Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
The physical sciences are intrinsically traditionalist in the sense that they are always building on the discoveries of the past. Such traditionalism was epitomized by the great physicist, Sir Isaac Newton, when he stated that, if he had “seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants."
Today’s scientists are always building on the foundations laid by their illustrious forebears, thereby enshrining tradition at the heart of true science. It is no surprise, however, that Sir Isaac Newton was not merely standing on the shoulders of the giants of science but on the shoulders of the giants of philosophy and theology also. It is significant, for instance, that the aforementioned phrase for which Newton is famous was borrowed from Bernard of Chartres, who coined the phrase in Latin (nanos gigantium humeris insidentes). According to John of Salisbury, writing in 1159, "Bernard of Chartres used to say that we are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more than they, and things at a greater distance, not by virtue of any sharpness of sight on our part, or any physical distinction, but because we are carried high and raised up by their giant size." According to the mediaeval historian, Richard Southern, Bernard was comparing the modern scholar of his own time, i.e. the twelfth century, with the giant philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome. In such a statement he was no doubt alluding to the influence of Plato on St. Augustine but was also unwittingly prophesying the influence of Aristotle on St. Thomas Aquinas in the following century.
Yet it would seem that Bernard also had theology as well as philosophy in mind when he uttered his timeless metaphor. This is suggested by the stained-glass windows in the south transept of Chartres cathedral, which depict the four Evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) sitting on the shoulders of the four major prophets of the Old Testament (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel), the latter of whom are shown as giants in stature compared to the relatively diminutive stature of the authors of the Gospels. The truth is that the Evangelists see further than the Old Testament prophets because they have witnessed the coming of the Messiah of whom the prophets had spoken. Thus we see that Newton’s use of the metaphor to signify the traditionalist nature of physics dovetails with its usage by Bernard of Chartres to signify the traditionalism of philosophy and theology, thereby suggesting the transcendent unity of the three sciences as servants of the all-encompassing unity of faith and reason. It is also worthy of note that Newton may have borrowed the phrase from his near contemporary, George Herbert, who, in Jacula Prudentum (1651), wrote "A dwarf on a giant's shoulders sees farther of the two”. In any event, Herbert’s use of the phrase illustrates the role of literature as an agent of the same unifying principle of fides et ratio of which physics, philosophy and theology are servants.
Considering the unity of faith and reason, it should come as no surprise that the Church has been a major contributor to the progress of the physical sciences throughout the centuries. Nicolaus Copernicus, the founder of modern astronomy, was a Third Order Dominican; Basil Valentine, one of the founding fathers of modern chemistry, was a Benedictine monk; Thomas Linacre, founder of the Royal College of Physicians, was a priest; Athanasius Kircher, a pioneer in diverse scientific disciplines including microbiology, astronomy, and physics, was a Jesuit; Nicolas Steno, a pioneering anatomist and the father of geology and stratigraphy, was a convert to Catholicism who became a priest and, as a bishop, a leading figure in the counter-reformation; René Just Haüy, the pioneering mineralogist and father of crystallography, was a Premonstratensian and honorary canon of Notre Dame cathedral; and Gregor Mendel, the father of genetics, was an Augustinian monk. Such a procession of scientists, all of whom were priests or in holy orders, constitutes a veritable scientific eminenti and illustrissimi. Apart from nailing the lie that the Church has been an enemy of scientific progress, this litany of great Catholic scientists illustrates that science is standing on the shoulders of faith as well as reason.