In order to project the appearance of a superior intellect, in order to make everyone around her bow to her cynicism, the modern sneering hipster goes out of her way to remain unsurprised by everything.
All the great things have been said. There are no new causes to fight. There’s nothing new under the sun.
Such an attitude mistakes fact for truth. Truth is more than just a rendition of fact, despite what the snotty, teacher’s pets like to say. Yes, more often than not, we have heard the facts before. ‘Torture is bad’, ‘man is the architect of his own doom’, ‘Just War is so rare as to be a myth’.
All of these are truths that our culture has regurgitated through the centuries, and there are many more of them. However, their repetition, and their persistence in the consciousness of history, does not make them any less true, nor does it make them of any less value to the present.
The mark of truth is not whether something is new, if we’ve heard it before or not. The mark of truth is how well we have integrated the facts of our knowledge into our actions.
Any familiarity with the the Socratic tradition will drive home the point that that knowing something is not sufficient for wisdom.
It is the great flaw of our industrialised world, a world which reduces scientific thought to the mere listing of facts, that we no longer understand the process by which individuals and societies become wise.
This is also arguably the great mistake of any Marxist view of the world – the idea that we can construct a society free from accepted cultural truths, that the facts are sufficient for the good.
If we are to measure truth and the value of our governing principles by asking whether we have ‘heard it all before’ then we must agree to throw out the Gospels of Christ, the back catalogue of scientific study, and much of William Shakespeare.
Familiarity breeds contempt, when it should actually invite a deeper journey towards wisdom. The philosophies of the east are far better examples of the importance of this.
It is not enough to read the Diamond Sutra once through. You must sit with truth, repeat it in the silence of your own conscience. It must become part of yourself.
That is what I mean by ‘integrating’ truth. It is only when a truth becomes part of who we are, that it becomes wisdom, and only then is truth of any use to us.
What this sneering, conceited generation doesn’t want to hear is that the simplest of truths always bear repeating. Philosophical and poetic truths necessarily have a familiar flavour to them. This is part of their power.
A tangible example of this is a song-melody which penetrates the heart deeply. The first time you hear Strawberry Fields, for instance, you are arrested not just by the sheer freshness and originality of the melody, but also by its familiarity.
There is a paradox at work. The deepest truths are those that already exist inside of us. The originality does not lie in the truth, but in the way the truth is expressed, the way it is newly integrated into our present consciousness.
All the great things have already been said. Yes, indeed they have. But they always bear repeating, because wisdom is about action, it is about the development of the individual. Each of us has to come to truth, to approach God, to conceive of The Good, in our own way, through our own realisation. There is always, then, a new context, in which old truth must flourish.
If we are to dismiss every piece of wisdom just because we are already familiar with it, the way people plough through popular novels and discard them, then we miss the most important half of human development.
This may partly explain our age’s distaste for traditional religion. There’s nothing new in it. Nothing shiny and remarkable about it. A relationship with our past requires a humility about our idea of knowledge. It requires a certain patience and discipline to return the familiar and see the new in what we already think we know.
It is mistaken to dismiss the familiar and recurrent as simply ‘cliches’. A cliché is something that lacks thought, that is automatic. And in that regard, there is nothing more cliched than thinking you’ve ‘heard it all before’.