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Medieval Philosophy

Finding a Philosophy in Leonardo

Chad Trainer on Leonardo da Vinci as a philosopher.

Francis I, King of France and patron of Leonardo da Vinci, once proclaimed in a conversation with the King of Navarre and the Cardinals of Ferrara and Lorraine that nobody in the world knew more than Leonardo. As much reverence as Francis I had for Leonardo’s sculpture, painting, and architecture, he expressly specified philosophy as the subject in which he thought Leonardo especially excelled. And yet our modern era is not in the habit of reckoning Leonardo da Vinci a philosopher.

In this article I’ll provide an overview of the ideas from Leonardo’s notebooks that came to fruition in subsequent philosophers’ thoughts. It is interesting that so many of the philosophical insights in his notebooks foreshadowed ideas that became staples of later Renaissance and modern Western thinking, even if there is no evidence that Da Vinci was a direct cause, or catalyst, of later philosophy. Any attempt to piece together an actual philosophy of Leonardo’s based on the discontinuous and fragmentary passages in his Notebooks runs the risk of being arbitrary and somewhat artificial in form. Still, I’ve attempted this brief synopsis of Leonardo’s ‘philosophy’ in the belief that any insight into the philosophical prisms through which Leonardo da Vinci viewed the world would be well worth the effort.

The medieval theologians that are regularly designated as Schoolmen, or Scholastics, are referred to as such because of their propensity for drawing conclusions from textbooks rather than investigating what the sensory world had to offer. The direct investigation of the natural world was one of the hallmarks of the later Renaissance. In 1614, Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis detailed an ideal society devoted to empirical research. In 1620, with the publication of Novum Organum, Bacon was also doing pioneer work on inductive logic, touting the merits of ‘experience’ in the quest for truth. For this, Bacon is credited with being the father of empiricism.

A century before Bacon, though, Leonardo da Vinci’s contempt for the book learning of the ivory tower is unmistakable, and in the Atlantic Codex manuscript he makes a clarion call on behalf of empiricism:

“I am fully conscious that, not being a literary man, certain presumptuous persons will think that they may reasonably blame me; alleging that I am not a man of letters. Foolish folks! Do they not know that I might retort as Marius did to the Roman Patricians...by saying: That they, who deck themselves out in the labour of others will not allow me my own. They will say that I, having no literary skill, cannot properly express that which I desire to treat of…; but they do not know that my subjects are to be dealt with by experience rather than words…; and [experience] has been the mistress of those who wrote well. And so, as a mistress, I will cite her in all cases.

Though I may not, like them, be able to quote other authors, I shall rely on that which is much greater and more worthy: – on experience, the mistress of their Masters… They will scorn me as an inventor; but … those men who are inventors and interpreters between Nature and Man, as compared with boasters and declaimers of the works of others, must be regarded and not otherwise esteemed than as the object in front of a mirror, when compared with its image seen in the mirror… Many will think they may blame me by alleging that my proofs are opposed to the authority of certain men held in the highest reverence by their inexperienced judgements; … [M]y works are the issue of pure and simple experience, who is the one true mistress.”

Notwithstanding Leonardo’s diatribes against Scholasticism, he had read William of Ockham and would seem to have incurred more of a debt to that tradition than is generally recognized. The roots of empiricism can be seen as going back to Ockham, for whom “the order of the world is entirely contingent on the divine choice, [so] it is … impossible to deduce it a priori. If we want to know what it is, one must examine what it is in fact.” But while Ockhamism encouraged empiricism only indirectly, Da Vinci promulgates it directly. As Leonardo scholar Giogio Nicodemi has noted, “Scientific work accounted for most of Leonardo’s activity. The same thought that Descartes expressed … that observation and experience are more necessary the more one learns, seems to have guided Leonardo’s studies as his knowledge broadened.”

Western philosophy has traditionally been divided into the Platonic and Aristotelian traditions. On one hand, there are the Platonists convinced that reality’s true nature exists in a transcendent realm discerned by the unaided reason alone, and that, accordingly, mathematics is to be exalted over the natural sciences because of its methods’ logical rigor and internal consistency. On the other hand, there are the Aristotelians who are one-worldly, convinced of observation’s primacy, and who prefer the natural sciences to mathematics.

The very robustness and vibrancy of both the Platonic and Aristotelian traditions resulted in their having carried their respective traits to an extreme. That is, while Platonists could boast of a descent from a tradition having Pythagoras and Archimedes among its forebears, the otherworldliness of the Platonic metaphysics and the asceticism of the Platonic ethics inclined them to be excessively dismissive of the everyday world of experience. And while Aristotle is rightly praised for emphasizing the propriety of actual observation of the natural world, the utility of mathematics’ application to empirical data was largely lost on the Aristotelians.

Modern science can be viewed as having had as its starting point this very realization that the thesis and antithesis for which Platonism and Aristotelianism stand cry out to be resolved into a higher synthesis. In other words, the a priori methods of the Platonists’ transcendentalist interests would have to join forces with the Aristotelians’ more observationally based approaches to the natural world in order for there to be progress. As philosopher of science Peter Caws says, “investigation is the province of empiricism; demonstration, of rationalism. ‘Scientific method’, if it has any univocal meaning, means the right mixture of observation and experiment on the one side, and theory construction on the other.” However, “[t]he complement to accurate observation and description, in the application of logic, is the construction of the logical system itself in such a way as to render it capable of absorbing and transforming empirical propositions, that is, to provide science with its own mathematical apparatus.”

As a consequence of Greek philosophy’s limits here, the progress of Western science was stifled for two thousand years. It was not until the 17th century that empirical investigation was appropriately conjoined with mathematics. From this point in history forward, many physical problems became soluble mathematically. In 1623, Galileo made his famous proclamation that “Philosophy is written in this grand book, the universe … in the language of mathematics.” And in 1644, René Descartes elaborated on his view that the nature of matter inheres in its quantitative rather than its qualitative traits.

As disposed to empiricism as Leonardo was, he was fully alive to the importance of mathematics well over a century before Galileo and Descartes. The propriety of fusing mathematics and empiricism was completely clear to him.

Reminiscent of the sign at the entrance of Plato’s Academy admonishing anybody ignorant of mathematics to refrain from entering, we find in the fourth Windsor anatomy manuscript of Leonardo’s this impassioned directive: “Let no man who is not a Mathematician read the elements of my work.” In the Library of the Institut de France’s G notebook manuscript, Leonardo insists upon the uncertainty plaguing any ‘science’ that is insusceptible to mathematical treatment or altogether unrelated to mathematics.

The University of Naples’ Nicola Abbagnano explains that “The privilege accorded to mathematics was most certainly a legacy from Platonism. Leonardo took from Plato’s Timaeus and Ficino’s commentary on it the doctrine that the elements of natural bodies are geometric forms; thus the efficacy of mathematics as an instrument of investigation was justified for him by the fact that nature itself is written in mathematical characters and that only those who know the language of mathematics can decipher it.” To be sure, Leonardo can be found speaking in a Platonic strain about the mundanity of sensory perception vis-à-vis the loftiness of pure thought.

Leonardo’s respect for ‘experience’ and ‘observation,’ though, retained its hold on him as an anchor grounding him in the everyday world rather than having him lost in the transcendental world of mathematics. This comes out clearly in his statements that “if you say that the sciences which begin and end in the mind contain truth, this cannot be conceded, and must be denied for many reasons. First and foremost because in such mental discourses experience does not come in, without which nothing reveals itself with certainty.”

While substantial technological progress had taken place during the Middle Ages, it was slow and gradual. For centuries, that is, the authority of Aristotle in physics, Ptolemy in astronomy, and Galen in physiology went basically unchallenged. With the Renaissance, interest grew not just in understanding nature but also in controlling it. In 1620, Francis Bacon proclaimed that we really only command nature by submitting to it. Francis Bacon devoted much of his energy to attempting to know and understand nature better, and his philosophy is generally seen as emblematic of a new era’s inception. Interestingly, though, while Da Vinci flourished a century prior to Bacon, “Leonardo’s notebooks are…full of methodological notations on the procedures of scientific inquiry and philosophical considerations about the processes of nature.” On the recto side of the Count Manzoni manuscripts’ first folio, there is a celebration of instrumental science as that which is key to life’s nature and processes. He not only valued a conjunction of empirical and mathematical methods as a means to comprehending the world but he also prized this combination as a means to wielding influence over nature. It was as though Leonardo foresaw how technology would become the wave of the future and revolutionize our everyday environment.

Leonardo’s fondness for mechanical science did not, however, prevent him from claiming that human ingenuity, for all its merits and inventions, in no way outdoes nature in simplicity, efficacy, and beauty. Notwithstanding Leonardo’s awareness of the Ptolemaic astronomy’s limits, he praised the sun. Given his fondness for light and nature generally, it is little wonder that he took the interest in painting that he did. For Leonardo, painting was the great synthesis of science and art and, as such, provided a greater avenue to knowledge than philosophy. On the recto sides of the Codex Atlanticus’ folios 200 and 594, Leonardo is found speaking of how “Among all the studies of natural causes and reasons Light chiefly delights the beholder; and among the great features of Mathematics the certainty of its demonstrations is what preeminently (tends to) elevate the mind of the investigator. Perspective, therefore, must be preferred to all the discourses and systems of human learning.” To be sure, Leonardo devotes considerable space to details of drawing, painting, and the like. And, on the subject of painting, mention should be made of his words that “if you condemn painting, which is the only imitator of all visible works of nature, you will certainly despise a subtle invention which brings philosophy and subtle speculation to the consideration of the nature of all forms…”

Aristotle had maintained that nature, like an artist, acts with a purpose. That is, Aristotle frequently spoke as though, rain, for example, occurs in order that the corn may grow instead of the corn simply growing because it rains. This quest for purposes in nature had led science down a blind alley for the intervening two-thousand years. In 1623, Francis Bacon singled out the ancient atomists for praise because of the sounder and profounder philosophy of nature he believed to result from their positing mechanistic necessity in nature instead of any natural purposes. Similarly, Descartes, in the 1640s, declared that teleology (speculation about purposes) should be banned from natural philosophy.

A century before such Baconian and Cartesian innovations, Leonardo’s acumen in mechanical science permeated his overall view of nature causing him to disdain any view that involves an abrogation of natural laws. Thus, Abbagono can speak of how, for Leonardo, “Necessity and simplicity of nature exclude the presence of arbitrary or miraculous forces, as well as the efficacy of magic and of those forces to which it appeals.”

As far as Leonardo’s religious views are concerned, the great pioneer in Da Vinci studies, Jean Paul Richter, denies any basis for viewing Leonardo as an atheist, and evidence for Da Vinci being a believer can be found in the notebooks. According to another scholar, it was “the heterogeneity of his [Leonardo’s] acquaintances and enmities…[that] may have been what brought about an infamous accusation of which he was acquitted on April 8, 1476, while the freedom with which he habitually expressed his thoughts laid him open to the charge of being an unbeliever.”

A less than religious tone, however, is in evidence on folio 241 of the third Windsor treatise on anatomy by Leonardo where there are the words: “Oh! Human stupidity,…you deceive yourself and others, despising the mathematical sciences, in which truth dwells and the knowledge of the things included in them. And then you occupy yourself with miracles, and write that you possess information of those things of which the human mind is incapable and which cannot be proved by any instance from nature.” And “[t]he following statement appeared in the first edition of Vasari’s ‘Life of Leonardo’, and was suppressed in the second: ‘Leonardo was of so heretical a cast of mind, that he conformed to no religion whatever accounting it perchance much better to be a philosopher than a Christian.’” The Da Vinci scholar Edward MacCurdy also recounts how, in spite of the Church’s zeal in punishing those who employ the anatomist’s scalpel, Leonardo had the effrontery to practice dissection. As a result, he fell from the pope’s good graces and, in 1515, was prompted to leave Rome. As John M. Robertson points out in his Short History of Freethought, Ancient and Modern, it is said of Leonardo that “his reiterated rejection of the principle of authority in science and in literature tells of a spirit which, howsoever it might practise reticence, cannot have been inwardly docile to either priesthood or tradition.”

On the subject of the soul, Leonardo denies that the destruction of the soul would ensue from that of the body. And yet he says that “without the organic instruments of that body, it [the ‘spirit’] can neither act nor feel anything.” This seems to make of the soul a phenomenon essentially of this world but somehow possessed, in some way, of an ultimately incorporeal core.

Further instances of Leonardo’s possible skepticism can be found in statements like: “…if any one should say…a spirit may take bodies of various forms and by this means speak and move with strength – to him I reply that when there are neither nerves nor bones there can be no force exercised in any kind of movement made by such imaginary spirits. Beware of the teaching of these speculators, because their reasoning is not confirmed by experience.”

In addition to Leonardo’s denial of human ingenuity’s ability to devise inventions more beautiful than nature’s, he was anything but skeptical concerning the downright evil of ravaging nature and perpetrating warfare. MacCurdy was particularly eloquent on this point in his day:

“All the most characteristic developments of the Great War, those which distinguish it from all in the long roll of its predecessors – the use of the bombing aeroplane, the use of poison gas, the tank and the submarine – all afford examples of his [Leonardo’s] prescience. He foretold the construction of each, not with the enigmatic utterance of the seer, but with such precision of scientific and mechanical detail as would be natural in one who held, as did Leonardo, the office of military engineer in the Romagna under Caesar Borgia during the brief tenure of his power, and had offered his services in a similar capacity to Ludovic Sforza. It may seem something of an enigma that such activities should have emanated from the brain of one who has stigmatized warfare as ‘bestialissima pazzia’ (most bestial madness). The clue to its solution is to be found, however, in a passage in one of the Leonardo Manuscripts in the Bibliothèque Nationale (MS. 2037, 10 r.) in which he refers to the difference between offensive and defensive warfare, and emphasizes the necessity of preparation for the one as a safeguard of all that life holds most dear: ‘When besieged by ambitious tyrants I find a means of offence and defence in order to preserve the chief gift of Nature, which is liberty’, and so he goes on to speak first of the position of the walls, and then of how people maintain their good and just lords.

He envisaged the scientific possibilities of the use of poison gas in naval warfare, gave a formula for its composition and described how a mask might be made to act as a preventive. It is impossible lightly to assume that Leonardo, who has written: ‘It is an infinitely atrocious thing to take away the life of a man’, would have regarded the use of poison gas against the civilian population as permissible under any circumstances.”

Leonardo loved animals, was against eating anything containing blood, and opposed injuring living things in any way. Nicodemi remarks: “He was indeed fond of all animals, always treating them with infinite kindness and patience. As a proof of this it is related that when he passed places where birds were sold, he would frequently take them from their cages, and having paid the price demanded for them by the vendors, would let them fly off into the air, restoring them to their lost liberty.”

When viewed overall, Leonardo da Vinci was ahead of his time by celebrating ‘experience’ as his ‘one true mistress.’ Most remarkable of all, is Leonardo’s conviction that this knowledge derived from experience, in order to be truly worthy of the name, must lend itself to mathematical treatment. He greatly appreciated the promise such mathematically mastered empirical data augured for mechanical science. And his acute interest in and understanding of mechanical science even inclined him to perceive animals, and nature at large, as also operating according to mechanical laws. “To us his personality seems to outspan the confines of his age, to project itself by the inherent force of its vitality down into modern times and so to take its due place among the intuitive influences of modern thought.”

In conclusion, the writings of Da Vinci anticipate some of the greatest philosophic insights of the great ages to come and should certainly be reckoned among the accomplishments that are Leonardo’s legacy.

© Chad Trainer 2005

Chad Trainer is an independent scholar engaged in a study of ideas and arguments from the history of philosophy.

Finding Out More

• Giorgio Nicodemi ‘The Life and Works of Leonardo’, in Leonardo da Vinci (1996), the Barnes & Noble memorial edition of the great Leonardo Exposition held in Milan just before the Second World War.

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