On the Shoulders of Giants

On the Shoulders of Giants

I often think of Wisdom as Sophia, not a goddess exactly, but rather a symbolic character representing or embodying Philosophy. In my mind, Sophia would be something like my mother, with whom I had many years of fascinating conversations back and forth. She often surprised me with her observations about life. She had a lot of wisdom, especially in her later years.

But then I have long been a student of History, so Wisdom is not quite something abstract, to be distilled and shared in conversation with an older person one loves. We historians are constantly referring to the past; looming large in our mental landscape are the extraordinary events, achievements and personalities of times past. In fact, that is the only part of History that interests us; the rest is not worth recording. And this can be a barrier to understanding.

I believe this all goes back at least to the Neo-Platonist philosopher Bertrand of Chartres ( 1130), who, according to John of Salisbury, said “we [the Moderns] are like dwarfs perched on the shoulders of giants [the Ancients], and thus we are able to see more and farther than the latter. And this is not at all because of the acuteness of our sight or the stature of our body, but because we are carried aloft and elevated by the magnitude of the giants.”

What, are we really dwarfs perched on the shoulders of giants? I don’t think so!

It took me awhile, in the university world, to put my finger on something that displeased me about the way academics are trained to think (particularly in Liberal Arts disciplines), and it is something very medieval. Academic thought works backwards from the present to the past; academics are often derivative; they create a context where they need to discuss and analyze the great thoughts of people who came before them; they rehash what those other people have already said; and then, barely emerging from this context they have created, they conclude with what they think. As if this, inevitably, were the path that progress in thinking had to take. They are looking both to the past and their own future at the same time, and in so doing they are rhetorically associating themselves with the greatness that has gone on before them.

Academics look both to the past and the future at the same time, as if negotiating transitions in thought

Think for a moment of the philosopher Bertrand of Chartres. He was living at the beginning of the Gothic age (the mid-twelfth century) when European intellectuals felt incredibly inferior, compared to the ancients, before whose brilliance they cowered. No wonder they felt inadequate, looking up at the daunting example of classical giants like Plato and Aristotle. If Bertrand travelled to Rome, for example, he would everywhere have seen the ruins of an imperial city which had had 1.5 million inhabitants at its high point a thousand years before, but whose population had now come down to about 20,000. The city was crowded with the ruins of past splendour (the Coliseum, the Forum, amphitheatres, palaces, baths, aqueducts, bridges, roads), and in the face of this, the twelfth century, by comparison, had very little to offer. Bertrand was chancellor of the Cathedral School of Chartres, but the cathedral there, as we know it today, had not yet been built. Everything in Rome was there to convince Bertrand of the catastrophic inferiority and weakness of his own age, of what had been lost. The medieval view of the mind was thus rooted in a feeling of intellectual and cultural insecurity, and all philosophical discourse pointed back to the greatness of the past.

We need to break with this idea of dwarfs on the shoulders of giants.

Which is not to say we should turn our back on Classical Antiquity. When I look at the achievements of the classical world, I see a lot of thinking that is not quite irrelevant today, although the story-telling is compelling (for example in the myths of Plato, Lucretius and Ovid). It is pointless to reach back to Plato and Aristotle and try to strike a balance between their Idealism and Realism, or to trace back the beginnings of Biology to Aristotle. The thinking itself, the conceptual frameworks, are no longer so useful. Life has moved on.

However, what I do admire in Classical Antiquity is the way thinkers, particularly in Greece and Sicily, were able to figure things out from scratch, to wrap their minds around abstractions, like Aristarchus of Samos (310-230 BC) who calculated and understood that the Earth revolved around the Sun, or Archimedes (287-212 BC) who used the Pythagorean theorem to approximate the value of π (pi), and thereby calculate the area of a circle.

The point is not that these men were giants on whose shoulders we are perched; the point is rather that they were incredible innovators; they were able to think outside of the box; and if they have anything to teach us today, it is how to think, rather than what they thought in their day.

Innovative thinking is fluid and adaptable, not rigid and immutable



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