From where came all those polymaths of our history?
The attribute „polymath“ is associated to some known figures of our historiography, in fact to those, which studied several, individual sciences, or were quite skillful at those. Either they were noble and had simply the time and the money to educate themselves so largely, or they were gainfully employed with one of those special fields, and educated themselves moreover in the others. But what was the reason for that? For the nobles it may be explained by a kind of intellectual boredom, but for the employed colleagues this argument is not really fitting any more. But there is a specific pattern appearing, when you look a little bit closer…
The combination of natural sciences, as mathematics and physics, in relation to philosophy, frequently extended by astrology/astronomy (this has formerly not been separated so strictly), and sometimes also with theology, or medical science, appears quite often. In particular cases a special field as optics, astrophysics, naturalist, or something similar may rise up, but somehow they are just branches of the categories mentioned previously. This phenomenon persists approximately up to the 17th century, and with the entry of the modern natural sciences the age of the polymaths seem to end abruptly.
But how far is this phenomenon going back? The first, and for sure most known polymaths are coming from the ancient world, at the Greek. What a surprise! Socrates himself is the one not only creating the model of an ideal state in his dialogues, but also drawing a perfectly educated philosopher, that shall lead – in one person, or as several ones – this state. How does this education now look like?
Before being able to approach the philosophy as a practiced discipline, it is after Socrates first necessary to study seriously the following four scientific disciplines in the mentioned sequence: geometry, arithmetic, harmonic science, and astrology. Once those four disciplines have been practiced successfully for several years, one is coming in the position to be able to study philosophy in its purest form. Since only now the mind of the student is prepared well enough to be able to separate the invariable from the variable, and thus to explore the beauty itself as such.
Geometry, arithmetics, and harmonic science cover already a major part of the contemporary mathematics. Astrology and astronomy tells its own tale. Physics was seen as a branch of philosophy. Being finally on the way as philosopher, a concrete subject matter wants to be elected and explored in a philosophical way. It seems that many a savant took this educational way really to heart.