What is a Universal Man?

by Shepard

Universal Man is translated from the Latin “Homo universalis”. Historically, Universal Man is often thought to be analogous to the Renaissance Man label that has been applied to many well known figures of history. A few examples are: Aristotle, Da Vinci, and, more recently, the physicist Richard Feynman. I believe that although these people are thought of as Renaissance Men, they are most accurately described as Polymaths, and least accurately as Universal Men.

The term Renaissance Man originated as a description of individuals, mainly men, that helped humanity escape the dark ages by virtue of their open minds and dogged pursuit of new knowledge. Even though Polymath is often used interchangeably with Renaissance Man, I believe they differ in the follow way. A Polymath has vast knowledge in many areas and true expertise in one or a few. Although a Renaissance Man had great accomplishments and a knowledge and interest in many areas, they were not true experts in a specific area in the way a Polymath is. Additionally, neither Renaissance Man nor Polymath is synonymous with genius. Albert Einstein was a genius, but not a Polymath, or Renaissance Man, and most certainly not a Universal Man.

I believe Universal men are born with a biological or genetic interest and curiosity in perhaps every single subject imaginable. They are not Polymaths or Renaissance Men by default, but can be if blessed with sufficient intellect, education, and opportunity.

The renaissance ideal of “universal knowledge” led to the education of young men in a very lengthy and broad fashion. In fact, a true Renaissance Man was a student and teacher all of his life. This approach allowed a born Universal Man to develop into an educated Renaissance Man.

Today this development from being born a Universal Man and developing into a Renaissance Man has become pretty much impossible. The world now is simply too vast and complicated to allow the breadth of knowledge Renaissance men of the past possessed. Polymaths still exist today, particularly in academia, business and technology, and are critically important to society. Someone who is described as “a modern day Renaissance Man” usually falls into one of two categories. The first is the Polymath who also has many other interests. The second is the person who has accomplished highly in several different pursuits. However, I think the true Renaissance Man, who knew almost everything about almost anything, is now and forever only a figure of history.

This reality can lead to the notion that the modern day Universal Man is in a perpetual state of intellectual and accomplishment limbo. This view is, to a large extent, accurate but there are advantages also. I’ll talk about some of those in a future post. Next, I think I’ll try to list some humorous ways to decide if you are a Universal Man.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Timothy Clark

There may be some confusion as to what the differences are between a polymath and a Renaissance man. They both describe an individual with breadth of knowledge and/or skills in disparate fields, but the latter term implies more than just intellectual development, i.e. physical development.



I think rather than physical development, the latter implies the development of physical skills. You know more like an accomplished master of many activities and skills rather than physical development like an athlete.



Very good points. I think about this all the time. Whether it is a curse or blessing I have not yet figured out.



Very interesting subject


Patrick McGean

Genius is another term without the breadth. polymath? or the math of the periodic table before we kill off everything which breathes as I write.
Yes the math of the period table and those elements which grant us biology and those man uses to destroy it.
Oxygen has 8 electrons 6 in the outer ring, Sulfur the teamsters for oxygen has 16 electrons 6 in the out ring but is able to bond with less than 6. Where do those electrons go? Sulfur can not remain in the body and has been cleverly removed from our food with synthetic chemical fertilizers.
Steve Job may have gathered wealth but his genius is gone, too soon.
The times they are a changing, wealth will not be revered greed is greed, no community with greed. The biology of the Planet is the concern for the Universal man. Doctor swear to do no harm surely we can do better than they, we have a Planet to save.

Got sulfur?



“no community with greed.” So true, Patrick.

I’ve read that sulfur deficiency could be a factor in things from obesity to brittle finger nails. It does not get much notice since this deficiency does not have readily visible consequences. Growing food in sulfur depleted soils is one contributor. So eating vegetables grown on healthy soils and meats pastured on healthy grass is one solution. Unfortunately people are not eating enough of the correct foods to avoid many health consequences, not just sulfur deficiency.



I think you got it the wrong way. Renaissance Men didn’t know “almost everything about almost anything”. Even if science wasn’t as vast as today, in their time it wasn’t possible to “know everything” either. The mistake is to consider it from the point of view of “knowledge”, as in “how much data you have stored in your mind”. The universality of the Renaissance man consisted in “doing”, in having a positive and active approach towards every activity. So the definition you’re looking for is “a man who excels in many fields” which can include science, technology, art, politics, physical abilities. It is true that we can’t seem to find any R.M. today, but that’s not excusable; it’s not like people such as Leon Battista Alberti excelled because at the time there didn’t exist enough knowledge to absorb all of their time; they simply excelled in their activity, and created all sorts of revolutions, and they would be considered excellent today as well. It is rather our fault if we can’t create R.M. anymore (and it depends on society’s structure and ideals).



Hi Vlad – What you say is interesting but I would like to read it expanded upon a little. When you say”Renaissance man consisted in “doing”, in having a positive and active approach towards every activity” that may be true, but the RM had one thing going for them beyond that. They were up for trying and doing anything, but also happened to be good at anything they tried and did.



I would have to disagree with your statement that the Universal Man developing into a Renaissance Man has become “pretty much impossible”.

While we have more information we also have better means of obtaining it, and patterns can still be discovered by a properly developed and educated mind. I would also have to disagree with people being genetically born a Universal Man, I think these are people who were true to their inclination and that this wandering child like state of Awe is a Human trait and the path we should all take.



Hi Tom I hope the blog helps you sort out this follymath ciotndion sounds quite severe! I like the idea of wine and literature to help temper the ciotndion perhaps you could start a new literature cocktail society for former polymaths, now follymaths? Thanks for reading! Alicesonp.s. Knowing you, I still think you qualify as a polymath.


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