The Dilettante Archetype
First thing’s first, what does dilettante mean? The word “dilettante” is Italian in origin and refers to a person who studies something, such as the arts, for amusement. It comes from the root dilettare which means “to delight”. The dilettante delights in learning many different things. The meaning of dilettante today relates to someone who has superficial understanding of a subject, but who pursues it anyway.
Not only is there confusion around the meaning of the word, but also how to say it. The way to pronounce dilettante is “dill-uh-taant”. The “e” at the end is silent.
Many people describe the dilettante as an amateur, a dabbler. The Latin root of amateur is amator meaning “lover”, so we also see that the dilettante cares deeply about what she learns.
Archetypes are NOT measures of intelligence or aptitude. The name of an archetype is not quantitative and it should not indicate person’s skill level. Archetypes help us identify patterns of human behavior along a FULL spectrum of ability.
To say that the dilettante archetype is always superficial is to use the stereotype. At times this archetype is a dabbler and at others she is extremely knowledgeable. We need to expand our understanding of the patterns of this archetype. The easiest way to do that is to look at the many different names that relate to this one archetypal pattern.
The Polymath Archetype
The dilettante archetype is also the polymath archetype. The polymath is someone whose knowledge is far-ranging. She has an omnivorous curiosity and easily impresses others with everything she knows.
The typical polymath is skilled in many art forms, can hold her own in a scientific debate, is well versed in politics and history, and may speak multiple languages. Think of Oprah Winfrey who is a journalist, actor, critic, publisher, philanthropist, and entrepreneur. She is also an influencer in theology/spirituality, psychology, cultural studies, politics, and fitness/nutrition.
Both the dilettante and polymath study many things at once. This pattern is archetypal. In today’s culture, the polymath is viewed as brilliant and talented. The dilettante is seen as a charlatan who pretends to know more than she does. But, throughout history this has not always been the case. There were periods when the term “polymath” was a criticism, and times when the term “dilettante” was a compliment.
Shadow of Superficiality
The common challenge of this archetype centers around superficiality. Her depth of knowledge is under constant scrutiny. This scrutiny can come from others or from within.
There is a myth that says one person cannot know a lot about a lot. The pressure to specialize in a specific field is intense. Just think about the requirement to choose a major in college. Not to mention that universities were originally established to provide a “universal” education. There is not a lot of tolerance for the generalist in today’s society. Think of the put down “Jack of all trades, master of none.”
On the other hand, it is possible that the criticisms are true. In the shadow, the dilettante can be a consummate dabbler. She flits from one domain to the next. Her delight distracts her from staying long enough to know something well. She pretends to know way more than she does.
When the criticism comes from within, the shadow dilettante archetype can be hard on herself. She feels she is superficial no matter what. She focuses on what she can’t do and yearns to know more. This insecurity drives a constant quest for learning everything about everything. It is exhausting.
This brings us to another challenge of the dilettante archetype. She struggles with information overload. In her effort to know everything, she is under immense pressure to learn. The shadow dilettante takes on too many projects at once. She multitasks, and when that doesn’t work she cuts down on self-care. The over-extended dilettante doesn’t get enough sleep or eat regular meals.
There is no way one human can take on all she does. Projects go unfinished and promises unmet. This leads to information anxiety.
The mature dilettante is different. She learns how to classify and categorize information so it’s easily accessible. She knows how many projects she can handle at once. The sensible dilettante discerns when she knows enough and readily admits when she doesn’t know. This alleviates the pressure to know everything and allows her interests to guide the way.
Power of the Generalist
When she learns how to moderate her project load, there is a light side to the dilettante archetype. She has many gifts. First of all, today’s world needs more generalists. Our problems are too complex to solve from the myopic lens of one specialty. We need generalists who are able to carry solutions between disciplines.
The more wide-ranging the generalist’s interests, the more likely she is to bring revolutionary ideas. For example, my lessons in natural horsemanship provide analogies for working with emotions on the spiritual path. Patterns I observe in nature help me know more about my own nature.
Taking knowledge from one field and using it as an analogy in another is called “deep analogical thinking”. The generalist, aka dilettante archetype, is much better at deep analogical thinking than the specialist. Here we see that the dilettante is a deep thinker. She sees the deep, underlying structure of a problem. Just like that, the superficiality stereotype dissolves.
The dilettante archetype in today’s world is the “inter-disciplinary”, the person who studies many disciplines. The popularity the inter-disciplinary is increasing in academia and business, but less so in spirituality. There is a criticism of a person who studies many religions and spiritual paths at once. She is called the “spiritual dilettante”. People say her spirituality is superficial because she hasn’t committed to a single path. She is simply dabbling. But as we now know, this is one end of the spectrum of this archetypal pattern.
The person who follows many spiritual paths can be the dilettante in the light. She indeed goes deeper. Mirabai Starr teaches that the spiritual dilettante in the light uses many tools to dig one deep well. Mirabai has coined the term “inter-spiritual” in relation to the person of many faiths.
The spiritual path is littered with complex problems. The inter-spiritual dilettante’s far-ranging knowledge gives her an advantage. Think of how many spiritual masters answer questions with parables. Parables are deep analogies, which the dilettante excels at.
Explore your relationship with the
dilettante, polymath, and generalist archetype…
“The Learners” Online Class
In this four-part audio course, “The Learners,” Stacey Couch goes in-depth into the student, dilettante, and seeker archetypes. These archetypes share a perpetual love of learning, driven to know about the nature of life. The student converts experience into knowledge and wise action. The dilettante turns information overload into the grace of awe. The seeker transforms ambiguous questions into universal truth.
About Author, Stacey L. L. Couch
Stacey L. L. Couch is a Spiritual Director who teaches about archetypes and symbolism. Her speciality is working with soul pioneers - those of you who are making it up as you go along the spiritual path. She works with beginner and life-long spiritual seekers. Through working with Stacey, lost seekers find their way home and professional spiritual guides receive mentorship. Stacey empowers people with the ability to explore their purpose and calling. Wisdom found in story, mysticism, and nature provide guidance and healing in her work. She is the author of Gracious Wild: A Shamanic Journey with Hawks. She values mindfulness, wonder, and compassion in her daily spiritual practice. Learn More about Stacey.