When I was a university student at Chicago we went through a two year core cannon which was mostly meant as a Great Books exercise. I’ve still got a dozen rainbow colored books dubbed the “Western Civilization” readers. I treasure them.
My professor was a scholar named Katy Weintraub. She was the better half of the beloved Professor Karl Weintraub. The classes were famous for good reason. I’ll forever be grateful for having been taught the western cannon by someone as capable as her.
One lesson that has stuck with me is the dangers inherent in the human urge for newness. She brought up the insidious, cumulative effects of novelty nearly every lesson.
History was driven by “newness” and its consequences. Each new historical moment was an opportunity to be reminded how fraught with the peril novel ideas and changing cultural mores could be. Death, war, famine, and conquest lurked behind an original idea.
Every rebellion, reformation, and new republic started with some asshole sharing a bright idea. And it tended to get you killed, even if your particular form of novelty got widely adopted down the road. See Christianity, various flavors of democracy, the printing press, and the Enlightenment to name a few.
The “best” part of modernity appears to be that everyone from yours truly to Donald Trump can constantly float novelty trial balloons from the comfort of their own toilet. Best and worst are doing a Janus double duty of meaning here.
Professor Weintraub might remind us that all forms of novelty are dangerous. New ideas represent change. And change is destabilizing even if we later recognize those changes as positive.
I’m certainly feeling the destabilizing effects of having to be alive during living history these days. I bet you are too. Turns out we don’t live outside of history at all. Maybe I finally understand why novelty represented such a danger in Professor Weintraub’s mind. Change has been, historically speaking, pretty hard on those living through it.