"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."
Many modern day professionals work to be an expert in a field, be it Mathematics, History, or Graphic Design. This training is what allows them to not only make a living wage, but earn a comfortable life without overexerting their brain.
Throughout history there have been people who step beyond this, and have excelled in multiple fields, called Polymaths. One period in history produced several of the ones that are now most famous, the Renaissance period. Because of this, today most people know them as Renaissance Men.
A Renaissance Man is anyone in Real Life or media who is an expert in many fields, having a broad base of skill and knowledge. This trope is an example of Truth in Television, as many experts in a field develop skills that are necessary in other fields, or find themselves requiring skills in another field. On the other hand, being a Renaissance Man used to be far easier than it is now, simply due to the unbelievable volume of knowledge that two centuries of scientific progress have produced. A hundred years ago it could be reasonable for a single intelligent man to know all of humanity's scientific knowledge, but well... Science Marches On. For these reasons, in the modern age, people who study a lot of topics beside their basic activity fall towards the Jack of All Trades end of the spectrum instead of achieving true mastery in all of them.
Take, for example, Mathematics. Until recently, Computer Science was the domain of the Mathematics department in many Universities, and many Mathematics courses are still cross listed with Computer Science. Such courses include Number Theory, and Graph Theory, just to name a few. Then there is the Physics department. In order to study motion, Isaac Newton invented Calculus. Then there is the connection between sociology and statistics, not to mention the field of Mathematics known as Bio-Informatics. Many Doctorate level Mathematicians will have experience and skill in one of these cross-over areas, and may be considered an expert in the other half of the field where the two fields merge.
While the Renaissance Man is similar to the Omnidisciplinary Scientist, his fields don't need to be limited to science. He also isn't necessarily a master of all known science, just a notable chunk of it. The Renaissance Man may suffer from MD Envy if people object to calling him a "doctor" because he doesn't practice medicine. This trait may be used to show that yes, The Ace is just so insufferably cool. Many a Cultured Badass will, after close examination, turn out to be a Renaissance Man.
The Trope Codifier was Baldassare Castiglione's Book of the Courtier (in print in several languages since 1528), which explained that a gentleman ought to be able to do everything, but nothing well enough to look as though he was a specialist.
Has nothing to do with the 1994 film starring Danny DeVito, or the next-to-last episode of Star Trek: Voyager. Polar opposite of Crippling Overspecialization.
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Anime and Manga
Sailor Moon: Everyone should already know that Ami Mizuno is a great student, but there is more to her than that. She's demonstrated proficiency at both CPR and mouth-to-mouth. She also has demonstrated fluency in both English and German. She is a top-ranked chess player, able to compete against chess masters three times her age. She has, on occasion, written lyrics for instrumental music she likes. Also she fights monsters in her spare time. And, to top it off, one episode shows she's a talented swimmer.
In the manga and the anime, she has an unbelievably high IQ and spends a LOT of her time reading. The only reason she is in junior high is that Japan doesn't have a way to deal with geniuses and has to take obligatory education the same as everybody else (she even bemoans only being eight chapters ahead of the class on her "bad" days).
Mamoru Chiba is also widely regarded as one too, having an understanding of a vast knowledge of fields, although lacking Ami's specialized knowledge and raw intelligence he makes up for it by knowing things she doesn't. Like her he speaks several languages, but also has skills in martial arts, cooking, theater, natural sciences, history, mechanics, investigations, and forensics. This is fitting considering some people like to nickname him "The Japanese Batman."
Paptimus Scirocco from Zeta Gundam. Starship captain, mobile suit craftsman, battlefield strategist, psychological mastermind and is a god in the cockpit.
Monster: Johan is fluent in Ancient Greek, knows the fine points of current German laws, is proficient enough in economics to run large-scale black market operations and advise a millionaire on his stocks, and has been proficient in the use of poison since childhood. And none of these compare to his knowledge of psychology.
Jet Black from Cowboy Bebop is an ex-detective who knows mechanics, cooking, cultivates bonsai trees, is a decent Shogi player, is knowledgeable about hacking and cyberwarfare (although nowhere as good as Ed or Ein), apparently knows something about geology, and is a fan of both several music genres and classic literature (both eastern and western). He's also not a bad starship pilot on top of it.
Chao Lingshen from Mahou Sensei Negima! can cook, runs a business taking in hundreds of millions of yen, is an excellent hand to hand fighter, helped develop a genuine AI, appears to have invented time travel, is a talented tactician, has good knowledge of Eastern medicine and is a highly competent mage. She's noted instory as being freakishly talented at essentially everything.
Izaya Orihara from Durarara!! understands and speaks three languages (Japanese, English, and Russian). He studies Norse and Celtic mythology. He knows parkour and is a good enough street fighter to mess around with Shizuo "God of Destruction in a Bartender Suit" Heiwajima on a regular basis. He dicks around with social psychology, mostly to carry out completely unethical social experiments (will exposing suicidal girls to near death experiments make them more or less likely to kill themselves? Let's find out!). He's set himself up as a very successful Information Broker before even turning twenty three. Not bad for someone who never went to a single class when he was in college.
This is immensely common amongst Badass Normal Superheroes, with Batman arguably being the best known, to the point where his "training to be the best at everything" (general sciences, criminology, martial arts, detective skills, escape artistry, disguise skills, the list goes on) is a running gag amongst the fandom.
Mr Terrific from the Justice Society of America also fits this definition, being described as "having a natural aptitude for having natural aptitudes", being a prodigious scholar, athlete, engineer, martial artist, medical practitioner... (again the list goes on).
This all applies to his Golden Age predecessor, too.
In the DC crossover miniseries War of the Gods, the Godwaveaeffected even heroes without paranormal abilities- implying that they in fact have a very subtle power which might be termed "Super-Competency".
Ozymandias the world's smartest man from Watchmen is another of these, having studied religion and philosophy, being a world expert on Quantum Physics, Engineering and Genetics, running a world-spanning corporation, while maintaining physical conditioning sufficient to catch a bullet.
Dr. Otto Octavius in The Secret Wars. When the Molecule Man is badly injured and his girlfriend Volcana pleads with Dr. Octopus to do something since he's a "Doctor", Octavius replies, "I'm a nuclear physicist, not an MD!" However, Otto is also apparently a genius robotics engineer; he is credited as inventing and upgrading his robot arms. He just happened to invent the robot arms so he could better handle radioactive materials. But where or when he learned the skills to engineer his arms was never explained. And if you suggested that these accomplishments were the result of work-for-hire, he would probably pull your limbs off!
Doctor Doom specializes in physics, robotics, cybernetics, genetics, weapons technology, and biochemistry. He also has natural talents for leadership, strategy, politics, and manipulation. He invented time travel, and created a device capable of opening inter-dimensional gateways whilst in college. He conquered his homeland more or less single-handidly, using mostly his own inventions. He has trained with the best fencers in Europe, and is a very competent hand to hand fighter in general. He is also a highly accomplished sorceror, and can perform advanced surgery. He isn't even a real Doctornote legitimately anyway, he probably granted himself an honorary degree after conquering Latveria; he got kicked out of college because said inter-dimensional gateway exploded (though it has been established that it worked perfectly; he just looked in a very bad place).
The other Dr McCoy, Beast of the X-Men. He normally relies on his skills as a biochemist, geneticist and physician, but canonically he speaks at least 50 languages, maintains a comfortable income from electronic engineering patents, and can fight well enough to hold his own against Wolverine (although his low-level superhuman strength and agility probably help with that last).
All-Star Superman is "Superman as a renaissance man, perfect in mind, body and intention"
Red Cliff: In addition to being The Chessmaster, Zhuge Liang is shown to know "a little" about quite a few other disciplines loosely connected to warfare and the proper administration of a state.
Fu Manchu in The Mask of Fu Manchu claims "I'm Doctor of Philosophy from Edinburgh, I'm a Doctor of Law from Christ College; I'm a Doctor of Medicine from Harvard. My friends, out of courtesy, call me Doctor."
Lynn Belvedere (Not the Mr. Belvedere of the TV series, but the character in the movies Sitting Pretty, Mr. Belvedere Goes to College, and Mr. Belvedere Rings the Bell) is a polymath hypergenius who can literally do anything, including the outright impossible.
Buckaroo Banzai is a neurosurgeon, particle physicist, race car driver, and just for good measure a rock star as well!
In Yellow Submarine, Jeremy Hillary Boob Phd, the "Nowhere Man". introduces himself this way:
Jeremy: Eminent physicist, polyglot classicist, prize-winning botanist, hard-biting satirist, talented pianist, good dentist too. John: A boob for all seasons.
"An inventor-surgeon who got fed up with patients sueing him, and learned law, and then when he was tired of the bad press he was getting, founded his own newspaper"— Pendrake's intro, in War of the Dreaming
Marie-Josephe Delacroix in The Moon and the Sun (a Vonda McIntyre novel) is a Renaissance woman — her areas of expertise include mathematics, "natural philosophy" (i.e., natural sciences), and music. She can also draw reasonably well, which is a very useful ability for a scientifically inclined person to have in the days before photography.
Aubrey-Maturin's Stephen Maturin as well, since he's a multilingual medical doctor/natural philosopher/spy.
It may not be coincidental that both of these characters are roughly Enlightenment-era.
Jack Aubrey himself exhibits Renaissance Man tendencies, being not only a first-rate naval officer and sailor, but also an astronomer and mathematician good enough to be inducted into the Royal Society (and, under the tutelage of William Herschel's sister, to be able to build his own telescopes), and an enthusiastic amateur musician (as Stephen Maturin discovers at one point, Jack is actually better than he presents himself to be, so as not to make Stephen feel inferior).
Special Agent Pendergast is a Wicked Cultured detective, ridiculously well-versed in literature, archaeology, forensics, biology, and a whole bunch of other fields.
Doc Savage was a physician, surgeon, scientist, adventurer, inventor, explorer, researcher, and a musician.
In Chetan Bhagat's Five Point Someone, it is stated at the very beginning by the narrator that Ryan Oberoi, one of the three titular characters, could really do whatever he wanted. This fact is later demonstrated by various incidents in the course of the story. The fact that he really dislikes the system at the IIT and is unwilling to put in any effort at succeeding there is another matter altogether.
As mentioned in the page quote, Robert A. Heinlein's characters are often Renaissance people.
Leonard of Quirm in the Discworld, on account of being an Affectionate Parody of Leonardo. He is an expert in painting, engineering and alchemy amongst other things, but isn't a member of any of the Guilds (when he takes Guild exams he either gets bored and starts doodling in the margins or, worse yet, absent-mindedly corrects the questions.)
In Equal Rites, when the Zoon leader asks Esk what chores she can perform to earn her keep, she rattles off a list of household skills that takes up half a page and encompasses many different specialties (weaving, cheesemaking, etc). Granted, they're all rural/peasant skills, but it's an impressively broad list for an eight-year-old.
Polymath, by John Brunner, deals with a man in training to be able to head the colonization of a new planet (with the omnidisciplinary knowledge and skills that this would require, including some physical modifications) when his own homeworld is destroyed. He's part of a group of refugees to land on another planet, but it's not the one he's spent most of his life to date studying and preparing for....
A lot of characters from The Lord of the Rings are this. Gandalf and Saruman, Elrond and Galadriel, etc... Among men, we have Denethor, who was said to be the greatest scholar in Gondor during his time, having a great amount of knowledge in many domains. His son Faramir would also qualify.
It is clear that although Jamie Lannister is not very intellectual his training as a knight makes him a Renaissance man in his society. He can read, ride a horse, fight man-to-man, lead an army, negotiate a treaty, interpret maps, and has a reasonable grasp of both the economic and socio-political realities of Westeros.
John Snow is already a skilled archer and swordsman when he joins the Night's Watch because he started learned when he was five. Since he can also read, unlike most of the recruits, he's positioned to be trained in a variety of other skills rather than constantly learning how to survive a fight.
Live Action TV
Dr. McCoy, on Star Trek: The Original Series, is a highly skilled medical practitioner, perhaps being an Omnidisciplinary Doctor. He acts as a general practitioner for the crew, performs surgeries, conducts autopsies, manufactures vaccines, delivers babies, relieves officers on psychological grounds... Pretty much anything medical. Unlike real doctors who tend to be experts in one of those things and only familiar with the rest. His training is limited to the medical field, however, as seen in his Catch Phrase, "I'm a doctor, not a _____!"
Which gets even more impressive when you take into account that Starfleet and the Federation include numerous species beside humanity, each with different biologies (such as Vulcans having copper-based blood). So to measure McCoy's medical skills, first take into account how long it takes a medical student to become an expert in human anatomy and medicine. Then multiply that by the number of known sapient species in the Star Trek universe.
It's partially-justified by accounts from naval and passenger-ship doctors. In space as at sea, a Ship's Surgeon has to be prepared for anything, because there's often no way to evacuate a patient or bring in a specialist. Still, though, both McCoy and his successor Beverly Crusher have a staff of other MDs who are rarely seen and even less often given lines.
The setting in general is filled with them, mostly justified; Data (Super Prototype android), Jadzia Dax (Really 700 Years Old, sort-of — and later O'Brien, since they never replaced Dax as Science Officer), and Harry Kim. McCoy and Crusher's successors were Bashir (genetically engineeredTV Genius), the EMH (Super Prototype computer program) and Phlox. They're all "Chief Whatever" of their given vessels, but they might as well be the only Whatevers, since they never seem to consult with any subordinates save to yell at them to work faster and/or harder. (When they bring subordinates along on missions, they tend to die or fall in love.)
The EMH is the only fully qualified medical officer; the rest of Voyager's medical crew were killed when the ship was transported to the Delta Quadrant. Other crew members have taken turns assisting the doctor, and training to do emergency Triage, including Kes and Lt. Paris.
Starfleet officers in general are trained to be polymathic. Their scientific education, unless that's their specialty, is broad but basic; however, after the Academy, they also are qualified to act as soldier, explorer, gendarme, ambassador, and technician if needed.
There's even a Voyager episode called "Renaissance Man" which features the EMH's many abilities. Whether he actually is one is debatable, but the Doctor certainly believes himself to be (to quote from another episode) "an expert on everything."
The original pitch for Star Trek included in its character descriptions that every single person in Starfleet is a genius, even by the standards of the twenty-third century. A few original series episodes allude to this when noting the difference between Starfleet officers and the merchant service.
To put this into a certain amount of perspective - Starfleet is an all elite force to begin with - only the best and the brightest get into starfleet academy in the first place and that weeds out anyone who doesn't have the strength of character to make it through. Both The Original Series and The Next Generation are based on Starfleet's flagship - the best ship from the most advanced class available with the most important mission profile - "To seek out new life and new civilisations" - to make it onto the Enterprise you have to be the best of the best of the best of the best available.
So if Starfleet has all the top engineers, seeing their engineering principles at work makes you weep for the rest of the galaxy. Limited (or lack of) systems redundancy, no compartmentalization of critical systems, lack of surge protectors that cause control consoles to explode just about every time the Enterprise gets shot, using active measures like force fields for biohazard containment (instead of, say, a simple box marked "biohazard"), a warp core that is seemingly one hit away from breaching (and therefore killing everyone), a Holodeck whose safeties can be turned off by the programs themselves... If the "best of the best of the best" are that incompetent, how awful are all the rest?
Among the main characters of Stargate Atlantis Dr. Rodney McKay is the go-to guy for an inordinately wide variety of problems, as he has far exceeded his original field and is now Atlantis' expect on alien technology. Not surprisingly, as at the beginning of the series McKay was the only scientist in his team, while the other three main characters (Sheppard, Teyla, Ronon) were pilots and combat experts.
Dr. Lee was one of the more extreme examples. On the show we see him assist Jackson on an archeological mission, program a virtual reality machine, study alien plants and animals, hold a position at the space bridge station, build armor and weapons, and offer expertise on many other alien technologies.
And yet, despite all this, Dr. Lee is more often than not, a joke and just not good enough to solve the problem of the week.
However, CMO Beckett, a geneticist, appears to have the McCoy-like ability to deal with everything medical from basic pharmaceutical research to surgery, though there is ( or rather, was) a psychologist on board for the more headshrinky things.
Dr. Daniel Jackson who appeared in each branch of the Stargate franchise at least once. While his Doctorates are in Archeology, Anthropology, and Philology, his level of competence in several related fields is easily equal to that of some professionals in those fields. He speaks 23 different languages, is an expert in Mythology and spent enough time with the rest of SG-1 that he can fill the need for a tech expert or combatant in a pinch too.
The Doctor from Doctor Who seems to know pretty much everything as required by the plot - history, science, language, mythology, you name it. One of the spinoff novels quoted him as saying that he had qualifications in everything "except HTML coding and dentistry". Of course he's hundreds of years old and bright even by the standards of his own sufficiently advanced alien race, which might count as cheating.
At least one commentator has stated that if you looked up Renaissance Man in the dictionary, Jamie Hyneman's face would be the picture. He hosts a show, does special effects work, and pursues whatever interests him. And this is before you take into account his various careers.
Walter Bishop of Fringe appears to be proficient in Biology (Anatomy, most remarkably), Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Pharmacology (he knows his LSD, all right) and a whole lot of other stuff that's not mainstream science (fringe science, as they call it). Well, according to Broyles he is "called by his contemporaries as a successor to Albert Einstein."
The IMF needs something technical? Barney Collier's got them covered for mechanical engineering, electronics, electrical engineering, construction, plumbing, heating, chemical engineering, biochemistry, piloting, vehicle mechanics, weapon design, and animal training.
Dr Sam Beckett of Quantum Leap. He has doctorates in medicine, chemistry, quantum physics and astronomy, can play the piano and guitar to concert standards, is an excellent singer, can speak seven modern languages and can read a number of ancient ones (including Hieroglyphics) and is familiar with a wide range of martial arts.
On Leverage, Hardison seems to largely have this role. In addition to being one of the greatest hackers alive, he is able to also create gadgets seemingly at will and is capable of other random abilities, including impromptu forgery, serving as a lawyer and landing an airplane(as a traffic controller). He also happens to have been a violin virtuoso in his childhood.
Elliot also counts. He's a master in various martial arts(unarmed and armed), a natural athlete, an excellent chef/wine connoisseur, a decent country singer and also knows a thing or two about high fashion(he dates a lot of supermodels).
During her college education, Annie Camden of 7th Heaven studied everything from art to business and economics, and later returns to school to earn her Masters.
Jane of Degrassi is a great football player, valedictorian of her class, is part owner of a babysitting business and is lead singer for Janie and the Studs.
Neal Caffrey of White Collar is a highly talented con man, forger, thief and artist - along with having an almost encyclopaedic knowledge in all those subjects. He also speaks several languages fluently, is a skilled chessplayer and a crack shot, even though he hates guns.
Malcolm from Malcolm in the Middle demonstrates mastery of almost every subject that is thrown at him, from advanced math to mechanical engineering to chemistry to literature to acting - in just the first couple of seasons, when he was still a preteen.
John Crichton of Farscape. Not only did he develop his own theories on circumventing atmospheric friction to accelerate a spacecraft, he designed and built his own test ship, flew it in the test which got him shot across the galaxy, duplicated the attempt using calculations written on the deck of Moya's command off the top of his head, is the best-qualified atmospheric pilot aboard Moya, isn't half-bad flying in vacuum, either, is versed enough in String Theory to be turned on by a Peacekeeper tech who also has an interest in it, was already well along in his studies to create a wormhole even before the Ancients planted the information in his head, is a walking fountain of pop-culture references, a natural leader, and an increasingly skilled and basass warrior.
Frasier: Dr. Clint Webber — "let's see, he told us about the time he learned to fly a plane, he recited a sonnet, he fixed my icemaker and he invented a new drink, the 'Pink Webber'!"
Maid RPG. In the replay "Maids at the End of the World", the Master is Masami Onji, a scholarly genius who is greatly knowledgeable about every field imaginable.
Likewise, those on The Ace path in Chuubo's Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine can easily race a car, out-think a calculator, cook better than an expert chef, and fight as a warrior. With an expenditure of MP, they can be twice as good as anyone shaped like them could be. The only things that don't come naturally to the Ace are things that aren't natural: magical skills or things that they lack the physical equipment to do.
In Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition the player can easily become one of these with the appropriate skill allocation, Bards and Rogues to an even greater degree. But above all, the Factotum class is able to do more than any other class. In addition to getting all skills as class skills, he is able to cast arcane spells, heal loads of hit points, swing like a fighter, among many other thing.
Cyrano (both in the play and in Real Life): poet, duelist, soldier, philosopher, physicist, musician, playwright, and novelist.
Also Cardinal Richelieu (in the play and in Real Life): priest, clergy, politician, soldier, philosopher, playwright and Magnificent Bastard.
"Inherent" abilities of the jobs in Final Fantasy Vnote Like Learning, which lets a blue mage learn enemy spells, or Bare Hand which lets a monk deal weapon-level damage with their fists have to be equipped just like menu commands. That is, until you master a job completely and the character gains them permanently whether he equips them or not, as long as their job is either "Freelancer/Bare" (the "job" all your characters have at the beginning of the game) or "Mime/Mimic" (a class whose gimmick is being able to copy whatever action the previous party member took, but is otherwise identical to Freelancer; its sprite is the Freelancer sprite wearing a cape). Master all the jobs (getcomfy), and you create an unstoppable killing machine that can do anything.
Hakuoro in Utawarerumono is a warrior king sort of fellow. He also has knowledge of agriculture, blacksmithing, hunting, chemistry, explosives, tactics, politics and several other fields. Probably even more. Hell, he apparently even used to be an archaeologist before becoming a god. We don't get to really see anything he for sure can't do, apart from medicine. Which may not even count due to the different biology.
The extended Resident Evil guide reveals major antagonist, Albert Wesker, to be this (as a result of Umbrella's attempts to create a race of super humans later revealed in the fifth installment). According to his character files he is proficient in the fields of science, research, observation, biology, virology, bioengineering, evolution, combat, martial arts, marksmanship, weapons, tactics, police procedure, espionage, murder, subterfuge, blackmail, opportunity, planning, persuasion, arms dealing, double-cross and even extra-sensory perception, as well as superhuman strength, speed, agility, resistance, metabolism, and vitality, due to his viral genetic mutations.
That, and many long nights in college studying. The guy looks in his late twenties, but he has enough degrees to take up a lifetime and then some.
Atrus from the Myst games has the skills of a writer, engineer, naturalist, explorer, historian, electrician, gardener, geologist, pioneer, archeologist, metalworker, desert survivalist and world-designer, with a side order of philosopher. If only "parent" and/or "judge of character" had also been on that list, his life would've gone a lot better.
It's possible to play your character in one of the Fallout games as this.
Dishonored has Anton Sokolov, who is the setting's equivalent of Leonardo Da Vinci. As well as being an esteemed artist (both painter and sculptor), he is a Omnidisciplinary Scientist who helped jump-start the industrial revolution of the setting and is attempting to find a cure to the plague. He's also made attempts to contact The Outsider, who deems him uninteresting enough to be worth visiting.
One potential Lifetime Wish in The Sims 3 is "Renaissance Sim"; it requires mastering three different skills.
In the first BioShock, Sander Cohen, the city's foremost artist, is shown to dabble in painting, sculpture, writing, film and theatre directing, acting, and composing. Unfortunately, "sanity" isn't on the list.
The Legend of Zelda's Ganondorf, though it's not often touched upon. His skills are actually pretty diverse. Archery (assumed given its importance in Gerudo culture), swordsmanship, magic, politics. He's also a master manipulator, successfully duping the King of Hyrule in Ocarina of Time.
Link himself has many of the same skills.
Dirk Strider from Homestuck. He's skilled at robotics, puppetry, swordsmanship, intentionally So Bad, It's Good writing, computer programming, AI development, comic art, hoverboarding, rap... his excessive talents are meant to give him the appearance of a Marty Stu, but it's implied he intentionally became a Renaissance Man due to having a very fractured sense of self.
Horuss Zahhak's power as a Page of Void was to start out as a blank slate, allowing him to turn himself into anything he wanted. This led to him becoming very talented in many fields... until he went crazy and let a few key interests dominate his personality.
Doctor Steel is a musician, toymaker, roboticist, graphic artist, Internet personality - and has some great dance moves.
In Worm, supervillains Uber and Victor can use their powers to gain essentially any mundane skill.
Dan ''Grind'' Tracey of ASH has this explicitly as his superpower. He is essentially in the 99th percentile of aptitude for every skill a normal human can learn.
In Edict Zero Fis, Nick Garrett has degrees in psychology, criminology, anthropology, and philosophy.
Imhotep (c.2655-c.2600 BC), an ancient Egyptian architect, engineer, and physician. He was the first practitioner of all three of those disciplines in recorded history, and is therefore the earliest known polymath. He designed the very first pyramid,note A step pyramid. It still counts. which still stands today, almost 5,000 years later. So gifted and influential was he that, after his death, he was deified by the Egyptians—one of the very, very few commoners (possibly the only commoner) ever to receive that honor.
Pythagoras (c.580-c.490 BC), a Greek mathematician and philosopher of 6th century BC who founded a school in south Italy and a philosophical system, Pythagoreanism, named after him. Pythagoras was thought to be a polymath by his contemporaries. He is sometimes credited with coining the term "philosopher", literally a "lover of wisdom," and considered among the first to follow this vocation. The Pythagorean theorem of geometry was named after him. However, having his critics killed probably helped his reviews.
Aristotle (384-322 BC); a Greek philosopher, a student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great. He wrote on many subjects, including physics, metaphysics, poetry, theater, music, logic, rhetoric, politics, government, ethics, biology and zoology. He numbers among the greatest polymaths of all time.
Archimedes (c.287-c.212 BC); a Greek mathematician, physicist, engineer, inventor, and astronomer. Lived in Sicilian Greek town of Syracuse. Often considered one of the greatest mathematicians of all time, Archimedes is noted for several advancements in almost every relevant field in his era.
Eratosthenes (c. 276 BC–c. 195 BC) was a Greek mathematician, elegiac poet, athlete, geographer, astronomer, and music theorist. The inventor of geography, and first person to measure the circumference of the Earth, Eratosthenes was nicknamed "Beta" on the grounds that he was second-best in the world at everything.
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) is probably thecodifier, though many of his inventions never came to fruition in his lifetime. He was, however, an expert in anatomy and civil engineering, skilled in many forms of artistic expression, and interested in many areas of science.
Matteo Ricci (1552-1610); Italian Jesuit and a phenomenal figure in the East-West scientific exchange in China. "Matteo Ricci was the perfect man of culture, a polymath versed in all things, mathematics and literature, philosophy and poetry, mechanics and astronomy." In collaboration with Xu Guangqi, he was also the first to translate classic Confucian texts into Latin and classic Western texts into Chinese (including portions of Euclid's Elements).
Rene Descartes (1596-1650), working in pilosophy, medicine mathematics and physics. He wrote up the first explanation of phantom limbs, the shape and size of the rainbow - proving it was caused by water droplets, explained the ring of light sometimes seen around the moon, developed Cartesian coordinates and proved his own existence. Also challenged anyone in Paris who would dare claim he had a bastard son to a duel (he had a daughter out of wedlock).
He was in a position to make good on his threat of a duel, too: in addition to the above Descartes also served as a mercenary soldier in Bavaria apparently for the fun of it and drew inspiration from his battlefield experiences.
Athanasius Kircher (1601/1602-1680) is another historical example, with Bunny-Ears Lawyer tendencies as well. Not only did he study geology, ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs ("decoding" occult meanings that probably weren't there), astronomy and microbiology(in his time a new science), he designed a "cat piano" played by making the cats squeal in pain.
Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727). Thought himself a theologian first of all. Is more known for wave optics, calculus and what is known to us as, well, "Newtonian Mechanics". Tried alchemy, astrology and numerology. As the Master of the Mint, developed at least one currency protection measure, changed Britain's monetary policy and personally conducted investigations.
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716). Jurist, diplomat, librarian, historian and theologian, but best known as a philosopher and mathematician. Got into a priority dispute with Newton over differential calculus, but it is his notation system that we still use today. Did pioneering work on binary numbers and worked on language theory. Helped set up the Berlin Academy of Sciences.
Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) . In addition to his studies of electricity (and the kite experiment was a minor footnote), he also developed the basic principles of meteorology, charted the gulf stream, worked on advanced heating technologies all his life, invented swim fins and a new musical instrument, expanded his one print shop to have satellite print shops in every colony, and then sold them off once he decided he was rich enough to stop working. During his business days, he established the first American lending library and the first university (UPenn) that wasn't devoted to training clergy. He also was the Colonies' ambassador to France, and despite the Declaration of Independence being a forbidden document, he ultimately talked the king into putting his own government in hock to pay off the Revolutionary War. And he's also the main reason why the Constitutional Convention included the option for passing amendments.
Frederick The Great (1712-1786), king of Prussia. Practically the trope namer for "enlightened absolutism" who made his country one of the great European powers and one of the leading strategists and tacticians of his day. Also a flute-player and composer, a poet and a writer on subjects ranging from works on philosophy, history, and military theory to opera librettos and satires.
A claimant for the honor of "the last polymath"—albeit more on the humanities side of the spectrum—is Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 - 1832). His works spanned literature, drama (Faust), science (morphology, mineralogy, and colour theory), law, philosophy (where he is considered one of the greats) and religion.
About the last true polymath was Thomas Young (1773 - 1829), who made fundamental contributions to physics (wave theory of light), engineering (Young's modulus), and biology (how the eye worked). Oh, and he also helped to decipher the Rosetta Stone.
Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann (1776-1822) graduated as a jurist and entered the Prussian administration, but his real interest lay in music (which is why he changed one of his names to Amadeus, after Mozart) and he was a talented cartoonist, which got him into trouble with his superiors. After he lost his government job due to Prussia's defeat of 1807, he became musical director of a theatre in Bamberg and later of a troupe in Saxony, composing several operas, for which he also designed the sets. But it was only when he turned to writing that he achieved his worldwide fame as a master of the fantastic whose influence can be seen in the works of several writers and composers. He is also credited with writing the first German crime novella.
Adelbert von Chamisso (1781-1838), a French nobleman who fled from the Revolution to Prussia, became an officer, poet and novelist writing in German (his Peter Schlemihl became in international best-seller), and also an explorer, working as a cartographer and resident scientist on the second Russian circumnavigation of the world. As a botanist he was so good that he managed to discovering and naming a number of unknown plant species during a reprovisioning stop in England, a country itself well-supplied in naturalists of its own. He also wrote the first grammar of the Hawaiian language.
Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890): explorer, linguist, author, poet, soldier, fencer, spy and diplomat. He explored three continents, discovered the source of the Nile, and spoke as many as 29 languages.
Alexander Borodin (1833-1887), a rather important chemist who discovered the Aldol reaction. However, in classical music circles he's known for the operas, symphonies, and string quartets he created in his spare time. He was also a surgeon and later, a professor of medicine.
Robert Williams Wood, 1868-1955. Was one of pioneers of physical optics, both research and development. Such as inventions and applications in out-of-visible spectrum photography and astronomy, spectroscopy — and animated pictures. Boomerang enthusiasm, automobile enthusiasm and introduction of surfing in USA. Invention of a way to unfreeze plumbing and development of submarine detection by sonar. Forensics: as an explosives expert, introduction of UV lamps (detection of forgeries and the countermeasure which depreciated "invisible inks") and discovery of explosively formed projectiles. Discovery of hydrogen recombination and disproving radiation theory of greenhouses (they work because glass stops hot air). The first proposal of using tear gas as an incapacitating weapon and quack hunt, including un-discovery of N-rays (physical optics was "his" territory). Great prankster and almost Patron Saint of Education Through Pyrotechnics. When readers of How to tell the birds from the flowers asked whether he wrote another book, he gave them Physical Optics.
German philosopher Oswald Spengler (1880-1936) came close. His main work The Decline of the West covers these topics: History, biology, geology, economy, laws, mathematics, architecture, music, painting, other arts, linguistics, politics, religion (or at least religious history), various languages, psychology, philosophy... Not necessarily in that order. It's probably no coincidence that he was a big fan of Goethe (see above).
Paul Robeson (1898-1976). One of the most famous actors and singers of his generation, all-American athlete, preeminent social activist, lawyer, author and reputedly fluent in 12 languages.
Enoch Powell (1912-1998): Professor of Ancient Greek by age 25, poet, writer, Brigadier General and politician.
Herbert Simon (1916-2001) , well, look at the first paragraph of that article. He won a Nobel Prize in economics and a Turing Award, the equivalent honor in computer science.
Richard Feynman (1918-1988) was a Nobel-winning theoretical physicist by profession, but that didn't stop him studying a wide variety of fields for recreational purposes: biology, mathematics, philosophy, psychology, computing, drawing, chemical engineering, music and safecracking.
"On the infrequent occasions when I have been called upon in a formal place to play the bongo drums, the introducer never seems to find it necessary to mention that I also do theoretical physics."
Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) , as well as being one of the all-time great science fiction writers, wrote non-fiction books and essays on chemistry, mathematics, biology, physics, art, history, religion, astronomy and robotics, among other things. His works can be found in literally every section of the Dewey decimal system apart from philosophy.
His expertise was such that when other science fiction writers were unsure about the science in their stories, they would give Asimov a call to make sure they were on the right track.
Giles Brindley (1926-) is best known for two medical discoveries: creating the first neuroprosthetic device to be successfully used to restore sight, and developing the first widely-used drug treatment for erectile dysfunction (he's quite well-known for how he presented the results—by injecting himself with the drug and...showing off). Neural engineering and urology are fairly diverse fields to be contributing to, but Brindley has also composed and published several pieces music, invented a musical instrument (the logical bassoon), and apparently enjoys marathon running and orienteering.
Thomas Jefferson: Political revolutionary, drafter of the Declaration of Independence, President, architect, inventor, and horticulturalist, these are just some of Jefferson's fields of expertise, and he is considered one of the most famous polymaths in American history. Famously lampshaded by John F. Kennedy, who while hosting a dinner table full of the nation's leading intellectuals, scientists, and artists at the White House, declared "I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered at the White House...with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone." Needless to say, Kennedy was clearly a big fan of Jefferson's.
Theodore Roosevelt, despite (or rather, in light of) his already Memetic Badass reputation and time as US President, was also at different times a cowboy, practitioner of karate, writer, historian, botanist, explorer and soldier, among many other things. The man simply seemed to do just about everything that people in his own time saw him as not just a Renaissance Man but a god among men.
Andrew Jackson joins the list of Renaissance president with his proficiency in not only as a politician but also as a soldier, lawyer, horse breeder and racer, gambler, businessman, hunter and most prominently: war general and duelist. Jackson won several battles during the War of 1812 (most notably the Battle of New Orleans) despite never having any formal military training and he infamously participated in between 20 to 50 gun duels, all of which he won.
The american singer-songwriter, satirist, pianist, humorist and mathematician Thomas Andrew Lehrer (1928-).
Retired NASA astronaut Story Musgrave (1935-) is a certified Medical Doctor and holds degrees in Mathematics and Statistics, Computer Programming and Operational Analysis, Chemistry, Physiology and Biophysics... and Literature.
A more modern, albeit somewhat debatable example: Dieter Meier (1945-). He was a key member of the influential electronica band Yello (whose first album was described as the "most varied and accomplished of any synth pop debut" by Allmusic). Also, Dieter Meier is known for being a quite successful conceptual artist and performance artist. In his spare time, he's a millionaire industrialist and award winning director. Sometimes, he also designs scarves and creates restaurants. To top it off, he was once a member of the Swiss national golf team. So, a bit impressive.
The expectations of the Renaissance man were often different from what a Renaissance woman was supposed to accomplish during those times. Usually a Renaissance women's crafts and skills came from her job as a homeworker (weaving, sewing, taking care of children) than from any outside activity.
At some point or another in the past thirty years, Shigesato Itoi has dabbled in pretty much every form of media imaginable and an innumerable number of other projects. Though definitely not sufficiently versed in science, he's even published a book of interviews about neurology.
David Byrne of Talking Heads: Guitarist, Singer, Composer, Producer, Actor, Director, Screenwriter etc.
One of, if not the greatest heroes of the Golden Era of Aviation, now almost forgotten, was herr Hugo Eckener. Herr Eckener started off as a skeptical reporter in turn-of-the-century Germany, who was tasked with writing a story about some enthusiastic crackpot's new invention. Hugo was initially unimpressed with this invention of Count Zeppelin, but as he talked with the energetic old Count he began to see the machine's hidden potential. He quickly became Zeppelin's protégé, and after his death, his successor. Hugo went on to become an editor, a doctor of psychology, aircraft engineer, airship captain, world-famous explorer and de facto German diplomat, politician(and eventually political rival to an unsavory extremist politician named Adolf Hitler), and president of the Zeppelin Company, which survives today, in spite of an unfortunate accident that marred its otherwise-flawless safety record.
Viggo Mortensen: actor, writer, painter, poet, polyglot, and if his co-stars are to be believed, CloudCuckoolander. Elijah Wood has said that he's a brilliant man with a lot of talent and integrity, who also happens to be completely insane.
In medieval Europe, a minstrel was expected to be skilled in all forms of entertainment.
Neil Degrasse Tyson is a dancer (he won a gold medal in an International Latin Ballroom competition), a wrestler, a collector of fine wines, Disneyana, and comic books, a fan of science fiction, a television host of some acclaim, and a model rocketeer. Oh, and sometimes he fiddles around with astrophysics.
Jesse Ventura has been a professional wrestler, actor, Navy SEAL, writer, TV show host, and politician.
Masi Oka (1974-) is best known as an actor. He's also a stand-up comedian, director, and special effects programmer, being known as "the guy who let Star Wars SFX artists blow things up without blowing up their own computers". He speaks English, Japanese, Spanish, and German, and says he likes using both the left and right halves of his brain. Having an Improbably High IQ of 180 probably helps.
Will.i.am is well known as a singer, song-writer, composer, and producer... but outside the world of music he's a poet, a film director, a clothing designer, a choreographer, and a painter. He also has designed his own lines of sports cars, sunglasses, dishware, and silverware. He also dabbles in acting.
The quintissential scholar-gentleman of ancient and medieval China was supposed to be proficient at painting, calligraphy, poetry, philosophy, aesthetics, architecture, alchemy and general knowledge. The exception to all of this was ability at physical combat - it was considered ill-fitting for a Confucian gentleman to resort to violence, as the idea was that a complete and perfect person would be so intelligent and cultivated, people would just follow their lead by default. Zhuge Liang, as listed in the Red Cliff example above, was one real-life example.