On the shoulders of giants

With our awards for speaking about being on the shouldrs of giantsLast year, I wrote about winning the ACT Rostrum New Speaker of the Year award with my speech on the topic of Silence. I was delighted when, this year, my son entered the new speaker competition and won the award.

It did, however, mean that we had to speak in competition last night, on the topic of On the shoulders of giants. Well a picture’s worth a thousand words – and there’s the outcome: William took home the New Speaker award, and I took the plate for the 2017 Speaker of the Year.

If you’d like to read the 1000+ words I delivered on the topic – about how reading fiction lifts us to the shoulders of giants because stories are awesome and the human brain is amazing – here they are:

Let me tell you about a giant.

“Every afternoon, as they were coming from school, the children used to go and play in the Giant’s garden.”

It was so lovely it made them happy, but when the giant returned after a seven-year absence, he was not happy to find them there.

“’What are you doing here?’ he cried in a very gruff voice, and the children ran away.

‘My own garden is my own garden,’ said the Giant; ‘anyone can understand that, and I will allow nobody to play in it but myself.’

So he built a high wall all round it, and put up a notice-board.

TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED

He was a very selfish Giant.”

It’s easy enough to be selfish – our own things are ours, whether they are gardens or books or ideas. But to stand on the shoulders of giants means we must share ideas, because it is the knowledge and understanding gained by those who have gone before us, which lifts us to the level of a giant’s shoulders and allows us to see further, and clearer, than we otherwise would.

The story I began to tell you, The Selfish Giant, is one of Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales. I thought, in speaking on the subject of being on the shoulders of giants, I would begin with a literal giant, written by a literary giant, to consider how the metaphorical giant of the great body of literature raises us up, so we can see further, and understand how to be better human beings.

I have read The Selfish Giant many times – and each time, even though I know the fate of the giant, it reduces me to tears.

How can Oscar Wilde, dead for almost 117 years, make me cry?

I know I’ll find the giant under his shroud of blossoms, at the end.

How can any story or poem, especially the ones I am familiar with, make me cry? I know that love will end, friends will betray, lives will be lost. I know that the dog will die.

It’s no surprise.

If we come right down to it, all of these stories are just strangely shaped black squiggles on a white page. What gives them such power?

We usually speak about seeing further from the shoulders of giants in relation to science. And science can help us understand the power of reading fiction. Research into the human brain says we’re primed for language, but not for reading.

So, it’s a slow process, the initial decoding of the letter shapes, and the sounds, progressing to recognising whole words, and the brain making the connection between the spoken word and the written one. But, if you’re lucky enough not to struggle with reading, if you ‘get it’ and become a fluent reader, with a good vocabulary, something extraordinary happens in your brain.

Your eyes see squiggles, but your brain comprehends not just the word, but the meaning, sometimes the multiple meanings, and the implications, and the images and the ideas.

You fall.

You are immersed in the story.

Your perception literally changes – MRI studies indicate that the parts of the brain used for spatial placement and physical activity are activated when you read – in other words, you know you are sitting on the couch with a book, but at the same time your brain perceives that you are in the drawing room at Longbourn, that you are on the battlements of Minas Tirith, that you are being chased in the dark on your way home from your school’s Halloween pageant.

So the act of reading about something stimulates the same neurological regions as doing that thing. Stop and think about that for a moment.

Think about the things that you will never do, would never be able to do, whether it is catch the golden snitch so your Quidditch team can win, or fight yourself free of slavers on a brig off the coast of Scotland with the assistance of a Jacobite rebel, and realise that reading lets your brain feel as if it has done those things.

Reading puts you in another person’s shoes. It lets you perceive the world through the eyes of someone who is not like you. To feel what they feel. Not just figuratively – science tells us this is happening at a biological level.

You might be thinking, so what?

What difference does that make?

That gift, that opportunity for empathy, is the moment where you are lifted, beyond yourself, and put on the giant’s shoulder.

Theory of mind is a psychology term for being able to understand that you have beliefs, desires and intentions, and that others also have them, and that theirs’ may be different to your own. Someone with a strong theory of mind has greater empathy, and is more compassionate, more likely to volunteer in their community, and more tolerant of diversity. It’s someone who can see over the walls that we build around ourselves – the selfish walls that we think will protect what is ours, but which only lead to misery.

Reading fiction develops your theory of mind. Fiction gives you greater empathy because it lets you see the world through another’s eyes.

Yes, it can make you cry – but it’s worth it.

I am not, and I will never be, a man, a king, and a hero.

But when I read the words Tennyson’s gave Ulysses:

It little profits that an idle king, by this still hearth, among these barren crags, Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole unequal laws unto a savage race, That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me”, I do know him – I understand his longing, his melancholy, and his frustration.

I will never be a 19th century Russian landowner, but how can I read Tolstoy’s description of Levin looking at Kitty, in Anna Karenina, and not be affected by his love: “He stepped down, trying not to look long at her, as if she were the sun, yet he saw her, like the sun, even without looking.”

I am not a selfish giant. Oscar Wilde’s tale cautions us against selfishness, against walling ourselves off from others. We only have to look around us, at the world today, to see the danger of building walls – the danger of being selfish, and having no empathy.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, Jane Smiley, described the job and ambition of a writer as being to develop a theory of how it feels to be alive.

By sharing their theories, writers allow us to go beyond our personal walls – to use the books we read to build a ladder to reach the shoulders of giants. With them, we can develop a theory of mind from many different viewpoints – male and female, black and white, rich and poor, young and old.

Oscar Wilde also said we are all of us in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars. Reading helps us develop our understanding of others, our empathy for them. It helps us be less selfish. Reading lets us climb out of that gutter, and onto the shoulders of giants.

And as a passionate reader, I tell you, it’s from the shoulders of giants that you get the very best view of the stars.

2 thoughts on “On the shoulders of giants”

  1. An award winning speech indeed Louise. The term ‘Going beyond our personal walls to reach the shoulders of giants,’ truly captures the magic of surrendering to the power of reading -and writing too . . . Congratulations to you and William 🙂

  2. For those of you who wish to read my (award-winning!) speech:
    Mr Chair, ladies and gentlemen. Tonight, as always, we stand on the shoulders of giants. You might not be aware of them. But they are there, always influencing our thoughts in a myriad of subtle ways.
    The giants I am referring to are the great philosophers of the past, the men and women who sought knowledge and in that seeking, made many of the fundamental ideas of modern society. There are some who say that philosophy is without value in the modern world, but come with me as we journey across the shoulders of the giants of philosophy, and see the world through their eyes.
    I will skip the earliest philosophers, long ago in the lands that now form Greece. Even though they are the titans on which almost all philosophy is built, I do not have the time to give them the detail they deserve in this speech. Instead, I will begin with the father of modern philosophy, Rene Descartes.
    Descartes was well aware that he was not the founder of philosophy, being well read in the works of the ancient Greeks. He brought philosophy, not to the masses, but to the fashionable set of Europe, ensuring its continuation outside of dusty libraries and outdated forums. His hundreds of thousands of words are, of course, too long to quote here, and touch on many topics outside of philosophy, but his core philosophical ideas can be condensed down to two: “I think therefore I am”, and the mind/body duality. “I think therefore I am” is the idea that we cannot be certain of anything except that we are conscious and therefore exist. Anything outside of those two points cannot be proven, as the entire world we think is real could be a deception.
    Proving that philosophy still has value in the modern world, the idea that the world could be a lie, and that nothing outside of consciousness could be proved, was a key plot point for one of the most popular movies of the twenty first century, The Matrix.
    The mind/body duality was Descartes’ idea that the mind was good while the body was bad: the mind was “of the spirit”, a tiny fragment of God’s light, sent to guide His favoured creations, while the body was “of the mud”, a physical thing, obsessed with the pleasures of the world.
    Cartesian dualism continues to cause problems in modern thinking. It’s an attractive idea, the idea of dividing the whole world into two parts, but by its very nature oversimplifies.
    Descartes, much as he was a giant of the Enlightenment, didn’t have all the answers. For instance, being a French philosopher, he never expected to be happy. Much more pro-happiness, however, was the English philosopher, Jeremy Bentham.
    Jeremy Bentham, the father of Utilitarianism, argued that the moral good was the greatest good for the greatest number. How would we measure good? By pleasure. How would we measure pleasure? By lack of pain.
    Of course, many revolted against this theory. Some argued that it made a mockery of the “high pleasures” of art, opera and learning, and dragged society down into the gutter. And we’re back to Cartesian dualism, the placing of the pleasures of the mind above the pleasures of the flesh.
    Other were against it because it ran contrary to their own philosophies.
    One such man was Immanuel Kant. His philosophy, which still bears his name as Kantian Ethics, was that morality should be based on universal rules. The core problem with Kantian Ethics is that universal rules are very hard to make. They have to be a just and fair way to live your life, applicable in every situation.
    This can lead to contradictions: for instance, according to Kantian Ethics, lying to save someone’s life is a moral failure, while telling the truth is the right thing to do, but that will allow them to die, and you’re also not allowed to let people die.
    Obviously, Kant can’t have all the answers, and in our current post-fact world, what relevance are questions of ethics and truth? Well, it’s human nature to question. So, let’s ask some more questions, and take a trip up to the shoulder of Ayn Rand, the giant of the American right and the solidifier of the idea of profit-as-god.
    Like Kant, Ayn Rand saw the world in absolutes. However, while Kant saw the highest aim as following universal rules, Ayn Rand saw the highest aim as being the maximisation of personal wealth. To Ayn Rand, all that mattered was personal wealth and freedom. Her utopia was a world where work ethic determined wealth, and wealth determined success. Obviously, if you were poor, it was your own fault, not that of luck or societal conditions.
    But, Ayn Rand wilfully ignored the adverse circumstances which meant that those born into wealth would be forever above those born into a poor community, no matter how much or how little they worked. For theories exploring the lot of those who were not fortunate enough to receive million-dollar loans from their father, we need another giant of economic philosophy. Let’s look to Karl Marx.
    His idea of a utopia was the polar opposite of Ayn Rand’s. His utopian ideal was a world in which nations, classes, and money had all been swept away, where the means of economic production were owned by the workers who ran them, where goods were taken from each according to his ability, and distributed to each according to their need.
    However, when he looked out of his window into the Victorian world beyond, he saw a world where the many bent and broke their backs for the profits of a few, a long way from his envisioned utopia. Even for those who built their countries around his theories, there was still an unbridgeable gap between his ideal and their reality.
    So, Marx’s worker’s utopia doesn’t work, Any Rand’s unbridled capitalism runs rampant over the poor, Kant’s strict rules can’t ever really function, and the idea of dividing the world into two parts leads to a multiplying of problems.
    So, then. Can the envisioned ideals of a philosophy ever truly match up with their implementation in the real world? Or will we forever fall short, trapped by our own failings, prevented from reaching any of the proffered utopias or answering any of the great questions?
    There are those who say that the problem with standing on the shoulders of the giants of philosophy is that our head is in the clouds. Is philosophy of any use in everyday life? We will always have questions. According to Marx, “It is not merely the philosopher’s job to interpret the world, but their job to change it.”
    On a clear day, standing on the shoulders of giants, we can see what those changes must be.

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