Renaissance and Academe: The Elusiveness of the Da Vinci Ideal

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Renaissance and Academe

The Elusiveness of the Da Vinci Ideal

During the Renaissance, Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) proclaimed that "man" was little lower than the angels, capable through free will not only of lifting himself to God but of becoming God, with all of God's knowledge and wisdom. Though this assertion brought Pico close to the heretic's fire, it typified the dazzling optimism of the Renaissance, as epitomized by Leonardo Da Vinci, who was simultaneously a painter, philosopher, writer, cosmologist, and especially engineer of profound proportions. The knowledge of this "Renaissance man" was not only remarkable in its spread but in its vision--that is, Da Vinci moved freely not only across disciplinary boundaries but across boundaries of time. His sketched concepts of aeronautical flight much later amazed Sikorsky and were a major inspiration for the invention of the helicopter. In such a heady atmosphere, nothing seemed surprising about Francis Bacon's 16th-century assertion that he "took all knowledge" for his province.

Even as late as Jefferson and Franklin in our own country, similar Baconian proclamations were sometimes made and went largely without challenge. Yet today no intellectual would be taken seriously if he or she so described the scope of his or her own knowledge. No people in our own time could rationally proclaim that they knew everything about everything, or even everything about their own fields. What has happened since Pico to explain the relative narrowing of our individual knowledge?

To explain what happened, we obviously need to understand the history of invention and discovery typified by Newton, Darwin, Einstein, Mendeleyev, and many others. This history has culminated in a 20th-century explosion of knowledge or information (which is the raw material of knowledge). In Megatrends John Naisbitt suggests that such information is now doubling every twenty months. Instead of being challenged by the slowly emerging knowledge of the Renaissance, we are now being deluged by torrents of new information almost daily. In self-defense, to avoid drowning and attain some kind of footing, we seek to come ashore on ever-smaller islands of learning and inquiry.

The expansion of knowledge since the Renaissance, and especially in our own century, has brought the fragmentation which characterizes our own time. Whereas poetry and philosophy were once the same, now they are different. The distinctions among theology, philosophy, and science were at one time blurred. Pico's mentor Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499), the great Florentine Platonist, argued that theology and philosophy were not only "sisters" but were in fact virtually identical, once semantic differences had been brushed aside. Pico's own seminal work, Oration on the Dignity of Man (1486), is included among priceless incunabula in the famous Burndy History of Science Library, now housed in the Dibner Institute in Boston. Although Da Vinci acknowledged no difference between science and engineering, the two are now not only regarded as different, but each has fractured into many familiar subdivisions like microbiology and computer-assisted manufacturing.

As knowledge has exploded and fragmented, it has become possible for an individual to comprehend only a few of the fragments. To avoid drowning in the ever expanding ocean of knowledge, each of us typically grasps for one or two floating spars which we clutch as if our life depended on them and thereafter seldom look to the right or left. To look beyond one's own spar is to be overwhelmed by the ocean's magnitude: better to remain ignorant of all but our own tiny province. But the problem is that ignorance breeds fear, and fear breeds hostility.

The result in our own time is not just Snow's "two cultures" but in fact a multitude of cultures, each staking out a territory for itself, each refusing to talk to the other, and each resisting all attempted incursions from surrounding "enemies. …