There is nothing new under the sun

As the author of Ecclesiastes notes, human nature is a constant and there are few truly new challenges each generation will face.  Most of what we perceive as new and troubling is due to the phenomena known as the “tyranny of the living”—that we who are alive have no significant knowledge or memory of what went on generations before.  It is hard to conceptualise what life for our grandparents was like, let alone people that lived ten or twenty generations before them.  Our educational priorities are generally aimed at narrow technical/ economic manpower requirements, rather than providing a means to understanding the human condition; so each cohort of graduates remains ignorant of our ancestors’ similar challenges, and their solutions (or failures).

I was reminded of this by a guest-blog in the Harvard Business Review by Robert I. Sutton (Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University):

Cries for the reinvention of management and claims that we have to discard old models are made by every generation of gurus. But really, the ideas that work aren’t that complicated, and most of what is called new is really the same old wine in relabeled bottles. If you want to read a great book on this point, check out Robert Eccles‘ and Nitin Nohria‘s Beyond The Hype. When I read it for the first time, I realized that a big reason every generation thinks that its solutions are new is because it thinks its challenges are brand new. People can’t quite bring themselves to believe that managers of the past faced remarkably similar problems, found frustration and satisfaction in similar sources, and came up with similar solutions. Just as teenagers discover sex and can’t imagine that the fundamentals were the same for their parents, managers are convinced they are encountering forces and feelings that haven’t been seen before. And management theorists do little to disabuse them of that notion.

— Sutton, Robert I.  “What Every New Generation of Bosses Has to Learn.” Harvard Business Review, 9 June 2010. [Emphasis mine, however the hyperlinks have been preserved from the original.]

I would amend this more broadly to state simply that it is something every human being has to learn.  The tools by which we live our lives may change, but the trials and tribulations do not.  On a basic level, every human wrestles with joy and sadness, anger and forgiveness, triumph and tragedy; every human will learn, in the fullness of time, that their emotional responses cannot be fully mastered—only managed.  At a more macro level, even specific scenarios—Islamic radicalism, speculation bubbles, excessive national and personal debt, environmental devastation, parents concerned about the sexualisation of their adolescents and kids—all have at least one (if not several) relevant analogues in human history.  None of these are a new frontier for the human race.

For example, if you want to have some idea what animates millenarian movements such as 2012 Mayan calendar doomsayers, off-the-grid environmentalists, peak oil apocalyptics and some sects of Christianity and Islam, it’s helpful to understand that this doomsaying impulse has always been with humanity, and may have reached its peak during the Protestant Reformation.

…The Reformation would not have happened if ordinary people had not convinced themselves that they were actors in a cosmic drama plotted by God: that in the Bible he had left them a record of his plans and directions to carry them out. Their revolution was not simply a search for personal salvation. They changed the way that their world worked because they were convinced that this visible world was the least important part of the divine plan.

Above all, large numbers of Europeans were convinced in varying ways and with varying degrees of fervour that the momentous events through which they were living signified that the visible world was about to end. If so, it was vitally important for the world’s condition at it’s end to correspond as closely as possible to what God wanted. The perpetual threat from the Turks was proof enough, even before the Reformation (and some will have known that their Islamic enemies were also widely convinced that the world would end in the Hijra year of 1000, the equivalent of the Christian 1592). Without that pervasive expectation of an imminent, dramatic change, few might have listened to Luther’s challenge to the Church. Without it, Savonarola could not have seized Florence, thousands would not have trekked to Münster to set up a new Jerusalem, Franciscans might not have toiled to convert the Indios in the Americas, Friedrich V might not have travelled to Prague, Transylvanian princes would not have found a sense of crusading mission, Oliver Cromwell might not have readmitted the Jews to England.

— MacCulloch, Diarmaid. “Changing Times.” Reformation: Europe’s House Divided, 1490-1700. p550-551.

Substitute global warming, dwindling oil reserves, rapacious consumerism and so forth for the evils of the age, and you get the idea. The people on board with today’s millenarian movements—whether religious or secular in nature—do think that a dramatic, imminent change is upon us; that is why they listen to latter-day Luthers, and it is why many are desperate (as Catholics and Protestants were in those days) to put forth a world-shaking effort. It is entirely possible that latter-day millenarianism will succeed in changing the world again—but a better prescription would be to understand that for 99% of the scenarios the human race will confront, we’ve already established parameters and a template.

It wouldn’t hurt to do some digging and find out how we handled it before, and whether we want to handle it the same way in this iteration.

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