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February 15, 2004

The evolution of ideas

Imagine for a moment....


  • A great thinker writes a book
  • The book influences many individuals
  • Political movements start
  • More books are written about the great book
  • Politics takes on a life of its own, the ideas in the book are implemented
  • More books are written about the great book
  • Politics keeps on a movin'
  • More books are written about the books written about the book
  • Factions develop over intrepretations of the book, and the books about the book
  • People die over ideas encapsulated in the great book, and the books about the book
  • The congruence between the ideas in the great book and those of the great thinker and those of politicians implementing those ideas becomes a stretch

And so forth. Most of you know what I'm getting at. The book? Das Kapital. The thinker, Marx.

It strikes me that many Marxists I've met have read tertiary works and further. Some nouveau Marxists would put a Talmudic exegetist to shame. What if Marx came back to the modern world and saw what "Marxists" espoused. What if he was in cognito, could anyone deny that he would be rejected by his erstwhile "followers," perhaps as a reactionary who opposed the revolution?

The parallels to Christianity should also be obvious, followers warping the utopian message of the founder out of shape to suit their own interests. But it also can be seen in the "Post Modern" movement, or the "Objectivist" movement (I have met Objectivists who haven't read Atlas Shrugged, just The Fountainhead). It seems an inevitability of social movements that "drift" & "selection pressures" change the idealistic seed to a practical mature form. The rank & file adhere to simple maxims rather than drinking from the well of original works ("What would Jesus Do?" "Come the Revolution!"). Sectarianism and cant overwhelm genuine intellectual discourse and individual conscience.

For moderns, I think one thing that we need to do is go back to the sources. Ditch commentary! Back to the ancients! (and 19th century thinkers)[1]

Clarification: My suggestion to go back to primary sources was less intended to expose readers to a purer distillation of original ideas, than to diminish the combination of righteous zeal and appeal to authority that fundamentalists (both political & religious) often evince.

I have not read Das Kapital, but I have read the Koran (translation) and the Hebrew Bible, and am convinced that intelligent minds of the fundamentalist bent could be dissuaded from their orientation (or at least mitigated) by an examination of the self-evident "flaws"[2] in their source religious texts (the fact that the Koran is in archaic Arabic means that many non-Arab Muslims treat it in an idolatrous fashion rather than the banal work that much of it is). As it is, a group of self-interested gate-keepers in Protestantism and Islam often "guide" their charges to their own interpretation of the foundational text as the fundamental reading[3]. I suggest a look at the sources less to recapture the intellectual glory of the past, than expose moderns to the fallibility and humanity of the "golden" past, and so remove some of the bite out of the righteous zeal of some individuals who believe that they have the One True Way from On High. Before we can emphasize context, we must actually read the text that must be contextualized (eg; many conservative Christian youth I have met are unfamiliar with the differences in the various Gospels of the New Testament, likely because they have not engaged in a close reading. As another example, many Christians seem ignorant of the fact that there seem to be two creation stories encapsulated in Genesis-the link I provide is a conservative Christian interpretation of why there really aren't two stories, but it takes a lot to get to this point in the first place)

fn1. This does not include natural science.

fn2. If internal inconsistency and turgid text can be considered flaws in the works of God.

fn3. The gatekeepers of the more hierarchical Christian traditions have done a better job at keeping textual fundamentalism at bay, perhaps because they understand that it is a threat to their own spiritual monopoly as "free agents" can appeal to Sola Scriptura to hide their own machinations and undermine the spiritual superstructure.

I would also suggest that even if a religious (or political) text is straight-forward in its injunction, the existence of obvious flaws in other portions of the work can be used to undermine the relevance of unpleasant conclusions.

Posted by razib at 11:36 PM