There are no new ideas.
There is new circumstance.
Tools are adapted to changed circumstance using unchanged, inherited thought processes.
Artistry such as storytelling, song and depiction, recasts inherited, immutable morals to fit newly-revealed circumstance.
There are no new morals.
There is a continuous flow of new moral circumstance.
Contrary to modernist beliefs, art cannot break boundaries of thought – or introduce new ways of thinking.
Most of us resist new circumstance, and so the finest art is the skill (the cultivated humility) of accepting new circumstance (a rare skill) & then of the knowledgeable application of ancient morals to explain it.
That is how human cultures settle their unchanging humanity in a changing landscape – how economies settle in their ecologies. Inherited thinking can change only by a genetic mutation of the species. I’m not inclined to wait. In any case, it will not be me or you (dearest reader) who has mutated.
My Palaeolithic ancestor thought exactly as I do. There is not a new thought under the sun, but tools have been devised and improved, by trial and error of generations. Science? Science is a pleasure, but has no physical application. The cultivated humility of the artist (Keats’s negative capability) is much the same as the cultivated scepticism of science. But science diverges from art in attempting to remove the ancient moral to more easily discover the contemporary physics. The difficulty comes when science is taken too seriously. Three problems –
One – As we move beyond collection of data, hypotheses become a form of storytelling. They can easily be “corrupted” by moral thinking. A grand hypothesis looks much like a work of art. The value of its scepticism is lost. In that case, it should be treated as a work of art. Masterpieces such as the Origin of the Species have become religious texts and for some – evangelical religious texts. In that process they have lost both scientific and religious virtue.
Two – Every hypothesis, without exception has been proved, by a later hypothesis, to be wrong. Today’s commonly-accepted hypotheses will also be wrong.
Three – Often and perversely, technologies use “amoral” science as “moral” justification. All technology has consequence and so must have a moral. Yet it is commonplace for “technologists” to use the amorality of science to perversely “justify” the removal of ethics from technological ventures. For another example, citizens may wait for the advancing science of climate change, which can change nothing, to avoid the personal, cultural change necessary to avoid an already-advancing change in climate.
In short, science is a pleasure. Where it ceases to be a delight – a library of wonders – it has lost its function. And where it gains a function – such as tool-making, it will have lost its value. Tool-making is the province of skilled and moral tool-makers, who will know scientific literature as a pleasure and not as a function. At work they will be ruled by the twins – Trial and Error – where contemporary circumstance surprises, blunts and then, remodels accepted techniques.
Archaeology uncovers the strata of toolmaking and has defined eras by their advancing tools.
That has led to some problems in archaeology – largely by the distorting influence of historians, who have equated advancing tools with advancing cultures – and by subliminal implication – advancing thought.
Our view of history remains overshadowed by the history of powerful elites. How cultures have constructed roads, bridges, houses, harbours, ships, terraced hillsides, agricultural and industrial machinery, such as pumps, cranes, wind/water mills, churches, mosques temples… – how they have baked bread, made lutes, fine fabrics, gardened, holidayed… all that is obscured – because apart from consuming it, and exchanging it by war, inter-marriage and treaty, the powerful had no part in creating it.
Literature is a problem – the chronicles of the powerful remain and historians present them for archaeological verification. It would be more appropriate to say this – that since the chronicles are fictions, they should be presented for archaeological refutation.
A wildly distorted “British” history remains the normal view today. The story goes like this – in periodic waves – tidal surges of invaders. Perhaps gentle hunter-gatherers (ancestor worshipers) remain after the flood (of Doggerland), until Neolithic star gazers move in bringing agriculture and seed. They are followed by metalworkers – the Celts, or Beaker People – gold torqued, water god charioteers of Bronze and Iron Ages. Then the Romans come, bringing order, roads and towns and eventually, a decadence, which is displaced by Saxon & Viking – Northern warrior gods drive Romanised Celts into the West…
After the final invasion of 1066 the land becomes an island set in a silver sea – repelling invaders, but beginning new conquests of its own. The regions of Wales, Ireland, England and Scotland lose nationhood but retain racial characters – Brython; Geoidal; Saxon; Viking; Norman…
My hypothesis, like all hypotheses will be flawed – and will be plain wrong at many points, but it narrates a journey, which explains, to me, the time I think I live in. Archaeologist, Francis Prior has most influenced my leanings. He reconstructs the past by considering what is common to humanity – not by what is extra-ordinary to a particular time, or a particular elite. He considers that what can be understand now, can be most easily and correctly applied to our understanding of then – such as family, home and so on. My personally-distorted tale, the truth of these islands of Britain, is something closer to this –
From ancient times and until the brief episode of fossil fuels – the sea has most influenced the cultural leanings of settlements. British hunter gatherers remain as ancestors. They were neither ethnically cleansed, nor assimilated into a larger invading mass.
Eastern Britain looked to the Channel and North Sea and was familiar with those overseas neighbours. Western Britain looked to the Atlantic and Mediterranean. Over millennia, East and West grew apart – culturally separated by their sea trades – drawn apart, rather than repelled. The same cultural and racial ancestry remained – but evolved to adopt new languages, fashions, styles, tools, and religions to explain it all. Trade and international conversation invaded – not waves of violent settlers. Current division of Western Celt, Northern Pict, Eastern Saxon and enclaves of Viking (with regional variation evident in both literature and place names) is a racial fiction.
My story has inter-marriage of elites and small warrior incursions bringing some new genetics, but it has settled populations remaining, coping and looking on. I see Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Ages as internationalist. There were small “kingdoms” – but no binding nationhood. Iron Age villagers would be well acquainted with the city state of Rome – wine from Gaul and the tales of traders and travelling tinkers. Sea farers would bring sea farer’s tales and exotic sexual relationships. Those ages are convenient for cultural change – we could choose other dates or design other ages, but they are not the ages of new peoples – at the most they are the ages of new tools.
Educated elites reading Homer and Virgil and backward villagers, who can’t? – with regards to creative culture the opposite would be the case. Of course elites had the wealth to purchase manuscripts and the idleness to peruse them. But it is likely that ordinary people had far greater leisure and greater autonomy than we can dream of today. Historically elites have demanded their right to helplessness – the tradesmen we call bards, must sing cattle raids (such as Siege of Troy, or Battle of Hastings) as epic adventures. Keeping royalty sweet is a prudent thing to do. We have the beautiful evidence of medieval monastery, church and cathedral, which aristocracy points to as its own – but little evidence of the masters of arts, who actually built them.
History books speak of successions of powerful people – skirmishing, drawing treaties, marriages… but even those don’t narrate how Romans, or Normans arrived en-mass – or that tides of Americans swept to proudly defeated “British” beaches bearing their Coca Cola Culture. Yet, they do so for “Celt”, and for “Saxon”.
The Battle of Hastings was a tournament with spoils to the winner – both sides by code of brute honour accepting the fall of the dice and a claim to the throne. Handfuls of mercenaries were granted manors. Meanwhile, the same people continued as best they could, to plough fields and bake bread. Those new aristocrats appeared – militaristic, vain and ignorant as the last and had no hand at all in the continuation of culture.
My history lesson is – that facing resource depletion and climate change we’ll leave elites to play in parliament and telly screen. We’ll ignore those cattle raids, sung as epic adventures by the Paris Accord and tamed, ambassadorial bards of newspaper and newsroom… We’ll ignore the Iliad of the “scientific” toppling of carbon dioxide emissions and then the Odyssey of a journey towards green technologies as powerful as oil – to a culture which need not change to meet its circumstance, because that brave new world will be composed of brave new ideas.
We return, where this article began – There is not a new idea under the sun and – Most of us resist new circumstance, and so the finest art is the skill – the cultivated humility – of accepting new circumstance (a rare skill) & then of the application of ancient morals to explain it.
Well, even the finest artist can achieve the finest art only intermittently. For most of the time and for most of us good enough is sufficient. In a culture, trial and error of others refines and adapts our own shortcomings. We have evolved together with others. Like those helpless elites, we are helpless apart.
All I ask is for the return of ordinary history. Let them jet from podium to telly screen, to podium – who by invasion, inter-marriage and treaty, would rule our lives. Leave them be.
Culture was always ours to build and maintain. If we, as ordinary citizens, don’t adapt tools and ways of life to settle the circumstance we’ve each been given, then nothing else can. We have all we need – principally each other – and we’ve not had instruction in the past – indeed none, until recently, has ever been asked. Mr Ambassador, Mr Rupert Murdoch carries his instructions from the boardrooms (thrones) of energy, chemical and agricultural commodity corporations. He grants audience to the supplicant prime minister of the commons of the United Kingdom – who (to keep her small throne) will swiftly ignore her elected position as leader of the House of Commons to fulfil his demands.
It don’t matter a fig.
A Note in the event that confusion arises with regards to two proposals – There are no new thoughts – and – There are no new morals.
I am speaking of the species. Individuals; families; communities will stumble (perhaps delightedly) on both new thoughts and new moral perceptions. I am tempering the hubris of the times with the truth that there are no new ways of either thinking, or moralising. Every thought and every moral position will have previously occurred to someone, somewhere within our ancestry. Ways of thinking and moralising are inherited. Circumstances are unique to our times and require what will be a unique moral and thoughtful adjustment of both individual and community – but using the same ancient patterns of thought and balancing of morals. Our particular times ask for a radical adjustment. Given the new circumstance to which they are applied, the thoughts and morals that arise will be utterly new to those that find them. However they will have broken no barriers of thought, or perception. Most importantly – they will have done what we all find most difficult – moving with the times.