The Spirit of Leonardo
Da Vinci's way of seeing and why we need it now more than ever
Everyone knows Leonardo the artist, but few know how beautiful, profound, and important Leonardo’s approach to science was.
Da Vinci was a man possessed with an intense desire to know the world, to gain intimate familiarity with nature, including human nature, because doing so deepens soul and makes life more vital.
‘The noblest pleasure is the joy of understanding.’ ~ Leonardo da Vinci
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Look at these sketches from Leonardo’s notebooks. In them you can feel his love for nature mixed with an overwhelming need to understand the mysteries of the living Earth, which includes human beings.
‘Leonardo did not pursue science and engineering to dominate nature… He had a deep respect for life, a special compassion for animals, and a great awe and reverence for nature’s complexity and abundance.’ - Fritjof Capra, The Science of Leonardo.
Capra's excellent book describes Da Vinci’s interpenetration of art and science, his worldview, and its importance for us in a time of ecological crisis. This view is echoed by the art historian Martin Kemp, who wrote:
‘Leonardo’s artistic productions are more than art —they are part of a vision embracing a profound sense of the interrelatedness of things. The full complexity of life in the context of the world is somehow implied when he characterises any of its consistent parts… I believe that his vision of the totality of the world as a kind of single organism does speak to us with a particular relevance today, now that our technological potential has become so awesome.’
It took over four hundred years for Da Vinci’s sense of the world as a living whole to return to science through James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis, but even then mainstream materialists tried to denigrate and dismiss the idea. Bolstered by years of research and mathematical modelling, the Gaia Hypothesis matured into Gaia Theory, but even then mainstream science couldn’t quite stomach our planet being named after the ancient Greek deity of the Earth, even though all the other planets in our solar system are named after gods and goddesses. Lovelocks ideas are now in mainstream science, but under the name ‘Earth Systems Science’, the practice of which tends to lack the deep sense of beauty and compassion you can feel in Da Vinci’s sketches, which feel animate and alive, as well as being linked to his emergent science.
Science does not have to exclude beauty or pretend emotions don’t colour results. Human scientists are animals too, co-evolved within the lifeways of the planet. The good news is that cutting edge science has been loosening up, getting closer to something that reflects Leonardo’s way of seeing. Here I’m thinking of brilliant books like Everything Flows, The Matter With Things, Interdependence, The Tree of Knowledge, and many others which shed light on the essential importance of pattern, relationship, and interconnectedness, all of which were presaged five hundred years ago in the perspective of perhaps the most gifted human being that has ever lived.
‘Leonardo intended to eventually present the results of his scientific research as a coherent, integrated body of knowledge. He never managed to do so, because throughout his life he always felt more compelled to expand, refine, and document his investigations than to organize them in a systematic way. Hence, in the centuries since his death, scholars studying his celebrated Notebooks have tended to see them as disorganised and chaotic. In Leonardo’s mind, however, his science was not disorganized at all. It gave him a coherent, unifying picture of nature phenomena — but a picture that is radically different from that of Galileo, Descartes, and Newton.’
- Fritjof Capra, The Science of Leonardo.
Despite their gifts, Galileo, Descartes and Newton all contributed to the mechanical worldview that has developed into Boring Culture, or as Iain McGilchrist calls it: ‘the world of the Left Hemisphere / the high-functioning bureaucrat’. You can feel echoes of this in new atheists such as Richard Dawkins who, in the conversation linked below, says he wants to ‘dissect the tree’ and seems to consider trees more like machines than fellow members of the biotic community.
The method Dawkins is advocating is called reductionism, which is immensely useful, but dangerous when it becomes dogma. When you dissect things into their parts, you sever the connections between things, and lose the sense of the whole as more than the sum of its parts. When reductionism and mechanical philosophy rule, people end up doing abhorrent things, such dissect living dogs because, as the followers of Descartes believed, the dog’s yelps of pain, as the scalpel splits open his chest, is nothing more than the creaking of the dog’s internal machinery.
Today, hard-line materialists would find that repulsive, but the point is that mechanical philosophy still lingers in background of our culture, colouring (or discolouring) our thoughts, speech, and actions.
The opposite of this is animism. Animistic thinking encourages questions like: ‘Is it possible to have climate crisis if you see nature as sentient an ensouled?’
The animist would say no, not really, because the air itself is an ancient life-sustaining substance, known to the Ancient Greeks as psyche - the breath of life. All beings breathe together: trees, humans, and many others, co-creating an invisible medium that holds all our voices, arguments, songs, and stories. Every cry of pain or whispered confession of love has been carried by the breath of the world, from the lips of one to the ears of another, all immersed in the world’s breathing.
How aware of my breath am I, as I write these words, and you, as you read them? The forgetting is symptomatic of our culture’s mechanical philosophy, updated now with computing metaphors, but the computer is still a machine, and you are not one.
Reductionism has a long history in the west, stretching all the way back to Democritus. Da Vinci called reductionists ‘abbreviators’ and he was not best pleased with them.
‘The abbreviators of works do injury to knowledge and to love… Of what value is he who, in order to abbreviate the parts of those things which he professes to give complete knowledge, leaves out the greater part of the things of which the whole is composed? … Oh human stupidity! … You don’t see that you are falling into the same error as the one who strips a tree of its adornment of branches full of leaves, intermingled with fragrant flowers or fruit, in order to demonstrate that the tree is good for making planks.’ - Leonardo Da Vinci (Anatomical Studies, folio 173r)
About a decade ago, after being inspired by The Science of Leonardo, I took a trip to Windsor Castle, to visit some of the pages of Da Vinci’s fabled notebooks. Up until that time, Leonardo was a somewhat distant figure for me, but being inches away from those yellowing sheets - paper he held in his own hands - well, something changed. The Leonardo who walks the streets and courtyards of my imagination became indelibly real. Blooded. He was a man who lived, who spoke words into the same air we are breathing now. His old, withered hands, so full of knowledge, rasped over the pages of his notebooks, truth and beauty spilling out through that sublime left hand, on to paper, the actual paper, that was centimetres from my nose.
Above: Leonardo da Vinci, believed to be a self-portrait in his sixties, not long before his death in 1519.
Being close to Leonardo’s sketches was a moving experience for me. Everything he stood for came alive. To bring forth through love and beauty those images that are part of an integrated a whole, a way of knowing that carries you toward a greater depth of appreciation, of being alive to the mysteries of nature and our place within it - to homecoming, really - and the tragedy that his vision never came to pass in science or society… all that suffused the moment of being face to face with those five hundred year old sheets of parchment.
But the tragedy also carried hope, since that vision to which his genius was bound is now finding its way back into the world. Biomimicry and ecological design are now well established disciplines. Utility still dominates over aesthetics, but there are people making artful bridges between science, feeling, reason, intuition and imagination.
If this was a longer article, to be enjoyed over not one breakfast but two, then we would go into Leonardo’s genius for design, how it links to his ecological feeling, and its implications for how we make our technologies, our cities. For now though, since the toast must be reaching its crust, we’ll limit ourselves to one last move, which has to do with the kind of workshop that helped constellate Da Vinci’s genius. These workshops were called ‘bottegas’, and Leonardo studied in one of best in Florence - Bottega del Verrocchio.
Capra sheds light:
‘The bottega of a master like Verrocchio would produce not only paintings and sculptures but also a vast variety of objects — pieces of armour, church bells, candelabras, decorated wooden chests, coats of arms, models for architectural projects, and banners for festivities as well as sets and scenery for theatrical performances.
In Verrocchio’s workshop, Leonardo was introduced not only to a wide variety of artistic and technical skills, but also to many exciting new ideas. Music was played in the evenings; the master’s friends and fellow artists dropped by to exchange plans, sketches, and technical innovations; traveling writers and philosophers visited when they passed through the city.
The Florentine bottega of the fifteenth century fostered a unique synthesis of art, technology, and science, which found its highest expression in Leonardo’s mature work… This synthesis lasted just a hundred years: by the end of the sixteenth century, it had dissolved.’
It may have dissolved, but I think something of the Renaissance spirit might be finding its way back into the world. In Cardiff, for example, a small group of talented people are attempting to catalyse city-scale transformation for the ecological and social good by explicitly drawing on Da Vinci’s vision and the bottega way of working. Can you guess their name?
One of the key people involved in this project happens to be my dad, John Whitehead, who will be making an appearance on Fantasy Creates Reality, the newly revamped YouTube channel.
My first guest was the amazing John Vervaeke, a cognitive scientist working at the cutting edge of his field. We spoke about Da Vinci, and the Neo-Platonic academy that helped bring out his genius. If you’re interested you can check it out here:
John Vervaeke - Tradition as a Living Force
Probably worth mentioning that I also made an appearance over on John Vervaeke’s channel to talk about speculative fiction and how it relates to the meaning crisis. What a brilliant human being. I love the questions Vervaeke asks, his spirit, his insights. Really worth checking out his work.
Ok, thanks for reading. I hope you had a good breakfast.
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