the illegitimate son of a Florentine lawyer and a servant girl. He was tall,
athletic, and quite handsome. He had considerable aptitude for arithmetic but
no understanding of Greek or Latin. He had a terrific singing voice and was
skilled at playing musical
instruments. But most importantly, he was an expert at seeing. He could see
more than others could see, and he could draw. He could draw “like an angel”.
His name was Leonardo da Vinci.
age of fourteen, he was taken by his father to apprentice under the great
Andrea del Verrocchio in Florence.
He learned much, and the pupil quickly eclipsed the master. In Verrocchio’s
painting, the Baptism of Christ, two details stand out: the depth of the
landscape in the background, and the expressive vibrancy of the angel holding
Christ’s garment in the left corner of the painting. Neither was done by
Verrocchio. They were by his young apprentice. Leonardo da Vinci was destined
to be the most influential artist of his time, and perhaps of all time.
Leonardo did not intend it to be that way. His ambition was to observe,
comprehend, and explain nature with his works. He wanted to understand everything
the eye could see through the art of discernment. His greatest teacher was
experience which he observed with his own eyes and recorded on canvas with
was interested in many, many things. “He was an anatomist, botanist, biologist,
physicist, aerologist, astrologist, paleontologist, mechanic, painter,
sculptor, architect, engineer, map maker, designer of pageants, and more.”**
His interests were so diverse, he often left his painting projects unfinished.
at 30 years of age, Leonardo left Florence to work for the duke of Milan,
Ludovico Sforza, as a military engineer designing “catapults, battering rams,
scaling ladders, cluster bombs, mobile bridges, cannons, mortars, ships that
resist shelling, armored tanks,”** even a submarine. All these creations were
to implement an activity he hated — war. He couldn’t kill even an animal. He
was a vegetarian. Quite a contradiction. But he was always very interested in
how things worked, and it gained him employment.
was also a prodigious writer, keeping volumes and volumes of notes. They were
written backwards, not to keep them secret, but because he was left-handed he
found it easier to record his observations using “mirror writing”, the text
being read correctly in a mirror’s reflection.
carried his notebook everywhere, always ready to record his observations with a
quick sketch — the movement of an arm, the flight of a bird, the flow of a
river. How things moved and why was a lifelong fascination. He discerned the
working of our muscles, a student of the human form. He used this knowledge to
lend naturalness and grace to his paintings. “The human foot,” he said, “is a
masterpiece of engineering and a work of art.”
studied the movement of water and understood its power, thereby proposing
canals and hydraulic machines for a variety of uses.
escaped his eye. His notes are infused with the belief that knowledge does not
come from books but from experience. He wrote, “The rules of experience are all that is
needed to discern the true from the false.”
seeing for yourself, was the one sure way to acquire knowledge. His two most
famous pieces – The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa – are testaments to the rich
experiences of a truly discerning eye and the hand of a master.
life, Leonardo moved to France,
where he died in 1519 at the age of 67. A stroke had left him partially
paralyzed, but his eye remained as keen as ever.
American College Dictionary defines discernment as “to perceive by sight or
some other sense or by the intellect; discrimination; acuteness of judgment, to
distinguish mentally.” Discernment is at the heart of ethics; it is the ability
to see right from wrong, to distinguish between good and bad. For those of faith,
discernment is distinguishing between what is of God and what is against God.
dentists are consummate discerners. We note daily the natural form of the human
tooth “as a masterpiece of engineering and a work of art” – the tracing of a
transverse ridge arcing from a cusp tip to a central groove, the guest
appearance of a Cusp of Carabelli on an upper first molar. We also observe the
graceful movement of these teeth as Leonardo observed the movement of an arm or
a leg. Our trade demands we be discerning observers of the human form and then
duplicate what we see. It’s just that our canvas and our brush are something
very different from his.
to be discerning on another level. We each need to judge for ourselves how we
frame our practices. This framework is our philosophy of practice, our
interpretation of what it means to be a dentist. Within this framework is our
canvas – our “nuts and bolts,” day-to-day practice of dentistry. On an even
grander scale, any artist, including Leonardo, is not historically judged by
one of his works alone but by his entire body of work. Likewise, dentistry is
judged as a profession on the accumulation of its entire work – every one of
our practices. This is not visual discernment, but discernment of the heart and
mind. This type of “seeing” is much more difficult. It involves training and
experience under the custody of our conscience.
Leonardo, discernment meant seeing the world as it is in order to put it on
canvas. Discernment to us means distinguishing between what is right and what
is wrong for us, our practice, and our industry. Let’s call it the Da Vinci
e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org or fax us at (612) 339-3618. We look forward
to hearing from you not only regarding this article, but also if you have any
ethical dilemmas you would like to present to the membership. Perhaps we can
help you decide what to do.
Churchill is Chair of the Minnesota Dental Association’s Committee on Ethics,
Bylaws, and Constitution. He is a general dentist in private practice in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
from Character is Destiny by John McCain with Mark Salter, 2005, Random House,
Inc., New York.
about Leonardo da Vinci obtained from Character is Destiny by John McCain with
Mark Salter, 2005, Random House, Inc., New