Leonardo da Vinci - polymath

Leonardo da Vinci, born on April 15th, 1452, is arguably the most talented human being who ever lived. Famed as a painter and a sculptor, his expertise extended to architecture, science, music and mathematics, and to anatomy, geology and botany, as well as to engineering, astronomy, palaeontology and history. He was also an inventor, and drew plans and detailed drawings of an ornithopter and a proto-helicopter. He was the epitome of Renaissance man.

Leonardo was lucky to live in Renaissance Italy, an age of genius in which people no longer thought of themselves as inferior to the great figures of the Classical world, but could aspire to equal and even surpass them. It was an age of unbounded optimism and a belief in human capabilities. They admired and competed with each other for attention and recognition. Michelangelo was Leonardo’s contemporary, and the two undoubtedly struck sparks off each other.

One of the lessons from Leonardo’s achievements is that it doesn’t do to box people in, to think of them as one thing or another, but rather to give them space to develop in as many directions as they wish. In his day knowledge was in its infancy in so many areas that an intelligent and enquiring mind could make discoveries and progress in many of them. Knowledge today is so specialized that it would be difficult for a latterday successor to master so many of them.

Leonardo reminds us that equality is a false god, and that people are not born equal and cannot be made equal. His genius set him apart, just as special talents and abilities set people apart today. What we can do, though, is to insist that people have equal rights, that they are equal before the law, and have equal claim on its protection. We can also work to ensure that people have access to opportunity. We cannot secure equality of opportunity because some parents will be more loving or more caring than others, or go to greater lengths to develop the latent talents of their offspring. But we can work towards ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to develop and to better their lives.

Leonardo lived in an age of city states, of dukes and princes, many of whom were anxious to enhance their prestige by acting as patrons to creative artists and writers, and by sponsoring works of art. We can, if we wish, today provide incentives that encourage wealthy people to sponsor and support talented people. We can, if we wish, work to provide people, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, with access to the stimuli and the environment that can encourage them to explore and develop their latent talents, and to achieve their potential. We are unlikely to produce another Leonardo, but we can hold him up as an exemplar of what human beings can achieve.