What’s new? Some answers from Ancient Greece

In the new millennium, what lessons can the modern world learn from one of the oldest civilisations? 

New economies, new politics, new technologies, new media. New products and services, new software and hardware. New, new, new. . . the modern world is devoted to innovation, the promotion and exploitation of new ideas and discoveries. 

Unless human psychology has undergone a radical change in recent times, there can be little new about the interest, excitement and anxiety aroused by such a pursuit. But until the dawning of our era of science and technology, can we point to any former age in which such a premium was attached to newness?

One likely candidate is Ancient Greece. It is well known that the classical ‘golden age’ of Greek antiquity was a time of intense novelty and creativity. From the 7th to the 4th century before the birth of Christ, the Greeks embarked on a series of extraordinary innovations which laid the basis for two millennia of Western thought and achievement in areas including literature, art, architecture, philosophy, politics, medicine, and mathematics. The Greeks might reasonably lay claim to having discovered innovation, since they were not only conspicuously innovative but (having invented the world’s first true alphabet) were the first people to write about it. The earliest known term for ‘innovation’, the Greek word kainotomia, is used in a comedy by the Athenian playwright Aristophanes dating from 422 BC.

The key innovations of ancient Greece arose in thought and culture rather than in science and technology. But on investigation it appears that the principles of innovation today are essentially the same as those formulated and implemented in Greek antiquity. Does this mean that there is really ‘nothing new under the sun’? The expression, familiar from the biblical book of Ecclesiastes, originally derives from the ideas of the early Greek philosophers Pythagoras and Parmenides. If we look at innovation in the past from what may to us be a new perspective – through the eyes of those who lived in the vibrant and diverse centuries of classical Greece – we can learn something about innovation in the present and the future.

So what were these principles? One starting-point is suggested by Aristotle, the most comprehensive analytical thinker of the ancient world, whose surviving writings include seminal works on logic, ethics, literature and biology. A preliminary consideration for Aristotle was that innovation means different things depending on the area in which it is applied. In his Politics he remarks that it is false to suppose that the fact that innovation is a positive thing in one context necessarily means that it will be beneficial in another: socio-political innovation, for instance, is quite different from technical or artistic innovation. Tantalisingly, he drops the matter after a few brief comments, promising to take it up on another occasion; but in fact no extended philosophical analysis of innovation survives (though it might be fun to try and reconstruct what Aristotle would have said). In any case, he reminds us of an obvious but often overlooked principle. A strategy for innovation should consider at the outset such questions as: What does innovation mean in this context? Precisely what sort of innovation is required here?

Further principles stemming from the ancient Greeks’ encounter with innovation can be pieced together from the great variety of writings which have come down from the 5th and 4th centuries BC. Perhaps the most important general consideration that emerges is that innovation is dynamic. It must involve an active interchange between individual innovators and the public, tradition and change, old and new. In music, for example, the ancient Athenians encountered a series of bold innovations which struck listeners as a radical departure from musical tradition. The innovators were subjected to scathing satire for (in Aristophanes’ words) ‘plucking their novelties from the blue’. The philosopher Plato, a firm opponent of the new music, would ideally have banned it altogether, arguing that innovation should be no more than a variation or recombination of familiar elements and structures. For innovation to succeed, it must appeal to existing individual and social perceptions about what is valuable and effective: innovation pursued in a vacuum is likely to arouse aversion, or at least incomprehension.

But at the same time, the kind of pluralistic environments which foster the pursuit of innovation also tend to generate diverse responses.

Innovations may after all have uneven diffusion; the evaluation of their impact and potential requires some consideration of variable time-scales and consumer contexts. Significantly, the musical innovations of ancient Greece which caused such alarm also elicited positive reactions. The record shows that the new musicians, though they left no lasting mark on the Western musical tradition, at the time found favour with younger and less conservative sections of the Athenian public. Then as now, fashions come and go; few, if any, can expect to obtain immediate and universal appeal. In the event, the new musicians attained to fame and financial success in their lifetimes, and a later generation regarded their works as classics. It is hard not to draw an analogy with the Beatles.

Further principles emerge from the innovations in medical theory and practice initiated by the school of physicians associated with Hippocrates. In advocating the empirical investigation of disease and cure – rather than, say, magical or arbitrary methods of treatment – ancient Greek physicians were radical innovators in their time. Ironically, however, they saw themselves as traditionalists, and expressed exasperation at the sometimes bizarre novelties perpetrated by fellow-professionals for the sake of public acclaim and financial gain. They were specifically concerned to combat innovation in the form of new theories of human health and sickness. But for certain kinds of innovation, then as now, the principal element and strategy is, precisely, retheorisation. The alternative physicians of ancient Greece who set about constructing new and unverifiable theories about human nature had discovered a fruitful procedure. For over two thousand years before the rise of modern medicine, medical practice thrived (often at the expense of its patients) on their theories of ‘the humours’.

At one extreme this kind of innovation appears to involve nothing more than the manipulation of words – a mere rhetoric of novelty. At another, it can present itself as part of a comprehensive intellectual and psychological reorientation, the kind of thing described as a ‘paradigm shift’. The idea of rhetoric introduces a complex element to the question: rhetoric is a means of presenting something persuasively, in a way that may or may not reflect the truth behind the image – in other words, a technique of marketing. Calling something ‘new’ is generally perceived to be an effective rhetorical tool: New economy, New Labour, New World Order.

Of course, just because something is called ‘new’ does not make it an innovation. Or does it? When rhetoric was systematised by Greeks in Sicily in the 5th century BC, its pioneers taught that it could be used for ‘making the old (seem) new and the new old’. We might like to think we can distinguish what is really new from what is simply called new. But for rhetoricians and marketeers, what matters is the result. In a world in which novelty attracts a premium, ‘new’ sells. If there is in reality nothing new under the sun, at least the public may be temporarily induced to buy the idea that novelty is on offer. Whether it is an old product relaunched or an old idea recycled, marketing can make all the difference.

This indicates the need to distinguish layers or levels of innovation. Creating a perception is different from generating a new product or implementing a process of innovation. All of these may be crucial to the dynamics of innovation, each requiring a different kind of approach and expertise. What kinds of individuals, organisations or cultures are best suited to wield such expertise? The ideas of freedom, competition and incentive are widely recognised to be key for ‘cultures of innovation’. The ancient Greeks were no strangers to these notions: they invented democratic politics and created the first large-scale monetary system in history. But Greek political freedoms were not extended to women and slaves, and competitiveness was destructively manifested in constant warfare between independent states.

In 338 BC. the orator Demosthenes lamented that military innovation (e.g. in strategy and siege-artillery) had superseded all other kinds of innovation, and shortly afterwards Alexander of Macedon and his successors created the first world empire. Innovation, then, in one sphere may encourage or discourage innovation in others. With the centralisation of political power, the creative energies of the ancient Greeks were dispersed into quieter channels.

Innovation means change, and change means loss. The new takes the place of the old. And since this is sometimes bound to mean the loss of real value, we must also learn when not to innovate. To retain their creativity, innovative individuals and societies need to acknowledge what is of lasting value, and to work through loss. The ancient Greeks held on to valuable traditions, and allowed space for mourning, institutionalising it in religious rituals and in public practices. The modern world has less time for reflection about the destruction that innovation can entail. If the result is that today’s ceaseless innovation brings anxiety and disaffection (as well as excitement and wonder), we might benefit by taking time to refresh our perspective on innovation by reviewing the experience of the past. In the end, perhaps, there is nothing new under the sun.

©OECD Observer No 221/222, Summer 2000 




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