The Da Vinci Soul

Regular readers of this blog will know I’m a devotee of the intelligence, inspiration and insights provided by the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme. What will not be as apparent is that I also predicate its influence extends beyond  the assiduousness and inexorability of its issue based reporting, allure of its all-round inquisitiveness and of course the language (both acerbic and erudite), and as an entity has a semiotic quality where themes have memetic potential. In such a climate of deep thinking, and observing, sometimes things less “on topic” or caught in a different frame gets missed. Such is life: while we have it.

However on this occasion timing and serendipity brought to my attention the “Thought for The Day” broadcast on 1st May, and I listened to it in full. The presenter was the Reverend Joel Edwards, who is International Director for Micah Challenge , and I am pleased to say the sequelae from his topical and thoughtful broadcasts on Radio 4 Today programme is that this worthy project receives a good dose of the oxygen of publicity.

Though his piece has a religious exposition and is predicated on a belief, it makes powerful points and has a universal appeal, because it questions the very nature of the soul and the idea of God. It also has a precious, fragile quality as it was a radio piece and not a written piece, which I have transcribed. What better time than the quiet of a Sunday to consider the human condition and read a well constructed and reflective piece intoned with introspection?

We all from time to time do a some of soul-searching. The question is do we ever find the soul we have been looking for, or the answer to the thing that has been perplexing us through introspection alone? The truth is “very likely” if it is a personal moral dilemma – as this is informed by our own instincts, intuitions and moral perspective – even more so if needs an action and “No” if the meaning of life the universe and everything (or more commonly known as cosmology, ontology, epistemology) is the source of the quandary. 

The whole area of metaphysics – a subject united by the need to understand and explore reality and abstraction in the hope of establishing a notion of what “being” and “knowing” really means – has given us some of the best written poetry and prose. Leonardo Da Vinci,  sought solely scientific explanations but as the Reverend Joel Edwards points out this approach still has its limitations – the “current” canon of  knowledge being one – and we need to look deeper and wider if we are to transverse the mountain of our own ignorance and discover what the true essence of human existence is and give meaning to the concept of the “soul” if only on a personal level.

This week the Queen’s gallery will begin to host the most comprehensive exhibition of Leonardo Da Vinci anatomical studies ever displayed. By any measure Da Vinci was a genius of the renaissance period sculpture, mathematician, engineer, architect and inventor his work such as Mona Lisa, The Last Supper and The Virgin of the Rocks are a testament to his enduring gift with the paint brush.

Leonardo‘s anatomical work was not only a sample of his meticulous dedication to detail it was also ahead of its time, no one else would come close to his study on Cirrhosis of liver for two hundred years. But in spite of his futurist brilliance Leonardo was still also a child of his own time. Da Vinci was influenced by Aristotle’s idea the soul was found in the part of the brain known as senso comune (“common sense”. Influenced by this idea, he was convinced that the human soul was psychologically located in the brain. And his work set about to prove it: which just goes to show that each of us is also shaped by the prevailing wisdom of our present world.

The human soul has always been elusive, even for the best minds. It is hard enough to describe the synergy between the idea of a soul and the material world. Talk of eternity is even more difficult.

How does a person gain the whole world, and lose his soul? And how does a person gain the whole world and how does a soul die? Is the soul the phantom ‘me’ which floats off to heaven? Or is it inextricably who we always are? These are huge questions; it’s so much easier to limited “soul” to a category of music.

But oddly I am with Da Vinci in one respect. The soul is indeed an intricate part of God’s grand design in our humanity. It’s what it means to made in God’s image and likeness. But the soul which some believe to be stronger than death itself, is never immune from the limitations, myths and meanings in our physical world.

In can pollute behaviour or elevate us to better ways of being human. Meshed in a coil of intuitions, instincts, emotions and values by which we live the soul lives in the material world but should never be defined by it. When it does it dies.

Our human capacity for mesmerising evil and misdemeanour is a dark reminder of what the Christian faith calls sin: the death of the soul. But our propensity for beauty and self-sacrifice is still a reminder of what it means to be made like God. 

© All Rights to reproduced text belong to the BBC and the Reverend Joel Edwards