Princeton (2021) h/b 159pp £10.65 (ISBN 9780691223599)

This book is the latest in Princeton’s ‘Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers’ series and joins eleven other titles sharing a similar aim and format. At 159 pages cover to cover, it is a relatively quick read (as are the other books in the series) but it is packed with opinion, advice, and narrative. Although the title suggests that the selected texts are all from the writings of Aristotle, this is not the case as Athenaeus and Diodorus both contribute to the discussion in the middle reaches of the book. Aristotle’s work contributes to the larger first and fifth (last) chapters.

The ancient Greeks, between 800 and 300 BC, changed our world with a series of remarkable inventions and innovations. D’A. makes the point that none of these happened by accident; the Greeks were the first to write systematically about innovation and, in short, the Greeks invented innovation. D’A. notes that it is often said that the ancient Greeks were averse to novelty and reluctant to innovate. He then spends the next hundred or so pages demolishing this statement. He deftly quotes the singer-songwriter Timotheus of Miletus: ‘I don’t sing the old songs; my new songs are better’.

The short Preface and Introduction set out a trajectory for the book and the five chapters sequentially develop the arguments around innovation and change. In the first chapter, taken from Physics 1, D’A. sets the scene for the principles and logic of change and then leaves Aristotle to explore the subject in his own way; the translations make for easy reading. The second chapter moves on to the conditions for creation, using the career of Archimedes, as conveyed through the writings of Moschion (via Athenaeus) for corroborative discussion. The ‘eureka’ moment is well-known in the life of Archimedes, but D’A. astutely selects the construction of a ship, overseen by Archimedes, as his material to illustrate innovation. The imprecise description of density as ‘a function of weight and volume’ rather than ‘mass divided by volume’ is easily forgiven.

The third chapter (from Diodorus) describes the principle of disruption as applied by Epaminondas against the Spartans at the Battle of Leuctra. Diodorus retains the stage for Chapter 4 dealing with the benefits of competition, and, in particular, one such competition set up by king Dionysus of Syracuse which led to the invention of new weapons, such as the catapult. The final chapter returns to Aristotle and the uses and abuses of innovation although the emphasis here is on political systems rather than technological change and development.

There are a number of good, additional sketches that add to the depth of discussion in the book, although the tale of Henry Ford in Chapter 3 seems a little misplaced.

The classical Greeks were responsible for creating a vast range of world-changing innovations and D’A.’s selections, translations and additional narrative certainly give credit where it is due.


John Timney