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On the shoulders of giants

Posted by ESC on February 13, 2004

In Reply to: On the shoulders of giants posted by mystic on February 13, 2004

: This website attributes the phrase to Newton's letter to Hooke in 1676: "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." I don't know of an earlier use of the phrase in print, but the visual image goes back to the 13th century. In the stained glass of the south transept of the Chartres Cathedral, the tall windows under the Rose Window show the four major prophets of the Hebrew Bible (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel) as gigantic figures, and the four New Testament evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) as ordinary size folks sitting on their shoulders. The evangelists, though smaller, "see more" than the huge prophets (they saw the Messiah about whom the prophets spoke). I have heard it suggested more than once that Newton borrowed the image from Chartres.

A bunch of people said it, but it looks like Lucan said it first. From John Barlett's "Familiar Quotations":

"Pigmies placed on the shoulders of giants see more than the giants themselves." Lucan (A.D. 39-65) from The Civil War, Ib. II, 10 (Didacus Stella).

"I say with Didacus Stella, a dwarf standing on the shoulders of a giant may see farther than a giant himself." Robert Burton (1577-1640)from "The Anatomy of Melancholy" (1621-51).

"If I have seen further (than you and Descartes) it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants." Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) from Letter to Robert Hooke, Feb. 5, 1675/76.

"The dwarf sees farther than the giant, when he has the giant's shoulder to mount on -- Coleridge, 'The Friend' .