Monday, April 02, 2007

What's In An Idea?

When we think about rulers or leaders or governments we seldom think of ideas. Mostly we think of people or agencies. In actuality, ideas rule us. Often ideas constructed by people who are long dead and who had no idea of the influence of their thoughts. Did Aristotle know that his logic would rule the known world all the way until the EDIT: Middle Ages (I stand corrected)? Did Machiavelli realize his ideas would forever change the way people understand politics? Did Locke know that his notion of inalienable rights would become the dominant understanding of government for more than 200 years? Did Freud have any idea of the way his ideas would shape society? Probably not. But these ideas -- and many others -- are what govern society today.

Aristotle was right when he said that man (human) is a political animal. That is what separates us from other creatures. Most people who read Aristotle think that he is only referring to the fact that we form associations and become self sufficient. That is incorrect. Ideas form an integral part of politics and being political.

Please pardon this next digression, it is necessary to stem the tide of knee-jerk reactions upon reading the word "political." I refer here to politics in a broader sense. Not the hard nosed, scum sucking, advantage seeking kind that most people think of when they hear that word. I refer to the politics about which Aristotle wrote. He wrote of associations, justice, ideas, virtue and how these things interact. If you need a refresher course then I recommend Aristotle's Politics and the Nichomacean Ethics. These are excellent works that ought to be read in tandem. They explain a type of politics where every person is not trying to harm his or her fellow human with every action.

On with the subject then! Ideas are what set us apart and govern our lives. One cannot live a satisfied life by merely eating, sleeping and staring at the tv. Even then, there are ideas on the tv. Other animals do not have ideas. At least, they do not have ideas that better their own society. They act on instinct alone. We can reason things out, calculate, decide which would be the best course of action. This is a self evident fact.

The state of ideas today is bad. I think the problem is that people are no longer being exposed to good ideas. They are only getting bad ideas and vague ideas. Who tries to think about the differences between Locke and Aristotle anymore? Who cares to decide which one of them was right (because their ideas are mutually exclusive)? The answer is only a few people who write books full of long words that most people do not get.

Strangely enough, this glut in the nature of ideas comes at a time when we are supposed to be more open minded than ever. You know, everything's okay, everything's cool. It's like we're all on some kind of drug or something. We have opened our minds to everything and thus closed them to the one thing that matters: ideas. You are not allowed to say what idea is right or wrong. You can say that you dislike an idea, or that it's not for you. But there is no final standard for pointing out the illogic or outright moral wrong of an idea. That's just my opinion, I know. And this is no joke.

Furthermore, we have the ability to look up innumerable ideas. Still, most of us do not even know the basic contributions of historical figures like Martin Luther (not MLK Jr., although his ideas were good too) or John Locke. The amount of information available at the push of a button has not made anyone more logical, learned or philosophical. It has made us more lazy, if anything.

The worst thing about all this is the lack of sophistification of ideas. People spout random crap and we are supposed to nod, smile and say it's all right for them to believe that. This is not to say that I want to smack people on the head with logic -- although, sometimes I do. Rather, people should recognize the need to evaluate someone else's reflections. Every idea cannot be right. That's completely illogical after all.

If you doubt me then try putting these two concepts together: 1) ideas govern our existence 2) we do not bother to understand ideas or we think that all ideas are okay. They contradict each other. If ideas are so important that they rule us, then why would we ignore them? Or why would we open ourselves to every single one of them? You tell me.


Steven said...

Not to be patronising or anything but American politics in general seems to suffer from a paucity of discussion of ideas. The two party system really stifles discussion of competing ideologies. One is either Democrat/Republican or liberal/conservative. And the polarisation has contributed to a distortion of what to be politically liberal or conservative means. That's what it seems to me at least catching the occasional headline from afar.

In Ireland we don't have the traditional ideological cleavage but there's no real demand for it. People are content to have everything a bit fuzzy in the middle. There does seem to be a bit more discussion about the outside world but that stems from our membership of the EU and the fact that we're such a small country.

Esther said...

You're not patronizing at all. I subscribe to the ideas of James Madison etc. We were not supposed to stick with a two party system in the beginning. We were supposed to have a multiplicity of factions and that would keep any one faction from dominating our politics. The two party system eventually took shape, although it was somewhat fluid at the start. The parties tended to change names/purposes every so many years (it varied). Then we got stuck in the two party system we have now where the ideas do change, but the names never do. It's misleading. We still have FDR Democrats out there and they are totally different from a modern Democrat. I do not really like it either. There's no room for someone like me in politics. I'm an economic libertarian/Paleo conservative/social conservative/tiny bit neo-conservative. There's no category for that!

Perhaps much of this post refers to American thought and lack of thought.

Still, I am not against having an ideological stance. I think it's a proud American tradition. I just dislike crappy, extreme ideologies.

Ceci said...

The "Dark Ages"...? *goes away and cries*

Middle Ages, dear, Middle Ages! Not Dark!

Esther said...

I apologize. Correction the Middle Ages. I did not have Dr. M. as a teacher you know, my history on that front probably suffered.

If it helps I'll go edit the post.

Steven said...

I'm paraphrasing Churchill here but a fanatic is someone who can't change their mind and won't change the subject. I think the fanatics are given too much space in the media.

Esther said...

Amen. Fanatics probably do not represent the majority of people's opinions anyway. Since we only hear about them, they eventually taint the way we think.