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Hello, What’s Old?

September 12, 2021 Featured Today No Comments

By DONALD DeMARCO

“What’s new?” is a common way of inaugurating a conversation. The trite reply, as was often the case among my peers when I was growing up, was “New York, New Jersey, New Hampshire, and New Mexico.” At other times, the response was simply “nothing.”
We hunger for things that are new and that hunger is accommodated on a daily basis by the “newspaper.” “New and improved” is a standard selling point. Every new car is up-to-date and vastly superior to its old predecessor. We are taught to deplore old fogies, things that are old-fashioned, passé, and out of date. We believe that every new day will be better than yesterday.
Yet nothing fades faster than what is new. “Here today, gone tomorrow” is the epitaph we assign to the new things that come into our view. Have our lives been so dreary and uneventful that we can hardly wait for something new to arrive and revitalize us?
We seem to live from one unsatisfactory experience of newness to another. A bright new novelty appears on the horizon but is quickly replaced by another. As wise Seneca stated long ago, “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” What is new is merely a prelude to what will end. Yet we continue to hope that one day something new will remain with us forever. Perhaps this is why we dream of Heaven where the new and the permanent perfectly coincide. The word “obsolete” is missing from Heaven’s lexicon.
The late Sidney Hook, emeritus philosopher at New York University, recounts a conversation he had with a “bright young man.” The subject involved what made life exciting during their respective college days. Professor Hook alluded to “books, music — Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven — and love. What about your classmates?” “Well, I’m not speaking, for myself,” said the young man, with some hesitation, “but I can safely say that the general run of my classmates are interested in sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. They say, after all, we live only once.” Dr. Hook heard himself reply, “You don’t know what you are missing!”
Here was a confrontation between the old and the new. Sidney Hook was an apostle of the former because, in his estimation, it fed the human spirit and elevated life.
The popular chant among the younger generation at that time was, “Roll over Beethoven, rock ‘n’ roll is here to stay.” Beethoven, however, will not roll over. He remains an imperishable musical titan. The composer of the “Emperor” piano concerto and the “Choral” symphony and all the other great artists of the past are endowed with staying power. They were never “new”; they were always timeless. According to the adage, “If you marry the spirit of your own generation, you will be a widow in the next.”
One may serve his generation, but not be enthralled by it. A contribution to society is twice blessed, being possessed by the zeitgeist benefits no one.
Playwright Henry Miller writes about how fleeting is the fame of today’s ambassadors of novelty: “The fickle, shallow mob raises its heroes to the pinnacle of approval today and hurls them into oblivion tomorrow at the slightest whim; cheers today, hisses tomorrow; utter forgetfulness in a few months.”
An inordinate interest in novelty can cheat us of more lasting pleasures. As G.K. Chesterton explains, “The actual sensation of novelty lasts for a much shorter time than it does in a world where there are fewer sensations. People are not taught and trained to prolong and enjoy their own sense of wonder, even at novelties. They are only trained to tire of things quickly; and then boast that their life goes by very quick. Moreover, this sort of newness is inevitably accompanied by narrowness.”
The phrase, “There is nothing new under the sun,” appears 29 times in Ecclesiastes. This is not to demean all the accomplishments man has made. It refers to a broader perspective that views the fundamental human drama of good and evil, life and death, reward and punishment, as a constant. There is nothing new in the domain of morality. Love, justice, and beauty transcend novelty.
Perhaps a better way to inaugurate a conversation is to ask, “What is old?” Then the field of discourse would swing wide open to no end of enticing subjects. Philosophy and theology, music and literature offer a fertile ground for lively discussions. The domain of “what is new?” is quickly exhausted.
The great philosopher, economist, and statesman Edmund Burke had words of wisdom for those who overestimate the importance of novelty.
“We know,” he wrote, “that we have made not discoveries; and we think that no discoveries are to be made, in morality — nor many in the great principles of government, nor in the ideas of liberty, which were understood long before we were born, altogether as well as they will be after the grave has heaped its mold upon our presumption, and the silent tomb shall have imposed its law on our pert loquacity.”
Those who want to exchange justice for something new will find that they have degraded justice. We can say the same for the institution of marriage. There is a certain amount of pride associated with those who champion novelty while despising everything that is old. It would be to their everlasting credit, so they believe, to introduce into the world something that no other person had every thought of. There is technological progress, to be sure. But on the level of what makes a human truly human, novelty is not particularly important. A person lives and thrives on the same virtues that were practiced by the early apostles and by the unnamed saints of today. We are not nourished by novelty, though it may titillate us in the moment.
We need something that will survive the moment. God and the eternal verities are what we need to be fully alive.

  • + + (Dr. Donald DeMarco is professor emeritus, St. Jerome’s University, and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College. He is a regular columnist for St. Austin Review and is the author of forty books. One of his latest books, The 12 Supporting Pillars of the Culture of Life and Why They Are Crumbling, is posted on amazon.com. His fortieth book, Glimmers of Hope in a Darkening World, is now available.)
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