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The Hedgehog and the Fox

December 14, 2010

I finished Leonardo’s Universe, just in time for another Dan Brown-like “discovery” about da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, in which a researcher claims to have found various letters and numbers in the painting, including in the subject’s pupils.  One of the book’s authors, Bulent Atalay, dismisses the find out of hand:

"I think they’re just scratches, frankly. And at 54, when Leonardo painted that painting, I don’t think he could have seen well enough to make any symbols in there," Atalay told 9News Now.

Leonardo fascinates us because he was the first to discover and put into practice so many artistic and scientific principles, a “Renaissance man” in that he had no single discipline or formal education, but a curiosity about, well, pretty much everything.  But I’ve taken away a lesson or two from his life that should be well remembered by any “gentleman of leisure” (my true ambition, in fact – to be well-off enough to do as Leonardo did late in life on the King of France’s stipend, which was to pursue whatever line of inquiry he wanted to at any time).

Leonardo is remembered as a painter, though he produced few works – he was both unbelievably good at it, and clearly bored by it.  The historical record shows him chafing at the yoke of his talent in this direction.  His reputation for failing to finish commissions became so well known that contracts began to stipulate not only deadlines but the withholding of payment until completion.  He simply wasn’t that interested in painting; like a talented athlete who’d rather play the oboe, he was besieged on all sides by those who would have him do what he did best and liked least.  As crazy as it sounds, I think Leonardo spent much of his life drifting, looking into everything but dedicating himself to nothing.

Nothing, that is, until late in life, when he began to study human anatomy.  This became his focus for years, and his dedication to it is clear in his drawings.  So many of the sketches up to this time were more like doodles – inarguably, revolutionary and ingenuous doodles, but ideas that came off the top of his head that couldn’t be put into practice either because the technology wasn’t available or, more often, people simply weren’t ready for cities designed from scratch to be clean and airy and full of light, with proper sanitation, or for weapons so advanced and destructive they would put “chivalry” in its grave. 

But in anatomy he finally found a subject deep and wide and complex enough, with so little extant knowledge on the subject, that he couldn’t master it easily.  Every body he dissected was different, every cause of death; the composition of flesh and bone and skin and organs different from man to woman to old to young.  Sculpture, painting, engineering could all be mastered and the resources available at the time put into harness.  Even today so much of human anatomy remains a mystery (especially the workings of the brain); in Leonardo’s time, there was no end to the lines of inquiry remaining to be explored. 

Take a look at these early sketches, done when he was “puttering,” albeit the sort of puttering that was creating artistic masterpieces rarely rivaled since.  At this time anatomy is clearly one of many occupations (or distractions):



Revolutionary, yes, but see how cursory they are when compared to what he produced in later years, when anatomy became his full time occupation:



The book’s authors describe the three kinds of geniuses in the world, “ordinary” geniuses who progress the fields they work in, then “transformative” geniuses, who create new fields or completely change the nature and future of existing fields.  Then there are the rarest of the rare, “universal” geniuses, who succeed in remaking anything they touch.  But the danger of universal genius is that of becoming a putterer – the lack of focus that comes from not dedicating yourself to a single pursuit big enough to be worth your intelligence. 

Isaiah Berlin used the old Greek saying, “The fox knows many little things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”

to divide writers and thinkers into two categories: hedgehogs, who view the world through the lens of a single defining idea (examples given include Plato, Lucretius, Dante, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Ibsen, and Proust) and foxes who draw on a wide variety of experiences and for whom the world cannot be boiled down to a single idea (examples given include Herodotus, Aristotle, Erasmus, Shakespeare, Montaigne, Molière, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzac, Joyce, Anderson).

Leonardo started as a fox, but in the end he did his greatest work by settling down as a hedgehog.  As the book notes, though, it took all the years of Leonardo’s foxery to qualify him for hedgehoggery – his studies of winds and waves and fluid dynamics contributed to his understanding of the circulatory and respiratory systems, of geology to understand the strata of bone, sinew, flesh, and skin, of light and optics to understand the workings of the eye.  In anatomy, he finally found the one big thing that would harness all the many little things he’d learned.

As I dabble and putter as well as I can without a royal stipend, plunging ardently in to my new obsession with art and art history, I ask what it might all lead to – not that I claim to be a Leonardo, or even close, but that all of us foxes must wonder what it will be, after all is said and done, that might be our final, true object of hedgehoggish adoration.

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