These days, we tend to favor the new. We presume that innovation and invention are basically virtuous, that “latest” and “greatest” go hand-in-hand, and that new and better knowledge is emerging all the time. But in many times and places, the old ways have been revered. During the Renaissance, for instance, most thinkers, writers, and artists believed that the ancients had known best, that people were becoming more foolish–not more enlightened–over the ages. That’s why they worked so hard to bring about a rebirth (a “renaissance”) of long-lost learning.
The longer I live, the more convinced I become that neither of these perspectives is entirely correct, though each has something to recommend it. What’s more, I think that every generation passes through a cycle that ought to teach it this lesson.
After all, every generation that reaches adolescence convinces itself that the weighty ways of its parents should be eschewed in the name of what’s innovative. “You old people are too caught up in the past,” the adolescent generation says. “You should really get with the (new-and-improved) program.”
Then, when it reaches middle age, the same generation looks back longingly on the supposedly simpler times that defined its childhood, those good old days when other people (often its parents) did the worrying. Now the generation grows skeptical of the latest innovations. “These new ways of doing things are unnecessary, faddish, even dangerous!” it insists. “The way we did it when we were young was the right and natural way.” It often ignores the fact that the “right and natural” way it remembers once seemed “unnecessary, faddish, even dangerous!” to its own parents or grandparents.
At each of these ages in its development, the generation recognizes part of a larger truth: Worshipping at the altar of innovation is no better (or worse) than always kneeling at the feet of tradition. The one enables us to keep moving into the future. The other prevents us from losing touch with the past. But neither is worthy of veneration for its own sake.
We spend a large chunk of our lives scanning for what’s next, and we spend another chunk longing for a past made to shine by nostalgia. But the truths and beauties and meanings that matter most lie neither in the future nor in the past. They’re the ones we rediscover, invent, or simply share right here in the present.
The science fiction writer William Gibson once said, “the future is already here; it’s just not very evenly distributed.” He meant that the things we consider high-tech or innovative are often already standard practice for some people, just not all people. Something similar could be said about the past: It’s still with us, for good and for ill; it’s just more alive for some than for others.
Innovation and tradition coexist within a present moment that’s both thicker and lumpier than most people realize, and within which neither is what really matters most. The real question isn’t, “What’s better, new or old? Innovation or tradition?” It’s, “What should we work to spread more widely–among people, across groups, and within our own lives?” Not because it’s “the next new thing” or “the way it’s always been done,” but because it’s right rather than wrong or simply more conducive to a richer existence.
The Renaissance masters were on to something, digging around in the remnants of the past in search of truth and beauty and wisdom. The latter, too, are present in the world today but unevenly distributed. And unlike either the new or the old, they really are inherently worth sharing, where and whenever we find them. So, by all means, go out and find and share them. We could all use them.