What we call the new ideas are generally broken fragments of the old ideas. It was not that a particular notion did not enter Shakespeare’s head; it is that it found a good many other notions waiting to knock the nonsense out of it.—G.K. Chesterton
Years ago, in his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” T.S. Eliot implored poets to reverence the tradition of literature while taming their own ego. Caught up in “The Big Me” and neglectful of their own history, Eliot called for “a continual surrender of [the poet] as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable.” What, one may ask, is so valuable? The art, to be sure. But even more (to my way of thinking), the sublime Truth, Goodness, and Beauty that the art is meant to unfold. Toward this end, Eliot would observe, “The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.” It is difficult, however, to engage in humble self-sacrifice when you think you know it all.
Pointedly, and not unjustly, Eliot called into question modern poets’ unthinking condescension toward the artists of the past. With just a touch of acid, he quipped, “Some one said: ‘The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.’ Precisely, and they are that which we know” (italics mine). “Poets, take note,” Possum seemed to say, “you stand on the shoulders of giants.”
Likewise, G.K. Chesterton was a bit befuddled by the modern awe surrounding the “revolutionary” ideas of Friedrich Nietszche or George Bernard Shaw. In hushed tones and worshipful nods, subscribers insisted theirs was a new era of thinking unshackled from the mundane thinking of old.
Chesterton could only laugh.
It is always supposed that the man in question has discovered a new idea. But, as a fact, what is new is not the idea, but only the isolation of the idea. The idea itself can be found, in all probability, scattered frequently enough through all the great books of a more classic or impartial temper, from Homer and Virgil to Fielding and Dickens. You can find all the new ideas in the old books; only there you will find them balanced, kept in their place, and sometimes contradicted and overcome by other and better ideas.
And it’s not simply that the ideas of Nietzsche and Shaw (and many other edgy modern philosophers) are not truly novel; it is that these ideas are old, but fundamentally distorted. Brazenly overemphasized and unchastened by a naturally countering perspective (akin to courage untempered by prudence, or justice unhindered by mercy), the ideas assume odd proportions like images in a funhouse mirror. Chesterton says it best,
It is calmly and persistently supposed that the great writers of the past, say Shakespeare for instance, did not hold this [new idea], because they had never imagined it; because it had never come into their heads. Turn up the last act of Shakespeare’s Richard III and you will find not only all that Nietzsche had to say put into two lines, but you will find it put in the very words of Nietzsche. Richard Crookback says to his nobles:
Conscience is but a word that cowards use,
Devised at first to keep the strong in awe.
As I have said, the fact is plain. Shakespeare had thought of Nietzsche and the Master Morality; but he weighed it at its proper value and put it in its proper place. Its proper place is the mouth of a half-insane hunchback on the eve of defeat. This rage against the weak is only possible in a man morbidly brave but fundamentally sick; a man like Richard, a man like Nietzsche. This case alone ought to destroy the absurd fancy that these modern philosophies are modern in the sense that the great men of the past did not think of them. They thought of them; only they did not think much of them. It was not that Shakespeare did not see the Nietzsche idea; he saw it, and he saw through it.
To be sure, Eliot and Chesterton sensed a haughtiness in the artists and thinkers of their day. Every generation, in fact, suffers from a certain element of what C.S. Lewis would label “chronological snobbery.” After all, to be on the cutting edge of time must mean to be on the cutting edge of wisdom, no? No. This has been proven untrue time and again. This doesn’t mean there are no new ideas under the sun or that new ideas have nothing to add to the old. It does, however, mean that those who offer something novel (artists, philosophers, and writers alike), should do so with a healthy dollop of humility. By consulting the art or insight of the ages—“the democracy of the dead,” as Chesterton would dub it—the new of today may not only be better informed—it could, in fact, be better.