The Father of Invention

This is the eighth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume VIII: Nine Greek Dramas

Prometheus, the light-bearer, is known most for giving humanity the gift of fire. But in Æschylus’ version of the myth in Prometheus Bound, he taught a great many arts to man, including: brickwork and carpentry; astronomy; agriculture; calculation and writing; the domestication of animals; sailing; medicine; augury; and metallurgy.

What stands out the most about such an important catalogue of arts is the fact that all of these skills predate not only the play, but recorded history itself. As John Meynard Keynes put in his essay Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren:

“Almost everything which really matters and which the world possessed at the commencement of the modern age was already known to man at the dawn of history. Language, fire, the same domestic animals which we have to-day, wheat, barley, the vine and the olive, the plough, the wheel, the oar, the sail, leather, linen and cloth, bricks and pots, gold and silver, copper, tin, and lead -and iron was added to the list before 1000 B.C.- banking, statecraft, mathematics, astronomy, and religion. There is no record of when we first possessed these things.”

We may add to that list, of course, the brewing of beer. Indeed, some think that the discovery (or invention) of beer, like the other innovations listed above, was instrumental in the in the formation of civilization. Æschylus’ fire-bearer might just as well have been a Libation Bearer.

Beer of the week: Voodoo Ranger 8 Hop Pale Ale – New Belgium brews a number of varieties of its Voodoo Ranger line. The standard IPA was the beer of the week a fortnight ago. This version is slightly cloudy, with a nice hoppy aroma. The smell has notes of pineapple and apple. The 8 Hop Pale Ale is a nice beer, but there is something in the aftertaste that I cannot place and that I don’t care for. I like the other Voodoo Ranger varieties better.

Reading of the week: Prometheus Bound by Æschylus, Lines 435-567 – This excerpt of the play really does portray Prometheus as the greatest patron of humanity. “All arts, for mortals’ use, Prometheus gave.”

Question for the week: Is Keynes correct in his assertion that no innovation “that really matters” was discovered or invented “in the four thousand years which ended (say) in A. D. 1700”?

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Progress in all Directions

There is a general sense that the history of humanity has been a general march of progress. Progress economically, intellectually, socially. Everybody acknowledges that there have been missteps along the way, but on the whole our species moves ever upward. Assuming that this is the case, (which is not totally evident,) perhaps the most interesting parts of history are those missteps. When humanity turns away from progress and things become appreciably worse. We would be well advised to see the earliest signs of our errors so that they could be corrected before we find that we have strayed too far.

At the beginning of The Economic Consequences of the Peace, John Maynard Keynes describes European society before it was plunged into the Great War. Let’s see how far we have come:

“The inhabitant of London could order by telephone, sipping his morning tea in bed, the various products of the whole earth, in such quantity as he might see fit, and reasonably expect their early delivery upon his doorstep;”

This is still the case, but the internet has removed the need for any human interaction, even placing the order with a person on the other end of the phone line. Thanks to Amazon Prime, many city dwellers can get most things in under a day. There are also myriad more products available, and the internet allows more and smaller vendors to reach each individual.

“he could at the same moment and by the same means adventure his wealth in the natural resources and new enterprises of any quarter of the world, and share, without exertion or even trouble, in their prospective fruits and advantages; or he could decide to couple the security of his fortunes with the good faith of the townspeople of any substantial municipality in any continent that fancy or information might recommend.”

Again, the internet has vastly improved the opportunity for individual investment. Not only can one buy stocks online, one can invest in a friend’s invention, an artist’s project, or a potato salad. And the ability to invest internationally is unprecedented.

“He could secure forthwith, if he wished it, cheap and comfortable means of transit to any country or climate without passport or other formality, could despatch his servant to the neighbouring office of a bank for such supply of the precious metals as might seem convenient, and could then proceed abroad to foreign quarters, without knowledge of their religion, language, or customs, bearing coined wealth upon his person, and would consider himself greatly aggrieved and much surprised at the least interference.”

From personal experience, knowledge of the native language is almost never required (although it can obviously be very helpful.) Being a native English speaker is the next best thing to being multilingual. Otherwise, travel has certainly changed considerably since Keynes’s youth. Commercial airlines have made it possible to travel quickly, safely, and cheaply all over the world. (To say nothing of the availability of highway automobile traffic, which doubtless accounts for the bulk of the increase in personal travel since the beginning of the 20th century.) There certainly are passport requirements for some travel, but a modern Londoner can go nearly anywhere in Europe without a visa.

But the security measures of air travel are substantially more than “the least interference.” Something tells me that Keynes’s pre-war gentlemen would be extremely indignant about being forced to partially disrobe in the airport and subject himself to the invasive measures that every modern traveler has to endure.

Finally, modern states eschew the use of specie, and are engaged in a war against cash. But credit cards can be used in a great many countries, even in the smallest towns. In many respects, this makes travel much safer and easier.

“But, most important of all, he regarded this state of affairs as normal, certain, and permanent, except in the direction of further improvement, and any deviation from it as aberrant, scandalous, and avoidable.”

Like us, the early 20th Century man was confident that society was always improving, becoming ever more convenient and secure. Then the bombs started to drop.

Anchor Steam Beer

 

Beer of the week: Anchor Steam Beer – The progress of beer production in the United States has certainly had some missteps. (One so large that it resulted in two Amendments to the Constitution.) However, this beer represents a return to progress. Anchor Steam claims to be America’s first craft brewery, and this is their signature brew. In the past, I enjoyed this beer on draft, but I don’t much care for it in the bottle. It is an attractive, almost orange-colored beer with lots of foam. The aroma is yeasty. There is a certain bitterness in the finish that I don’t care for. It doesn’t seem like the same as usual bitterness from hops.

Reading of the week: The Economic Consequences of the Peace by John Maynard Keynes – This polemic is probably best known for explaining why the terms of the Treaties of Versailles doomed Europe to future strife. But this section focuses on the state of Europe before the war even began.

Question of the week: Is there any field where humanity is clearly moving in the wrong direction? Or, more importantly, is there such a thing as progress?