The View From the Shoulders

Photo by Sir Godfrey Kneller - http://bit.ly/cd6FRt

We climb down from the giants’ shoulders to act differently because of the vision we have had.

If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants — Isaac Newton, 1676

This saying, adapted by Newton from the 12th century thinker Bernard of Chartres, speaks to our reliance on others. We all inherit a past which we didn’t contribute to. Infrastructure, culture, and technologies of various kinds all shape our lives for better and worse.

The First Giants

The first giants are literally bigger than we are. Our early caregivers and authority figures (often our biological parents) are people we rely on to induct us into the big, wide world. We are born with few instincts and profoundly dependent. In a very real sense we learn how to live.

These early parental figures teach us our native language and explain to us, or model for us, the social codes prevalent in our culture. They also model much more — the way to conduct relationships, attitudes to other groups, sense of being embodied — as well as numerous particular skills, like cooking, cleaning, or bike riding. All those childhood tasks that we mastered usually involved some kind of support or teaching from older people.

Heroes

Normally we find that there are people we admire. Sometimes these are people who seem splendid, who seem to be remarkable human beings. They may be those who have brought more justice to the world (Ghandi or Aung San Suu Kyi for instance), religious figures (like Jesus, Schweitzer, the Dalai Lama), or people who have lived differently to the usually socially acceptable way (Oscar Wilde, and hermits for instance).

Often our heroes are more specialised — they are in a domain of activity that we pursue (a hobby, craft or some other field of interest). A runner will admire runners; a painter will be gripped by a particular painter, and so on.

The Many Who Are Not Giants

This is probably the place to insert a word about the great majority of us who are not giants. We have all inherited languages capable of expressing beauty, giving clarity to our thoughts and communicating our love to others. These aren’t the result of one or many heroes but the contributions of many people. There are a few who stand out (the one who stands out by far in English is Shakespeare), but our language is the result of the efforts of millions of ordinary people. Likewise for our musical tradition, the values entrenched in our culture and much of the rest of our culture.

Standing and Seeing

We stand on giants’ shoulders in order to see — not to feel good about ourselves or to praise the giants. Standing on giants’ shoulders is something we do for the outcomes we get — a clearer view of our lives and situations.

Feeling good about ourselves or praising those we are standing on can get in the way of the view — we are looking inwards or downwards instead of taking in the view. What can we do about this?

I think we can be grateful for the contribution of those who have gone before and acknowledge how good we feel. We can admire the genius of Aristotle without needing to copy his logic. We can learn from van Gogh’s brushwork and use it in our painting without spending our whole time congratulating ourselves on how well we have copied van Gogh.

We can learn from our heroes and use what we have learned in our lives. To do this it can help to be clear about why we admire our heroes. While we may be gripped by a particular person and overwhelmed by what we see as their genius, eventually we come to the point where we learn from them.

Using the Giants’ Gifts

Standing on a giant’s shoulders is a very uncomfortable place to attempt to imitate them. Standing on the giant’s shoulders means using what we have learned, applying what we have learned in the situation that we see. To stand on a giant’s shoulders certainly means knowing what we have learned and from whom — perhaps even acknowledging that we have been shaped profoundly by those who have gone before.

But all that we have received can be used. To be lost in admiration may be understandable (especially at first), but we move beyond this. We climb down from the giants’ shoulders to act differently because of the vision we have had.

Why bother with the giants?

Those in a particular field who seem so remarkably accomplished and insightful can be difficult. By definition they are well beyond where we are. It will perhaps take hard work to learn what they have to teach and how to use their knowledge. So why bother?

In my experience, we bother because it pays dividends to do so. With the giants we can usually go back and learn from them again and again — a picture from Matisse can repay many viewings, and Western philosophy returns to some figures repeatedly (Plato, Kant, and Nietzsche to name just three). The work of the giants contains riches. Think of how those in religious traditions return, even daily, to the writings of or about the founders.

In my experience, dealing with the giants may be difficult, but it means going deep and wide.

The Reward

If we can learn from the giants, and use what we have learnt from them, then we gain the reward: innovation. We find a new way — to paint, or build a house or conduct a conversation.

I’m wondering who the giants have been in your life. Perhaps it is your parents or a particular role model? I’d like to hear in the comments about the giants in your life and what you have learned from them.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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