The Past Was Not Always Worse, and the Future is Not Always Better

There is a thread about Hebrew going in the comments. It started out with a reactionary arguing, in the post against reaction, that the revival of Hebrew was a reactionary act.

Well, not really. Revival of ancient, dying, endangered, or even extinct languages is not considered to be a reactionary act. Many progressives support it, including linguists. Language evolution is not really a sign of progress. The languages of today, or the most modern ones, are not necessarily better languages than the language of the old days. Other than with the use of modern terms to describe modern items and concepts, they’re no better at all.

True, humans progress with time, but some things don’t get better. Language is one of those. Philosophy, literature, poetry, writing, art, music, etc. is another one. We have not figured out any better ways to live our lives than the folks in Socrates and Plato’s time had. The human condition is the same, and common sense wisdom has not progressed at all. In fact, ancient disciplines like yoga hold a lot of wisdom for us modern folks.

We don’t write any better than we ever did. Milton, Shakespeare and Dante have not been toppled, and who knows if they ever will. With time, we can’t figure out how to put sentences together any better than we ever did. Writing relies on the human intellect, and the brightest of us in the 1300’s-1600’s were as smart as the brightest today.

Art is another one. Technically, the finest art was done in the Renaissance by Michelangelo and the rest. Early modernists realized this – that they could not surpass the Masters – hence we moved on to Cubism, Surrealism and whatnot. Now that all that’s been done, we move on to anti-art like pissing in a jar with a crucifix or photographing guys standing next to crosses looking crucified with dead and torn-up farm animals all around them. Bottom line is, technically, we can’t figure out how to draw better than the Masters, so we are just fucking around.

Same thing with music. The classical music of 300 years ago with Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, etc. is written as well as we can write music today. Technologically, music has gotten better, but we can’t figure out how to write music any better than we ever did.

It’s not that the old stuff was better per se, but it’s more that we can’t seem to figure out how to do these things any better than we did them in the old days. Progress has hit a wall or a ceiling with regard to certain things.

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17 thoughts on “The Past Was Not Always Worse, and the Future is Not Always Better”

  1. I don’t quite understand your criterion for defining “best music.” Are you familiar with 20th century classical music (Mahler, Debussy, Stravinsky, Bartók, et al.)? Harmonically, melodically, and structurally it is equivalent in greatness to earlier works in the 18th to 19th century. Depending on one’s ability to swallow even more complex harmonic forms, one could argue the same for later and more modernist composers. I think you may be a bit deceived by the Romantic “cult of composer” mentality in your blanket dismissal of essentially all musical compositions from 1880 – 2010.

  2. I would make the argument that in terms of language, we have definitely shown progression.

    Using the example of Hebrew makes the argument easier. Compare the living languages of today, the adopt new words every few months as opposed to the mathematical, calculated and controlled languages of the past like Hebrew or Latin.

    Of course, it’s obvious why Socialists and authoritarians alike prefer these languages: control and central planning. Nevertheless the adaptive nature of modern language and music should be praised.

    The commenter above noted how arbitrary your opinion on music has been but I will offer a simple example of the growing brilliance of what is considered good music. Take the 1984 Van Halen ultimate classic, “Jump!”. Considered their most popular song, it starts with one note that never seizes. Great song. Unlike anything from the past composer, because until the invention of synthesizers, one note could not be held for more than a short time.

    1. The languages of old used to coin new words all the time too, you know. Coining new words is not some modern advance in language.

      It’s really hard to prove that we have advanced technically in music in that we are now producing technically better music than we were in the 1700’s. I don’t buy it.

      1. Of course there’s always been the “common man’s” language which adopted new words, this however was not the situation with the intelligentsia or the authorities of the land. They wanted to keep the original language. Grand meetings would be held whenever there would be a reformation of that language as was the case in the 15th century (I believe) in Spanish.

        There is a reason Latin died out as a language, Robert. This in and of itself shows the rigidity of the language. Are you familiar with the mathematical nature of Hebrew? The Aronofsky film Pi talks about it quite a bit.

        1. Well, have all of the major languages of civilization been this way in the past? So rigid, with committees to let in new words and whatnot. Latin died out with the fall of the Roman Empire. Vulgar Latin was spoken all over the empire, and these Latins evolved into the Romance languages.

          Most languages go extinct over time or evolve into new languages. It’s a natural process and it doesn’t have a lot to do with adaptability or whatnot.

          Latin served very well as an international language of science, religion and whatnot from 400 on through the Middle Ages. Very nice language, with many great works of knowledge and writing produced in it.

          Those committees working nonadaptively to prevent the evolution of Spanish 500 years ago do not seem to have been able to bring down the Spanish language. According to you, Spanish was maladaptive. Yet it’s still here with us and going very strong.

          English is the international language, but it’s totally fucked up and insane. The true progressive languages have been the conlangs like Esperanto. But they have not really been successful. Those actually are a step forward.

  3. Robert,
    Cultural historians usually attribute bad art to the aftermath of WW1, the world’s first industrialised war, that traumatised a generation.
    The exhibiting of a urinal by Duchamps is usually regarded as the seminal moment.It was around this time that the surrealists, dadaists etc came to the fore, Picasso was of course the godfather of the movement.’Plink-plank-plonk’ abstraction in music took hold too.Also, negroid American jazz music and the acceptance of ‘American popular culture’ helped to coarsen the tone of European high-art.
    It must not be forgotten that all of the arts (music, painting, sculpture, architecture etc), reached their apogee of technical excellence around about 1900, typified by the ‘beaux arts’ movement in France at that time.
    Think of the technical excellence of the painter Bougeareau, the music of Debussy and the romantic composers, the sculpture of Rodin, the pre-raphaelites in England, the architecture of Sacre-Coeur cathedral in Paris etc.

    1. I don’t believe that the music, painting, sculpture, etc. of 1900 was any better than a few hundred years prior. As far as architecture, it’s hard to say. There have been technical advances, but have their been advances in sheer beauty and glory? I doubt it.

  4. Robert,
    Apart from the dadaists and their ilk, it’s my firm belief that the USA really lowered the tone of art and popular culture with its endless pumping out of commercial trash (from jazz downwards, the nadir is rap), that really destroyed high culture and refinement.
    The rise of trash culture is contermingous with the rise of the USA (and mass Jewish emigration to the USA, but that’s another story).
    The ‘Brill Building’ encapsulates everything that was rotten with popular culture from mid-centry onwards.

    1. Jazz as an art form has produced some of the most complex rhythmic and harmonic forms so far devised in tonal music, far more so than even late period classical music. This is why, among most musicologists, jazz is generally regarded as the only “native” form of classical music (in the sense of high art music) to emerge from the United States.

      Rap and other forms of popular musics (pop music, country music, bluegrass, folk music, etc.) serve the function of entertainment rather than art within our culture, and therefore produces on average music of lower value. This has always been true at all times; there are no “good old days” of when high art was uncontaminated by the “Jewish trash” of the United States. Music has (at least since the early 19th century) been bifurcated into art and entertainment, and will continue to do so.

  5. Concerning the arts, if we could increase the lifespan to about 200-300 years I’m sure we could begin to see substantial progress again. The thing is that science, which is a more collective effort, can continue to see progress whereas the highly individualistic work of artists (at least as we still see it, although “communal art” like the cinema is still “advancing”) has reached its peak–and not surprisingly it reached its peak during the era of the renaissance man and has gotten high specialized and theory-based because that’s how man has had to modify himself. If we had the needed time to keep up, which would be quite a bit with the amount of information needed to be digested, the variety of skills needed for any art, as well as the needed loafing time for creativity, as well as just the bulk of our lives (eating, drinking, crapping, working, etc) then we could begin to see more fantastic works of individual invention.

    As for communal art, I think it’s generally a botched affair. The completeness of works of a single mind have yet to be surpassed–or maybe I’m just not ready to kill the romantic notion of individual genius.

    1. @erranter While the power of the mind of an individual can be strong and innovative, it’s no match to the power social interaction with human beings and the products of such interaction.

      Probably the best summarized explanation of my point was made in a poetic analogy by Leonard Reed in “I, Pencil” http://www.econlib.org/library/Essays/rdPncl1.html

      No one man could ever understand how to build a modern day pencil, yet it exists, and costs next to nothing. Amazing.

      1. Which is certainly amazing, but I was talking about artistic creations as opposed to practical ones. Certainly, the pencil is a common thing whose invention is founded upon many the work of many men throughout time. The same is true of influence upon artists and their epochs. But nevertheless when Mozart, Beethoven, Shakespeare or Einstein sat down to work they were alone, a single mind with paper and pen, inventing, creating and mastering their art. Which is something far beyond practical science and is only really appreciated by those who value aesthetics and love so-called pure art or pure math, pure mental creations for their own sake.

        1. But seriously, what is the difference? Are you denying the entire historical pasts of these geniuses??

          Are you suggesting that without Tullio Levi-Civita’s suggestion and guidence of Einstein to research relativityc history would simply continue to be the same?

          Are you telling me that THE CLEAR influence of Bach on Mozart’s work is removable in the grand scheme of things?

          We haven’t even touched up the necessary KNOWLEDGE and theory required before these geniuses proceeded. It seems clear why Mozart’s music arrived at the time it did, and not 1000 years before.

          No sir, even High Art is the product of all human experiences of the artist’s ancestors.

        2. Nobody works in a vacuum, that much is clear. And the determinism of this argument is difficult to argue. I’ll do my best. It doesn’t necessarily follow that all human history was necessary for such geniuses or works of genius to be produced, since not all of human history is embedded in their art, nor are they exposed to it in their lives. They are limited. Much of it they never knew about. And knowledge doesn’t replicate itself and lead to new creations. It requires a mind, a single mind, that is perhaps composed of the ideas, influences and suggestions of many minds, but still one mind to attempt to compile and organize all those things into one work. And no single mind is really tapping into the whole reservoir of all of human history. Vast tracts of history are ignored, other things rediscovered, some things changed through influence, and some things clearly stolen.

          All I meant to say was that they are still individuals who work and invent in the end. For really there is no “historical consciousness”–it’s just a mass of individuals all of whom are working in close contact with influence (or reaction) upon each other but who are still making individual efforts. The individual is the irreducible seeing-eye and cannot be broken into streams of ideas, because they do not exist outside of individuals.

  6. I think language is regressing in general as literacy increases. When only the most intelligent people read, writing is aimed only at the most intelligent. With universal literacy however, everything must be aimed at everyone. The size of one’s vocabulary is a decent proxy for one’s IQ, and as low IQ types increasingly enter the pool of readers we start losing words from our pool of commonly used vocabulary (not to mention complex sentence structures).

    Alex Linder, (I’ll go ahead and add the caveat that I think he’s a nutjob, but an intelligent one) once expressed this point quite well by saying something to the effect of: “find any possible opinion someone has expressed in writing in the last twenty years… I guarantee you’ll be able to find a virtually identical opinion– only expressed much more clearly and in much more elegant language sometime pre-twentieth century.”

    Latin is a primitive language? There are certain styles of writing that can be done in Latin which simply can’t be imitated (without sounding awkward) unless the language has a complex case system allowing you to write in word orders and other stylistic devices that will never sound natural in English or French.

    Of course there are also advantages to modern languages.

    Why did many of the greatest minds of the West knew Greek and Latin? It’s because in some respects they are superior to modern languages.

    I’m very pessimistic about the state of the liberal arts. Many of my peers, even the ones who are undoubtedly pretty far above the mean IQ and currently getting good grades in college, astound me with their poor language skills. If I recommend an HL Mencken piece to them, they tell me they can’t understand it because there are too many unfamiliar words; they have a lot of trouble reading anything from the 19th century or earlier and often don’t even know the definition of some relatively simple words like “erudite.”

    I’m sometimes complimented on my writing style by professors or fellow students, which is further evidence of decay to me since I know that my writing is actually fairly poor in comparison with what used to be considered good. Apparently, however, mediocre is the new “good.”

    Robert, I don’t understand your obsession with public education. Isn’t it obvious enough that most people are incapable of being truly educated. And from this fact, does it not follow that making education universal can only cheapen education, lowering the standard of what it means to be educated?

    One of the few thing the Soviet Union did well in my opinion was focus more on vocational education. Most people will do better with specific training in a profession and basic literacy and arithmetic, as they lack both the desire and ability to become truly educated.

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