“As a kingdom divided among itself is destroyed, so a mind divided among different studies is confused and weakened.” (61)
With these words Leonardo da Vinci sets himself apart from other Renaissance thinkers seeking to explore as much of the surrounding world as possible. However, this bold statement also serves as a direct contradiction to da Vinci’s multifaceted journey through life. Although he is most well known as a great painter, da Vinci experimented in and wrote about a plethora of other fields including zoology, linguistics, anatomy, geology and philosophy. The diary that I used in writing this paper contains thoughts on most of the topics listed above, however its ultimate purpose in being written was to serve as a collection of thoughts to be organized into a coherent philosophy on life. With this wish, expressed by da Vinci in his foreword, firmly in mind, it will be my endeavor to organize, within the specifications of the assignment, some of the ideas presented in this volume. Furthermore, in my reading and analysis of the text I uncovered a fundamental paradox involving the relationship between da Vinci’s moral philosophy on life and the implications of his actual life’s work-- a struggle to reconcile the painter with the scientist. It is my hope to bring this paradox to light and illustrate its effect on his life.
Perhaps da Vinci’s greatest contribution to the development of the intellectual tradition was his system of scientific thought. Da Vinci’s lack of a formal education did not allow him the opportunity to study the texts held in reverence by the intellectual elite. It was this mistreatment that contributed to the relatively sour view of man held by him. Contrary to the reliance on authority propounded by the humanists of his day, da Vinci embraced a different, much ridiculed basis for knowledge--experience. Popular scientific theory held that the only true knowledge was that which originated in and was proven by the mind. Da Vinci upheld followers of this false science, alchemists and necromancers, as the worst possible example of this method’s shortcomings:
“Mental things that have not been derived through the senses are vain, and nothing but harmful truth is born of them…This happens and will happen throughout eternity to the alchemists, who seek to create gold and silver; to those who endeavor to make dead water come alive and create perpetual motion; and to the most stupid, necromancers and magicians.” (26)
Finding the idea that man can essentially create truth to be absurd, da Vinci looked to nature for his purposes. Observation and exploration of the world through the senses was to him the only valid source of truth.
“You who live on dreams take more pleasure in sophistry and in deceptive discussion about grandiose and uncertain things than in reasoning about natural things which, though not so lofty, are certain.” (62)
This disdain for the philosophical arguments held so dear by members of the Platonic Academy is expressed in several other passages throughout the diary, and is carried over to those critics who would condemn da Vinci for his lack of education. These critics are the same scholars who relied upon the works of others and were classified by da Vinci as “animals.” Eventually, this belief in the supremacy of empirically based knowledge would lead to an insistence upon the infallibility of mathematics.
“There is no certainty where one of the mathematical sciences can not be applied or where there is no bond with mathematics.” (29)
In order to prove the validity and superiority of his method, da Vinci relied on repeated experimentation to confirm and reconfirm his theories. It was his belief that the aim of science was to discover the causes of tangible effects in the material world.
“Before I go any further I shall perform an experiment, for my intention is first to cite an experiment and then by reason to demonstrate why it is constrained to work as it does.
This is the rule by which those who speculate on natural effects must proceed. Though nature begins with reason and ends with experiment, we must follow the opposite course; we must (as I said earlier) begin with an experiment and with that investigate the reason.” (27)
Given his fascination with the world around him it should come as little surprise that da Vinci turned his attention toward the Heavens. Using his empirical method, da Vinci took to debunking various theories set forth by his contemporaries. For example, it was a popular thought that moon spots were the result of a transparency in the moon’s surface. When the sun shines on a transparent section the inner depths of the moon would be revealed as spots. Da Vinci claimed that, if this were true, moon spots would continually change in magnitude. However, he noted that “during the full moon the sun would light the transparent part, and since no shadows could be created, the moon would not show us its spots.” We know now these spots to be craters caused by asteroid collisions, and not the result of any transparency. (48)
These deviances from popular theory are minor in comparison to da Vinci’s greatest cosmological insight. From the diary it is easy to ascertain that his observations led to inklings of a heliocentric view of the solar system.
“The earth is not in the middle of the circle of the sun nor in the middle of the world but rather in the middle of its elements…” (47)
Tradition was the most likely reason for da Vinci’s hesitation at publishing these thoughts. With the church’s power over society exerting the constant pressure to conform, he eventually turned back to a geocentric way of thinking.
His understanding of the method of science is amply illustrated in his anatomical studies. Through the dissection of several corpses recorded in the diary we are offered insights into da Vinci’s dedication to his science. The accuracy of these sketches makes them instructive even today. It is in his discussions of anatomy that da Vinci begins to reveal his views on the essence of man.
“ Man differs from the animals only in unnatural ways. He appears to be divine because, where nature stops producing her species, here man begins with the aid of nature to make numberless species from natural things; self-sufficient animals, on the contrary, are not disposed to look for such things since they find them unnecessary.” (52)
Throughout the diary there are scattered references made to God, however these do not seem to be as sincere as they sound. Despite the presence of several places which denote the high authority of God, the evidence seems to point to a view of nature as being the true source of all that can be considered divine. There are several passages in which nature is described as having creative powers; powers usually assigned to a supernatural deity.
“Nature is venturesome and takes pleasure in forever creating new living forms, for she knows that these increase her earthly substance. She is willing and able to create more than time can destroy; for this reason she has ordained that some animals must serve as food for others.” (63)
Blatant religious allusions therefore become apologia designed to thwart church figures eager to point out a heretic. One such passage where this usage of religious aspirations as a mask for true intentions is illustrated is entitled “The Wisdom of Nature.” It begins:
“Although the human mind makes various inventions and finds various instruments to answer the same purpose, it will never find inventions more beautiful, simple, and economical than those of nature; in her inventions nothing is missing; nothing superfluous…” (64)
It is essential to note here two characteristics usually given to God: the apparent superiority of nature to man and the repetitive description of nature as a creative force. Da Vinci then goes on to list several other redeeming features of nature before stating that “The rest of the definition of the soul I leave to the minds of the monks, fathers of the people, who through inspiration know all secrets.” Keeping in mind da Vinci’s well-documented distaste for revelatory knowledge, the insincerity of this final admission is clear.
Another area in which da Vinci’s conception of the divinity of nature is revealed lies in his writings on painting. It is important to note here that painting was considered at the time to be a low profession worthy of only scant attention by nobility. This prejudice was a result of Plato’s Mimetic Theory of Art, which held that art, as an imperfect imitation of nature, was not a worthy endeavor because of its inability to truly create. Da Vinci, however, saw things differently. In “The Art of Painting” he states that there is a divine element in painting which changes the painter’s mind into a likeness of the divine
mind. With this creative power imbued upon the artist it becomes possible to draw “not only the works of nature but also countless other works not made by nature.” (55)
Nature again plays an integral role in the importance assigned to painting. According to da Vinci, whoever despises painting does not appreciate philosophy in nature. Those who despise painting “despise an invention that considers all qualities of forms philosophically and with subtle deliberation: air and landscapes, plants, animals, herbs and flowers girdled by shadow and light.” (55) As a philosophical aid, painting becomes “the granddaughter of nature and the close relative of God.” These parallels drawn between nature and the divine contributed to da Vinci’s revulsion against the growing separation between man and nature.
“The ambitious who are not satisfied with the gift of life or the beauty of the world are forced to do penance: to them this life is torture, and they are denied the use and beauty of this world.” (67)
Da Vinci seems to have viewed this exploitative split from nature as a sign of man’s utter stupidity. As we force ourselves with greater urgency upon this divine element, we lose the perspective of being an organic part of the planet we inhabit. No matter what the human race may invent, they will never surpass the glories of nature. This argument was one of da Vinci’s main criticisms held against the alchemists of his time. In a passage titled “Creativity in Nature and in Man” he raises a challenge against those who would attempt to create gold:
“If foolish greed causes you to make such a mistake, why not go to the mines where nature produces gold and there become her disciple?” (24)
Man’s desire to raise himself above that which has been naturally provided for him serves here as more of a curse than a blessing. A passage on freedom actively questions man’s position in the hierarchy of sentient life. Animals, da Vinci argues, use nature productively and moderately, while humans “praise heaven after they have rashly injured their fatherland and the human race?” (70) In a selection of riddles later in the diary, man becomes a rapist, through tilling of the soil, a misogynist, through thrashing of grain, and a spoiled child who wastes the food given to them. This romantic view of man as a despoiling plague upon the earth contrasts sharply against the faith placed in techne during the High Renaissance.
Man’s careless usage of nature was not the only factor that caused da Vinci to characterize a large percentage of the population as beasts. In his writings on the proper way to live one’s life da Vinci takes on an almost Oriental way of thinking. Aphorisms endorsing mastery over one’s impulses and the avoidance of suffering are nearly Buddhist in nature. (67) Da Vinci comes across as a staunch believer in the idea that men create their own misery for themselves.
“Here pleasure and remorse are shown as twins because they are never separated from each other…They are also grafted on the same body because they have the same basis; the basis of pleasure is suffering with remorse, and the basis of remorse is vain, lascivious pleasure.” (70)
Later riddles written in the form of prophetic visions “foretell” the anxieties that money will bring on human life. Those who pursue it will forever suffer from not attaining their goal, and those who do not have it will suffer for want and distress. (77) Da Vinci attacks in the same section the institution of the church.
“Many there will be who leave behind the work and sorrow and poverty of life and worldly goods and will go to dwell in rich, stately buildings, alleging that this is the means of becoming the friend of God.” (79)
He proceeds to preach against the sale of indulgences and various other means through which man makes himself miserable. For a summing up of da Vinci’s decidedly pessimistic vision of mankind and their effect upon the earth, I will cease my role as interpreter and let the philosopher speak for himself:
“There will be seen on the earth animals which constantly fight among themselves, inflicting great harm and frequently death on each other. Their enmity will know no bounds; their savage members will fell a great part of the trees in the vast forests of the world; and after they gorge themselves, they will continue to feed on their desire to inflict death and suffering and sorrow and fear and flight on all living creatures. Through their measureless pride they will seek to raise themselves to heaven, but the excessive weight of their members will hold them fast to the earth. Nothing will remain on the earth or under the earth and water that is not pursued, chased down, or destroyed; and it will be chased from country to country. Their bodies will be the grave and passageway of all the living bodies which they have killed.
O world, why do you not open and hurl into the deep clefts of your abysses and caverns and no longer show to heaven such cruel and heartless monsters?” (78)
Clearly, Leonardo da Vinci was a man of many conflicts. In accordance with the burning desire a scientist feels toward uncovering new knowledge, da Vinci followed his adherence to a ridiculed empirical basis for truth to the conception and creation of many inventions. Conversely, his romantic yearning for a closer symbiosis with nature inspired his general philosophy on life and filled his paintings with a poetic concentration on detail. Despite his triumphs, however, da Vinci’s embittered, misanthropic views toward mankind caused him to live like a hermit, and he died thinking of himself as a failure. Perhaps if he could witness the effects of his life’s work on the modern consciousness da Vinci’s negative thoughts could be somehow assuaged.