Confucius Standing on the Should of Giants

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Confucius standing on the shoulder of giants
by Alessandro Benedetti

Bernard de Chartres, a French philosopher who lived in the 12th century posed that humans can be compared to dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants. He explained that “dwarfs” can see at a greater distance, not because of any sharpness of sight on their part, or any physical ability, but because they are carried high and raised up by the “giants”.[1]

This concept was further expanded by later philosophers and scientists and exemplifies the idea that truth can be discovered by building on previous discoveries.

Isaac Newton himself admitted about his work: “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.’ [2]

Although this process might have been expressed first in words by De Chartres, learning from the great teachers of the past is no new concept in the fact that it has characterised human activity since the troglodytes.

ccw1Source: Wikimedia Commons – Wikimedia Commons

In Greek mythology, the blind giant Orion carried his servant Cedalion on his shoulders.

The question that can be posed here is: Was Confucius himself standing on the shoulders of giants?

Confucius was convinced that China had already achieved a Golden Age of development in the early Zhou Dynasty and that human and political endeavour had degenerated shifting away from those values. To Confucius, the past offered a model to look at.

In his analysis he often refers to the Book of Odes (or Book of Poetry):

“By means of the odes one may inspire, one may reveal one’s thoughts, one may gather with others, one may voice complaints. Near at hand, they can guide you to serve your fathers; more distantly, they can guide you to serve a ruler” – The Analects 17.9

He often referred also to the Book of History (Shu Jing). Confucius nurtured deep admiration for this text and for the educational values, the ritual practices, the legends, and the institutions recorded in it.[3]

Although books have been an important source of knowledge for Confucius, they were not the only one. The ancient Chinese oral tradition was also an inspiration of social teachings, like the myths and stories about the legendary sage kings Yao, Shun, and Yu or the Kings Wen and Wu and their successor, the Duke of Zhou. These rulers are associated with a Golden Age of social and political harmony to which Confucius often refers.

But ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ also implies that, like yin and yang, history is replete with poor examples of leadership to avoid and not only good ones to use as a model. This is why Confucius often narrated to his students the stories of ineffective rulers like Bo Yi, the Duke Huan of Qi, Guan Zhong, and Liuxia Hui.[4]

In the 21st century humanistic resurgence of Confucian teachings, especially in China, those standing on the shoulders of Confucius care not only about standing on intellectual shoulders over 2500 years old, but rather on millennia of previous learning that shaped Chinese cultural understanding.

[1] Robert K. Merton (1965), On The Shoulders of Giants: A Shandean Postscript, Free Press
[2] Stephen Hawking (2003), On the Shoulders of Giants: The Great Works of Physics and Astronomy, Running Press, p.725,
[4] Daniel K. Gartner (2014), Confucianism: A very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press

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