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Innovation in Classical Greece

February 7, 2012

Armand D’Angour in History Today:

New media, new technology, new politics, new products and services, new fashions and designs, new, new, new. It seems as if the world is devoted to innovation and novelty. What is not new is the interest and excitement – as well as the worry and anxiety – aroused by novelty. A similar ambivalence about newness is evident in another era of intense novelty and creativity, classical Greece from the eighth to the fourth centuries bc, when the Greeks produced a series of innovations that formed the basis for two millennia of western thought and achievement in literature, art, architecture, philosophy, politics, medicine and mathematics.

The Greeks could even lay claim to having discovered innovation, since they are the first known people to have written about the notion (the Greek for ‘innovation’, kainotomia, is first found in a comedy by Aristophanes of 422 bc).

The Greeks innovated in artistic and intellectual spheres, rather than in practical or technological areas, but the principles underlying their innovations parallel those found today. Is there, then, nothing new under the sun? (The expression itself, familiar from the biblical book of Ecclesiastes, derives from the ideas of early Greek philosophers such as Pythagoras.) Modern processes of innovation differ in significant respects, but if we look at novelty through the eyes of classical Greeks we can learn some pertinent lessons. So what are these principles? [More]

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