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Not being able to procure other merchandise, they take such goods as have not been sold, but have been refused for their slight value. With these goods, despised by the crowd of buyers, I shall make my modest cargo, and shall distribute them, not in the great cities, but in the poor villages, taking the price which such matters are worth.”
But on occasion he is ready enough with fit terms to assert the value of his discoveries or to claim proper respect for science :
" Inventors, interpreters between man and nature, when compared to trumpeters and heralds of other people's work, should be judged and considered like an object, and the image of that object reflected in a mirror. The one is something by itself, the other is nothing. This
(latter) race owes little (Christ Church Library, Oxford.)
to nature, for only by
accident has it been endowed with the human form, without which it would have been classed among the animals.”
We have seen how lavishly nature behaved to Leonardo in the matter of weapons, how well equipped he was for the struggle in which he was about to engage. We have next to learn how he made use of these advantages. Did he proceed on lines thought out in advance, or did he follow the inspirations of the moment ?
To hear his profession of faith, one would take him for a systematic inquirer. Does he not insist, with an energy he but seldom shows, on the necessity for thinking things out before attempting to execute ? “First of all study science. He whose judgment lags behind his workmanship is a dismal sort of master, but he whose judgment outruns his hand is on the way to perfection.” Elsewhere he compares the man who acts on any other system to a mariner embarking without rudder or compass.
Such maxims are surprising in the man who above all others was the apostle of empiricism. His note-books, which initiate us into his methods of thought, show him writing down with the greatest impartiality his observations, his impressions, his ideas, and even his doubts, just as they presented themselves to his mind. He repeats himself, corrects himself, sometimes even contradicts himself. He puts himself right afterwards by here effacing a passage, and there appending on the margin“ falso," or “non è desso." We may imagine how dangerous it would be to look upon these doubts, guesses, and confidences as serious solutions or revelations.
Here, as in other cases, the contradiction between the precepts and
(British Museum.) practice of Leonardo is conspicuous. Indecision was the dominant factor in his character. It had grown with the variety of his studies, and it prevented him from concentrating his mind for any great length of time in one direction, as well as from asserting his conclusion with the requisite vigour and authority. No one passed with more ease from one subject to another. Yielding to an instinct which had grown with his years, his effort was rather to extend his conquests than to secure them. Such faith and sincerity as his afford a touching, not to say sublime, spectacle! Without troubling himself about the ridicule which attends premature excursions in art and science, he never ceased to amass materials and to attack all phenomena, great or small, with
the remarkable powers of analysis with which nature had endowed him.
It would be idle to claim a place for Leonardo among those concrete and synthetic geniuses who see a truth without experiment, and formulate it in winged words. His method was that of Darwin : proceeding by extraordinary subtlety of analysis, not fearing to be diffuse, fixing upon some infinitely minute fact, such as the role of the earthworm in the construction and renewal of the soil, then, by skilful grouping of isolated and apparently unimportant pieces of evidence, leading up to some final law.
This insatiable seeker after truth understood, however, how important it was that his vast accumulation of notes should be rearranged and codified (he has left us as many as ten different versions of a single paragraph !). He worked hard at this task, in 1508, for instance, during a stay in Florence. Unhappily other duties claimed his attention, and he was compelled to endow posterity with a sometimes inextricable tangle, which might fairly be compared to the manuscript of Pascal's Pensées.
It must be confessed that these thousands of detailed observations, though collected with so much patience and sagacity, could have but little value until brought into due relation with each other, and vivified by a master mind. The artist-philosopher was quite alive to this necessity, and proclaimed it when he compared theory to the captain and practice to the rank and file: “La scientia è il chapitano e la pratica sono i soldati.” It was a no less happy inspiration when, in his conviction that nothing in this world was immutable, he represented progress by a series of cubes arranged one behind the other, the last overthrowing its neighbour, and this in its turn the next, and so on. “One expels the other” 1 is the legend on the sketch, and to prevent ali mistake, Leonardo has added : “ These cubes signify the life and the studies of man.”
1 The following declaration has its value :—“Begun at Florence, in the house of Piero di Braccio Martelli, on the 22nd day of March, 1508. And this is to be a collection without order, taken from many papers which I have copied here, hoping to arrange them later each in its place, according to the subjects of which they may treat. But I believe that before I am at the end of this task] I shall have to repeat the same things several times : for which, O reader, do not blame me, for the subjects are many, and memory cannot retain them fall] and say, 'I will not write this because I wrote it before.' And if I wished to avoid falling into this fault, it would be necessary in every case when I wanted to copy [a passage] that, not to repeat myself, I should read over all that had gone before ; and all the more since the intervals are long between one time of writing and the next.” (Richter, vol. i. p. 12. Cf. Seailles, p, 180.)
2 MS. no. 1, at the Institut de France, fol. 130.
Since Aristotle had completed his 896 problems,? no human brain had toiled with such feverish activity to discover the wherefore of all things. Leonardo searched and thought without intermission, in society, in the solitude of his study, during his walks, like the peripatetics. He specially profited by the neighbourhood of the Alps to make frequent excursions, in which the geographer, the hydrographic engineer, the naturalist, the geologist, the meteorologist, and even the painter, could add to his store of knowledge.
And yet in spite of his insatiable curiosity, our first impression is that the Italian had less mental scope than the Greek. That he felt less interest in social and moral questions is not surprising, when we remember that he lacked the vigour given by a classical education. But besides this, he was content to ask no more from his observations and experiments than they could directly give. It never entered his mind to spread over the spiritual world the laws he had discovered in the physical universe. He ran no risk of making science bankrupt. His action, therefore, was infinitely narrower than that of the great thinkers of antiquity. If, like a new Epicurus, he “endeavours to force the temple in which Nature locks up her laws”; if “his heroic ardour drags him out over the flaming walls of the world ;” if, in short, “his soul and mind explore the infinite,” he never thinks of forging a weapon for himself out of so many revelations, and no Lucretius would ever dream of painting him defying the deity, or spurning the monster Superstition with his feet :
1 Cf. the proverb, “One nail drives out another.”
2 To appreciate this famous work, the reader should turn to the ingenious and perspicacious study published in the Journal de Saint Pétersbourg (1891, no. 279) by Madame Raffalovitch, who has brought as much ability to the study of the Greek philosopher as to that of the Italian savant.
3 He gives the following example of this : going to Fiesole, he made the following observation : “When a bird with wings spread and tail gathered together wishes to rise, then he strongly opens (?) his wings, and in turning he encloses the wind under his wings, which wind embracing him will push him strongly and make him travel fast, as did the “cortone' (bird of prey) which I saw on my way to Fiesole at the place called Barbiga, in 1505, on the 14th of March.”
Quare Religio, pedibus subjecta, vicissim
On the contrary, Leonardo takes every opportunity to affirm his belief in the wisdom and goodness of the Supreme Being.
In spite of deficiencies which I have made no attempt to conceal, Da Vinci created the experimental method. The ancients had glimpses of it, but they either practised it ill or not at all. Alexander von Humboldt, who proclaimed him " the greatest physicist of the fifteenth century, uniting a remarkable knowledge of mathematics with a most admirable intuition of nature,” says that, like Bacon, and a century earlier, Leonardo held induction for the only sure method in the natural sciences. Govi, in his turn, shows that Leonardo created the method to which Galileo was, a century later, to owe his greatest discoveries, and Bacon“ who taught it without grasping it, the glory of having refounded scientific philosophy.” 2
Hear what Leonardo says himself. “The interpreter of nature," he declares, “is experience; she never deceives us ; it is our judgment that sometimes deceives itself, because it looks for effects which experience denies to us." A robust and clear definition, enough by itself to show us that we are dealing not only with a man of fine instinct, but with a thinker and a philosopher.
In spite of the desultory nature of his studies, Leonardo had a horror of futility. He was always advising his disciples to avoid labours which left nothing behind them: “Fuggi quello studio del quale la resultante opera more insieme coll' operante d'essa.” How far this takes us from the dreams of Cardan, who devoted a huge tome, illustrated with 800 engravings, to the relations between the planets and the lines of the human face!
If we accept the ideas of certain scholars and novelists of our own
i Kosmos, 1847, vol. ii. p. 324.
2 Saggio, p. 7. Such, too, is the opinion of M. Séailles, who, by various arguments, maintains the superiority of Leonardo to Bacon (p. 387--390).