Ode to the Road Part 3 – Ideas are not new


 

Ideas are not new

“The problem with the French is that they don’t have a word for ‘entrepreneur’.” The now famous words were (although disputed, almost certainly) spoken by George Bush while talking to Tony Blair at a G8 summit in 2002. I wonder if he knew that his title of Commander-in-chief also consists of two French words…but I digress. The point is, for the subject of the successful new world it is very easy to believe what they borrowed is theirs.

For example, isn’t the attractive architecture on the picture below is of the USA? It must be. Don’t we see this building symbolising the country of the free daily on the news?


White house, built in the 1790s (wikpedia.org)

With that background, this building then will easily look like a mere pale “copy”:


Stourhead estate from 1720s in Wiltshire, England (wikipedia.org).

Not many will know that Irish and English examples of this architecture were the basis of the plans for the White house. Even fewer will recognise that both examples belong to the Palladian architecture, named after Venetian architect Andrea Palladino (1508–1580). So, the creativity and innovation came from Venice, copied by the Brits and Irish, Europe’s mini-new world, and finally copied by USA, the world’s proper new world.

 

Replica by stealth: US Supreme Court, Washington D.C.

Open replication (practice?): full scale replica of the Parthenon in Nashville, Tennessee (!)

Original building: Parthenon in Acropolis, Athens, handed over in 439 B.C.

 

Once on this path, aided by patriotism and vanity, why couldn’t the all-conquering west believe that Germans designed their buildings by copying the Walt Disney’s Cinderella Castle, or that the Egyptians modelled their pyramids based on the one in Vegas? Maybe they just didn’t maintain it as well…


 

No one expects ideas to happen on the windswept prairies at the time when trade, cities and universities are somewhere else, it’s just that the popular opinion somehow imagines this ahistorical image.

The fast pace of life, the quantities information and their degree of complexities we have to deal with dictate a fast paced life in the 21st century. Indeed, I’d have to congratulate anyone reading this travelogue…I’m sure that some light entertainment would feel a lot better after what I’m guessing what was another stressful day of contemporary life. But do we recognise what this pace is doing to us? Like a river that is fast only if it is shallow or narrow, our attention in today’s fast world will be narrow (specialised) or shallow (superficial), and in this shallow and/or narrow focus it is hard to make sense and keep at the front of our minds the big picture. If we do take time out to slow down, enable ourselves to take in the demanding, but more satisfying view, we will see things in a different light. When doing some armchair-thinking about the history of ideas, it will become clear that for the five or six centuries preceding the world wars, leading ideas in science, technology, architecture, art, etc. came from the old European continent almost exclusively, and that the new (and very old) worlds still live and breathe them almost exclusively, for better or worse. This makes sense when we realise that ideas are powerful and they hang around for long, long time. Slightly paraphrasing John Maynard Keynes:

“The ideas, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct idea.”

This is quite a dangerous situation, because as Goethe said, “None are more enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free“. So, we should pay attention to where our biases come from.

It is also hard to convey the notion that ideas don’t are not just slow to disappear, but the birth of them takes long time as well, a truth forgotten by most westerners.

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love.

It is an eloquent Christian message, but even if you take out the “therefore” bits, you can notice how Reinhold Niebuhr’s words are infused by this European “long game” attitude. But isn’t Niebuhr born in the USA, I hear you ask? He is, but to German parents, and this is another example of European influence being exported. The difference is that this idea is not as lasting as those from other areas of human endeavour: it is striking how quaint this patient attitude has become to the western ears in less than a century in which fame, individualism, quick success has become a cult.

We should all ask ourselves: where did the notions of inalienable human rights, rule of law, trade, equality, the clipping of the wings of church and king, reformation, renaissance, abolishment of slavery, rapid technological advancement and democracy come from? They sound very “US of A”, but just like ideas in architecture reach back a long time into history, the seeds of these ideas were sown in Europe over 3-4 centuries before the new continent was settled. If President Bush didn’t know the source of the word entrepreneur, what are the chances he understands the origins of his most cherished ideas? If not, how could he decide for example which country should have democracy exported to? In any case it would be better if they stopped destroying existing ones like in Chile or Iran, before exporting any new ones, but that is a different topic altogether.

If you are drawn to the source and not the end result, then when considering 20th century ideas (what gives birth to them, where they can develop, how they are put to use or abuse, how they die) you should think more about Europe than USA or Australia. Remember, it took a complete destruction (financial and physical) of the centres of ideas in early 20th century Europe, and the transfer of the best and brightest to the USA for that country to start producing progressive ideas that were universally superior to the old world. Idea centres self-propel and today’s ideas are firmly European, even if they have been moved across the Atlantic.

Of course, in the bigger picture the ideas of Western Europe are the result of civilisations further to her east and south…but I’m happy to peel back only one layer at this stage. That is why all of our first four family trips have been spent in Europe, with only brief stopovers elsewhere.

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