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Andrew Lilico: On novelty

By Andrew Lilico.

If you heard some composer of modern music were directing an orchestra playing music on cash registers, would you expect that to be worth listening to, or pretentious rubbish - an artistic dead-end?  I would instinctively assume the latter, as I expect would most people.  Yet when we hear the classic opening sequence of Pink Floyd's "Money" we know rapidly that we are in the presence of quality.

To me the great weakness of much modern highbrow art and music is that it has come to be thought that novelty, in itself, is a virtue that can be treated separately from quality - it doesn't matter if it's bad, provided that it's new.

Now to be genuinely new is much harder than often appreciated - as the famous line from Ecclesiastes puts it: "What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun."  But even if ultimate novelty is very difficult to achieve, being "fresh" and "different" - being "new for our age" - is not terribly hard at all.  But is it, by itself, virtuous?

Think of an animal reproducing itself.  To reproduce itself at all, the animal must have been reasonably successful in the environmental niche it occupied - it must have eaten enough, been safe enough, been able to fight off rivals and enemies enough to achieve reproduction.  When it reproduces, then, is it universally virtuous (or even difficult) to change in the process of reproduction, or is it typically more virtuous to stay the same?  In the reproductive context, change - mutation - is dangerous.  The vast majority of novelties are worthless.  An insect that was bad at making copies of itself could produce offspring with ten wings or legs growing out of their three heads.  But such novelty is not virtuous - it's bad; incompetent.  It constitutes squandering the fruits of success - the successful exploitation of a niche that allowed reproduction - in random and pointless variety.

Novelty in reproduction is only of value when it either (a) improves exploitation of the old existing niche; (b) allows for successful exploitation of an alternative niche; or (c) responds to the inevitable elimination of the old niche.  To be different is no challenge.  But to be different and better is.

What is true of reproduction is true of society and politics, also.  It is tempting to imagine that the social traditions and structures and taboos of the past can be replaced with some novelty, something "modern".  Yes - that can be done.  But does the new thing truly improve upon the old, or is it simply novelty for its own sake, squandering the treasury of ages in an enterprise no more worthwhile than a head-legged insect?

Likewise, it isn't terribly difficult to come up with "revolutionary" new (or at least "fresh") ways to manage a nation's affairs.  But the vast majority of novelties will make things worse, not better.

The correct instinct - the instinct that will drive improvement, not simply change - is to be sceptical of unproven novelties, to require of novelties that they are better and not simply different, and to feel that if we are to change then what is alleged to be new should have a high hurdle to prove that it is really better.

Human beings are creative partly because we are infantile - we are always like children, enamoured of discovery and new experiences, always wanting to read a new book, to see a new film, to visit a new country, to try a new girl.  But to make valuable, lasting progress, we must temper our appetite for change with the wisdom of conservatism.


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