Fritjof Capra

Inside the Mind of the Great Genius of the Renaissance, New York: Anchor Books, 2008, First published with Doubleday, 2007.

5 Stars

Fritjof Capra notes in his elucidating study on Leonardo, The Science of Leonardo (2007/2008), that the great polymath of the Renaissance was contrary to common belief not a mechanistic thinker, as were later, for example, Francis Bacon or Galileo Galilei, despite the fact that he was one of the first great inventors of modern machines, and actually very interested in machines all his life through. But he did not, as later Cartesian science and philosophers such as La Mettrie or Baron d’Holbach, consider the human body as a machine.

The world was used to see Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) as a painter, not a scientist. I questioned this view already at the start of my genius research, about thirty years ago, when I found out about Leonardo’s scientific notebooks. Leonardo and Goethe were the avatars of a new culture, a new society, and yet, at their lifetimes, their breadth of mind and holistic worldview was hardly valued, let alone understood. Goethe had a stable income as a government-employed jurist, Leonardo was doing work for kings and queens, and made a living with construing weapons, but both had their minds focused on what essentially constitutes life, and Leonardo, just as later Albert Einstein, was a genial scientist before he was a great artist. Before the 20thcentury, both scientists were barely understood. Goethe’s color theory was looked at with suspicion, as it was in flagrant contradiction to Newton’s scientific universe. — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, The Theory of Colors, New York: MIT Press, 1970, first published in 1810, Frederick Burwick, The Damnation of Newton: Goethe’s Color Theory and Romantic Perception, New York, Walter de Gruyter, 1986 and Dennis L. Sepper, Goethe Contra Newton: Polemics and the Project of a New Science of Color: Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988

Leonardo was considered by Herman Grimm, a noted historian, in side remarks of his monograph Life of Michelangelo, as a flamboyant regal person, but also a bohemian and ‘dark soul’:

Lionardo is not a man that you can pass at ease, but a force that we are bound with and whose charm we cannot escape when it once has touched us. Whoever has seen Mona Lisa smile, is followed eternally by this smile, just as by Lear’s fury, Macbeth’s ambition, Hamlet’s depression or Iphigenia’s moving purity.

— Herman Grimm, Leben Michelangelos, Wien, Leipzig: Phaidon Verlag, 1901, 42 (Translation mine)

It is as if Lionardo had within himself the need of the most daring contradictions in relation to the truly wonderful beings he was able to create. He himself, handsome, and strong as a titan, generous, surrounded with numerous servants and horses, and fantastic household, a perfect musician, charming and lovely in sight of high and low, poet, sculptor, architect, civil engineer, mechanic, a friend of counts and kings and yet as citizen of his nation a dark existence who, seldom leaving the semi-dark atmosphere of his being, finds no opportunity to invest his forces simply and freely for a great endeavor. (Id., 43–44)

Such natures, that with their extraordinary talents seem to be born only for adventure and who have kept even in the most serious and deepest endeavors of their mind a child-like playfulness, are rare, but possible appearances. Such men are of high descent; genial, beautiful, independent and glowing of yet undefined action, they walk into the world. All is open to them and in no way they encounter real, oppressive sorrow; they mold their lives that nobody than themselves understands because nobody has been born under conditions that exactly led to such a fantastic yet necessary and inescapable destiny. (Id., 44)

Grimm’s picture of Leonardo lacks personal touch; it is deeply romantic and seems almost sterile. Grimm did not depict, and even less appreciate, the personal identity of the genius but rather painted him as a genus. Needless to add that in his romantic effluvia, Grimm did not lose a world on the scientist Leonardo, and this is all too typical for the general opinion about him before the 20th century. Now, with the study of his scientific genius by Fritjof Capra, Leonardo can eventually be noted by science history as one of the greatest scientific innovators the world has ever seen. He notes in his elucidating study on Leonardo, The Science of Leonardo (2007/2008), that the great polymath of the Renaissance was contrary to common belief not a mechanistic thinker, as were later, for example, Francis Bacon or Galileo Galilei, despite the fact that he was one of the first great inventors of modern machines, and very interested in machines all his life through. But he did not, as later Cartesian science and philosophers such as La Mettrie or Baron d’Holbach, consider the human body as a machine.

Capra makes his point convincingly that modern science did not begin with Galilei, but with Leonardo, because it was Leonardo who, for the first time in human history, has applied the scientific method, logic, observation and the capacity to conceptualize a multitude of single data into a single coherent and consistent theory. This was so much the more an achievement as during his lifetime science was still entangled with religion to a point that a large body of the corpus scientia was ecclesiastical doctrine, and as such a mix of mythic views, politically correct assumptions and a residue of observation that was for the largest part taken over from Aristotle. Capra writes:

Leonardo da Vinci broke with this tradition. One hundred years before Galileo and Bacon, he single-handedly developed a new empirical approach to science, involving the systematic observation of nature, logical reasoning, and some mathematical formulations — the main characteristics of what is known today as the scientific method. /2

It is highly curious to observe that Leonardo did not formulate, at the onset of his lifelong multidisciplinary research, an intention for so doing; calling himself humbly ‘uomo senza lettere’, an uneducated man, his project was to write a manual on the ‘science of painting.’ His grasp of the world was predominantly visual, and so was his scientific method; it was primarily based upon very accurate and very astute observation of nature and all forms of living. Only a genius can have the abundant curiosity, the intellectual grasp and the persistence to inquire so deeply and so thoroughly from what the eye perceives, to really get to unveil basic laws and functional connections in all living, and in all material life.

One may be baffled to see that this magnificent creator was to that point marginalized during his lifetime that none of his notebooks were ever published, worse, as Capra reports, after his death, the collection of his writings and drawings, almost thirteen thousand pages, was scattered and dispersed all over Europe, and stuffed in libraries, instead of having been sorted and properly published; still worse, almost half of the collection was lost. Capra writes:

Leonardo’s scientific work was virtually unknown during his lifetime and remained hidden for over two centuries after his death in 1519. His pioneering discoveries and ideas had no direct influence on the scientists who came after him, although during the subsequent 450 years his conception of a science of living forms would emerge again at various times. (…) While Leonardo’s manuscripts were gathering dust in ancient European libraries, Galileo Galilei was being celebrated as the ‘father of modern science.’ I cannot help but argue that the true founder of modern science was Leonardo da Vinci, and I wonder how Western scientific thought would have developed had his Notebooks been known and widely studied soon after his death. /5–6

I would like to focus for a moment on one single and in my view significant detail, namely how Leonardo was thinking about ‘life’, about living systems, and about science in relation to life. We are today familiar with the conception of life being not a linear rigid structure that is totally measurable, except when organisms have died, but a nonlinear structure of dynamic patterns, which are essentially relationships. As we have seen, Fritjof Capra has elucidated in his study The Web of Life (1997) that life is basically a structure of ‘networks within networks’ and that hierarchies do exist in nature only in the sense that smaller networks are contained in larger networks but not in the sense of a rigid up-down hierarchy as traditional human society, especially under patriarchy, has conceptualized it as the reigning sociopolitical model.

This view is emerging since a few decades and is called the ‘systems view of life’; it is related to deep ecology and Gaia theory and was developed, besides Capra, mainly by Ludwig von Bertalanffy, Humberto Maturana, Francisco J. Varela, Ilya Prigogine andErvin Laszlo.

What was known from Goethe’s pantheistic philosophy that considered life as an organic whole, we find it, in Capra’s retrospective, equally with Leonardo. Capra writes:

Nature as a whole was alive for Leonardo. He saw the patterns and processes in the microcosm as being similar to those in the macrocosm. (…) / While the analogy between microcosm and macrocosm goes back to Plato and was well known throughout the Middles Ages and the Renaissance, Leonardo disentangled it from its original mythical context and treated it strictly as a scientific theory. /3–4

Capra goes as far as talking of Leonardo as ‘a systemic thinker’, because of his strong synthetic thinking ability, that was able to ‘interconnect observations and ideas from different disciplines.’ /5

He observes that Leonardo’s visual perception was unusually sharp and accurate, and truly scientific in scope and intent, and that he also had an accurate sense of motionwhich is seldom to find. Usually, the static eye distorts objects that are in motion. We are hardly aware of this imperfection of our sight as we today are surrounded by visual objects such as televisions, and take high-quality photographs using digital technology. But at a time when there were no photographic plates and cameras, motion was hardly ever depicted by visual artists in a realistic sense; this was simply so as most artists were unable to train their eye to a point to perceive motion correctly, and without distortion of perspective.

In addition, Capra notes, Leonardo had a view of the body that preceded quantum physics and modern spirituality. For Leonardo, ‘the human body was an outward and visible expression of the soul; it was shaped by its spirit.’ /5

Unlike Descartes, Leonardo never thought of the body as a machine, even though he was a brilliant engineer who designed countless machines and mechanical devices. /Id.

Fritjof Capra notes that Leonardo had an understanding of nature that was basicallyecological in the sense that, contrary to what Francis Bacon would advocate a century later, man was not made for dominating nature, but for understanding nature, and based upon that understanding, to cooperate with nature. From this basic worldview, Leonardo was sensible to nature’s complexity and abundance, which was certainly not an attitude commonly to be found at his lifetime. In addition, he was aware of the fallacy of scientific reductionism. Capra notes:

Our sciences and technologies have become increasingly narrow in their focus, and we are unable to understand our multifaceted problems from an interdisciplinary perspective. /12

We urgently need a science that honors and respects the unity of all life, that recognizes the fundamental interdependence of all natural phenomena, and reconnects us with the living earth. What we need today is exactly the kind of thinking and science Leonardo da Vinci anticipated and outlined five hundred years ago, at the height of the Renaissance and the dawn of modern scientific age. /Id.

I will end my review here for this book is so particular and detailed that I would need to paraphrase too much of Capra’s good and competent narration. This book and his last book so far, which I shall review below, are very great achievements of the writer and scientific thinker Fritjof Capra. His excellent Italian, and his special knowledge even of ancient Italian understandably was extremely helpful to him in perusing — or rather deciphering — Leonardo’s shorthand writing style.


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