Quick trawl through the internet to find the derivation of that idea:
Well Isaac Newton, yes. I knew that one. With typical modesty he wrote of his work to Robert Hooke in 1676, saying, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
Not original though. Newton apparently found the metaphor in the writings of one John of Salisbury – a twelfth century author and theologian who rose from Anglo Saxon roots (not easy in Norman-dominated England in the early 1100’s) to become Bishop of Chartres.
Still not original, though, for John was quoting Bernard, a colleague of his at Chartres, who was the chancellor of the cathedral school there in 1124.
Here, via John, via Wikipedia, is Bernard’s idea:
Bernard of Chartres used to say that we [the Moderns] are like dwarves 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.
At this point I could easily waffle off into an appreciation of said Bernard. Hadn’t come across him before, but I was rather taken by some of his philosophical ideas. I’ll resist the urge for now, though. I want to get back to those giants.
Let me start by making it plain that the ones Bernard was referring to were almost certainly classical philosophers – Neo-Platonists by the look of it. The ‘magnitude’ he spoke of was intellectual rather than physical.
The giants I’d like to meet have left a more cryptic legacy. Sadly, Wikipedia won’t be able to help me to reach them.
Popular culture has two very different views of our far-distant ancestors. Firstly there is ‘Stone Age Man’ – and Woman, obviously. Anthropologists will lead us back through fossilised bones, carefully carbon-dated, belonging to African ancestors clutching lumps of stone and animal bone, and beyond them back to tree-dwelling ape-like beings. Wind the clock back still further and our ancestors are seen crawling from the seas and originating in a potent slime on a planet poised to bring forth life.
The second concept of the Ancients, though, is as different from the above as could be imagined. Instead of our modern, technologically advanced society being viewed as the pinnacle of an evolutionary process, we look back to the Giants – the ancestors who held knowledge and yes, even technology which would put ours to shame.
They could be another, now-extinct species whose flowering ceased in one of those cataclysms caused by comets, say, or volcanoes, leaving only tantalising remnants – physical giants with huge bones or strangely elongated skulls, hidden away in museum vaults by those who fear spoiling the story.
Perhaps they are our own ancestors – people like us who evolved to reach a golden age in Mu or Atlantis before sinking, almost without trace…
They could be incomers from other stars, other dimensions: the gods perhaps – worshipped and depicted by our ancestors as they swooped down from high Olympus or interstellar craft to intervene in human affairs and perhaps human genetics before flying off and leaving us to find our own paths. I have to admit to a personal preference for this story. It seems to fit, and channelled sources are supporting it. See, for example, this comment in answer to a recent query I put to the Guides who wish to be known as Higgins in Cheryl Jensen’s Ask Higgins blog:
There was a time when the race that created mankind lived alongside you and they taught your predecessors how to utilize the positive and negative energy of the Earth’s magnetic field
Whoever they were, their presence in our folk memory and mythology is persistent. They are a very real part of our heritage.
We stand on their shoulders – you and I, Isaac, John, Bernard, his Greek philosophers and whoever inspired them… Do we see further than they did, or are we elevating ourselves too high?
Should we climb down and search more carefully amongst the clues they left for us – the carvings and structures, folk tales and mythology, or trust that access to their knowledge lies within us all, if only we have the confidence to reach for it?