Standing on the Shoulders of Giants #16
By Graham Bell
There are some phrases that we use regularly without really knowing where they came from.
I was reminded of this recently while doing some fundraising work for the local village hall. Lesley has already written about this in her recent blog, ‘Anyone for Hot Mix Lime’ #13. As we worked to put together a funding package which would carry out essential renovations and repairs on the 126 year old Cove Burgh Hall, it became apparent that we were building on work done by countless others, past and present.
The phrase is commonly attributed to Isaac Newton.
“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
Newton didn't originate it though. The 12th century theologian and author, John of Salisbury, used a version of the phrase in a treatise on logic called Metalogicon, written in Latin in 1159. Translations of this difficult book are variable but the gist of what Salisbury said is:
" We are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants. We see more, and things that are more distant, than they did, not because our sight is superior or because we are taller than they, but because they raise us up, and by their great stature add to ours."
What a great paragraph! I’ve had the privilege of working with a number of organisations that have a long history and have come to realise how much we owe those who went before us. Indeed, it is one of the great characteristics of human beings that we work to do things and make things that will long outlast us. As the Greek proverb goes:
“A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”
We like to illustrate our blogs with photos and pictures that help communicate the message we are trying to get across. I tried hard but couldn’t find any photo of me on anyone’s shoulders! Physically I am of a scale that would make that difficult but metaphorically I have been on the shoulders of many! But I was reminded of a few photos taken from the back of a mule, trotting along the rim of the Grand Canyon.
As you can see I was given a perspective of the Grand Canyon that I certainly would not have seen had I just been walking along the path. Not only did I cover a lot more miles, but it gave me extra height to get a better view. Moreover, that mule had travelled these paths many, many times. It was a lot more sure-footed than I could ever have been.
But back to the serious point. We do learn and make progress from the work of others, and in turn we prepare the way for others in the expectation that they will clamber on to our shoulders.
Benjamin Jones had a different slant on this. He said
"If one is to stand on the shoulder of giants then first you must climb up their backs, and the greater the body of knowledge, the harder this climb becomes."
We can feel daunted by the prospect of the climb, but it is worth it. And the better we do our job, the steeper the climb for those who come after us. But that climb will give our successors an even better view.
So another view from my mule atop the Grand Canyon. And that has to be the topic of a future blog, when I reflect on what I learned from that mule. And, just for clarity, I certainly was not standing on the back of that mule on the edge of the canyon; more like hanging on!
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