Edward Carr in More Intelligent Life:

MASA_PolymathsThe word “polymath” teeters somewhere between Leo­nardo da Vinci and Stephen Fry. Embracing both one of history’s great intellects and a brainy actor, writer, director and TV personality, it is at once presumptuous and banal. Djerassi doesn’t want much to do with it. “Nowadays people that are called polymaths are dabblers—are dabblers in many different areas,” he says. “I aspire to be an intellectual polygamist. And I deliberately use that metaphor to provoke with its sexual allusion and to point out the real difference to me between polygamy and promiscuity.” “To me, promiscuity is a way of flitting around. Polygamy, serious polygamy, is where you have various marriages and each of them is important. And in the ideal polygamy I suspect there’s no number one wife and no number six wife. You have a deep connection with each person.” Djerassi is right to be suspicious of flitting. We all know a gifted person who cannot stick at anything. In his book “Casanova: A Study in Self-Portraiture” Stefan Zweig describes an extreme case:

[Casanova] excelled in mathematics no less than in philosophy. He was a competent theologian, preaching his first sermon in a Venetian church when he was not yet 16 years old. As a violinist, he earned his daily bread for a whole year in the San Samuele theatre. When he was 18 he became doctor of laws at the University of Padua—though down to the present day the Casanovists are still disputing whether the degree was genuine or spurious…He was well informed in chemistry, medicine, history, philosophy, literature, and, above all, in the more lucrative (because perplexing) sciences of astrology and alchemy…As universal dilettante, indeed, he was perfect, knowing an incredible amount of all the arts and all the sciences; but he lacked one thing, and this lack made it impossible for him to become truly productive. He lacked will, resolution, patience.

Mindful of that sort of promiscuity, I asked my colleagues to suggest living polymaths of the polygamous sort—doers, not dabblers. One test I imposed was breadth. A scientist who composes operas and writes novels is more of a polymath than a novelist who can turn out a play or a painter who can sculpt. For Djerassi, influence is essential too. “It means that your polymath activities have passed a certain quality control that is exerted within each field by the competition. If they accept you at their level, then I think you have reached that state rather than just dabbling.” They mentioned a score of names—Djerassi was prominent among them. Others included Jared Diamond, Noam Chomsky, Umberto Eco, Brian Eno, Michael Frayn and Oliver Sacks.

More here.