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Leonardo da Vinci's aphorisms and fables

Some of Leonardo's aphorisms...

  • You can have neither a greater nor a less dominion than over yourself. 
  • Experience, the interpreter between formative nature and the human race, teaches how that nature acts among mortals ; and being constrained by necessity cannot act otherwise than as reason, which is its helm, requires her to act. 
  • In rivers, the water that you touch is the last of what has passed and the first of that which comes : so with time present. 
  • Shun those studies in which the work that results dies with the worker. 
  • Nothing can be either loved or hated unless it is first known. 
  • You do ill if you praise but worse if you censure what you do not rightly understand. 
  • Iron rust from disuse ; stagnant water loses its purity and, in cold, water becomes frozen ; even so does inaction sap the vigour of the mind. 
  • Where the descent is easier, there the ascent is more difficult. 
  • Every part is disposed to unite with the whole, so that it may thereby escape from its own incompleteness. 
  • A drop is that which does not detach itself from the rest of the water unless the power of its weight is more than its adhesion to the water with which it is joined. 
  • The earth is moved from its position by the weight of a tiny bird resting upon it. The surface of the sphere of water is moved by a tiny drop of water falling upon it. 
  • Two weaknesses leaning together create a strength. Therefore the half of the world leaning against the other half becomes firm. 
  • A thing that moves acquires as much space as it loses. 
  • Science is the captain, practice the soldiers.
  • Whoever in discussion adduces authority uses not his intellect but rather memory. 
  • The idea or the faculty of imagination is both rudder and bridle to the senses. 
  • This benign nature so provides that over all the world you find something to imitate. 
  • A good painter has two objects to represent : man, and the intention of his soul. The first is easy, the second difficult. 
  • Call not that riches which may be lost ; virtue is our true wealth and the true reward of its possessor. It cannot be lost ; it will not abandon us unless life itself first leaves us. As for property and material wealth, these you should hold in fear ; full often they leave their possessor in ignominy, mocked at for having lost possession of them. 
  • Of streams of water equal in length, breadth and declivity, the swiftest will be the one of greatest depth. 
  • The goldfinch will carry spurge to its little ones imprisoned in a cage : death rather than loss of liberty. 
  • Feathers shalt raise men towards heaven even as they do birds-that is, by letters written with their quills. 
  • The age as it flies glides secretly and deceives one and another ; nothing is more fleeting than the years, but he who sows virtue reaps honour. 
  • While I thought that I was learning how to live, I have been learning how to die.

... and three of his fables

The cedar, arrogant by reason of its beauty, despising the plants which were round about it, caused them all to be removed from its presence, and then the wind, not meeting with any obstacle, tore it up by the roots and threw it on to the ground.


Once upon a time the razor, emerging from the handle which served it as a sheath, and placing itself in the sun, saw the sun reflected on its surface, at which thing it took great pride, and turning it over in its thoughts it began to say to itself : "Am I to go back any more to that shop from which I have just now come away? No, surely! It cannot be the pleasure of the gods that such radiant beauty should stoop to such vile uses! What madness would that be which should induce me to scrape the lathered chins of rustic peasants and to do such menial service ? Is this body made for such actions as these? Certainly not! I will go and hide myself in some retired spot, and there pass my life in tranquil ease." And so having hidden itself away for some months, returning one day to the light and coming out of its sheath it perceived that it had acquired the appearance of a rusty saw, and that its surface no longer reflected the sun's radiance. In vain with useless repentance it bemoaned its irreparable hurt, saying to itself : "Ah, how much better it would have been to have let the barber use that lost edge of mine that had so rare a keenness! Where is now the glittering surface? In truth the foul insidious rust has consumed it away." The same thing happens with minds which in lieu of exercise give themselves up to sloth ; for these like the razor lose their keen edge, and the rust of ignorance destroys their form.


The flint on being struck by the steel marvelled greatly and said in a stern voice :"What arrogance prompts you to annoy me ? Trouble me not, for you have chosen me by mistake. I have never done harm to anyone."To which the steel made answer :"If you will be patient you will see what a marvellous result will issue forth from you."

At these words the flint was pacified and patiently endured its martyrdom, and it saw itself give birth to the marvellous element of fire which by its potency became a factor in innumerable things.

This is said for those who are dismayed at the outset of their studies, and then set out to gain the mastery over themselves and in patience to apply themselves continuously to those studies, from which one sees result things marvellous to relate.