I’m preparing for my fall humanities class at Chico State (HUMN 222), and one of the best parts is rediscovering the breadth of insight in the thought leaders of western culture since the Renaissance. One of those is Leonardo Davinci (1452-1519), whom I’ve discovered partly through reading Walter Issacson’s biography, but certainly also through looking at Leonardo’s brilliant works of art like The Mona Lisaand The Last Supper. (And, by the way, please don’t be through off in understanding that latter painting by taking Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code seriously—that is truly a work of fictional speculation, not of art history, let alone religious insight.)
I’ve been struck by the way Leonardo expertly blended what we think of as science and the humanities… or at least what we call “science” since in his day it would have been natural philosophy. Much of this he collected in the 13,000 pages of writing in his assorted notebooks, some of which contain proto-helicopters and a near discovery—through his extensive studies of anatomy—of the circulation of blood about a century and a half before William Harvey’s definitive work in 1628.
Natural philosophy—that is, at its root looking at the natural world though a love of wisdom—is descriptive because nature was the source of Leonardo’s inspiration. He is quoted,
“Nature is the source of all true knowledge. She has her own logic, her own laws, she has no effect without cause nor invention without necessity.” Leonardo Da Vinci
Nature offered insight into peerless paintings like the Mona Lisa, which emerged from a lifelong study of optics, psychology, and artistic technique.
Most of this blog (at least in the past few years) has been focused on topics in science and religion. And though Leonardo demonstrated a sensitivity to the subtleties of Jesus’s betrayal by Judas in The Last Supper, most commentators take Leonard to be relatively uncommitted to any particular religion… or perhaps religion at all. Today science has become much more complex and those who practice science often need highly specialized skills. (I’m thinking of a friend who does research at CERN).
Still, I think Leonardo has something to offer us today: a curiosity unbounded by the boundaries of discipline, but instead relentless pursuing nature and its wisdom. Why do most of have to niche ourselves in artistic, humanistic, or scientific pursuits? Let’s follow Leonardo.
Might I add that we can follow the creation back to the Creator and find in both numerous topics worthy of our wonder?