Chapter 3Shapers of Our World

Polymaths are clearly a fascinating species. They show us what human beings are capable of if they refuse to be pigeonholed. They epitomise the multifariousness of human potential. But what value do they really add to society? The answer lies in a simple fact: polymaths comprise some of the most influential figures in world history. As the ‘disruptors’ of their time, they have contributed significantly to the human story, shaping the modern world in a way that would be unimaginable without them.

What's more, we will come to appreciate that it was the fact that they were polymaths that defined their greatness. Whether or not their impact on the world is perceived as a positive one is relative – the point is that it was transformational. Yet how audacious it would be to make such a bold claim without surveying the history of the world and identifying just some of those history-makers; those whom we automatically assume to be single-field specialists but were actually many-sided, multidimensional geniuses. For the sake of structure, these examples are segmented into leaders, king-makers, revolutionaries, intellectuals, educators, scientists, mystics, artists, entrepreneurs and humanitarians – only because it is through these principle channels that the human story was most impacted.

Leaders

Muhammad ibn Abdullah was a simple, illiterate man who rose from being an orphaned shepherd to becoming a respected merchant in seventh-century Bedouin Arabia. ...

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