Innovation tempered by Empiricism: Life atop the elephant teetering on the back of a tortoise

elephant on tortoise“There is no comparison between that which is lost by not succeeding and that which is lost by not trying.”

That particular quote didn’t grab my attention in college philosophy studies, but sneaked up on me  in the dialogue of an about-to-have-his-contract-cancelled Santa in a syrupy Hallmark made for TV Christmas movie.  Confronted by his side kick elf-pal, filled with doubt about their ability to pass the test that will seal the fate of  Santa’s role in Christmas, “Santa” in the persona of a prep school janitor utters the words: “There is no comparison between that which is lost by not succeeding and that which is lost by not trying.”

All the  merry ho ho ho deck the halls spirit in the world didn’t delude me into believing that some Hollywood writer, who likely never celebrated Christmas,  was responsible for the genius of that thought. A quick google proved me correct: Sir Francis Bacon, Statesman and Philosopher (1561-1626).

Which leads us here:  There is a substantial body of really astute observations about life that precede your and my arrival on the planet. Why then, apart from finding them in Wikipedia and brainy quotes (and Hallmark Christmas movies), are we determined to ignore the import of age-old thought, paying no attention, or rather making no room for, ancient wisdom in our time?  If these observations have managed to weather  the last several hundred years—something tells me they have earned the honor of being elevated into present day conversation, all the time and at every level.  Don’t want to engage in arms talks? Take some advice from Francis Bacon: Fail trying.  Think peace in the Middle East is impossible to achieve? Try Ben Franklin:  “There never was a good war or a bad peace.” (Sometimes beauty lies in the simplicity of it all.)

This week Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was in the news. The Harrisburg’s Patriot and Union newspaper issued an apology for an editorial written in 1863 that said of  President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address:

“We pass over the silly remarks of the President. For the credit of the nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them and that they shall be no more repeated or thought of.”

The fact that the author ended the blast with a preposition should have been a big clue that what preceded was hogwash. Alas, last week, some 150 years later, the paper issued an apology, saying:

Seven score and ten years ago, the forefathers of this media institution brought forth to its audience a judgment so flawed, so tainted by hubris, so lacking in the perspective history would bring, that it cannot remain unaddressed in our archives

Relevant to our discussion here is the fact that seldom discussed about Abraham Lincoln’s now famous address is that it recognized something about human nature which was true then and now, when he said, “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here.”

Though he erred in thinking  his words would be soon forgotten, Lincoln recognized that the nature of the human condition was its preoccupation with all things present. He was wrong about how history would treat that particular speech, but his insight into human nature was spot-on.

Fast forward. (An expression that itself promises to have a very short shelf-life). The buzz-word-of-the-day is:  “innovation.” Pick a topic, technology, industry and philanthropy—everyone wants to see and hear how what you do, what you’ve made, how your proposals and projects are innovative, new and cutting edge. Everyone is reaching out for that latest newest idea—for the next “tried and succeeded” story…which takes us back to the unlikely source of the quote which started this piece:

“There is no comparison between that which is lost by not succeeding and that which is lost by not trying.”

Bacon recognized the value of innovation—and the honorable distinction between  having tried and lost, versus not having tried at all.  So it might be said without too much of a stretch, that the challenge to innovate is Baconian inspired.  But Bacon was an empiricist and if asked, I bet he’d have agreed with the sentiments expressed by Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address.  If  “trying”  were to succeed to any degree, it needed to be informed by the successes, failures, trials, errors, bravery, sacrifices and wisdom of the past.  Make no doubt about it, I am on that innovation bandwagon and am securely buckled in my seat. But like Bacon and others, I don’t flatter myself with the thought that anything I do, innovative or not, cannot be improved by respect for and deference to those who tried, failed and succeeded before me.

If life on earth be Hume’s elephant upon which we sit, teetering on the back of one or more tortoises, then I will want to be mindful of all the tortoises upon whom the success of this elephant’s journey depends.

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