- If I have seen further, it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants. [Isaac Newton]
- . . . there is one thing we do know: that man is here for the sake of other men —above all for those upon whose smile and well-being our own happiness depends, and also for the countless unknown souls with whose fate we are connected by a bond of sympathy. Many times a day I realize how much my own outer and inner life is built upon the labors of my fellowmen, both living and dead, and how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give in return as much as I have received. My peace of mind is often troubled by the depressing sense that I have borrowed too heavily from the work of other men. [Albert Einstein, from Henry Goddard Leach, Living Philosophies (Simon and Schuster, 1931).]
Why can doctors today cure diseases that doctors a century ago did not even understand? Why can engineers, working independently of each other, develop and build sophisticated aircraft, whereas no one could have built an aircraft of any kind a little more than a century ago? Why can so many people design and build advanced computers that store vast amounts of information on tiny computer chips, considering that fifty years ago the most brilliant minds could not match that power with a computer thousands of times that size (and all of it was spawned by an idea)?
Is it because people today are superior to those of a generation or two or three, or ten, ago? Is it because we eat better food?
Of course not. It is because knowledge serves as a foundation for more knowledge.
Orville and Wilber Wright built a flying machine that remained airborne for a little more than a minute. Soon, airplanes were being flown in World War I. Then they became advanced enough to cross an ocean. Their speed increased. Jet engines were developed. Today, high-speed air travel is widely accessible. A few men and women have ridden aboard spacecraft for months before returning to Earth.
The advancement of knowledge and ability, via the application of previously attained knowledge, skill and technology, is called praxis. It is the evolutionary process applied to human knowledge and behavior, and a fundamental Humanist observation. When the successful entrepreneur claims that she owes her success solely to her hard work, she is simply incorrect; she owes it also to the advances in knowledge, technology and social systems that made her business enterprise possible. The tenor who insists that his operatic success is solely a product of his talent has overlooked the many hours he spent listening to Caruso and Pavarotti, not to mention his teachers and mentors who also benefited from the previous work of these masters.
The evolutionary principle of praxis applies to every human endeavor, including science, political and civil rights movements, classical and popular music, philosophy, computers and video games. As the world grows smaller, appreciating that our success is the product not only of our own work but also on the work of many others, both living and departed, is imperative to our survival and continued prosperity. Praxis is a reminder to treat our success with humility and with an acknowledgment of those who have set the conditions that made it possible.
- Stephen Hawking, On the Shoulders of Giants: The Great Works of Physics and Astronomy (Running Press, 2004).
- Stephen Hawking, God Created the Integers: The Mathematical Breakthroughs that Changed History (Running Press, 2005).
- Malcolm E. Lines, On the Shoulders of Giants (Institute of Physics Publishing, 1994).
- Melvyn Bragg, On Giants' Shoulders: Great Scientists and Their Discoveries from Archimedes to DNA (Wiley, 1999).
- Rebecca Stott, Darwin’s Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution (Spiegel & Grau, 2012): on the developments leading to Darwin’s Origin of Species.
- Brian L. Silver, The Ascent of Science (Oxford University Press, 1998).
- Lynn Arthur Steen, Ed., On the Shoulders of Giants: New Approaches to Numeracy (National Academy Press, 1990).
- Garry Wills, Inventing America: Jefferson's Declaration of Independence (Doubleday, 1978).
- Jules Combarieu, Music, Its Laws and Evolution (1910).
- Steve Turner, The Gospel According to the Beatles (Westminster John Knox 2006).
- Francis Aimes-Lewis and Paul Joannides, Reactions to the Master: Michelangelo's Effect on Art and Artists in the Sixteenth Century (Ashgate Publishing, 2003).
- Richard Sorabji, Ed., Aristotle Transformed: The Ancient Commentators and Their Influence (Cornell University Press, 1990).
- Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, On the Shoulders of Giants:My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance (Simon & Schuster, 2007).
- Robert K. Merton, On the Shoulders of Giants: A Shandean Postscript (University of Chicago Press, 1993).
- Harold Bloom, The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life (Yale University Press, 2011). “Poets wrote new poems by rewriting old ones . . .”
- Jim al-Khalili, The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance (The Penguin Press, 2011).
- Steven Johnson, Interface Culture: How Technology Transforms the Way We Create & Communicate (HarperOne, 1997).
- Frederick Crews, Freud: The Making of an Illusion (Metropolitical Books/Henry Holt & Company, 2017): How a flawed theorist contributed to culture.
Technical and Analytical Readings
- Guy Deutscher, The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind's Greatest Invention (Metropolitan Books, 2005).
- Lewis Hyde, Common as Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010): Praxis would be impeded without shared and accessible information.
Documentary and Educational Films
- Hieronymus Bosch, The Cure of Folly (Extraction of the Stone of Madness) (1475-80)
- Diego Velázquez, Arachne (1644-48) (dark side)
All at once, the Thénardier exclaimed:-- "By the way, where's that bread?" Cosette, according to her custom whenever the Thénardier uplifted her voice, emerged with great haste from beneath the table. She had completely forgotten the bread. She had recourse to the expedient of children who live in a constant state of fear. She lied. "Madame, the baker's shop was shut." "You should have knocked." "I did knock, Madame." "Well?" "He did not open the door." "I'll find out to-morrow whether that is true," said the Thénardier; "and if you are telling me a lie, I'll lead you a pretty dance. In the meantime, give me back my fifteen-sou piece." Cosette plunged her hand into the pocket of her apron, and turned green. The fifteen-sou piece was not there. "Ah, come now," said Madame Thénardier, "did you hear me?" Cosette turned her pocket inside out; there was nothing in it. What could have become of that money? The unhappy little creature could not find a word to say. She was petrified. "Have you lost that fifteen-sou piece?" screamed the Thénardier, hoarsely, "or do you want to rob me of it?" At the same time, she stretched out her arm towards the cat-o'-nine-tails which hung on a nail in the chimney-corner. This formidable gesture restored to Cosette sufficient strength to shriek:-- "Mercy, Madame, Madame! I will not do so any more!" The Thénardier took down the whip. In the meantime, the man in the yellow coat had been fumbling in the fob of his waistcoat, without any one having noticed his movements. Besides, the other travellers were drinking or playing cards, and were not paying attention to anything. Cosette contracted herself into a ball, with anguish, within the angle of the chimney, endeavoring to gather up and conceal her poor half-nude limbs. The Thénardier raised her arm. "Pardon me, Madame," said the man, "but just now I caught sight of something which had fallen from this little one's apron pocket, and rolled aside. Perhaps this is it." At the same time he bent down and seemed to be searching on the floor for a moment. "Exactly; here it is," he went on, straightening himself up. And he held out a silver coin to the Thénardier. "Yes, that's it," said she. It was not it, for it was a twenty-sou piece; but the Thénardier found it to her advantage. She put the coin in her pocket, and confined herself to casting a fierce glance at the child, accompanied with the remark, "Don't let this ever happen again!" Cosette returned to what the Thénardier called "her kennel," and her large eyes, which were riveted on the traveller, began to take on an expression such as they had never worn before. Thus far it was only an innocent amazement, but a sort of stupefied confidence was mingled with it. [Victor Hugo, Les Misérables (1862), Volume II – Cosette; Book Third – Accomplishment of a Promise Made To a Dead Woman, Chapter VIII, The Unpleasantness of Receiving Into One’s House a Poor Man Who May Be a Rich Man.]
. . . these hybrid constructions are not the least interesting for the artist, for the antiquarian, for the historian. They make one feel to what a degree architecture is a primitive thing, by demonstrating (what is also demonstrated by the cyclopean vestiges, the pyramids of Egypt, the gigantic Hindoo pagodas) that the greatest products of architecture are less the works of individuals than of society; rather the offspring of a nation’s effort, than the inspired flash of a man of genius; the deposit left by a whole people; the heaps accumulated by centuries; the residue of successive evaporations of human society,—in a word, species of formations. Each wave of time contributes its alluvium, each race deposits its layer on the monument, each individual brings his stone. Thus do the beavers, thus do the bees, thus do men. The great symbol of architecture, Babel, is a hive.
Great edifices, like great mountains, are the work of centuries. Art often undergoes a transformation while they are pending, - pendent opera interrupta_- ; they proceed quietly in accordance with the transformed art. The new art takes the monument where it finds it, incrusts itself there, assimilates it to itself, develops it according to its fancy, and finishes it if it can. The thing is accomplished without trouble, without effort, without reaction,—following a natural and tranquil law. It is a graft which shoots up, a sap which circulates, a vegetation which starts forth anew. Certainly there is matter here for many large volumes, and often the universal history of humanity in the successive engrafting of many arts at many levels, upon the same monument. The man, the artist, the individual, is effaced in these great masses, which lack the name of their author; human intelligence is there summed up and totalized. Time is the architect, the nation is the builder. [Victor Hugo, Notre-Dame de Paris, or, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831), Volume I, Book Third, Chapter I, “Notre-Dame”.]
Novels and books about novels:
- Arthur Phillips, The Tragedy of Arthur (Random House, 2011): writing like Shakespeare.
- Peter Ackroyd, The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein (Nan A. Talese, 2009).
- Jo Nesbo, Macbeth: A Novel (Hogarth, 2018): “Jo Nesbo Sculpts ‘Macbeth’ Into Shadowy Crime Noir”
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
Toumani Diabate, New Ancient Strings album: Kenyan musician Toumani Diabate applied contemporary themes, moods and rhythms to an ancient stringed instrument, the Kora. The result is a desert-island disc that brings an ancient tradition into the 20th and now the 21st century.
Composer Eugène Ysaÿe drew heavily on Bach in composing his six violin sonatas (Op. 27), acknowledging his intent to “represent the evolution of musical techniques and expressions of his time.” In addition to drawing on Bach, he named each of the six sonatas after an influential musical figure.
- Sonata No. 1 in G minor, “Joseph Szigeti””
- Sonata No. 2 in A minor, “Jacques Thibaud”
- Sonata No. 3 in D minor, “Georges Enescu” (here it is in the hands of Maxim Vengerov, a strong candidate for the greatest violinist of the 20th century, despite his all-too-brief career)
- Sonata No. 4 in E minor, “Fritz Kreisler”
- Sonata No. 5 in G major, “Mathieu Crickboom”
- Sonata No. 6 in G major, “Manuel Quiroga”
In his first series of string quartets, Op. 18 (1800), Beethoven drew heavily on Haydn and Mozart, who had recently developed the string quartet into a staple of classical music.
- String Quartet No. 1 in F Major, Op. 18/1
- String Quartet No. 2 in G major, Op. 18/2, "Compliments"
- String Quartet No. 3 in D Major, Op. 18/3
- String Quartet No. 4 in C Minor, Op. 18/4
- String Quartet No. 5 in A Major, Op. 18/5
- String Quartet No. 6 in B-flat Major, Op. 18/6
Ernst Krenek’s string quartets:
- String Quartet No. 1, Op. 6 (1921) (modeled after Beethoven’s Op. 131)
- String Quartet No. 2, Op. 8 (1921) (an extension of the first quartet, with influenes from Bartók)
- String Quartet No. 3, Op. 20 (1923)
- String Quartet No. 4, Op. 24 (1923) (inspired by jazz)
- String Quartet No. 5, Op. 65 (1930) (a relatively traditional quartet, for Krenek, in an atmosphere reminiscent of Schubert)
- String Quartet No. 6, Op. 78 (1936) (employing Schoenberg’s twelve-tone techniques)
- String Quartet No. 7, Op. 96 (1944)
- String Quartet No. 8, Op. 233 (1980)
In several of his works, modern Spanish composer Ernesto Halffter (1905-1989) drew upon various influences:
- Rapsodia Portuguesa, for piano & orchestra (1938), influenced by Ravel and incorporating Portuguese folk songs
- Deux Esquisses Symphoniques, influenced by Debussy and documenting “Halffter’s efforts to move beyond the confines of tonality” [Josef Oehrlein]
- Sinfonietta in D Major (1925), following the classical four-movement structure and drawing on the disparate influences of Scarlatti (1700s, Baroque era and style) and Stravinsky (1900s, modern era and style)
- Foss, Symphony No. 2, "Symphony Of Chorales" (1958), after four Bach cantatas, ## 90, 77-78, 139 and 133
- Chen, Reflet un temps disparu, for erhu & orchestra (2002): drawn from an ancient Chinese melody, “Three Variations on the Plum Blossom”
- Reale, Piano Sonata No. 10, “Sonata Piazzollana” (2010/2019) – drawing on the work of Astor Piazzolla: 1. Alberto of Barracas; 2. Waltz; 3. Waldorf Astoria.
- Godowsky: 52 Studies on Chopin's Études, Op. 10; Op. 25 (1894-1914)
- Kurtág: Kurtág's Ghosts
- Boulez, Anthèmes 2 for violin and live electronics (1997): Boulez drew on church music he had heard in his youth.
- Beethoven, 12 Variations on 'Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen', Op. 66 (1796)
- Beethoven: 12 Variations on 'See the conqu'ring hero comes', WoO 45 (1796)
Arise to birth with me, my brother.
Give me your hand out of the depths
sown by your sorrows.
You will not return from these stone fastnesses.
You will not emerge from subterranean time.
Your rasping voice will not come back,
nor your pierced eyes rise from their sockets.
Look at me from the depths of the earth,
tiller of fields, weaver, reticent shepherd,
groom of totemic guanacos,
mason high on your treacherous scaffolding,
iceman of Andean tears,
jeweler with crushed fingers,
farmer anxious among his seedlings,
potter wasted among his clays--
bring to the cup of this new life
your ancient buried sorrows.
Show me your blood and your furrow;
say to me: here I was scourged
because a gem was dull or because the earth
failed to give up in time its tithe of corn or stone.
Point out to me the rock on which you stumbled,
the wood they used to crucify your body.
Strike the old flints
to kindle ancient lamps, light up the whips
glued to your wounds throughout the centuries
and light the axes gleaming with your blood.
I come to speak for your dead mouths.
Throughout the earth
let dead lips congregate,
out of the depths spin this long night to me
as if I rode at anchor here with you.
And tell me everything, tell chain by chain,
and link by link, and step by step;
sharpen the knives you kept hidden away,
thrust them into my breast, into my hands,
like a torrent of sunbursts,
an Amazon of buried jaguars,
and leave me cry: hours, days and years,
blind ages, stellar centuries.
And give me silence, give me water, hope.
Give me the struggle, the iron, the volcanoes.
Let bodies cling like magnets to my body.
Come quickly to my veins and to my mouth.
Speak through my speech, and through my blood.
[Pablo Neruda, “Canto XII” from “The Heights of Macchu Picchu”]