“The greatest deception men suffer is from their own opinions.”
~Leonardo da Vinci
Although he is best known as a master artist, da Vinci (1452 – 1519) is renowned as one of the greatest creative geniuses in history. He is regarded as the prime example of the “Universal Genius” or “Renaissance Man”, because his areas of interest included just about every conceivable field of study.
I smiled when reading these words by Leonardo for the first time, because it reminded me of another, rather vulgar, simile used to illuminate the meaning of the term opinion. In a free, democratic society one is entitled to express his/her opinion at will – guaranteed by the right of freedom of speech. As a matter of fact, I am exercising this right in the composition of this reflection.
The teacher in me insists that I begin by defining my terms. Plato, the great philosopher of ancient Greece, explained that opinion or common belief is quite subjective and somewhat uncertain. Opinions extend from our preferences or tastes to our views about many subjects of interest to most people. These include views held by learned people who have acquired expertise in a particular subject. So, while some opinions are quite indefensible, others are grounded by fact and logic.
In our free society, we are clearly entitled to hold and express opinions about anything that interests us. But we are not entitled to have our opinions valued equally to anyone else’s views on a given topic. If I hold a point of view that can be defended with indisputable data and arrived at logically, then it merits respect. While my right to express that opinion must be respected, the opinion itself must be judged on its merits.
In this quote, Leonardo da Vinci warns us against self-deception because of the opinions we hold. Too often, people confuse their opinion with the truth. Just because I might think that women are better suited to hold leadership positions than men, does not make it so. Nor is the opposite point of view any more valid, because both are based upon blatant sexism. Gender has nothing to do with one’s ability to lead, as history is rife with examples of great leaders of both genders.
I see two dangers here. The first, is that if we arrive at an opinion and decide that it is the only correct view to have on the topic, then we deceive ourselves. Not only that, but in our dogged determination to convince others to agree with our truth, we perpetrate an attitude of closed-mindedness. This, in turn, closes off any meaningful debate so that differences of opinion become shouting matches that can turn violent. At best, we harm no one but ourselves by our stubborn rigidity; at worst the condition spreads like an intellectual plague throughout society.
The other danger is that we can, in our self-righteous zeal, determine that other, conflicting points of view are not valid and worthy of respect. Such a conclusion, in a democratic society, can result in the dictatorship of the majority where opposing views are suppressed. Such a closed society cannot grow and flourish because it is not open to change. This is not healthy for an individual or for society at large.
Because the United States is the leader of the free world, the Presidential election process underway currently is of great concern, not only to Americans, but to their friends and allies alike. Republican frontrunner, Donald Trump has come to dominate media attention throughout this campaign. His rhetoric of social division and condemnation of the status quo is accompanied by sneers and much fist waving at adoring crowds of followers. Although I find Mr. Trump personally repugnant, I fear his power more than the man himself.
Trump’s demeanor is confrontational, unyielding and blatantly disrespectful. He postures before the media as the quintessential bully, which seems to delight his supporters. We have seen several instances of protestors being confronted violently by those who support his candidacy for President. His message of social intolerance towards immigrants and non-WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) Americans resonates with people who feel disenfranchised economically and are eager to blame their troubles on easily identifiable scapegoats.
Donald Trump is not the first extremist to use the tactics of social division and economic scapegoating to win political office. Adolf Hitler and the Nazis used these and other, more ruthless tactics to gain control of Germany’s democratic government by 1933. Hitler was one of the greatest demagogues in history, who appealed to popular desires and prejudices to establish authoritarian rule and abolish freedom and individual rights.
Probably our greatest safeguard against this type of extremism is to heed well the words of Leonardo da Vinci. We need to be open to the ideas of others and defend their right to express them. It is also important realize that at no time does any particular person or group have exclusive ownership over wise choices for society. To be a healthy society that encourages growth, we need to free ourselves from deceptions emanating from our opinions. Thank you, Leonardo da Vinci!