First Person

Monomaths, Polymaths and Genius

I am still learning.   —Michelangelo

brain geniusIt is important to identify what kind of learning nature one has as a creative person. There are at least two clearly distinguishable types: monomaths and polymaths.

A monomath is a stone-cold specialist, someone who has focus and skills in a particular subject or activity. A polymath might have generalised skills in many areas, or be a master in many fields.

As the polymath has a perpetual hunger and need to improve each of her own varied skills, she is inspired by outstanding specialist abilities in others. Any gifted monomath is a valuable resource for her to learn from.

However, the monomath does not have the aptitude, or often even the desire, to learn from what the polymath knows. She often appears as a threat to him, to the little bit of turf he has made his own, and he dislikes being reminded of his lack of proficiency in most of the skills the polymath has mastered. This is especially pronounced if one of those skills is the same kind of skill the monomath has.

For much of my life I have struggled with the paradox of not being respected or understood by some of the people I admire. I have been inspired, especially in my youth, by the work of others who, in turn, would not give me the time of day, or return an e-mail or make an encouraging comment. I used to be hurt by these rejections. After all, I expressed my admiration for their work and learned from it. Why weren’t they interested in my work?

As I’ve grown older, and as my own artistic skills have developed in various directions—such as music, writing, carpentry, cooking, photography and computers—I now see that I have often made the mistake of looking for validation from people who were not able to give it.

Here’s an example. When I was twenty-two, I loved a band called Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen. One New Year’s Eve, when they played in a little club in San Francisco, was one of the most memorable nights I’ve ever had. The band had a brilliant guitarist, and Commander Cody was a dynamic showman. I learned they were staying in a motel behind the club. I asked the guitarist after the show if it would be all right for me to come by the motel and show them some of the songs I had written. I was hoping they might be interested in performing one. He was encouraging and said, “Sure, come on by.”

When I arrived at the motel, there was a party in full swing and I was introduced to Commander Cody. I told him what I wanted to do. He looked at me and said to hang around until after the party. Not knowing anyone, I pretty much nursed a beer the whole time, waiting for the opportunity to present my songs. Four hours later, after everyone else had gone, I had my chance. Commander Cody was sitting on the sofa with a girlfriend. When I began to take my guitar out of its case, he said, “What are you doing?”

“I have a couple of songs that you might like.”

“We write our own songs,” he said, and got up and walked into the other room.

The guitarist who had invited me yelled after him in resigned frustration, as if he’d seen this behaviour before, “Cody, what’s the matter with you?”

I went out into the carpark and had a good cry. (Maybe I had nursed more than one beer.) I was too immature to understand that I walked into that place practically asking for rejection.

My mistake? Commander Cody, as great a performer as he was, was not a songwriter. He was a performer. Why would I ask his opinion on songwriting?

Ray Bradbury said famously, “Treat rejection not as an indication of the quality of your work but as a wrong address.” This is one of the most helpful things I have ever learned. Cody was a wrong address for me, but at the time I just thought there was something wrong with me.

Edward Carr, in the Economist, noting that the philosopher Isaiah Berlin divided thinkers into two types, foxes and hedgehogs, commented, “Foxes, he wrote, know many things; whereas hedgehogs know one big thing. The foxes used to roam free across the hills. Today the hedgehogs rule.”

Our modern culture is one of extreme specialisation. Look at the family doctor. You go to your GP for a basic check-up. There is always a queue. After a half-hour wait, past your appointment time, you are rushed in and out, a ten-minute consultation if you’re lucky. If your problem is beyond the GP’s minor stitching or antibiotics, you are sent to a network of specialists for blood tests, x-rays and so forth, possibly even greater focused expert opinion in your specific illness—which can mean further referrals to even more specialised specialists. As when you increase the magnification on a microscope, the closer you look, the more detail can be seen. And the more specialisation is required.

Michael Bywater, in the New Statesman, said: “We don’t like polymaths any more. Perhaps it’s because even being a monomath is too difficult now; even specialists specialise only in a small subset of their specialty, and learning is an either/or business.”

I worked out long ago that my own nature is that of a polymath: someone who is influenced by and excels at many different types of disciplines. Because I wish to improve, I am always attracted to those people who are outstanding in those areas. But those people I learn from do not necessarily have to be open to me because it is not in their nature to want to learn from my skills.

“Specialisation is hard on polymaths,” says Carr. “Every moment devoted to one area is a moment less to give over to something else.”

Antoni Gaudi and Leonardo da Vinci were polymaths who required scores of specialist craftsmen to help them realise their vision: tile-setters, stained-glass makers, carpenters, stonemasons. But it would have been pointless for them to seek an opinion from a tile-setter, say, on the design of a sculpture. None of those specialists would have possessed the vision to see what these master visionaries saw. It may sound obvious when put in these terms, but we still walk into cul-de-sacs of rejection because we show up at the wrong address looking for the right answer.

Robert Twigger, in Master of Many Trades, said that the polymath’s identity and value come from “multiple mastery”. He wrote:

I travelled with Bedouin in the Western Desert of Egypt. When we got a puncture, they used tape and an old inner tube to suck air from three tyres to inflate a fourth. It was the cook who suggested the idea; maybe he was used to making food designed for a few go further. Far from expressing shame at having no pump, they told me that carrying too many tools is the sign of a weak man; it makes him lazy. The real master has no tools at all, only a limitless capacity to improvise with what is to hand. The more fields of knowledge you cover, the greater your resources for improvisation.

Both the monomath and the polymath can be a bona fide genius. With one crucial difference: part of the genius of a polymath is to see and learn from the genius of a monomath. The reverse is not true.

There is no precise definition of the word genius that everyone can agree on, but perhaps the old saying, “Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see,” comes close. Genius can refer to a singular faculty of an individual (monomath) or it can refer to the individual as a whole (polymath). The genesis of the word itself comes from Roman times, and originally referred to a deceased family ancestor, the guiding deity or spirit of a person or place. Later, genius began to mean outstanding creative ability, as it was believed that superior achievements were guided by superior deities/spirits. But genius was not limited to individuals. The Romans had many, a prominent one being Lares Praestitis, the guardian of the state. The Lares were worshipped in shrines called Laraiums and a shrine was usually present in the home.

Apart from Gaudi and Leonardo, notable polymaths include Pythagoras, Aristotle, Archimedes, Hypatia, Galileo, Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Jimi Hendrix, J.S. Bach, Rabelais, Picasso, Jung, Chekhov, Keats, Marie Curie and Thomas Jefferson. Whereas Van Gogh, Bobby Fischer, Freud, Christiaan Barnard, Schoenberg, Coleridge, Emily Dickinson, Diane Arbus and Piaf were some notable monomaths.

A polymath looking at a monomath will usually be looking through a one-way mirror. The monomath, looking back, sees his own reflection.

Liana Bortolon wrote of Leonardo:

Because of the multiplicity of interests that spurred him to pursue every field of knowledge … Leonardo can be considered, quite rightly, to have been the universal genius par excellence, and with all the disquieting overtones inherent in that term. Man is as uncomfortable today, faced with a genius, as he was in the sixteenth century. Five centuries have passed, yet we still view Leonardo with awe.

I like that fragment: “Man is as uncomfortable today …”

I wrote a poem on this paradox a few years ago:




Immortals walk among us

perplexed that no one

acknowledges them

such unnecessary distress

when it is so obvious

oh we can see the famous all right

glittering behind platinum barbed wire

the ones whose waxy faces would sag

if they flew too near

but we dare not acknowledge the Immortals

for who is strong enough

to stand before a living J.S. Bach

a breathing Vincent van Gogh

and know that in five hundred years

people will speak of their work

while ours will be ignored

our names forgotten.


Lest we dwell too long on such conundrums, it is helpful to remember what an old Baptist minister once said: “How the future remembers you after you are dead is none of your business; just do the best you can and leave the rest to a power greater than yourself.”

Once we understand these two different types of creative spirits, the monomath and the polymath, and the need for both in our modern world—and most importantly, which kind of person we are—then it becomes less threatening or hurtful to encounter the one we are not. In fact, most of the greatest collaborations throughout history, from the Great Pyramid of Egypt, to the Roman Coliseum, to St Mark’s Cathedral in Venice, to the Sydney Opera House, have been achieved by monomaths and polymaths working together.

Still, people take sides. In Time Enough for Love one of Robert Heinlein’s characters says:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

Joe Dolce has contributed poetry, song lyrics and prose fiction and non-fiction to Quadrant for many years.


5 thoughts on “Monomaths, Polymaths and Genius

  • says:

    “Specialization is for insects” I like that.
    I remember this old line that sums it all up.

    Professionals learn more and more about less and less until they know everything about nothing.
    Technicians learn less and less about more and more until they know nothing about everything.

  • Rob Ellison says:

    It takes – they say – some 10,000 hours to become expert in any field. I am trained in engineering and environmental science. The training includes maths, physics, economics, geology, chemistry, biology, hydraulics, hydrology, geomorphoilogy, etc. I am an expert in none of the fields – although perhaps a little more knowledgeable in hydrology and water quality. I am sufficiently educated to put together multidisciplinary teams to address a range of complex problems. But this is a skill that is not innate and must be learned. It is just a skill like any other.

    • Rob Ellison says:

      I am an expert in science fiction – and i believe that the lone comes from Time Enough for Love. A fantasy about very long lived individuals. I’d take it with a grain of salt. Heinlein was an expert in writing 2nd rate – but highly entertaining – science fiction.

  • says:

    I too was/am a Heinlein fan. However ‘Time Enough For Love’ was an ordinary sci-fi story made good by the section titled ‘Quotes from the logbook of Lazarus Long’ – that is where Joe got the above quote. Other good/memorable quotes from this ‘logbook’ I remember are – ‘Any society based on anything other than the premise of women and children first, is doomed and will become extinct.’ That ‘saying’ gives me hope in our existential struggle against totalitarian Islam. One other saying, very pertinent to our modern culture is – ‘Good manners is the oil in the gear box of civilisation’.

  • Stephen Due says:

    Well Joe, I know several very gifted polymaths and I can tell you they are definitely the most interesting people to know. However they are not all terribly friendly to other creative people (whether polymaths or monomaths). As regards friendliness there are other issues involved. There is territorialism. But also there are big differences in talent and intelligence, even between polymaths, and these put limitations on relationships.
    I really like your quote from Ray Bradbury about rejection being “a wrong address”. Think of Nellie Melba. A monomath perhaps. But had she stuck to her marriage and not gone to England, she would have been at “a wrong address”.
    I wrote a few articles for a scholarly journal years ago. They were quite good and the editor loved them. Each one was promptly accepted and promptly published without a word altered. Some of my colleagues could not understand how my work got published and theirs was rejected. But then my editor retired. The next editor started correcting my punctuation, and demanding changes, and in no time had rejected several articles in succession. I wrote explaining that my time was limited and that I would send no more. No reply. Wrong address. Such is life!

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