclopaedic knowledge made in the present rightly strikes us as implausible — at the limit, barely intelligible — and that is not to mention the inevitable garishness, the faint air of nostalgic desperation, involved in any claim to being a “renaissance man” (a bit like admitting to taking part in civil war re-enactment theatre). So, perhaps the race is finally over; Burke speculates gloomily in the book’s coda that no polymath has been born since the 1950s, or none he can think of at least, as if he hopes to be proven wrong. 

In fact, two of the small number of “living” polymaths Burke identifies (George Steiner and Charles Jencks) have died in the interlude between the book’s proofing and publication, raising, in perhaps an acuter form than was intended, the question whether the whole species might not be going rapidly extinct. 

Burke claims there was, in the early modern era, a ‘golden age’ for polymathy

This is not the hysterical forecast it might appear. As Burke’s book amply demonstrates, “polymath” is a category whose content is quite sensitive to prevailing historical and cultural conditions. There is, moreover, no reason to suppose that conditions will always be such that the category has any content at all. In the pre-disciplinary era, little sense could be attached to the idea of “polymathy” because there was no specialisation. Until disciplines can exert some territorial claim in intellectual space, there is no transgressing their borders. 

Not until the Renaissance was there a well-articulated ideal of the many-sided individual, the uomo universale, in whom thought and action were united: the results of humanistic learning coexisting with a mastery of swordsmanship, dancing, singing, animal husbandry, and an ideal of gentlemanly virtue. 

Burke claims there was, in the early modern era, a “golden age” for polymathy, one sustained by a complex and short-lived coincidence of hospitable circumstances. Barriers to entry in the sciences were still fairly inconsiderable, the language of scientific discovery still continuous with that of everyday life; the “republic of letters” connected an international community of scholars in a network of vast correspondence; individuals like Hans Sloane began “collecting the world”. Most important of all, the relatively undivided state of intellectual labour imposed by the prevailing level of knowledge enabled lone scholars to make dramatic and often original contributions in disparate fields. 

It is a familiar historical irony, one of a distinctively Hegelian cast, that certain ideals, fully elaborated, exhibit a tendency to undo the conditions of their own existence. Burke quotes Robert Burton’s complaint about the “vast Chaos and confusion of Bookes” (“we are oppressed with them, our eyes ache with reading, our fingers with turning”) and Thomas De Quincy’s nightmare vision of the “procession of carts and wagons” continually arriving to unload piles of new books outside his house. 

The history of polymathy since the eighteenth century is captured by Burke in stages of managed retreat from an increasingly unattainable ideal. The explosion of information and the fragmentation of academic fields under the pressure of specialisation, gave rise to increasingly modest ideals of general learning — the “man of letters”, for instance, who typically confined his study to humanistic learning. 

As Burke’s treatment turns to the twentieth century, polymathy appears as a perhaps terminally strained ideal. He identifies the “clustered” polymath, one who contributes to several closely connected academic fields (thereby compromising on the “poly-”), and the so-called “passive” polymath, who studies, but doesn’t contribute to, his chosen fields of interest (thereby, one suspects, compromising on the “-math”).

The Polymath: A Cultural History from Leonardo da Vinci to Susan Sontag, by Peter Burke (Yale University Press, £20)

One can’t help feeling, as one reads The Polymath, that the book is a kind of obituary — that the polymath has been squeezed, as a matter of historical necessity, and with his own help, out of existence. Perhaps the most comforting simplification involved in C.P. Snow’s famous critique, was the diagnosis that intellectual life was broken into only “two cultures”. The fracture in fact looks much more complex than that, and unmendable, with universities appearing as archipelagos of autonomous disciplines connected only by their mutual incomprehension and the neighbourly relations of suspicion and disdain. In particular, one is left with the feeling that for the individual lover of general learning there remains no alternative in the present age but to become what Fitzgerald rather mockingly characterises as “that most limited of all specialists, the ‘well-rounded man’”. 

Still, one feels — and suspects that Burke feels too — that, despite the fact that polymathy is not a real historical option for us now, there is still something of a more general character to be said about the human impulses expressed in such preternatural feats of learning: that a transhistorical human type stands behind the more historically static conceptions of intellectual achievement. 

Occasionally vivid glimpses of the peculiar psychology of polymaths are revealed in Burke’s intellectual “prosopography” – his “collective biography of a group of five hundred individuals”. Pliny the Elder is said to have instructed one group of slaves to read aloud to him while he dictated to another; Adam Smith could become so caught up in abstract thought that one morning he succeeded in walking 15 miles before realising he was still wearing his dressing gown; Joseph Needham worked even over breakfast (for which he preferred boiled eggs because he could work while they boiled). 

Amid the comical attempts at multi-tasking, and ruthless drive for efficiency, a compulsive, restless, obsessional disposition emerges — one that appears very closely connected with a lucid perception of mortality. On the night he was dying, Pierre Bayle worked till 11pm; “time is running out”, was Hugo Grotius’s motto. The primordial figure in the polymathic consciousness is perhaps Faust, his hubris expressive of an urge to defeat the limitations on a finite human life, and to control and subdue the world through understanding it; as Marlowe puts it, to secure a more-than-worldly “dominion that … stretcheth as far as doth the mind of man”. 

We retain a feeling, even today, for the faintly blasphemous quality of the urge to total knowledge, though we are perhaps more likely to be openly disturbed by the ruthless demands such heroic projects of self-education tend to make on innocent others. A polymath, Susan Sontag quipped, “is someone who is interested in everything, and nothing else” (though, one thinks, she might have said “nobody else”). There is surely something to the idea that a devotion to encyclopaedic learning can acquire its own, strangely narrow, monomaniacal quality. 

One wishes that Burke had a little more to say about these questions than he offers in his rather predictable generalisations that polymaths are excessively “curious”, restlessly “imaginative”, and intellectually “energetic”. As it is, the breadth of his topic, and his 500-strong cast of subjects, means that Burke’s study at times achieves the blankly documentary character of a catalogue. Some faces pass so fleetingly as to be barely glimpsed. 

Burke’s book provokes the reader to think about the place of a broad education in an age unfriendly to polymathy

Burke is also quite a devoted list-maker. We learn in one passage that John Herschel studied “magnetism, botany, geology, acoustics, optics and photography”, while William Whewell “wrote on mathematics, mechanics, mineralogy, astronomy, philosophy, theology and architecture” and Charles Babbage “on chess, statistics, geology, ciphers, eclipses and lighthouses”. This bludgeoning of the reader by lists becomes not only pretty monotonous, but also has the perverse (and surely unintentional) effect of erasing the individuality of the highly individual subjects described. That said, Burke’s book helpfully provokes the reader to think about the proper place of a broad education in an age unfriendly to polymathy. 

The book is dedicated to his colleagues at the University of Sussex, where Burke taught for 17 years as part of an interdisciplinary programme which aspired to “redraw the map of learning”. The programme closed in 2003, testifying to the mixed record of such attempts to mimic by interdisciplinary co-operation and, (in a more lurid metaphor), “cross-fertilisation”, some of the innovations that have been historically typical of polymaths. 

If interdisciplinarity turns out to have bankrupt aspirations this may be for one of several reasons, reasons which Burke somewhat elides. At the level of education, it is not immediately clear how much is achieved by the well-intentioned “Great Books” courses, and their like, in their half-hearted attempts to force a dialogue of Plato or collection of modern poetry into the hands of reluctant undergraduates. At any rate, such courses certainly don’t make polymaths of their students. 

But even more modestly justified, as providing a healthy basis of general learning, the question remains whether such courses aren’t a hopelessly late intervention. As Mill reflects, in a characteristically self-effacing passage of his Autobiography, the chief insight provided by his extraordinary education is into the “wretched waste of so many precious years” in most students’ early education, such that he, “rather below than above par” in “natural gifts”, nonetheless entered adulthood with “an advantage of a quarter of a century” in learning over his peers. 

If, at a different level, interdisciplinary methods fail to reinvigorate academic research, this may be for the more interesting reason that the achievements characteristic of individual polymathy cannot be recapitulated on a collective basis — that certain scholarly achievements are necessarily individualistic and resist the division of labour.

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