'Omar Khayyam and Leonardo da Vinci' - by Vigilant, Westralian Worker, 21 June 1918, page 2

Fitzgerald writes:

Vigilant’s rather puzzling juxtaposition of Omar and Leonardo. Until the last paragraph, he has, as he says, “stressed the points of coincidence” between them, and that may be an original observation, as well as interesting: each “a man of many parts”, each combining scientific and artistic…abilities.

“Any really great mind must, now and again, feel in sympathy with …the Khayyam wine philosophy”. It is “comforting in a doleful sort of way…to the fighter who, with bloody head…and sick sense of defeat staggers out of the conflict.”

The brief direct quotation from [Edward] FitzGerald’s 45th stanza (1st ed) only hints at a context where the strongest claims are made (say from Stanza XXXII) that “the Grape” offers the best solution to the difficulties and unexplained mysteries of life. This passage may well convey the feelings of one who was attracted to alcohol, and it may be the fulcrum of the whole article?…

[Vigilant’s] close knowledge of the Rubaiyat, and his repeated references to it, suggest its allure for him. But he invokes the case of Leonardo to refute Khayyam’s attitude of despair in a godless world, escape and inertia (“in some corner of the hubbub couched”). This man, of at least equal intelligence and talent, was “enlivened by a keen enthusiasm in the cause of humanity”. He believed “with all his soul” in the value of “great argument about it, and about”, and that mankind would emerge from its disputations and struggle to a more hopeful world”, believed in the certainty of progress…

The real Leonardo may not bear all the weight that Vigilant would put on him. With or without Leonardo’s example, however, it would be unthinkable for Vigilant to follow Khayyam and give up the struggle and opt for a less strenuous way of life.

An intensity of feeling lies behind such an article. [1]

Fitzgerald notes a light touch in Vigilant’s article:

His full name was nearly as long as the term of his natural life. Ghiyas Uddin Abul Fath Omar ibn Ibrahim al Khayyami seems rather a mouthful for a mere modern to remember, but in those days such things were common, and, after all, Omar’s father had little else to give his son.” [2]


Our Bookshelf graphic
Omar Khayyam and Leonardo da Vinci by Vigilant

During the eleventh century, when Europe lay steeped in the blackest night of the Dark Ages, a revival of learning was in full bloom in that ancient cradle of civilisation, the Plateau of Iran, “The Land of Light,” which we to-day know as Persia. Its high water mark was reached in the person of Abu Ali Ibn Sina, a profound and world famed scholar more commonly known in Europe by the latinised version of his name – Avicenna. But more familiar to the Western World to-day than Avicenna himself is his disciple Omar Khayyam – Omar the Tent-maker. He was the most gorgeous flower of his time. Born in poor circumstances, at about the opening of the eleventh century, he was fortunate, in his school days, in making the acquaintance of Nizam ul Mulk, who afterwards became Vizier to the Sultan, Malik Shah, and was able to advance his old schoolmate to the post of Astronomer Royal (to anglicise the title of the office he enjoyed). Omar, despite his heresies and his love of wine, held the post for the better half of his long life, which was spent in astronomical, mathematical and philosophic studies, in the composition of his Rubaiyat, or quatrains, and, above all, in deep and devout worship of the “shallow cup.” According to the theories of the saloon smashing fraternity, he should have died young. As a matter of fact – or, rather, of more or less reputable rumour, he died at the age of 109 years. Whether he would have lived either longer, or happier, without the help, or hindrance, of wine is, of course, an entirely different matter. His full name was nearly as long as the term of his natural life. Ghiyas Uddin Abul Fath Omar ibn Ibrahim al Khayyami seems rather a mouthful for a mere modern to remember but in those days such things were common, and after all, Omar’s father had little else to give his son.

Khayyam was a man of many parts. In addition to his mathematical text books, which were universally used in Persia, he wrote upon medicine, meteorology, the silting of rivers, and natural science generally. Probably his works upon these subjects exist somewhere today, but to the average modern they are as dead as were his Rubaiyat before they were translated and given re-birth by Fitzgerald.

The four hundred years following the Mahommedan era were centuries of glory for Islam. In the day of Omar its star was at the zenith. One by one Syria, Egypt, Africa and Spain, Persia and India, over-run by the hosts of the Prophet, had been offered the three-fold choice – the Koran, tribute, or the sword. For the most part they had chosen the Koran. In the wake of Mahommedan military power came Mahommedan scholarship. Through centuries which, in Europe, were marked by black ignorance, the glorious light that was kindled in the Golden Age of Ancient Greece was preserved in the Mahommedan universities of Spain – the oldest universities in Europe (in the modern sense of the term). But the soul of Europe was not dead. It blazed up in the glorious rebirth of the Italian Renaissance, and by a curious irony of Fate, the most precious flower of the Renaissance was in full bloom in the year 1492 – a year famous for two events. The first of these was the discovery of a new world by Columbus. The other was the final extinction of one of the crowning glories of the old world – the Kingdom of Granada, the last remnant of the Caliphate of Cordova.

Leonardo da Vinci, the sublime painter, was then in his fortieth year and his crowded life ran another 27 summers before his death. He was to the Italian Renaissance what Khayyam was to the Persian revival of the eleventh century. Both were apostles of freedom of thought: both anticipated the methods and ideals of modern science.

  Da Vinci’s imagination teemed with visions of the marvellous achievements of the present day. The steam-boat, the flying machine, breech-loading cannon, and mincing machines were amongst the problems to which he applied himself. He anticipated modern scientists in his speculations upon animal classification, ‘the laws of gravitation, the principle of the camera, the wave theory of light, the principle of canal construction, the circulation of the blood, and a score of minor matters. His studies of anatomy, which were undertaken, in the spirit of thoroughness that characterised his whole work, as an adjunct to his drawings of the human form represent the earliest serious investigations in this direction, at least since ancient times.

That his mind was that of the modern scientist is exampled by his favorite expressions – “anyone who, in discussion, relies upon authority, uses not his understanding, but his memory,” – “Truth, the only daughter of Time” – “Wisdom, daughter of Experience,” etc.

Of the art of Leonardo we will say little – just now. The marvellous painted drama “The Last Supper,” the haunting features of “Mona Lisa,” and the inimitable “Head of Christ” are close friends to every lover of the beautiful things of Earth. Our particular concern just now is the mind of the man – the mind that first grasped the concepts of modern science and modern humanism. For Leonardo’s scientific speculations were by no means mere mechanics, any more than his pictures were mere paint. They were enlivened by a keen enthusiasm in the cause of humanity. “The natural desire of good men is knowledge,” he declared. The “tearful complaints” of infants (which he ascribed to the use of swaddling bands) and the sufferings of lower animals were the subjects of frequent expressions of sympathy. Consideration for the weak and defenceless were by no means common virtues in the nineteenth century.

So far we have stressed the points of coincidence between Leonardo da Vinci and Omar Khayyam. But at the same time there yawns a great gulf betwixt them. The philosophy of da Vinci is the creed of youth triumphant, the creed of a man and of an age that believed in a New Heaven and a New Earth. Omar’s song is the swan-song of a dying world. Leonardo believed with all his soul in the “great argument, about it, and about.”” He firmly believed that one day mankind would leave the school-room by a more hopeful door that the one by which it entered. Omar had come to the conclusion that the school room was not even worth the entering – that human existence was a bad joke perpetrated by a malicious deity. Any really great mind must, now and again, feel in sympathy with Khayyam.

“And, in some corner of the hubbub couched.
Make game of that which makes as much of thee.”

Comforting, in a doleful sort of way is the Khayyam wine philosophy to the fighter who, with bloody head, battered armour, and sick sense of defeat, staggers out of the conflict. Thus indeed was it with Khayyam’s self. Though perhaps he knew it not he stood almost the last upon the battlefield of a lost cause, like Arthur at Morgarten. The ancient world was doomed, and Khayyam was the Last of the Ancients. Leonardo da Vinci, on the other hand, looked forward into vistas of New Worlds. He was the First of the Moderns – the John the Baptist of the Age of Science.


1 - 2. John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Records of Tom Fitzgerald. Curtin: Book discussions (largely from Our Bookshelf), 1917 - 1988. JCPML00653/36