Not all great inventors were accused of heresy, and certainly not all heretics were endowed with exceptional creative capacity; however, there is definitely something to be said for thinking outside the confines of accepted dogma. An examination of political, philosophical, scientific, and literary histories leave little doubt that it was the risk-takers and free-thinkers who instigated humanity’s most important evolutionary strides.
Liberal arts programs emphasize the importance of critical thinking and questioning as central to both the advancement of our societies and our self-awareness as individuals. And although heretic thought is still widely regarded as threatening, it is often the motive force behind any worthwhile discovery and innovation.
Take a look at these three ground-breaking heretic thinkers who withstood persecution to follow their creative visions:
Leonardo Da Vinci
During his reign as one of Europe’s most beloved artists, Da Vinci was accused of a wide range of heretical behaviors. Liberal arts courses with an art history focus often underscore his run-ins with the church and his insistent refusal to embrace the conventions of the day. Where the church urged citizens to eat meat, Da Vinci followed a strictly vegetarian diet (a punishable offence in those days); in the face of criminal prosecution, he pursued a homosexual lifestyle; and in direct discord with accepted religious views, Da Vinci routinely performed dissection of human corpses – all in the name of furthering his creative pursuits. By resisting the status quo, Da Vince’s creative genius was afforded room to grow. He left behind not only artistic masterpieces, but also a prolific collection of invention ideas – flying machines, hydraulic pumps, musical instruments, and in one instance a moveable battle barricade!
Although Galileo was himself a religious man, he did not balk at the notion of looking beyond the Bible for the purposes of scientific discovery. On the other hand, the Church regarded an earth-centered universe as irrefutable fact, rooted in scripture - and was completely unwilling to explore alternatives. Even though previous Copernican believers had been burned at the stake, Galileo persisted in furthering their ideas and adding to their research. He chronicled celestial bodies with his telescope, charted ocean tides, and invented navigation tools. Galileo’s ultimate persecution by the Church (including threats of torture and confinement to house arrest) now stands as an iconic symbol of heretic resistance – and the folly of oppressive societal regimes.
Liberal arts college students are well acquainted with humanity’s historic resistance to new ideas – and they understand that these errors in judgment are by no means confined to the distant past. A scant 30 years ago in the 1980s, Australian medical researcher Barry Marshall was condemned by the scientific community for his assertion that bacteria – rather than stress or acid – contributed to the formation of stomach ulcers. Marshall suffered criticism and alienation at the hands of his peers – much like the great thinkers of centuries past. And with a similar persistence, undertaking considerable personal risk, Marshall infected himself with the bacterium Helicobacter pylori to prove his theory was legitimate. In 2005, his purportedly heretical ideas won him a Nobel Prize.
Who is your favourite heretical inventor or theorist?