The Seven Da Vincian Principles: Sfumato (“Going up in Smoke”)- A Short Essay

“O men of Athens, that God only is wise; and in this oracle he means to say that the wisdom of men is little or nothing; he is not speaking of Socrates, he is only using my name as an illustration, as if he said, He, O men, is the wisest, who, like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is in truth worth nothing.”

Socrates, Apology

(Painting by Leonardo Da Vinci)

Michael J. Gelb introduces the Da Vincian principle Sfumato as an approach to uncertainty where one takes that feeling of uncertainty and turns uncertainty to a quest for knowledge. Throughout the chapter, Gelb mostly explores how Da Vinci used this feeling of uncertainty as part of his drive to learn everything. For example, Da Vinci was fascinated with people who had facial disfigurement and, unlike the people of his time, he was drawn to them and sketched them. Da Vinci’s innate desire to embrace uncertainty can also be seen in his painting “Mona Lisa,” where her smile is purposefully ambiguous and leaves the observer wondering about the woman in the portrait.

Socrates, in Plato’s Apology, espouses a similar appreciation of the unknown, aptly pointing out that true wisdom comes from an understanding of the unknown. Socrates asserts that those who think they are wise are never truly wise; only by acknowledging that there are many things that you do not know can you open your mind and allow yourself to truly be wise.

Both Socrates and Da Vinci’s understanding of the unknown, that it should be embraced in order to truly understand the world, is a powerful concept. It is the reason why ideas and fears stemming from fear of the unknown, such as racism, fail the test of logic. It’s why thinking that you know the answer sometimes leads you to miss what is truly important. Sometimes the answer to your problem lies in first acknowledging that you do not know the answer. Clearing up your mind past assumptions and preconceived notions can clear the path to the right answer.

Post Submitted by: Jesse Chiang


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