Thursday, October 9, 2008

Why Michelangelo Studied Cadavers

In a recent issue (fall 2008) of Phi Beta Kappa’s “The Key Reporter”, is a very nice article.  I have re-typed it here so you can read it.


Why Michelangelo Studied Cadavers

The Spiritual and Spirited Dimensions of Scholarship

by Richard Leo Enos, Professor; Texas Christian University

Penniless, frantic, hounded by publishers who wanted him to make good on the advances they had made for a book that he had not yet even begun to write, Victor Hugo locked himself in his house, sealed away all clothes but those he would wear in his home and wrote for months on end!  The result was a work of genius:  The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  Recounting this famous story in the forward to the novel, Nina Rosenstein observed that Hugo had written one of the masterpieces of literature “in one tremendous burst of creative energy.”(1)   What engaged Hugo to unleash this tidal wave of genius?  Consider also the stories surrounding Michelangelo, who was so driven to perfection in his art that he obtained papal permission to view dissections of the human body in order to study anatomy and kinesiology.  Why would Michelangelo seek dispensation from what the Church (at the time) would consider blasphemy—the defilement of the human body—for the sake of his art?  Why would Jean-Francois Champollion devote much of his life to deciphering Egyptian, driving himself relentlessly while constantly facing criticism by would-be competitors?(2)  We can dismiss Hugo, Michelangelo, Champollion – and countless other “geniuses” – as talented by obsessive fanatics who drove themselves beyond all reasonable limits to produce unparalleled contributions to the arts, sciences, and humanities.  However, a better route to take would be not to waive these efforts away as magnificent aberrations, but rather to pause and consider what unleashed their talent.

Pausing to reflect on luminaries such as those mentioned earlier leads us to a basic reassessment of a fundamental notion:  what does it mean to be smart and successful?  Two prominent Greek thinkers help to clarify the meaning of being smart and successful.  The Athenian educator Isocrates has given us the secret of how talent can be realized.  In his Antidosis, written at the age of 82, Isocrates claimed that there are three traits that must exist for a smart and successful student: talent, practice and experience.  Talent is native ability, the gift from God, what Cicero called ingenium.  In our cyber-terms, we think that someone is well wired or programmed.  It is not unusual, for example, to see children who seem to be light-years ahead of their peers on the soccer field and in the classroom, but often these early bloomers fade into obscurity.  I believe that this fading happens not because talent is diminished but that it is un(der)developed and the individual is lacking in the other two traits that Isocrates sees as essential for the smart and successful person:  practice and experience.

In his book, Get in the Game, Hall of Fame baseball player Cal Ripken, Jr. cites how New York Yankee great Lou Gehrig believed that he was born with no “natural ability” but, through countless hours of extra practice, became one of the game’s greatest players.(3)   Driven to perfection, Gehrig had learned that practice teaches success from failure and (of equal importance) how to extend the boundaries of failure to success.  Hall of Fame basketball coach Bob Knight once observed that what is more important than the will to win is the will to prepare to win.  That is, nurturing and developing our talent comes about through  the price we pay to develop it.  Practice, however, is far different than the third necessary trait for successfully being smart:  experience.  Practice anticipates, and seeks to prepare for, what the situation that we hope to perform in may be like…it is our best guess.  Experience is what we learn during the actual performance.  For this reason, it is impossible both to teach experience and to replicate all the knowledge that comes from experience.  Our question remains, however, how do we come to realize what talent, practice and experience have to do with being successful and smart?

Aristotle, our second Greek thinker, provides insight to, and a resolution of, this issue.  in the opening passages of Rhetoric, Aristotle maintained that people not only have talent but a dynamis or power.  This capacity can lay dormant, but when energized (energia), the dormant talent becomes activated; individuals are willing to work hard, and to risk failure, through performance.  I believe that the reason some “smart” people never accomplish much of anything is because they (for a variety of reasons) never tap into that dynamis; they never realize the talent buried within them.  I believe that hard work, effort, and risk-taking will not only activate talent but make people realize that all of us have much more ability than we realize.

There are lessons we can learn about what it means to be smart and successful from the sages of the past.  it is the spiritual and spirited side of scholarship.  Talent unrealized is talent wasted and what we need to nurture and teach is the passion that helps each of us find our talent, be satisfied with the effort to develop it and be proud of the best effort we offer to perform it.  Our Phi Beta Kappa students have recognized only some of their talents, they have doubtlessly energized some of that talent and have achieved success, but that was preparation for the real voyage they are about to embark upon.  may that performance result in adventurous voyages whose experiences navigate them to their own home ports successfully.


1.  Gramercy Books, 1995, p 8

2.  See C.W. Ceram’s Gods, Graves and Scholars:  The Story of Archaeology, 2nd ed., 1972, pp. 100-32.

3.  pp. 12-13.


Vijay said...

Great article, Ramona.
Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

I have to say that what was said makes sense.

But I think I would like to add another trait besides the mentioned talent, practice and experience; respect.

Respect to knowledge, respect to those that co-contribute to our success, respect to our subjects and respect to the Creator.

I think respect is really important to be successful which only a smart person realize.