Acknowledging The Debts To Our Predecessors

In his treatise On the Nature of the Gods, Cicero points out a shameful personal weakness of the philosopher Epicurus.  What was this character flaw?  It was Epicurus’s congenital inability to admit that he had ever been influenced by the thinkers that preceded him.  Cicero states:

But he himself [Epicurus] does not want to acknowledge this, and I believe him more than anyone else.  He says that in Samos he heard a man named Pamphilus, a student of Plato.  He lived in Samos as a young man with his father and brothers, as his father Neocles had arrived there as settler; but since his farm was not profitable enough, he became a schoolmaster.  Yet for some bizarre reason, Epicurus looked down on this Platonist—so full of dread was he that it might appear someone had ever given him instruction.  Yet his game is exposed when it comes to Nausiphanes, a student of Democritus; he doesn’t deny that he heard his lectures, but still heaps all kinds of insulting abuse on him.  [I.26]

So full of dread was he, we are told, that it might appear someone had ever given him instruction.  These are the words Cicero uses, as I have rendered them here, and they are significant.  Cicero does not say that Epicurus was “concerned” or “agitated” or even “worried” that he might have to disclose having once been given instruction.  Instead he uses the verb metuere, which means to be afraid, to be filled with dread, to fear.  Concern and fear are different emotions; Epicurus was quite terrified of having to acknowledge his predecessors, and I believe this is a difference worth commenting on.

Yet why would any man of repute, as Epicurus certainly was, have a problem with this?  Why would it be a source of shame to point out those who came before us, or who influenced us?  Perhaps Epicurus was psychologically unwilling to admit that he had stood on the shoulders of others.  If so, this is a decidedly foolish sentiment, for Epicurus was not fooling anyone.  No one who read him could doubt that his physics had been adopted entirely from Democritus.  Cicero continues:

But if Epicurus didn’t hear these ideas of Democritus from Nausiphanes, then what was he listening to?  What is there in Epicurus’s physics that is not traceable to Democritus?  Even though he rearranged a few things—such as what I just now mentioned, about the slanted ‘inclination’ of the atoms—nevertheless he preserves intact almost all of Democritus’s system:  the atoms, the void, the idea of ‘likenesses,’ the infinity of space, the infinite number of worlds (as well as their birth and destruction), and nearly everything else that might be contained in a comprehensive theory of nature.  [I.26]

So Epicurus was not fooling anyone, as Cicero—the razor-sharp forensic orator with the nose of a bloodhound—correctly discerns.  In fact Epicurus’s inability to give credit where due reflects poorly on him.  There is something petty, something small-minded and mean, in refusing to recognize those who taught us.  It offends one’s sense of right.  No accomplished man should ever believe that he arrived where he did solely because of his own efforts; he stood on the shoulders, and was carried along, by the aggregate labors of those who preceded him. So perhaps there is some justice, handed down by Fortune herself, in the fact that none of Epicurus’s voluminous writings have survived.  Epicurus, who liked to consider himself new and original, left nothing to posterity, while Cicero, whom some scholars have wrongly looked down their noses at as unoriginal, has had almost all of his philosophical works preserved, and has, in addition, exerted tremendous influence down the centuries.

But Epicurus is far from being the only one guilty of this transgression.  It is something we see repeated again and again in history and literature.  Will Durant says of Friedrich Nietzsche, “It does not matter that he ridiculed the English evolutionists and the German nationalists:  he was accustomed to denounce those who had most influenced him; it was his unconscious way of covering up his debts.”  There are men who truly believe that acknowledging their influences and teachers somehow diminishes their own achievements.  And it may be in many cases that this is true:  they know that they have done little more than paraphrase, or rephrase, those who came before them, just as Epicurus dressed up Democritus with different clothing. 

And yet they are very foolish to think like this.  How insecure must a man be to think along these lines!  For there is always room for originality, even when standing on the shoulders of our predecessors.  The originality may not be in the raw ideas themselves; but it may be discerned in the language used, the presentation of those ideas, and the creativity with which they are presented to a new audience.  Cicero’s ideas may not have been new, but he was nevertheless a brilliantly original thinker:  his originality comes from the way in which he conveyed the ideas of others.  His language, his examples, his methods, his presentation, his formatting—all this is uniquely his, and not someone else’s.  We should learn from this example:  we must never fail to give credit to our forebears, and strive to find novel ways of interpreting their messages that are in accord with contemporary conditions.       

Failing to acknowledge one’s predecessors not only conveys insecurity; it demonstrates a lack of gratitude.  There is this sense of disrespect in the air:  a lack of appreciation for the labor and efforts of those who labored before us, most likely under more difficult circumstances.  And here the words of Pericles, as recorded by Thucydides, are relevant:

When our fathers stood against the Persians they had no such resources as we have now; indeed, they abandoned even what they had, and then it was by wisdom rather than good fortune, by daring rather than by material power, that they drove back the foreign invasion and made our city what it is today.  We must live up to the standard they set; we must resist our enemies in any and every way, and try to leave those who come after us an Athens that is as great as ever.  [I.144]

This is the kind of greatness of soul that we must aim for.  And it must be said that, although there are many men who have behaved like Epicurus and Nietzsche, there have likely been many more who have taken the opposite path.  I am speaking of those who have openly acknowledged and commended those who came before them, and who assisted them in their own work.  One wonderful example of this ethic is presented by Archimedes, the greatest scientist of antiquity, a man whose accomplishments in mathematics rank him with the greatest minds of any epoch.  I was recently reading Sir Thomas Heath’s Manual of Greek Mathematics, and was struck by Archimedes’s ingenious method of estimating the number of grains of sand in the known universe.  Just as impressive was his open and gracious acknowledgment of the work of scientists who came before him.  I will try to condense it here, while respectfully asking in advance for the reader’s indulgence. 

His work Sand-Reckoner (in Greek, Psammites; in Latin, Arenarius) describes the problem and its solution.  One of Archimedes’s purposes is to create a nomenclature for expressing extremely large numbers; so he takes on the problem of calculating the number of grains of sand that might be able to fit in the known universe.  His predecessor Zeuxippus had already made some advances in this area, as Archimedes notes.  His first task is to estimate the size of the universe; and “this leads him to cite certain results obtained by his predecessors,” as Heath notes.  Archimedes describes the work of Aristarchus of Samos, Eudoxus, and his own father Phidias. He concludes that the perimeter of the earth might be around 3 million stades, and the ratio of the sun’s diameter to that of the moon to be around 30:1.  He credits Aristarchus for calculating the angular diameter of the sun as 1/720th part (half of a degree) of a great circle. 

By various techniques, Archimedes demonstrates that the diameter of the sun is greater than the side of a regular polygon of 812 sides inscribed in the circle in which the sun revolves around the center of the earth (assuming such an orbit were to exist).  Additional calculations follow in logical order, and from all this Archimedes concludes the following:  the number of grains of sand in a sphere with diameter 10,000,000,000 stades is less than 10 raised to the 51st power (to use modern mathematical notation); and the number of grains of sand in a sphere 10,000 x 10,000 x 10,000 times this size is less than ten raised to the sixty-third power. 

We do not believe in the correctness of his result today, but that is not important for our purposes here.  What matters to us is that Archimedes built on what came before him, while freely and openly acknowledging the work of those who came before him.  Greatness of soul was second nature to him.  Perhaps it was not accidental at all that it was Cicero—so drawn by a secret kinship to the memory of the great scientist—who felt compelled to search for, and discover, the gravesite of Archimedes.  He describes this discovery in Tusculan Disputations, V.23.     



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