When Sir Isaac Newton observed that we …stand on the shoulders of giants… did he mean that we should be aware that we are privileged, or that we have somehow conquered the giant? I’m inclined to believe that it was the former, and that Newton regarded his knowledge and prestige with a certain humility.
Back in the mid 1980’s, I was enrolled at University, ostensibly pursuing a degree in vocational education. A few weeks in it became clear to me that we weren’t going to actually do anything with that shop full of tools, nor was my instructor particularly interested in teaching anything. Class periods were spent talking sports with the scholarship athletes who were taking the class for an easy grade.
I dropped out, an old tattered volume of Norton’s Anthology of English Literature somehow came into my hands, and I began reading some of the pieces closely. A segment of Marx’s Capital, and The Nature of Gothic by John Ruskin impressed me with their theories about the role of human labor in the great enterprises of mankind. Marx and Ruskin were both political and economic philosophers.
Marx intended a benevolent dictatorship of the proletariat, the workers controlling the means of production (and thus capital) through state-run enterprises. It quickly becomes apparent that Marx had never actually worked at anything, and relied heavily on the assumption that human nature is altruistic.
…from each according to his ability, to each according to his need…
Ruskin, on the other hand, was a born aristocrat, an artist and aesthete of the highest order. Son of a wine merchant, he had spent his boyhood summers traveling the continent with family and retainers. Ruskin had a sublime faith in the potential of the common man to rise to his ability,
…it should not be artists alone who are exercised early in these crafts. It would be part of my scheme of physical education that every youth in the state–from the King’s son downward–should learn to do something finely and thoroughly with his hands, so as to let him know what touch meant; and what stout craftsmanship meant; and to inform him of many things besides, which no man can learn but by some severely accurate discipline in doing. Let him once learn to take a straight shaving off a plank, or draw a fine curve without faltering, or lay a brick level in it’s mortar; and he has learned a multitude of other matters…
Ruskin defines–Servile ornament: the execution or power of the inferior workman entirely subjected to the intellect of the higher power. He calls this slavery, and offers a few simple rules for the equitable division of labor without brutalizing the worker:
1. Never encourage the manufacture of any article in which Invention has no share.
2. Never demand an exact finish for its own sake.
3. Never encourage imitation or copying of any kind.
Understand this clearly: You can teach a man to draw a straight line, and to cut one; to strike a curved line and to carve it; and to copy and carve any number of given lines or forms, with admirable speed and perfect precision; and you find his work perfect of its kind: but if you ask him to think about any of those forms, to consider if he cannot find any better in his own head, he stops; his execution becomes hesitating; he thinks, and ten to one he thinks wrong; ten to one he makes a mistake in the first touch he gives to his work as a thinking being. But you have made a man of him for all that…You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him. You cannot make both.
The Nature of Gothic 1851