My vote for history’s most audacious man is Fra Mauro. He was a lonely monk living in an insignificant monastery on an island near Venice. From his speck of an island, Mauro dreamed he could map his entire known and unknown world of 1450. That was half a century before Columbus, Magellan and Vasco da Gama. That’s like drawing a map our universe beyond the big bang today.
In Mauro’s time, feudal era thinking discouraged map makers exploring what they didn’t know. Why discover a world that was all known and predetermined? All questions were answerable by the church which derived divine truth from the authority of scripture. Could sacred institutions, scripture, even the all-knowing Pope be fallible? No! Not only inconceivable but frightening. If divine authority was fallible, then we’d be required to think and learn for ourselves. Nobody but nobody wants to find themselves in a condition where they are threatened but the danger is unknown. In the feudal world, everything was known.
Ancient map makers filled the void of unknown lands and seas with monster, dragons and frightening biblical images. This was a very human response to the agony of confessing their own ignorance, vulnerability or striking to collect facts about what lurked in the unknown.
By contrast, Renaissance map makers like Mauro took a huge leap in advancing human knowledge by labeling the unknown as “Terra Incognita”. It would take a seaman with a death-wish to sail out of sight of land, risk falling off the edge of the world and into the face of sea dragons. That’s a lot of risks to learn about the vast unknown. On the other hand, a label of unknown territory invites exploration.
Mauro set about the stupendous task of pushing back the unknown and learning the dimensions and shape of the entire planet. In his pre monastery days, he had been a merchant traveling the Mediterranean and later spent his time hanging out with sailors around the Port of Venice. From this experience, he collected rumors, facts and dimensions of the planet. Predating the Age of Discovery, Mauro printed a fairly accurate map that included the location and shape of China, Korea, Japan, India, Scandinavia, and all of Africa. In 1450, the Americas hadn’t yet been discovered by non-Scandinavian Europeans. The only part of the Americas that was included in the map is a reference to Greenland which is mentioned by the name of Grolanda.
Were the original available today, the Mauro map would be worth millions to collectors. Fortunately, copies were made at the time and are available today.
We need open-minded guys like Mauro in today’s world. I sense we will lose faith in truth based facts. According to Daniel Boorstin “The greatest obstacle to discovery isn’t ignorance but the illusion of knowledge. Yes, I hear facts debated today but is anyone being persuaded? Can anyone be talked out of their chauvinistic tribal positions? Most of us listen to media broadcasts that confirm our identity based reality. Open acknowledgment of fallibility is in short supply.
Political and even scientific debates sound like we never left the predetermined world of Feudalism. If we hold to the illusion of our own knowledge, then why even bother to debate or seek enlightenment?
Early map makers left the world of unconscious incompetence for the world of conscious incompetence. Mauro’s era admitted that they did not know beans about the geography of foreign lands and set about discovering. With this admission came a quantum leap in our understanding of our world. Frontiers were pushed back, knowledge expanded and we became more than we had been before. These dusty old maps depict and chronicle the noblest part of our species’ evolution as we entered the Age of Discovery.
Do we want to go back to predetermination? The illusion of infallible knowledge? Not me.
I chose Free Will because it gives all of us the ability to learn and chose.