“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”Isaac Newton. Sort of… explanation at the end of the piece.
One of the ugliest things about the current generation of humans is how highly it thinks of itself relative to the generations that came before us.
Even though humans have been around for thousands and thousands of years, each generation building on the progress handed to it by the last, going two steps forward and one step back but advancing nonetheless… somewhere we got the idea that around two or three decades ago, we finally got it right. We’re the peak of human civilisation. Everything before us was “less-than.” We’re the end of the line – as good as it can ever possibly get.
Not only is this definitely not true, it’s a dangerous attitude. Pride comes before a fall.
“It’s okay. The people before us didn’t know any better”
We tend to look down our noses at the people who came before us – the people who actually built the world that we call “our own” – with a curious blend of superiority and condescension.
Firstly, we see anybody from before the 1900s (and at times anybody from before 2019) as primitives, as savages, as unrefined. But even we realise this judgement is a little bit unfair. And so to restore balance, and make us feel like good, fair people, we add in a dollop of what we’d like to think is empathy, or the benefit of the doubt, but is in fact downright condescension – “of course they were all those things, but they didn’t know any better back then, did they?!“
We mock Elizabethans putting white shit all over their faces and dying of lead poisoning – we’d never put anything harmful in our bodies, would we?
We laugh about wacko religious zealots burning innocent young girls at the stake on the off-chance that they might be a witch – we’d never allow our religious beliefs to stop us treating each other with dignity, would we?
We can’t believe those doctors who, when Ignaz Semmelweis proved that washing hands rapidly reduced the death-rate in hospitals, mocked him and refused to accept his irrefutable proof – we’d never ignore the scientific proof of an expert and let people die unnecessarily would we?
We shake our heads in disbelief at all the people who fell for Adolf Hitler, and say “we’re far too wise now to be misled by somebody blaming all our country’s problems on one convenient ethnic target.” Hmmm. Trump? Duterte? BREXIT?
“But we know better…”
The thing is, we actually do know better. We literally know the best anyone has ever known. As a whole, the human race has a more complete grasp of every form of knowledge now than it is ever has. We might not use our knowledge wisely every second of the day, but we do have the knowledge.
Our mistake? We let our progress – which is astounding – go to our heads. We arrogantly assume that because we know the best yet, that we know the best anyone will ever know.
What are they going to mock us mercilessly for in 2100? I don’t even want to think about it.
So what to do?
Have a little bit of humility.
Recognise that we’re simply part of a timeline. We’re one scene in a giant Bayeux tapestry.
Our arrogance is in presuming our generation to be the most important and impressive part of the tapestry. I think we can’t help but think that because it’s our generation – it’s now. Have you ever noticed that the values people should apparently live by always eerily reflect whatever the dominant values were at the time the person espousing them came of age? It’s all just a little bit convenient.
By accepting our relative smallness – grasping our true position in the world, and in history – we are free. It is an incredibly heavy and unproductive burden we carry – thinking that we’re the logical end-point of civilisation, and that all generations before us were merely striving to get to where we are now. Let go.
It’s not that we’re shit. We’re just not as massive an improvement on the people before us as we like to believe.
Isaac Newton and his Giants
Isaac Newton was being very humble in the quote at the beginning, acknowledging that his work wasn’t his alone, but that hundreds of other thinkers before him had laid the groundwork and set him up to discover what discovered.
But what makes the quote even better is that it wasn’t originally his! A similar sentiment has been traced back to the 12th century – to Bernard of Chartres – after which it was was passed down, and passed down, until in letter one day in February 1676 Newton found himself using it.
So even Newton’s quote about standing on the shoulder of giants was only possible by… standing on the shoulder of giants.