Does a slight level of societal chaos drive creativity?

I was discussing James Clavell’s Shogun with a friend. I have to confess here that I’ve never managed to read the book. I think the world of James Clavell, who was a Changi Prison survivor and a confirmed individualist who believed in Ayn Rand style independence.  His books are wonderfully well-informed and have fascinating plots.  And yet . . . .  His writing style just doesn’t work for me.  Much as I want to enjoy his books, I don’t.  Every time I try, I end up abandoning the effort after a few chapters.

Nevertheless, since my friend was reading Shogun, I looked it up on Wikipedia and learned that it’s based on the life of a real Englishman, William Adams, who found himself shipwrecked in Japan at the very beginning of the 17th century, at a tumultuous time in Japan’s political history.  One of the interesting things about William Adams is how completely he embraced Japan.  He came to have the greatest respect for the culture, one based upon rigid social etiquette and one that was much cleaner than the Western world he’d left behind.

When I told my friend about this fact, my friend commented that Japan had a really great culture.  I agreed, but I pointed out that, as a general rule, while rigid cultures ensure internal harmony, they tend to stultify creativity.  The raucous, roiling, boiling, filthy, pushy Western world, while much less pleasant than the clean, organized Japanese world, was the one that drove exploration and innovation across the globe.

Am I on to something, or am I just letting my cultural chauvinism affect my thinking?  And is it even fair to compare one little country (Japan) to the whole of Judeo-Christian European/American civilization?

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  • JKB

    No, you are correct.  Much of Japan’s art is copied from Chinese.  Nor are they known for new innovation.

    One takeaway from reading ‘The Most Powerful Idea in the World’ which relates the innovation that brought about steam power, was that the real innovators in the beginning were religious outcasts banned from Oxbridge.

    “Newcomen’s religion had consequences greater than absence from a local census.  Dissenters, including Baptists, Presbyterians, and others, were as a class, excluded from universities after 1660, an either apprenticed, or learned their science from dissenting academies.”
    “At the same time that he chartered the world’s first scientific society, Charles II had created an entire generation of dissenting intellectuals uncontrolled by his kingdom’s ever more technophobic universities.”

    p29, Rosen, Willam, ‘The Most Powerful Idea in the World” 

    That wasn’t the most powerful idea but it certainly avoided the orthodoxy and let brilliant minds color outside the lines.  BTW, the most powerful idea, a distinctly English speaking idea at the time, was that someone could profit from their ideas, i.e., patent law. 

  • David Foster

    JKB, on the (British, religious) Dissenters….D S Cardwell, in his book Turning Points in Western Technology, observes that during the late 1700s and early 1800s, the state of French science and mathematics was very advanced–more so than that in Britain–and asks the question: Why was industrial development in Britain so much more successful than that in France?

    Writing about the emergence of the British cotton-processing industry, he notes that The early leaders were often Dissenters who were excluded from the fruits–some might say the corruptions–of office in State and Establishment. They were therefore free to devote themselves to business as their sole professional aim while the laws of England assured them their property and the profits their genius earned.

    In my review of Cardwell’s book, I asserted that:

    Had cotton-spinning and weaving been an “industrial policy” project of the Government, than these Dissenters would have not been the ones selected to create and run the cotton mills. Even leaving religious issues aside, those chosen would surely have been the connected and credentialed–categories that would have left many of the successful cotton masters out. And the history of British industrial development would have been very different.

  • phillips1938

    Keep an open mind.  Ignore the other comments.  Basho’s work didn’t come from China and the Hybrid engine was a masterpiece of pure Japanese engineering.  For sources of creativity look for cultural diversity  first.  Japan has always had a 2-4% influx of foreigners and in the past centuries the number was very high.

  • Zhombre

    Book: recall the famous dialog recited by Harry Lime (Orson Welles) in The Third Man:

      Don’t be so gloomy. After all it’s not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

  • Charles Martel

    I’m trying to relearn Spanish, so I’ve been reading Walter Isaacson’s biography, Steve Jobs, in Castellano. In the passages I read today, the book recounts the first coming together of Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs. Their initial joint venture was to duplicate and improve upon “blue boxes,” the devices that early electronics geeks assembled to recreate the tones Ma Bell used to signal individual numbers in a phone number. The blue boxes allowed them to spoof the phone system and make unlimited, uncharged-for long-distance calls worldwide.
    Initially, the two Steves started using their blue box for jokes, such as calling the Vatican and pretending to be Henry Kissinger wanting to speak to the pope. But it soon dawned on them that instead of just using the blue box for cheap thrills, they could manufacture them and sell them to college kids as a cottage industry. (In a foreshadowing of Apple’s perpetually rip-off retail markups, the pair decided to sell boxes that each had $40 worth of components for $150.)
    I’m mentioning this because both Steves never were the ideal students or personalities. Wozniak was a socially inept ur-nerd and Jobs was an amoral, self-absorbed demi-narcissist. Both were lucky that they were white and middle class, thus able to escape the really heavy hammers that might have come down on them for their shenanigans. But these marginalized boys, obsessed with electronics and gifted with great intelligence, eventually sent our entire culture down an undreamed-of path.
    Thank God for outcasts, and thank God the U.S. is so big, so complex, and so unruly that there are still Steves around, hidden just well enough to escape scrutiny by the Luddites and other progressive reactionaries.

  • Ron19

    A detailed study of this phenomenon is a book by Charles Murray,

    “Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950”


  • Gringo

    “Newcomen’s religion had consequences greater than absence from a local census.  Dissenters, including Baptists, Presbyterians, and others, were as a class, excluded from universities after 1660, an either apprenticed, or learned their science from dissenting academies.”
     Darlington, in  The Evolution of Man and Society, points out that nearly all of the advancements in mathematics, science, and technology in England from 1600-1900 came from religious Dissenters.
    See his chapter on The Reformation and Society.

  • Danny Lemieux

    One big cultural trait of the Japanese was to pursue perfection in what is, rather than what could be. After the Meiji restoration and again after WWII, tremendous shocks to the system changed the culture. I consider Japan one of the most innovative cultures today.

  • jj

    As far as exploration and innovation are concerned, a far better marker is climatological chaos much more so than social chaos.  The southern hemisphere, where the living’s pretty easy, yet social chaos has been the order of the day only forever, has explored and innovated… what?  Not much. 
    The northern hemisphere, where inhabited land masses extend much closer to the north pole than anything does to the south pole, isn’t exactly hospitable territory.  It doesn’t support many, and it doesn’t do it easily, or particularly lavishly.  Food doesn’t drop off the trees in front of your nose, or walk past within rock-throwing range.  The snowbound homeland was too crabbed and lean to feed them all.  In a Viking household only one son could hope to stay at home.  For each of the rest there waited, when he came of age, a ceremony.  An arrow would be tossed into the air, and as it might be pointing when it fell, so must the youth go forth.  Southeast to Muscovy?  Southwest to the vineyards of the Franks?  West to Albion, Eire, and beyond?    It didn’t matter: go he must.  The wind was put into a lot of sails owing to that same cause.
    Climate has driven exploration and innovation: simple as that.

  • Ymarsakar

    The Japanese, similar to the US, have a dual cultural dynamic. We have urban centers vs rural centers, West/East coast vs American heartland, etc.

    The Japanese corporate culture models itself after the samurai code of honor in terms of obedience and aristocratic fashions. Their mega corporations are their new aristocracy. On the other hand, the lower level individuals pursue excellence and samurai codes through Miyamoto Musashi’s ronin period, where you have to make your own decisions and your own path in life.