In Walter Isaacson’s 2008 biography of Albert Einstein, he quotes the great scientist as saying, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Einstein was certainly an example of this maxim, with many of his scientific discoveries having resulted from his own thought experiments.
But this maxim applies even more so to the newest object of Isaacson’s interest: Leonardo da Vinci. In his new biography of Leonardo, Isaacson takes note of Leonardo’s dual expertise: He was as competent an artist as he was a scientist.
If the modern intellectual world was remarkable for one thing, it would be its tendency toward specialization. It has become, to use the words of the historian G.M. Young, the “Wasteland of the Experts.” But Leonardo’s whole life was a repudiation of the Cult of the Specialist.
While possessing an intellect on par with Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, Leonardo also managed to paint what Isaacson correctly describes as the “two most famous paintings in history”: the “Mona Lisa,” and “The Last Supper.”
As if in defiance of our modern tendency, Isaacson shows how expertise in one area not only does not diminish the ability in the other, but enhances it. “His knowledge of how light strikes the retina,” says Isaacson, “informed the perspective in ‘The Last Supper,’ and a page of his anatomical drawings depicting the dissection of lips is topped by the first sketch of the Mona Lisa’s smile.”
“He knew that art was a science,” says Isaacson, “and science an art.”
Some people are geniuses in a particular arena, such as Mozart in music or Euler in math, but Leonardo’s passion was to know everything there was to know about everything that could be known. This gave him a profound feel for nature’s crosscurrents and a reverence for the harmony of its patterns. In his notebooks, he would record curls of hair, eddies of water, and whirls of air, along with some stabs at the math that might underlie such spirals.
And the false dichotomy between science and art is not the only casualty of the lesson of Leonardo’s life.
We have all been victimized by the image of the ivory tower intellectual who has a hard time finding his way home on the one hand, and the image of the practical businessman who couldn’t tell you the title of a single Shakespeare play on the other.
We often contrast the theoretical and the practical in this way, but Leonardo knew that the theoretical search for knowledge did not detract from the practical usefulness to which that knowledge might be put.
The one central principle that characterized Leonardo’s life–the one that dispells the false dichotomies–was the idea that pursuit of knowledge is good for its own sake, and that not only will that pursuit inform our practical endeavors, but will enhance them.
Unfortunately these false dichotomies between the artistic and theoretical on the one hand, and the scientific and practical on the other, infect modern educational thinking from top to bottom, and, because of our practical bent, deform our education in a particular way.
Classicist Edith Hamilton observed, in her great book The Roman Way, that we Americans are more like the practical Romans than the theoretical Greeks. We think that the time we spend on history and literature and art—which we perceive as personally indulgent and practically useless–is time not spent on math and science–disciplines that we can put to work for the immediate betterment of man.
Our education authorities sometimes speak as if they believed that extinguished artists lie about the cradle of every science like snakes around the cradle of Hercules.
We do not see the benefits of knowledge of our history, literature, and art as immediately as we see the benefits of technology in the same way that we do not see the deep things in the ocean as clearly as we see those things floating on its surface.
There is no historical record of anyone telling Leonardo that his invention of the anemometer (an instrument that measures the speed of the wind) made him less able to portray the “Adoration of the Magi,” or that his ability to paint Jesus in the company of his disciples on their last evening together was hampered by the time he spent inventing the prototype of a helicopter.
Were someone really to have done this they would surely have brought a frown to the Mona Lisa.