Lives Well Lived

6. Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)

The word “genius” is doubtlessly overused. Leonardo da Vinci, however, was the real deal. He showed what the human brain—albeit just one—is capable of. He was a painter, sculptor, architect, engineer, inventor, musician, scientist, mathematician, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist and writer. His curiosity was voracious, and he rarely entered a field without mastering it. He is considered one of the greatest painters of all time. The Mona Lisa is the most famous painting in existence, and his Last Supper has been reproduced more often than any other work of art. He was also a technological virtuoso; he designed a helicopter, a tank, a calculator, concentrated solar power, and outlined a rudimentary theory of plate tectonics. Da Vinci was a living embodiment of the plasticity of the human mind. Like the rest of us, he was endowed with the same three pounds of lumpy grey matter, encased in a calcium shell; unlike the rest of us, he really knew how to use his 100 billion neurons.

Da Vinci was a free thinker. He addressed every subject as if it had never been touched before. He had no prejudices, and no loyalty to the status quo. For example, in the 1400s, he had the idea for a helicopter. The first operational helicopter did not exist for another five hundred years. Relatively few of his designs were constructed or even feasible in his lifetime. He made plans for machines containing metals and plastics that wouldn’t be created for centuries. He scoured the world around him and saw only opportunities. He never said: that can’t be done. The fact that nothing close to a helicopter, or a calculator, or the harnessing of solar power had ever been realized was of no interest to him. Most of us look at the world around us and say, where can I go from here? Da Vinci’s starting place was within his own imagination. His open-mindedness was not limited to science. He chose to be a vegetarian for moral reasons, an extremely rare position during his time. He believed that since it wasn’t necessary to consume animals in order to be healthy, that it was wrong to do so: “I have from an early age abjured the use of meat, and the time will come when men such as I will look upon the murder of animals as they now look upon the murder of men.” When the philosopher Peter Singer made similar claims in the 1970s, he was ahead of his time, so what does that say of Leonardo Da Vinci? He regularly bought caged birds, for sale at the local market, in order to set them free. Da Vinci’s mind was remarkably un-tethered by the mores of the society he lived in; this freedom of thought allowed him to make great leaps of discovery. He wrote in his notebooks: “There are three classes of people: those who see, those who see when they are shown, those who do not see.” Perhaps no one, before or since, has been able to see as well as Leonardo da Vinci.

His life was formed through overcoming obstacles. Da Vinci was born the illegitimate son of a Florence notary and a peasant woman. Since he was born out of wedlock, he wasn’t allowed a proper surname—da Vinci simply means “of Vinci”, the hill-town where he was born. His low social status meant that no good school would take him, and that most professions were blocked to him. His father, seeing his son’s intelligence, offered him as an apprentice to a Florentine artist, because an apprenticeship was one of the few ways for Leonardo to break into proper society. This movement forward became emblematic of da Vinci’s life; he would continue to find ways through every closed door. He supplemented his poor education by reading voraciously. He became a devoted student of the Florentine artist, Verrochio, and was named a master in a Guild—thus securing himself legitimacy—before the age of twenty. He spent his career moving from one wealthy, powerful patron to another. His main aim was to continue with his work, and he attached himself to whoever would best facilitate his progress. Da Vinci started as a non-person in society and became one of the most celebrated artists, scientists and inventors of all time; this path was forged by his own strength and determination. He wrote: “Obstacles cannot crush me; every obstacle yields to stern resolve.”

Da Vinci achieved great fame in his own lifetime, but he never saw that as an index of success. His measure of success was always internal, not external. He got in trouble a few times, as a young artist, for not finishing commissioned paintings. He abandoned several important works—including the Adoration of the Magi—right before completion, because he lost interest and moved on to a new project. Having envisioned what the painting would look like in his own mind, he saw no reason to actually finish it. He had no need or desire for the acclaim he would receive upon sharing the finished painting with the public. In this realm of his life, as in others, the independence of Da Vinci’s mind reigned supreme. He attached himself to various patrons, but barely seemed to notice, much less want, their admiration. He valued no approval other than his own. He wrote in his notebook: “You can have no dominion greater or less than that over yourself.”

His wonderful notebooks also reveal that this man—whom many consider to be the most brilliant to have ever lived—was often disappointed by his achievements. We blink in disbelief at this statement: “I have offended God and mankind because my work didn’t reach the quality it should have.” He worked seven days a week, during all of his waking hours. He devoted his entire life, and all of his self, to his projects, and yet he was relentlessly self-critical. One heartbreaking line in a notebook reads: “I have wasted my hours.” If he had been satisfied by the standards of the world around him, he might have stopped working, and stopped creating, much earlier. Having reached the threshold necessary for fame and adulation, he might have shone less brightly as an example of the extraordinary heights human beings are able to reach.  Instead, Leonardo da Vinci looked deep inside himself, saw his vast potential, and spent his life pursuing it.

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