Standing on the Shoulders of Giants Doesn’t Make You Small

I’ll be honest: That title is more or less my entire argument. But, having committed to the idea, I now feel obliged to stretch it out over a period of one to two thousand words.

Allow me to set the scene (and fill some space) with an anecdote:

So, it was GCSE History, which is now long enough ago to be a depressing reminder of the transience of human experience, but not so long past as to have been forgotten entirely. The class had been split into groups for an exercise in which we would, for some reason, debate the relative significance of the separate years comprising World War 1. As we all know, the best discussion occurs when opinions are imposed at random upon the participants, and so each group was assigned a year to champion. Now, WW1 is pretty densely packed. There are marquis, first-in-history type events in every year. No filler arcs in WW1. As it transpired, however, the 1914 group had been granted an insurmountable advantage. All they had to do was remark that without the outbreak of the war in that year, any given aspect of any later time would not have happened. This sense of linear dependence created the illusion that 1914 was inherently, objectively, the most important year.

Total injustice. Image: Wikipedia.

That isn’t really what I’d like to talk about (and yes, I am still bitter that even the combination of Jutland and the Somme couldn’t give 1916 a slight bump), but it’s related.  What I’d like to discuss is the unhealthy obsession that the collective consciousness seems to have with past heroes, at the expense of people currently being just as impressive today. It’s a pattern of putting the focus on the giants (with their lovely shoulders) rather than on the people still growing on top of them, of worshipping the people that laid the first stones whilst shrugging at the people still building. If you’ll pardon the hyperbole (and it’s only a shade thereof), no playwright will ever be as good as Shakespeare, nor any president as good as the founding fathers and/or Lincoln, nor any intellectual as good as an Ancient Greek with loosely corresponding interests (there’s a lot, take your pick), and so on and so forth for basically every field of human endeavour old enough to have found its consensus pantheon.

Partly, of course, this stems from the passage of time being the ultimate in tabloid journalism – simplify and exaggerate. If popular opinion dictates that somebody was a master of their field, then it’s practically a law of nature that time will see the instances of mastery enshrined and those of mediocrity forgotten. Everybody knows Romeo & Juliet. Not so many people know Timon of Athens. It can also be said that people simply want heroes, and that it’s hard to make a hero out of somebody about whom you actually know much – thus the recourse to the past.

Both perfectly interesting topics in and of themselves, but for today I’d like to focus on the unhappily reductive notion that precursion entails superiority. Consider the following quote from the woman I love, Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach:

Image result for sag etwas, das sich von selbst versteht

More commonly placed over generic quote-backgrounds as:

Image result for be the first to say something obvious

The point being, of course, that neither personal genius nor a fortunate stroke of such is actually required to go down in history. What really matters is coming in first with something fundamental, a feat that naturally becomes rarer and rarer as the number of available fundamental things to invent, discover or state becomes lower and lower. This isn’t to say that fundamental things are necessarily obvious, nor that their discoverers are unworthy of appreciation. It’s just to say that the extent of the adulation that they may receive is perhaps not really commensurate to the difficulty of their accomplishments, and in any case it might be nice to redistribute some of that love and respect on to the numerous, equally talented people who were simply born too late to be the first to say something obvious in their particular areas of interest. It seems that people neglect to consider the truism that, under normal circumstances, only one person can be first.

Look at it this way: those Ancient Greeks that I mentioned were certainly all formidable thinkers, and much of what they said is rightly regarded as being of timeless significance. Equally, a lot of those timelessly significant ideas are, with the highest of regards, kind of obvious. At the very least, they are well within the grasp of any intelligent, engaged mind with the same interests under the same circumstances. The most immediate example for me is the Socratic Paradox, but there are myriad similar examples across myriad fields – hell, let’s even throw in the perennial symbol of Ancient Greek innovation, democracy. Ultimately, I truly believe that the lofty status of these individuals within the chronicle of human thought owes far less to their specific genius than it does to their specific dates of birth.

Without wishing to hammer the same nail too many times, remember the “My Man, Sir Isaac Newton” video?

To me, it’s fairly emblematic of this whole concept. Isaac Newton was undoubtedly a staggeringly good physicist with an equally potent line in mathematics, and we’re well beyond obvious discoveries by the time he’s operating – which makes it, if anything, somewhat easier to accidentally deify him. The impression that deGrasse Tyson gives, and maybe it’s just my interpretation, is that the discoveries mentioned are the proof of Newton’s unique brilliance. In other words, that it took Newton, and specifically Newton, to make them. Moreover, the video shows (again, my interpretation) the regrettably widespread perception of discovery as being the highest form of achievement, and of fundamentality as the measure of discovery. Ultimately, I don’t think that these things are true. In all likelihood, there were Newtons before Newton, there have been Newtons since, and there will continue to be Newtons going forward. It’s just that these people, existing at different points in the slapstick, drunken march of human progress (not to mention every other difference) will necessarily have expressed their excellence in different ways.

The actual message to be gleaned from all this is an uncharacteristically positive one. I’m not trying to say that the great and the good throughout history have all been overrated, unworthy beneficiaries of cognitive bias and fortuitous timing. I’m trying to say that the great and the good of today are being underrated, pitted against their equals in a contest with unfair, fallacious errors against them. They’re the Battle of the Somme trying to compete with the assassination of Franz Ferdinand before a judiciary that only cares about causation. The Einsteins, the Mozarts, and the Aristotles of the modern era are flying under the radar because the world has changed, and the criteria of appraisal massively favour their predecessors. Today’s Euclid can’t write an equivalent to Elements, because that time has been and gone. However, they can certainly do something equally spicy. It will just occur much further down the mathematical rabbit hole, and so appear much less impressive according to a decidedly muddled set of values. So, while it’s great that Neil deGrasse Tyson, a relatively loud and beloved voice in science, is going out and explaining what was so good about Isaac Newton, I’d much rather he take that time to explain what’s so good about one of the many no doubt extravagantly brilliant people currently standing both on Newton’s shoulders and in his shadow.

Although, as ever, I may be fundamentally mistaken.

Not to Be Reproduced, 1937 by Rene Magritte

The End.

P.S. Ever noticed how frequently sci-fi and fantasy fiction gives us precursor races/cultures that are vastly superior to the present civilisation? No further comment.

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