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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The word erudition came into Middle English from Latin. A scholar is erudite (Latin eruditus) when instruction and reading followed by digestion and contemplation have effaced all rudeness ("e- (ex-) + rudis"), that is to say smoothed away all raw, untrained incivility. Common usage has blurred the distinction from "learned".

Erudition is the depth, polish and breadth that is applied to education from further readings and understanding of literary works. The Latin word educare means to "lead out" from ignorance; hence an educated person has come to think critically and logically. An erudite person has both deep and broad familiarity with a certain subject, often gained through study and extensive reading of the subject's literature rather than formal scholarship.

For example, a jurist is learned, and knows the law intimately and thoroughly. A jurist who is also erudite may additionally know the history of the law in detail, as well as the laws of other cultures. Thus, an erudite jurist has both deep, specific knowledge of the law, and broad knowledge in the form of social and historical context of law.

Erudition is present in a literary work when its author incorporates general knowledge and insights spanning many different fields. When such universal scholars are also at the forefront of several fields, they are sometimes called "polyhistors", or "polymaths" if they demonstrate great wisdom or intelligence in addition to great knowledge (see polymath for further discussion).

The famous Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi was erudite: he read and studied the classics on his own, and was deeply influenced by many philosophers. Other examples of erudite writers include the Roman Marcus Terentius Varro, the English essayist Sir Thomas Browne, and the French essayist Michel de Montaigne.

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