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November 08, 2015 Sunday 05:40:56 PM IST

Who is the true mother of invention?

Creative Living

Necessity: The mother of invention or of futile dodges?


“… a true creator is necessity, which is the mother of our invention”, asserts Plato (The Republic, Book II, 369c). Necessity mothers invention as evidenced by the history of innovations. We quote, for example, the story of the Mesopotamians. They invented the wheel and the chariot to improve transportation of people and goods; Cuneiform writing to keep record of accounts; seeder plow to help farmers to efficiently till and sow their fields. They invented the sailboat, the arch, irrigation and sanitation systems and what else! Necessity is the true mother of inventions!


In 1917 Alfred North Whitehead dropped a bombshell concept. He concluded that “Necessity is the mother of futile dodges”.  “The basis of invention is science, and science is almost wholly the outgrowth of pleasurable intellectual curiosity,” he asserted. Necessity may lead to some silly innovations, to makeshift concepts and to retrofit solutions. However, true invention is a product of serious scientific enterprise guided solely by the pleasure of doing it!


Are all inventions mothered by necessity? Or are they born out of intellectual curiosity and scientific fervor? Or are there still unknown mothers for invention and innovation?


Does greed mother inventions?


The concept of capitalism hints at another probable mother for invention: Self-interest and greed! Adam Smith, the father of modern capitalism writes: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest” (Smith, Modern Library Edition, 1937, p. 14). Nobody expects a butcher, brewer, or a baker to prepare food and drink for us out of their benevolence. They prepare good food and drink, in anticipation of reward. They make sure that their interests are taken care of through the money we pay for their products. They improve their products and services triggered by self-interest and greed.


Self-interest is the core value of market economy. Promotion of self-interest takes the products from the butcher, brewer and baker to the market. The market is the controlling factor. It controls the quality and price of products. The market forces trigger inventions, leading to enhancement of quality of products and services and at the end of the day the quality of life, predicted Adam Smith.


He demanded that markets should not be just free but also fair. The merchants should practice both prudence and fair play. Unethical enhancement of self-interest in market is compared to the rust in a machine. If not paired with self-restraint, self-interest could end up breaking the market.


Adam Smith did not present capitalism as a means to create a just society. Market was for him a practical tool to control and moderate self-interest and greed. It provides a socially useful vent for an antisocial impulse, called greed. And it seems to work!?


He also knew that by its very nature, greed leads to the neglect of the other and the environment. Exploitation could overwhelm. The poor will become poorer.  People like Mr. Gordon Gekko, the charismatic villain of the film “Wall Street”, will emerge. Gekko appears in the film banking on the slogan: “greed is good”. He is the representative of the turbocapitalism” (Edward Lattwak, “Turbo- Capitalism: Winners and Losers in the Global Economy”, New York, 1999). Gekkoen attitudes create only rust on capitalistic model. An accelerated capitalism without the brakes and the counterweights and based purely on insatiable and unregulated greed will break under its own turbulences. The bell is tolling for turbo-capitalism! The so called socialist nanny-states, on the other hand, capitalized on a host of regulatory prescriptions. It radically restricted human freedom. The system soon turned totalitarian. The power got concentrated on a handful of leaders, who were looked upon as greedless, unselfish and untouched by corruption. However, power corrupted; absolute power corrupted absolutely! Denying private property and adopting aggressive wealth redistribution and hyper regulation, the socialist system discouraged productive pursuit of self-interest. It systematically blocked creativity and innovation. The unproductive ways of pursuing one’s self-interest won currency. Hoarding, lobbying, and rationing got popular. The system collapsed mostly under its own gravity!


Self-interest breeds creativity


Self-interest motivates investors: the pursuit of high returns compensates for the high risks they take. Investors are greedy in this sense. However, without such investors creativity will wilt and the dynamism of the system will evaporate. Great inventors might never have produced their great products or services had they been not ambitious. Self-interest triggered their creativity and innovation. However, distinction must be drawn between ambition and greed. Ambition drives business success. Greed, on the other hand, could drag them down into the dirt.


Ambition spurred the Industrial Revolution; greed caused the stock market crash and the Great Depression. The self-interest expressed through ambition is a triggering force, while that expressed as greed is self-destructive.


In the interest of instantaneous gain, greedy business people often make foolish decisions. They are not far-sighted and sustainability is not in their agenda. Business is akin to an ecosystem. When the ecosystem is in harmony, prosperity reigns. Greed only brings massive destruction and degradation.


Creativity melts away in the face of greed. Greed may incite you to harvest instantaneous profit by outsourcing to cheaper production facilities or just by manipulating prices. You may not feel the need to continuously improve your product, rather to make maximum profit out of the existing product, by hook or by crook. However, while you rest on your laurels and profits, other hungry competitors will come up and edge you out of race. Successful businesses do not progress through greed alone; they do it through creation and innovation. Businesses need creative thinking in order to thrive, and greed could be a stopper.


In search of Artha


Artha is a resourceful Sanskrit word with two distinct meanings. The first meaning is “meaning” and the second meaning is “money”. The word also throws light into the true sense of money in relation to the meaning of life. Money, the modern measure of success shall also generate the intrinsic meaning of life! It is a dialectical process of life itself, which reconciles these two senses in one word, artha.


Greed for money is the greatest spiritual hindrance for realization of the true meaning of life, according to major spiritual and religious traditions. A seeker should be prepared to renounce money to tread the spiritual path.


Jesus was categorical to say: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money (Mt.6:24). Avarice was seen by Christian tradition as cardinal sin. It overestimates the mundane over the spiritual realities of life!


Guatama Buddha despised greed as trsna (desire): an entanglement to the material world and to its pleasures. Desire is but the root cause of all human sufferings. Greed compares to an insatiable thirst for drugs, sex, gambling, food, pornography, internet, television, fame, power or money, etc. Greed in fact grows out of ignorance of one’s true self. Lack of self-awareness breeds it. Improving the awareness of the self is the antidote against greed and gluttony. The search for artha-the meaning of life need accompany you in your search for artha-money!


Humans are born benevolent!


Humans are born selfish, it is said. It is also said: Altruism is an illusion. Greed is the norm. Cooperation only sucks. Competition is natural. War is inevitable. Human nature is corrupt. Plato compared the human soul to a chariot: the intellect is the driver and the emotions are the horses. Gita also gave a similar picture of self: Krishna in the driver’s seat and senses as stray horses yoked to it. Modern research however, suggests that humans are also born benevolent! Compassion is instinctual for parents. Compassion for own child and for a stranger, both illuminate similar brain regions observed Joshua Greene and Jonathan Cohen of Princeton University. The hormone Oxytocin promotes long-term bonds and commitments, as well as the kind of nurturing behavior. Benevolence and compassion are not fickle emotions, as suggested by Immanuel Kant. They are innate human responses embedded into the folds of our brains! Not only self-interest and greed, but also benevolence and compassion are breeding ground for creativity and innovation. They also mother invention.


Enterprise: the true mother of invention


In the Parable of Talents, Jesus calls for greater enterprise from his disciples. Those who received five talents are expected to double it through their enterprise. So is expected of those who have received two talents. The same was expected of the single-talented person! Nobody shall hide their talents, irrespective of their quantity. The principle of life states: “For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them (Mt. 25:29). Enterprise is what meant here.


Enterprise is not equivalent to greed or ambition. It is not constrained to pleasurable intellectual pursuits. It is not just hard work. It is beyond benevolence and compassion. It encompasses all these parameters and others that trigger creativity and innovation, enabling one to improve his/her talents.


Enterprise is rooted in the human nature. It combines the individualistic and personal goals in life. It welds the personal and common good together. It encompasses self-interest and the welfare of the world. What one practices for one’s own benefit in turn becomes good for others. A person with enterprise recites the same prayer recited by thousands of seers of ancient India: “Loka samasta sukhino bhavantu”- Let the whole world be whole! Creativity and innovation are genuine blossoms of authentic enterprise, which is the true mother of invention.

Dr. Varghese Panthalookaran

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