If you do a search for universal genius a variety of definitions will appear. Often they equate the term with polymath. Polymaths are quite numerous, though a very small proportion of the total population. The definition used here is a person whose accomplishment is either so far above any other person of genius in the same field or one whose mastery of different fields is so extraordinary as to set him apart from everyone else who labored in the same arena. He has an impact that goes beyond his field and which touches the entire world.
My selections are quite arbitrary and represent nothing more than a personal opinion. Feel free to disagree and to amend the list or offer a completely different one. The subjects are listed by year of birth as there is no order among great masters.
I will not give much biographical information as so much of it is readily available. My purpose is to delineate why I think each of the men discussed here deserves the appellation of the title of this piece. I use the currently unpopular masculine noun as I can think of no woman, transgender or otherwise, who meets the requirement for this rare class of humans. There are many female geniuses and polymaths, but no universal genius.
If Aristotle (384–322 BC) is not a universal genius, then no one is. In just 62 years he touched on virtually every subject of thought. His writings cover many topics, including physics, biology, metaphysics, logic, ethics, aesthetics, poetry, theatre, music, rhetoric, psychology, linguistics, economics, politics, meteorology, geology, and government. Even more amazing is that two thirds of his writings are lost. So great was his influence that it took two millennia to catch up to him. It matters little that much of his speculations were wrong. He went further than any other thinker could go based on the state of knowledge available during his lifetime. A lot of his ideas turned out to be correct. He has been called the father of logic, biology, political science, zoology, embryology, natural law, scientific method, rhetoric, psychology, realism, criticism, individualism, teleology, and meteorology. Even in the 21st century one cannot delve into virtually any area of thought without confronting Aristotle. He sets the standard for the universal genius.
Archimedes (287-212 BC) was a Sicilian Greek who was born and died in Sicily. His achievements as mathematician, physicist, engineer, astronomer, and inventor are without parallel until Newton arrived. He anticipated calculus by combining the method of exhaustion with with a concept of the indivisibles to solve several problems now handled by integral calculus. He determined that an object displaced it volume when placed in water. By combining its weight and volume, density could measured. This allowed, among other uses, to tell if coins had been cheapened by adding a lesser metal. An example would be a supposedly pure gold coin partly made of silver. His engineering accomplishments are breathtaking. His combination of mathematical, theoretical, and applied physics and engineering is unsurpassed. An epochal figure.
Abu Rayhan Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Biruni (973-c1050), usually known as al-Biruni was an Iranian scholar. He was a physicist, mathematician, astronomer, chronologist, linguist, geographer, a student of geodesy, and a natural scientist. He wrote a pharmacopeia and used a hydrostatic balance to determine the density and purity of metals and precious stones As a philosopher he made great use of his Greek forbearers. He was fluent in Khwarezmian, Persian, Arabic, Sanskrit, Greek, Hebrew, and Syriac. In 1017 he travelled to India. The journey led to his History of India that described Indian culture, language, and religion. He was the author of 145 books. He even pointed out logical errors Aristotle had made. His extraordinary knowledge of this vast array of subjects earned him the title of The Master.
Dante Alighieri (c 1265-1321) is the founder of the Italian language. His Divine Comedy was written in the Florentine dialect rather than the customary Latin. This dialect eventually became Italian which is why the dialect of his native Florence differs only slightly from standard Italian. The ultimate compliment to a speaker’s Italian pronunciation is to say he sounds like a Florentine. Dante’s long poem takes place in Hell (Inferno), Purgatory (Purgatorio), and Heaven (Paradiso); it is considered by virtually all scholars of Italian literature to be the language’s greatest work. Dante’s influence went beyond Italy to include all of Western Europe. Chaucer and Milton were greatly influenced by him.
Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519) was the archetypal Renaissance Man. He was a painter, draughtsman, engineer, scientist, theorist, sculptor, and architect. His notebooks showed his deep interest in anatomy, astronomy, botany, cartography, painting, and paleontology. His thinking was so original and rapid that he left much of his greatest works unfinished. When he depicted the Last Supper on a wall in Milan he used an untested fresco technique of his own invention that turned out to be inferior to the standard then used. This technique explains why the frescoe soon began to deteriorate and had to be repaired. There has never been anyone like him except for the younger guy down the street.
Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (1475-1564) was an artist of awe inspiring breadth and depth. He was a sculptor, painter, architect, and poet. Every one of his contemporaries acknowledged his artistic superiority. He considered himself a sculptor, but his frescoes in the Sistine Chapel both the ceiling and behind the altar are the wonders of the world. As an architect he designed the Laurentian Library and the dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica. A poet, he wrote over 300 sonnets and madrigals. His name, Michelangelo, is synonymous with art in excelsis. He was productive to the end of his long life.
William Shakespeare (1554-1616) dominantes literature the world over. His 39 plays, 154 sonnets, and three long narrative poems were written in a span of less than 25 years. His achievement is so remarkable that many have ascribed it to someone else. If someone else had written the world’s greatest plays and poems the achievement would be no less amazing. Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare’s plays and the result is beyond comprehension. The beauty of his language and his depiction of humanity in all its glory and wickedness as well as every characteristic in between is miraculous irrespective of attribution.
Isaac Newton (1643-1727) was arguably the greatest scientist and mathematician since the exit from Eden. He was also the strangest (perhaps second to Paul Dirac) and likely the nastiest as well. He was a heretic who did not believe in the Trinity. He engaged in a vicious priority dispute with Leibniz as to who first invented the calculus. His Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica is a scientific landmark without equal. The mechanical Newtonian universe prevailed for more than two centuries until Einstein modified it. It still works for most earthly and celestial problems. He designed and built the first catadioptric (reflecting) telescope. His work on light, color, and optics was beyond anything previously done. His intellect was unique. He also wrote a million words on alchemy. He was the second Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge. He spent the last 30 years of his life in London. There, he was the Warden and then the Master of the Royal Mint. As such, he was a relentless scourge of counterfeiters. Simultaneously, he was president of the Royal Society. There has never been anyone like him. His position in British and worldwide science is equivalent to that of Shakespeare in letters.
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) was a mathematician, philosopher, scientist, and diplomat. He developed the calculus independent of Newton, though probably after the secretive Englishman. His system of notation formed the basis for that now used. He made important contributions to philosophy, theology ethics, politics, law, history, philology physics, and technology. His work led to later advances in probability theory, biology, medicine, geology, psychology, linguistics, and computer science. Fluent in many languages he wrote in Latin, French and German, English, Italian, and Dutch. He was a pioneer in the field of mechanical calculators. He refined the binary number system that is the basis for all modern computers.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) needs little explanatory information as his fame, ubiquity, and stature are everywhere acknowledged. There are a few composers who are his equal – Bach, Mozart, and Schubert. But no composer of supreme genius has the worldwide impact that Beethoven’s music evokes. Its power and unique creativity place him at a special locus. You personally may favor another composer, nevertheless when intensity and a direct route to the center of human existence is needed from music, Beethoven stands supreme. He is the quintessential universal genius.
Opera is a surreal amalgam of music and theater. To succeed it requires a composer to overcome the very high bar at which the suspension of disbelief is set. This hurdle is why there are so few operas that have captured and retained the attention of the public. Of the very small number of masters of this artform, Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) stands at the summit. His 26 operas and Requiem Mass depict those characteristics and sentiments common to humanity with music that is both beautiful and dramatically apt. His combination of melody and intensity over a range that the spans the diameter of human emotions is unmatched. He is to the lyric theater what Shakespeare is to the play.
Albert Einstein (1879-1955) made epochal contributions to the two foundations of modern physics – relativity and quantum mechanics. His name is a synonym for genius. While quantum mechanics is the work of many great scientists, relativity is Einstein’s alone. In his miracle year of 1905 he outlined the theory of the photoelectric effect, explained Brownian motion, introduced special relativity, and demonstrated mass-energy equivalence, E = mc2 – the most famous equation in scientific history. It laid the groundwork for nuclear energy and nuclear bombs. He extended his work on relativity to gravitational fields, publishing his general theory of relativity in 1916. As big an intellectual giant as Richard Feynman said that as impressed by the theory as he was, he couldn’t understand how Einstein had thought it up in the first place.
Charlie Chaplin (1989-1977) at the peak of his career was the most famous person in the world. Chaplin wrote, directed, produced, edited, starred in, and composed the music for most of his films. His effect on today’s dominant artform, the movies, is incalculable. Since the invention of motion pictures, no one has achieved the artistry and prominence that Chaplin did.
It may seem strange to include an athlete on a list of universal geniuses – but so compelling, dominating, and 10 standard deviations from the athletic norm that prevailed when he entered baseball was Babe Ruth (1895-1948) that he deserves a spot on the list. He was an athletic genius whose performance level defied all the behavior rules supposedly required to achieve and sustain athletic prowess. Many sports observers questioned the wisdom of offering the 30 year old Aaron Judge a 9 year contract for $360 million. The Babe hit more home runs after 30 than he did before. Starting at age 31 he hit 47 HRs, then 60, 54, 46, 49, 46, and 41 when he was 37. This from a guy who trained on booze, beer, broads, hot dogs, and cigars. And of course he was the greatest left handed pitcher of his time before he decided he wanted to play every day. Before he became very overweight he was a great fielder and base runner. In the history of athletics he was a once in a species figure.
I’ve ended my list at 14. Here are a few more names that might have made the cut had I decided to keep going. I’ve Included no soldiers, but if I did Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan would be prime candidates. The latter if no other reason than there are 16 million men who carry his Y chromosome.
Moses, depicted in the first five books of the Hebrew bible, was the greatest leader ever. And he talked to God and even more remarkably God responded.
Avicenna (Ibn Sina) was a Persian contemporary of al-Biruni. They corresponded. His (Avicenna’s) accomplishments are comparable to his coeval’s.
Benjamin Franklin is the only politician that might make my list. His accomplishments are so vast and varied that no other American comes close. He was interested in virtually everything and made more contributions to more fields than any of his countrymen before or since his time. He was a writer, scientist, inventor, statesman, diplomat, printer, publisher, and political philosopher. He was even a chess expert. He founded schools, libraries, hospitals, fire departments, and on and on. His horizon was the world.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is often called “the German Shakespeare,” though in many ways he was more of a Leonardo. In addition to writing literary masterpieces in every genre, he made scientific contributions to the fields of geology, anatomy, optics, and botany. He was also a painter, diplomat, and government administrator. It is mostly for his literary accomplishments that he is remembered today. To put his work in perspective, however, no on calls Shakespeare the English Goethe.
Enrico Fermi, the Italian-American physicist, was called the last man who knew everything – at least about physics. Both a brilliant theoretical and applied scientist, he was a full professor at the University of Rome when he was 26 and a Nobel prize winner at 37. He built the first atomic reactor and is considered the designer of the nuclear age. At the University of Chicago where he worked after emigrating to the US, his teaching abilities are still legendary. He was as inspiring in the classroom as he was in the laboratory. His knowledge of physics was so extensive that he was called The Pope – he was infallible.