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The Premonitions of Leonardo da Vinci

In the mind of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), one of the greatest intellects of a great age, a multitude of practical inventions accompanied his ideal projections. He and other contemporary artist-engineers demonstrated, as early as the sixteenth century, how many of the technical achievements of our own time had already been sampled in fantasy and even tested in actual or pictured models.

By now everyone is familiar with Leonardo’s many audacious but remarkably practical constructions, and his equally practical anticipations: likewise with his unsuccessful Great Bird. The latter was actually a glider, with wings which could not move, a failure for reasons that his near contemporary, Borelli, was soon to explain by his remarkable researches on the locomotion of animals, and in particular on the anatomy of birds. For even if Leonardo’s wings had been feather-light, they would have required enormous pectoral muscles on the scale of a bird’s breast to flap them.

Yet in doing justice to Leonardo, the inventor and engineer, scholars have tended to overlook how disturbed he was by his own mechanical fantasies. Like Roger Bacon, he too had foreseen in his usual enigmatic way (labeled a dream) that “men shall walk without moving [motor car], they shall speak with those absent [telephone], they shall hear those who do not speak [phonograph].” But in another fantasy written in the form of a letter, Leonardo conjures up the image of a hideous monster that would attack and destroy mankind. Though Leonardo gave the monster a tangible, gigantic, subhuman form, his actual performances come all too close to the hideous scientifically engineered exterminations our own age has witnessed. The monster’s imperviousness to attack only completes resemblance to the airborne atomic, bacterial, and chemical weapons that now have it in their power to wipe out all of mankind. Leonardo’s description, printed in MacCurdy’s translation of the Notebooks under “Tales,” demands direct quotation.

Alas, how many attacks were made upon this raging fiend; to him every onslaught was as nothing. O wretched folk, for you there availed not the impregnable fortress, nor the lofty walls of your cities, nor being together in great numbers, nor your houses or palaces! There remained not any place unless it were the tiny holes and subterranean caves where after the manner of crabs and crickets and creatures like these you might find safety and a means of escape. Oh, how many wretched mothers and fathers were deprived of their children! How many unhappy women were deprived of their companions. In truth, my dear Benedetto, I do not believe that ever since the world was created there has been witnessed such lamentation and wailing of people accompanied by so great terror. In truth the human species in such a plight has need to envy every other race of creatures…for us wretched mortals there avails not any flight, since this monster when advancing slowly far exceeds the speed of the swiftest courser.

I know not what to say or do, for everywhere I seem to find myself swimming with bent head within the mighty throat and remaining indistinguishable in death, buried within the huge belly.

THERE IS NO WAY of proving that this nightmare was the reverse side of Leonardo’s hopeful anticipations of the future; but those who have lived during the last half century have experienced both the mechanical triumphs and the human terror they have generated, and we know, even better than Leonardo, by what a large factor his anticipated evils have been multiplied.

Like his successors who actually promoted the myth of the machine and caused it to gain practical ascendancy, Leonardo could have had no conscious foreboding that he was both prefiguring and serving a myth. On the contrary, like them, he probably felt that he was creating a more sensible rational order, in which his acute intelligence, with more adequate methods and agents than man had ever possessed before, would bring all natural phenomena under the sway of the human mind. These technical premises seemed so simple, their aim so rational, their methods so open to general imitation, that Leonardo never saw the need to put the question we now must ask: Is the intelligence alone, however purified and decontaminated, an adequate agent for doing justice to the needs and purposes of life?

Yet some insight into this limitation had already lurked under the surface of Leonardo’s conscious interests and tainted his otherwise favorable picture of what rational invention could do for man. He was, intellectually speaking, too large a personality to fit into any of the standard categories of engineer, inventor, artist, or scientist; though like his near contemporaries, Michelangelo and Dürer, and many earlier and later figures, he ranged freely over a wide territory, from geology to human anatomy. But he realized the limitations of mechanical invention alone. In one of his notes he wrote: “Would that it might please our Creator that I were able to reveal the nature of man and his customs even as I describe his figure.”

Leonardo had at least a glimpse of what was missing from the mechanical world picture. He knew that the man he dissected and accurately depicted was not the whole man. What neither the eye nor the scalpel could reveal was equally essential to the description of any living creature. Without an insight into man’s history, his culture, his hopes and prospects, the very essence of his being was not accounted for. Thus he knew the limitations of his own anatomical descriptions and mechanical inventions: The man he dissected or accurately represented on paper was not the whole man; and he demonstrated in his own experience that the suppressed part of his unconscious world at last erupted in the same nightmares that now haunt all of humanity.

Unfortunately, Leonardo’s talents, as happens to so many of the best scientists and technicians today, were at war with his conscience. Seeking for fuller command of the machine, he was ready, like so many of our present-day scientists, to sell his services to the Duke of Milan, one of the leading despots of his day, provided he got an opportunity to exercise his inventive talents. Yet because the new ideological framework had not yet been put together, Leonardo retained an intellectual freedom and a moral discipline that only rarely could be achieved after the eighteenth century. Although Leonardo, for example, invented the submarine, he deliberately suppressed this invention “on account of the evil nature of men, who would practice assassination at the bottom of the sea.” That reservation marks a moral sensitiveness equal to his inventive abilities: Only a relative handful of scientists, like the late Norbert Wiener in our day, have shown any parallel concern and self-control.

LEONARDO’S CONSISTENT CONCERN with moral problems, with the kind of human being he was himself becoming and was in turn helping to create, sets him off from those who confined their attention to observations, experiments, and equations without the faintest sense of responsibility for their consequences. In all likelihood his sensitiveness to the social outcome of invention created an inner conflict that curbed his success; but so strong were the pressures of both mechanization and war that he nevertheless was driven by his mechanical demon, not merely to invent submarines, but land tanks and rapid-firing guns, and many kindred devices. Yet if Leonardo’s imaginative anticipations and internal conflicts had been general, the whole tempo of later mechanization might have been slower.

Leonardo was proud of his status as an engineer: he even listed half a dozen engineers of classical times, from Callius of Rhodes to Callimachus in Athens, he who was skilled in making great bronze castings, as if to establish his own place among his ancient peers. With a sense of history later engineers lost, he ransacked the annals of antiquity for suggestive hints from Greek or Persian engineers. He even cited the fact—to our present astonishment—that the Egyptians, the Ethiopians, and the Arabs had used the old Assyrian method of inflating wineskins to buoy up camels and soldiers in fording rivers; and he advocated building unsinkable boats for transporting troops, also after an ancient Assyrian model.

In his military preoccupations Leonardo did not stand alone: He was but one of a large group of highly inventive minds in Italy, France, and Germany, all devoted to military engineering, finding immediate service, if not a full use for their inventive powers, in the train of absolute rulers who reproduced, in miniature, the powers and the ambitions of more ancient monarchs. They designed canals with canal-locks, and fortifications they invented the paddle-wheel boat, the diving bell; the windturbine. Even before Leonardo, Fontana had invented the velocipede and the military tank (1420), and Konrad Keyeser von Eichstadt had invented both the diving suit (1405) and the infernal machine.

One need not be surprised that the demand for such inventions did not come from either agriculture or handicraft industry. The stimulus to invention, if not the immediate practical support, came from the same socio-technical power complex that had produced the earliest megamachines: absolutism and war.

Similarly, Leonardo was familiar with the early German method of producing poison gas (from feathers, realgar, and sulphur) to asphyxiate a garrison: a grisly fifteenth-century invention that anticipated its first twentieth-century application by the same nation. Like other military engineers of his time, he played with the possibility of armored tanks, propelled by hand-operated cranks, to say nothing of revolving scythes, advancing in front of a horse-propelled vehicle, to mow down the enemy.

One begins to understand how deeply the old myth of unlimited power had begun to stir again in the modern mind, when one observes how Leonardo, a generous, humane spirit—so tender that he bought caged birds in the market-place in order to release them—deserted his paintings and spent so much of his energies in both military inventions and fantasies of destruction. Had he concentrated his superb technical skill upon agriculture, he might have effected a mechanical revolution there comparable to that he actually began with his device of the flying shuttle in textiles.

UNLIKE THE UNDULY SANGUINE prophet of the nineteenth century, who equated mechanical invention with human improvement, Leonardo’s dreams were colored by his consciousness of the spectacle of the human savagery and the murderous malice that some of his own proposed military instruments were designed to serve. These horrors mingled in his dreams with prospective marvels, as in the following prophecy:

It shall seem to men that they see new destructions in the sky, and the flame descending therefrom shall seem to have taken flight and to flee away in terror; they shall hear creatures of every kind speaking human language; they shall run in a moment, in person, to divers parts of the world without movement; amidst the darkness, they shall see the most radiant splendors. O marvel of mankind! What frenzy thus impelled you!

The vague, ambiguous prophecies of Leonardo’s contemporary, Nostradamus, may easily be dismissed, but Leonardo himself committed to paper even more remarkable forebodings of the world that science and mechanization would eventually bring into existence. In his notes on Necromancy, he unsparingly criticized people who were then proclaiming the reality of fantastic powers possessed by “invisible beings” for transforming the modern world. Many of these fantasies were nothing but early unconscious projections of natural forces that later took concrete form; and no one saw the probable consequences of such forces more incisively than Leonardo, even in the act of denying their possibility.

Should the claim of the necromancers be established, Leonardo wrote:

there is nothing on earth that would have so much power either to harm man…. If it were true…that by such an art one had the power to disturb the tranquil clearness of the air, and transform it into the hue of night, to create coruscations and tempests with dreadful thunder-claps and lightning flashes rushing through the darkness, and with impetuous storms to overthrow high buildings and uproot forests, and with these to encounter armies and break and overthrow them, and—more important than this—to make devastating tempests, and thereby to rob the husbandsmen of the rewards of their labors. For what method of warfare can there be which can inflict such damage upon the enemy as the exercise of the power to deprive him of his crops? What naval combat could there be which should compare with that which he would wage, who has command of the winds and can create ruinous tempests that would submerge every fleet whatsoever? In truth, whoever has control of such irresistible forces would be lord over all nations, and no human skill will be able to resist his destructive power. The buried treasure, the jewels that lie in the body of the earth, will become manifest to him; no lock, no fortress, however impregnable, will avail to save anyone against the will of such a necromancer. He will cause himself to be carried through the air from East to West, and through all the uttermost parts of the universe. But why do I thus go on adding instance to instance? What is there which could not be brought to pass by a mechanician such as this? Almost nothing, except the escaping from death.

In the light of history, which, can one say today, is the more remarkable?—these pure fantasies themselves, welling forth out of the unconscious without any check from history or current experience, or Leonardo’s interpretations of what the social consequences would be, if the necromancers’ assertions actually proved true? The first response clearly anticipated in dream what centuries later has become a formidable reality: control over the forces of nature sufficient to bring about total destruction. To Leonardo’s credit, he realized in advance—almost five centuries in advance—the implications of these terrible dreams. He foresaw what total power would become in the hands of unregenerate man, as clearly as Henry Adams did on the eve of its achievement.

In passing judgment upon that necromantic dream, Leonardo made only one mistake: He believed that the dream was baseless “because there are no such incorporeal things as necromancy assumes.” He could not anticipate as a probability what in his day seemed so remote from being even a possibility—namely that science in a few centuries would discover these invisible “incorporeal things” in the heart of an equally invisible atom. Once that discovery was made, every link in Leonardo’s chain of reasoning proved sound.

IAM NOT ALONE in this interpretation of Leonardo’s ominous prophecies; nor was Leonardo himself alone, as Sir Kenneth Clark has pointed out. Clark sees in Leonardo’s drawings of deluges a foreboding of cosmic disaster, which he connects with other apocalyptic speculations that were current around the year 1500, and which led Dürer to dream of a similar cosmic disaster and record his dream in a drawing dated 1525. Those dreams have proved even more significant than the deformed images and blasted emptiness of many modern paintings; for the latter, so far from being prophetic anticipations, are little better than immediate transcriptions of observable physical ruins and disrupted mental states. Both Leonardo’s projects and his anxieties throw a light on what followed.

During the next four centuries, the possibilities of terror that Leonardo exposed in his intimate notes were seemingly laid to rest: they were overlaid by the large apparent increase of orderly scientific interpretation and constructive technical achievement. It was possible, at least for the more prosperous manufacturing classes, themselves growing in number and influence, as against the old feudal and clerical estates, to believe that the benefits of science and mechanization would far outweigh their disabilities. And certainly, a thousand fresh inventions and tangible improvements confirmed many of these hopes.

When scrutinized more closely, the social results were, however, more disturbing than the prophets of mechanical progress were willing to admit. From the beginning in the fifteenth century blasted landscapes, befouled streams, polluted air, congested filthy slums, epidemics of avoidable disease, the ruthless extirpation of old crafts, the destruction of valuable monuments of architecture and history—all these losses counterbalanced the gains. Many of these evils were already noted defensively in Agricola’s treatise on mining, De Re Metallica. In the heyday of nineteenth-century industry, John Stuart Mill, no enemy of mechanical progress, could still declare in his Principles of Economics that it was doubtful if all the machinery then available had yet lightened the day’s labor of a single human being. Even so, many of the gains were real. Some of them would deservedly become part of the permanent heritage of mankind.

While the goods promised by mechanical invention and capitalist organization were naturally more easy to anticipate than the evils, there was one evil, more mountainous than all the rest put together, which for lack of sufficient historic information at that period it was impossible to perceive in advance or to forfend. This was the resurrection of the megamachine.

What I have called in other recent articles the “Megamachine”—alias the Invisible Machine, the Labor Machine, or the Military Machine—is a collective invention that dates back to the Pyramid Age. This invention, close examination shows, was the first effective power machine composed of specialized, standardized, uniform, replaceable parts, capable of performing work on a scale no existing tools or machines could rival. The megamachine was in fact the archetypal model on which all later machines of comparable efficiency and complexity were based; but it differed from later machines because it was composed solely of human parts.

The human units that formed the megamachine were assembled for the first time, at the very outset of civilization, by the institution of Divine Kingship: a system of absolute rule that, under the cult of the Sun God, Atum-Re, in Egypt—or the Sky Gods in Mesopotamia—united collective human effort with the cosmic regularities and predictabilities of astronomical observation. The various components of the megamachine—the priesthood, the army, the bureaucracy, the labor force—could function as a massive working unit only when brought together and controlled by a central agent, the Divine King, whose powers, being derived from heaven, were absolute. Ritualistic punctilio, astronomical precision, slavish obedience, and mechanical accuracy thus united to produce the megamachine. These qualities underlie our whole modern economy.

Throughout history the megamachine, even in its cumbrous early human form has proved a marvelously effective instrument for large-scale operations, either in works of construction, such as the building of pyramids, canals, and cities, or equally wholesale destruction and extermination through the military machine. But because the parts of the megamachine were fallible and sometimes recalcitrant human beings, it remained vulnerable; and when religious faith became corroded, or the Divine King was defeated or slain, the machine itself might fall to pieces. Nevertheless the pattern of the megamachine, along with its daily discipline, was kept intact and transmitted from kingdom to kingdom, with greater or less efficiency, by the army. Not until new kinds of power machines like the watermill and windmill were widely introduced after the twelfth century could the ancient megamachine be restored, magnified, and greatly improved.

Through the coalition of all the institutions and forces we have just been examining, the way had been prepared for the introduction of the megamachine on a scale that not even Khephren or Cheops, Naram-Sin, Assurbaripal, or Alexander, could have deemed possible. For the accumulation of mechanical facilities had at last made it possible vastly to enlarge the scope of the megamachine, by progressively replacing the recalcitrant and uncertain human components with specialized mechanisms of precision made of metal, glass, or plastics, designed as no human organism had ever been designed, to perform their specialized functions with unswerving fidelity and accuracy.

AT LAST A MEGAMACHINE had become possible that needed, once organized, a minimum amount of detailed human participation and coordination. From the sixteenth century on the secret of the megamachine was slowly rediscovered. In a series of empirical fumblings and improvisations, with little sense of the ultimate end toward which society was moving, that great mechanical leviathan was fished up out of the depths of history. The expansion of the megamachine—its kingdom, its power, its glory—became progressively the chief end, or at least the fixed obsession, of Western Man.

The machine, advanced thinkers began to hold, not merely served as the ideal model for explaining and eventually controlling all organic activities, but its wholesale fabrication and its continued improvement were what alone could give meaning to human existence. Within a century or two, the ideological fabric that supported the ancient megamachine had been reconstructed on a new and improved model: power, speed, control, standardization, mass production, quantification, regimentation, precision, uniformity, astronomical regularity—these became the passwords of modern society on the new Western model.

With the growth of modern science, from the sixteenth century on, the religious bias of the megamachine has widened, and the obligation to observe the instructions of its priesthood, and give obedience to its quasi-divine kings (dictators, presidents, corporation executives) has become unconditionally accepted, as the inevitable price for achieving what the Egyptians hailed as Life! Prosperity! Health!—or in latterday terms, an economy of abundance. This new basis for absolutism is so rational and seemingly so democratic in its assumptions, that the organizers of the new megamachine no longer would need the paraphernalia of Divine Kingship. Scientists and technicians like Leonardo, whose eyes were on concrete inventions and improvements in the industrial and military arts could not realize that the greatest improvement of all—or, it now turns out, perhaps the greatest threat to human improvement—would lie in the megamachine’s mechanization of the art of government. With that final assemblage of power, symbolized by the invention of the atom bomb and its immediate use, all of Leonardo’s worst nightmares were transformed into tangile realities.

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