Without a doubt, one of the greatest ideas ever hatched was the notion of establishing a college — a place where people have time to sit around and wonder what, for example, are the 10 greatest ideas of all time. You could go through about 376 six-packs just asking what’s so important about the number 10. Then there’s the matter of what you mean by “greatest”? Nicest? Most surprising? Most widely held? For example, the guy who invented your basic motel-room architecture?
Copernicus? Right. The earth isn’t the center of everything.
How about window screens? (“No flies on that, har, har.” Pop. “C’mon, you people, get serious.”)
Okay, the Second Law of Thermodynamics, entropy, leading us to a direct proof of time’s arrow. But hey, are we talking about ideas here or natural conditions?
Anyway, an editor I know who lives in a college town asks, out of the blue, what are the 10 greatest ideas? “Have fun with it,” he adds. Fun? I hear the thin ice cracking all around me. The rusting blades of my mind skate over science, the history of ideas. Joseph Campbell goes, BOING! like one of those targets in police training academies. I leap from Gutenberg to archetype, from Jung to old.
“Only connect!” said E.M. Forster. But everything is connected. “Only disconnect!” I say. So I go outside to look at the afternoon light on a mountain, seeking 10 ideas — the 10 ideas — to tell to the mountain. On the other side of the mountain is Sandia Cave where they found the remains of an early native American. I wonder if he — Sandia Man — had any ideas that have survived to influence the way today’s human beings interpret their conditions.
Together we came up with 10.
1) Ethnicity. This notion of the differences between groups of people — from tribes to nations and even to continental aggregations — could be considered a natural condition rather than an idea. But logic and paleoarchaeological evidence suggest that ethnicity was not a primordial condition of humankind. The logic: If we are one species, as we demonstrably are, then the species arose once, and at one time everyone was the same.
Archaeologists’ findings also suggest that ethnic distinctions didn’t arise until late in human prehistory. There was, in essence, a global village until perhaps well into Neolithic times. Free trade (of people and goods . . . and ideas) between bands seems to have been the norm. But then nomadic bands of hunters and gatherers became numerous enough to turn competitive over space and resources. Only then did they begin to make invidious distinctions between us guys and (sniff) them. In other words, ethnicity is political, and therefore is an idea, not a fundamental condition.
Once groups felt the need to isolate themselves, any differences would soon have seemed primordial. When trivial differences became important, they were capable of elaboration into a living, growing encyclopedia of snotty ways to put others down.
The benefits of this are the delights of cultural diversity — the spice of life. The down side is the simple fact that more human blood has been spilled over this idea than any other. Ethnicity — the myriad ways of distinguishing us and them — subsumes and is often confused with the wholly pernicious idea of race, which is nothing more than the laziest form of pigeonholing and which lapses into obvious gibberish when confronted by a child of an “interracial” marriage.
Until ethnicity is recognized as an idea and not a necessary condition of the human animal, no one will ever figure out how to tame it. So far, the only operating antidote subverting ethnicity that I am aware of is the apparently global epidemic of teen-age American music. The United Nations should consider passing out pocket radios to every kid over the age of 5.
2) Money. There are 128 pithy remarks about money in A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources, selected and edited by H.L. Mencken (who knew a thing or two). Not one of them points out that the idea of money had to have originated as a means for equating apples and oranges, a portable evaluation system.
The specific bases for money — beads, cowrie shells, gold — are irrelevant; money is quintessentially order. And more than any other idea that I can think of, it shows how a means can become an end, an idea a thing. Economic transactions of a nonmonetary sort, such as bartering, are widely regarded as chaos. Civilization would surely not have come about without the idea of money, though civilizations are conceivable without a lot of other ideas.
The ubiquity of money as a system, however, is only apparent. It only evaluates certain things, depending mostly on other human ideas of the time, and there may be certain things that it cannot evaluate. “The practical value of the universe has never been stated in dollars,” observed Henry Adams, the dour American historian, just after the turn of this century. Lately, with a world facing biological catastrophes daily, the entire inverted pyramid of economics — which teeters on the narrow base of the idea of money — cannot come up with a believable means of evaluating such things as a marshland or an ocean or a species of bird or a human life.
3) Male superiority. There is evidence that human males came to the conclusion that they were better than females rather late in history. The perfectly inexcusable activities of Zeus — which included raping and thus subordinating his very sister, Hera — were a way of confirming a recent takeover. Pre-Hellenic people in Greece were apparently run by Hera-like queens/goddesses who took a new husband each year and then had them bumped off sacrificially. The creator was seen as a creatrix, an earth mother — fecund, all-providing and dangerous.
Even before that, it seems, bands of people recognized the eternal mysteries of things as being basically feminine — birth being unimaginably amazing. There is even some suggestion that in those early times men were unaware of their role in the generative process, imagining women to be impregnated by the wind or by water (I doubt this, by the way; even birds try to keep other males away from their females).
Anyway, for about four and a half millennia the rule has normally been that males are superior (there are some exceptions, chiefly tribal ones). What we call civilization has existed only during the interval of male hegemony. This situation would seem to be changing now, with some people of the opinion that if women have more say in the workings of the world, there would be a lot less mayhem. But there was a tremendous amount of bloodshed in Neolithic times, too, according to some archaeologists, a time when women were in charge. As Will Rogers said: “I bet you the time ain’t far off when a woman don’t know any more than a man.”
4) Monotheism. By this I do not mean the vague earth-mother notion, since she was almost surely surrounded by various genii loci, but the big-time monotheism that arose mainly in the Middle East with Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
The rise of this idea, coming in this great creative center of civilizations, suggests that people in complex societies were getting disenchanted with committee work — even divine committees. My reading of Hindu religion suggests that their one god quite happily split itself up into a great pantheon of gods, thereby providing a wondrous diversity of deities all of whom are also facets of Brahma. But what later became Western civilization opted for one God — a kind of father who tended to be slightly apart from his creation.
The nearly infinite diversity of ways in which this idea has exerted its power on the world for good and not-good are far beyond any commentary by me. Two thoughts do recur, however. One is that monotheism provides almost infinite employment for theologians reckoning how to account for good and evil.
The other, noted by Arnold Toynbee and others, is that by divesting natural objects of their inherent spiritualism, monotheistic religions stopped protecting nature from man. This idea, however, may be based on a romanticized view of tribal, pantheistic peoples who, archaeologists now suggest, could be pretty destructive of nature despite their belief in tree spirits and all that. It’s just that, for a time there, they had someplace to move to whenever they fouled their nests.
In any event, monotheistic religions certainly ratified the human condition of believing itself exempt from the laws of nature. (This needn’t have been the case with this idea; it just has been very badly managed.)
5) Opposites. Duality is surely a condition of the world. Obviously some things are up, some down, some to the left, some to the right. There is dark and light. It may even be a condition of the human brain to make more of such opposites than truly exists, spotting dualities everywhere and then exhausting itself trying to reconcile them by proving that they aren’t really opposites but polarities, like the two ends of a magnet.
An early codification of this idea was done by the Pythagorean philosophers who put together a double-ledger list of such things as round and straight, at rest and in motion, left and right, female and male, evil and good, and so forth. (That they already had a lot of other ideas is suggested by the fact that left, evil and female were all in one column, while right, good and male were on the other side of the ledger.)
In any event, given the urge to reconcile “opposites,” we get everyone from Plato to today’s feminist myth-hunters proposing the notion of hermaphroditism to overcome the painful problem of gender. To me this seems like a waste of time — and a vaguely freakish one at that — since gender is a condition that has existed on earth since about Cambrian times and will not be “resolved” by any idea.
As for good and evil, we seem, via the notion of situational ethics, to be bent on denying their existence. And American baseball is one of the few institutions I know of with a healthy and properly amoral and functional attitude about left- and right- handedness. (Some of the current fascination with left-brain/right-brain functions probably will die down when it becomes more widely known that many of our fellow primates — apes and monkeys — also have bicameral brains.
6) Life after death. This could in fact be a condition (as could monotheism), but in the absence of certainty I call it an idea. As such, it no doubt originated from contemplating that inescapable duality of the real world: being alive and then being dead. Apparently a bit passe or even embarrassing in some circles, even theological ones, the idea of life after death has probably done a great deal more good than harm in human history. Surely a very ancient proposition, it provides one thing that humans uniquely need: hope.
Of course, in the hands of elitists like Calvinists it is just another put down by The Elect, and for reincarnationists it’s a kind of cop-out (“I’ll be better in my next life here”). Like Zoroaster, moreover, I find eternal damnation to the flames — eternal is a long, long time — to be a sentence too harsh to be appropriate for merely human crimes.
Taken as a justly wielded stick and an ultimate carrot, this idea surely has helped people through the inevitable indignities of life and has been the best reason so far advanced for making such an arduous investment. There are other good reasons, but they are a bit inchoate and too existential for many tastes. Afterlife is a splendid idea and, I hope, a condition as well.
7) Reason. By this I mean the uniquely human notion that the products of one’s mind, in purest form called “reason” (or maybe “logic”), have utility and may even be sufficient for the location of truth.
In the Western tradition this is a pre-Platonic idea (the aforementioned Pythagoreans were early idea-men). Reason, the workings of the mind when it is finely tuned and perking away as designed, is generally taken to be what really separates us from the rest of the animal creation. Here again, proto-reasoning power found in chimpanzees is a bit bothersome, as is the finding that thoughts may not even be the result of wondrous (and personal) electrical discharges in the nervous system, but really more the cumulative result of the nearly tidal action of uncountable zillions of idiotic enzymes and peptides and the like flowing around the beaches of our brain cells.
As scientists muck around in the more ignoble realms of reason, they are more interested in mechanisms than results. The results of pure reason are probably the most beautiful things on earth (if we could see them) and to act rationally (as a result thereof) would seem to be highly desirable. Reason — the idea of having good ideas — is another splendid idea in my view. The major problem is that the human species uses it with startling infrequency.
8) Free will. Like the problem with good and evil, free will seems to be at risk of being done away with. Free will implies responsibility for one’s actions, which is probably why so many people have tried to invent ways to deny its existence. There are determinists of all kinds (economic determinists, fatalists, you name it) who point the finger at overweening events, patterns of history, wills of gods, sheer statistical coincidence and other lame excuses, and who set forth in every era to deny us this one idea that truly dignifies our existence while we are on earth.
Again, it can be taken too far. We are obviously hemmed in by the terms of our existence, which are biological terms. Our biological flowering is in turn determined by our ecological surround. To this, humans have added an intellectualized surround (see “money” above, for example) and unfathomable subconscious, even archetypal, driveshafts at the end of which we imagine ourselves dutifully spinning. Anyone can choose to imagine himself or herself in such a way.
In fact, there is one realm in which unquestionably we are free to choose, enzymes and peptides notwithstanding, and that is the realm of ideas. Whatever real restraints we suffer, we are all free to choose among the ideas available to us, and for most of us life is a great supermarket of them, many of whose aisles we elect not to explore. We can think what we wish, even act on it if we dare. This is sometimes referred to — by fans or order — as madness.
9) The gift. Biologists have yet to turn up any kind of convincing evidence that nonhuman animals practice what we call altruism. True, biologists talk about altruism but what they mean is nothing more than a narrow nepotism — a tendency of some creatures to look after those who share their closest genes, meaning nephews and nieces if sons and daughters are not available. Giving a gift to a stranger is a human idea.
Human history is full of gift-giving and it’s not just goody-goodyism, according to students of tribal cultures. For example, the only way Northwest Coast Indians could demonstrate a touch of class was (and is) to throw a potlatch, in which you give almost everything you own to everybody else who’s standing around. In most societies, gifts are not simply given; some kind of return is expected (consider the annual editing of Christmas card lists). This seems small-minded, but there is nothing wrong with giving something in the expectation of being given something back. The trouble is when we get too damned specific or impatient.
In fact, the old adage that is more blessed to give than to receive puts an undue burden on the poor human being. You have to receive, lest you perish. The best form of the idea of the gift is that one give freely of what one has and one will receive — from whom, when, and in what form doesn’t matter. I have noticed, whilst limping through this mortal strand, that the only happy people are generous, not to a fault but to a distant limit. They are the blessed receivers.
This is probably the only way we will be able to continue existing on this planet (which is a necessary precondition to finding out for ourselves about idea No. 6).
Okay, that’s nine ideas. I need a tenth here, one which (along with Nos. 7, 8 and 9) suggests a happy way to use the other great ideas available to us. I beg permission to use what may seem a small and recent idea, but one that may be great in its application.
10) The American League’s designated hitter. There are people who are fans of the National League, or both leagues, or just baseball in general, who look upon this idea as the profaning of a perfection. (For those who are not baseball wise, the designated hitter is a guy who goes to bat in the pitcher’s stead, pitchers being specialists of such refinement that they have no time for batting practice and almost always do something reckless when at bat.)
This innovation suggests that even the most sacrosanct tradition, the most evidently primordial and perfect concept (which is how some people take the rules of baseball) can be changed without bringing on Armageddon — if the change is thought out well and is generous. Not only does the designated hitter relieve pitchers from making fools of themselves trying to do something for which they are not equipped, but it also provides a role for someone who is a fine hitter but would make a fool of himself when confronted by a sharply hit ground ball.
The idea of the designated hitter suggests what might be a good maxim for human communities: The game is more interesting when all the players get to exercise their talents and, whenever possible, aren’t forced to humiliate themselves by doing what they can’t.
Jake Page contributed numerous essays to Notre Dame Magazine spanning a period of four decades before his death in February 2016. At the time “What a Concept!” was published, he lived in Corrales, New Mexico, not far from the Sandia Mountains.