The Mindful Mona Lisa: Machiavelli, Marlowe, and Alchemic Illusions of Security | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

The Mindful Mona Lisa: Machiavelli, Marlowe, and Alchemic Illusions of Security

By Max Herman


For this fiftieth blog about La Joconde, we might do well to consider Christopher Marlowe’s cautionary tale of Dr. Faustus. 


An alchemist by trade, Faustus’ request of the evil spirits to which he indentures himself reads like a laundry list of contemporary global tech solutions for supply chain, surveillance, consumer products, and autonomous military platforms, all wielded by obedient algorithms:


     EVIL ANGEL. Go forward, Faustus, in that famous art

     Wherein all Nature’s treasure is contain’d:

     Be thou on earth as Jove is in the sky,

     Lord and commander of these elements.

          [Exeunt Angels.]


     FAUSTUS. How am I glutted with conceit of this!

     Shall I make spirits fetch me what I please,

     Resolve me of all ambiguities,

     Perform what desperate enterprise I will?

     I’ll have them fly to India for gold,

     Ransack the ocean for orient pearl,

     And search all corners of the new-found world

     For pleasant fruits and princely delicates;

     I’ll have them read me strange philosophy,

     And tell the secrets of all foreign kings; [….]

     I’ll levy soldiers with the coin they bring, [….]

     And reign sole king of all the provinces;

     Yea, stranger engines for the brunt of war,

     Than was the fiery keel at Antwerp’s bridge,

     I’ll make my servile spirits to invent.


These technical priorities of Faustus are vividly modern, as are his politics which resemble Machiavelli’s: not aspiration to dialogue or higher ethical harmony but means to gain the upper hand by autocratic realpolitik using superior tools.  In many ways this simple speech circa 1592 previews today’s global technology in all its dilemmas, escalations, vast hopes, and accumulating tragedy.

Cervantes, in contrast, wrote his comic novel Don Quixote (1605) the year after Marlowe’s play was published.  It mostly ignores alchemy; and despite his many adversities the Knight of the Rueful Countenance did not encounter or cause tragedy per se.  He did act however as an itinerant creative spirit, investigating and assessing his society with imaginative rigor, and often voiced profound if ironic modern sentiments like “experience is the mother of all sciences” (echoing Leonardo, and foreshadowing Bacon’s Novum Organum).  Fascinating recent scholarship explores parallels between early modern Spanish literature and today’s cognitive neuroscience (such as the “enactive cognition” model of Varela, who was, along with his co-researcher Maturana, inspired by Cervantes’ protagonist to coin the term autopoiesis). 

The epistemology of experience in the sciences and arts during the Renaissance was clearly undergoing seismic change.  All the aspiring disciplines – medicine, physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics – lacked modern instruments but realized nonetheless the crucial yet overlooked role of direct observation, evidence, and testing of hypotheses by experimental method.  Pamela Smith’s work traces how “artisanal epistemology” in medieval fields such as alchemy, metallurgy, and painting infused and informed both science and philosophy. 

Leonardo did not believe in alchemy as science, explicitly rejecting the transmutation of metals, but he certainly understood its metaphoric aspects.  In an apt reflection on ethical principle in art and science he wrote “if the thing loved is base, the lover becomes base,” and he equally foresaw human environmental damage in his cautionary fragment “Of the Cruelty of Man.”  He understood how the new earthly elements of art and science, technology and engineering, would transform the planet in ways that would be chosen by humans for good or ill.  Goethe’s later Faust and even Norbert Wiener’s golem (a machine that thinks for us and selects our moral choices) show how the misguided alchemist remained a cautionary modern symbol. 

Among Leonardo’s inspirations and precursors in his ethos of planetary techne was Dante, fellow Florentine and champion of art and science guided by experience and conscience.  Both favored an expansive moral awareness to guide human technology in contrast with the Faustian logic of power, domination, and unimpeded control recommended by Machiavelli.

Perhaps befitting Leonardo’s unique insights on these existential questions, he has been chosen as the subject of documentarian Ken Burns’ upcoming film (part one of which is titled "Disciple of Experience").  His creative legacy continues to evolve and instruct in yet another era where force and fraud jeopardize constitutional democracy, sustainable development, and peaceful civil society. 



Next blog: action, decision, esperienza