Wednesday, December 26, 2007
Dwarf On a Giant
Whenever I heard the well read people talking about our great philosophers and ancestors like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle in total awe and with great respect, I deduced that these people must have been larger than life. Almost anyone who had heard about them or studied about them seemed to hold their wisdom in absolute sanctity. So did I. I thought that their works must be very complex, profound and therefore incomprehensible by the ordinary minds.
When I started reading about these men and their works, I wondered what was so great about them. I found most of it very simple and ordinary. In fact I took pride in being able to criticize their works. Some writer seemed very cynical. Someone was preaching negative philosophy. Someone had written about something that is a matter of common knowledge. Some writing was totally hypothetical and not based on evidence. I concluded that most of the people who sang praises of these great men either had low standards or lacked any discretion of their own. They were blind patrons who would worship any person because the textbooks wrote about them or because they were told to do so by parents and elders. They never did an evaluation of anything themselves but simply did what hundreds of thousands of others did.
Consider Newton’s laws of physics.
The law on inertia says “An object at rest tends to stay at rest and an object in motion tends to stay in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.”
This simply means that a tumbler or a spoon when kept on a table will sit there until and unless you push them or move them elsewhere. Why did it require a Newton to say this? Even I know pens, spoons and tumblers don’t walk about.
All Socrates did was ask questions. “What is life?”, “What is success?”, “What is courage?”, “What is virtue?” and so on. He never bothered to answer any of those questions but left his students wondering as to what the answers were. As I can observe, all children between 2 and 3 do the same thing – ask a lot of questions, leaving the parents perplexed. Why? Socrates was even described as a fly(a gadfly) because of his irritating nature. He annoyed people by first asking them questions and then arguing both sides of those questions.
Aristotle, the Greek philosopher established the peripatetic school: peripatetic – meaning, walking or traveling about. Aristotle used to walk around and have discussions with his students, in the mornings and in the evenings. Now, how different was that from what my grandmother used to do when I was a child and refused to have food? She would walk me around and tell me stories from Panchatantra.
One of the creations of Aristotle in the field of logic was syllogism. I found it too complex to memorize. How ever it goes like this. Syllogism is an argument the conclusion of which is supported by two premises. The major premise contains the major term that is the predicate of the conclusion, and the minor premise contains the minor term that is the subject of the conclusion. Common to both premises is a middle term that is excluded from the conclusion.
It means, if A equals B and B equals C, then A equals C. Was it this theory that made Aristotle a great philosopher?
I wondered thus for a very long time. Were all these men really great or was it exaggerated by those who wrote history? But an experience in the recent past opened my eyes.
It was suggested to me by someone that I should think out of the box in order to be creative or innovative. Every time I tried to think out of the box, I concluded that everything that could have been discovered had been discovered. Everything that could have been invented has already been invented. Our scientists with their telescopes have explored the mysterious skies. All planets, stars, asteroids and comets have been identified and given names. We have sent our guardian angels to fly across the skies in the form of satellites and space shuttles. Our submarines have penetrated the abyss and touched the rock bottom. They have stolen from the ocean her pearls and precious stones. The continents have all been discovered and inhabited. There is no virgin land where you will not see the flag of some nation flying high. Land, air and water have all passed through the dissection and scrutiny of human microscope. So, whenever I began to think of something, some idea or concept which had never occurred to a human being in the history of mankind, I failed miserably. The maximum I could do was come up with an idea that was a mere improvisation of what already existed.
That is when I realized that it truly takes a genius to think of something that has never been thought of before. These men whose brilliance I was skeptical about had done just that. A seed of thought had germinated in their minds. This thought was passed on from one generation to another. Each generation assimilated the idea while contributing to its growth. The seed has grown to become a huge tree. It provides shelter to all of us. Sometimes, we take the tree for granted and forget the seed or even worse laugh at its miniature size.
In the year 1903 the first plane of the Wright brothers flew for as long as 59 seconds covering a distance of 852 feet only. But that was the origin. The Boeing 757, the MIG’s and fighter planes of today are mere improvisations.
In 1876, Graham Bell in one room used a liquid transmitter to speak to his assistant Watson in another room. It was this telephone that revolutionized the daily lives of ordinary people. The cordless phones of today, the mobile devices with their blue tooth and infra red are mere improvisations.
Various branches of mathematics like arithmetic, algebra, geometry, trigonometry calculus, logic, probability and statistics have converged to construct the modern civilization. This civilization would not have been possible but for the Indian who invented the zero.
Thus, the man who gives birth is superior to all those who nourish the baby. The man in whose mind an idea germinates for the first time contributes in greater magnitude than his numerous successors who improvise the idea or the concept.
A river in her place of origin is a small stream, a narrow brook, trickling down a rocky hill amidst herbs, shrubs, creepers and climbers. It takes hundreds of rivulets to contribute their waters to the river to make her a Ganges. From her origin in the Himalayas all the way to her confluence with the ocean, she is fed by melting snow, ice from glaciers, tributaries and rains from the heaven. But it is the river in her origin that is held in religious sanctity. Millions of pilgrims travel all the way to the zenith of Himalayas on a rough terrain to worship that tiny stream, not the rivulets, not the glaciers. Such is the importance of origin.
Most of the times, we believe that we are wiser or smarter than our predecessors. We believe that we have made more progress in the field of science and technology; that we are more advanced in every way.
But the truth remains that we are mere dwarfs. We see farther than the giant, not because we are taller than the giant, but because we are dwarfs seated on the shoulder of a giant.
When we come into this world, we inherit 2500 years of philosophy, science, logic, mathematics, politics, poetry and music. And if you are an Indian, you inherit 5000 years since ours is the oldest civilization on the planet.
On this day, which is a very special day, like every other day, I ask each one of you to join me as I remember with gratitude, all those great men, to whom we owe our materials and our morals, our equipment and our etiquette, our mind and our matter, our principles and our philosophies, those Socrates - Aristotles, Platos, Wright brothers, Graham bells …. And most important of all, the Indian who invented the zero.