Innovation

 

It is one of those words that looks modern, but the OED records it being used in English in 1553; and towards the end of Webster’s play Appius and Virginia (c.1640) the villain Appius before his execution says,

The world is chang’d now. All damnations
seize on the Hydra headed multitude,
that only gape for innovation.
O who would trust a people?

One colleague expressed suspicion of the concept itself: is innovation perhaps one of the refuges of the scoundrel? He notices uneasily that innovative is part of current adspeak. But then his teaching career began in that frenetic time of the sixties and seventies, when in the mass media, and in the speech of those who parroted them, progress was a sacred word and so was the assumption that any innovation was in itself desirable.

There was a tradition that the phalanx of hoplites was an innovation first used in the Lelantine war between Chalcis and Eretria. In the 20th century the machine gun was an innovation that killed countlessly more young men and boys; and subsequent innovations have done the same for civilians.

As Stanisław Jerzy Lec observed, is it progress if a cannibal begins to use a knife and fork? Progress and innovation belong to that class of words that should be giving a statement, not an evaluation; but they get seized on and used in bonam or malam partem by people with an axe to grind.

Novae res is often translated as revolution: certainly its usual tone suggests something to beware of. In any political context the word novus gave discomfort to a Roman, and a look at the word in Lewis and Short reveals what nuances of snootiness were contained in the phrase novus homo.

Similarly in Greek, Liddell and Scott define νεωτερισμóς as an ‘attempt to change; esp. in bad sense, innovation, revolutionary movement.’ Plato uses it in this sense in Republic 422a and 555d.

But suspect though it may be in politics, or in the organisations of society, not many people would abjure innovation in the studies of medicine and dentistry.

And sometimes it is to be desired in politics. It was the corporate failure of the Roman senators to innovate after 133 BC that caused so much violence and ruined the lives of countless others during the century that followed. The system was broken and needed not just mending but transforming.

Next post: Dogs, and the art of anagnorisis.