Ideas are the defining quality of mankind and understanding the development, vicissitude and the ultimate achievement/failure of particular ideas will aid us in understand history and human existence. Many philosophers/scientists in the past had taken their shot at understanding the formation of ideas. We have Francis Becon (1561-1626) – perhaps the first individual to conceive of the study of intellectual history, we have Voltaire the great French philosopher, we have Thomas Hobbes, we have Thomas Carlyle, Auguste Comte, and more. Each of the aforementioned individuals sought, at some period in their intellectual careers, the answer to one particular question: which ideas had the most tremendous effect on mankind? Many sought to answer this question and they did so (strangely) in threes. Vico distinguished ‘three’ instincts which, he said, shaped history: Belief in providence, the recognition of parenthood and the instinct to bury the dead which resulted in the institutions of religion, family and sepulture. Thomas Carlyle noted that the three greatest elements that shaped human history were gunpowder, printing and the Protestant religion while Comte idealized the three stages in which history progressed – theological, metaphysical and the scientific.
Most notably, the great philosopher Dr. Arthur O. Lovejoy defined the one idea that had pervaded western thought for centuries up until the modern age and the renaissance. He called this the most ‘potent and persistent presupposition’. This was ‘The Great Chain of Being’. In short, it was the tendency of intellectuals to understand the world in relation to the idea of God. It was the constant effort to reconcile the natural world with that of the spiritual and to also use the natural world as a proxy to truly understanding God. This was the mindset of Newton, of Copernicus, of Faraday, of Kepler, of Maxwell and all of these other great names in science. Their science was not an a-spiritual experience, rather, the science was an uncovering act, a detectives craft to unearth the mysteries God had put into his creation.
Lovejoy concluded that this idea – the great chain of being – that had pervaded western thought for so long, has ultimately failed. And it seems so with the advent of the renaissance, it seems so with the advent of modern science and it also seems so considering western academias aversion to God and all things religious.
While Lovejoy has a point in the conclusion he had reached, i.e. that the chain of being is lost in the west today, he overlooks all other continent that are ‘not’ European. Consider Peter Watson’s magnum opus ‘Ideas a History of Thought an Invention’. His thesis is that the ideas of the soul, Europe and the experiment had most shaped the world. Again, we notice the tendency of western thinkers to continually shift the focus on Europe and the praising of ‘their’ history and this is no surprise. If five centuries of academia had extolled the role of European thought, then surely European thought has to be important thought, and thus worth mentioning in the list of the greatest ideas to shape mankind.
This is not the problem. The problem rather,is to think of western thought as ‘definitive’ thought i.e. superior thought. Thus, when the western world concludes that religion ties us down, that science is in a fundamental clash with the religious and spiritual world view, this in fact, is the superior conclusion above all other conclusions and the evidence for such a conclusion is progress.
The fallacy in this argument is- simply put – that the idea of the great chain of being is NOT an idea exclusive to western thought. In fact, it has been the defining mode of thinking in Eastern thought. Where as the west has prospered and progressed in the modern age by accepting the failure of the great chain of being, the east has ‘receded’ and ‘decayed’ as a result of abandoning this idea. If this is too hard to believe or accept, we need only to look at history and compare the highest points of Arab civilization to the highest point of Western civilization.
Consider the enlightenment (started by individuals taught in philosophy and sciences in Arab lands who took back the knowledge to Europe, but that discussion is for another time). It’s perhaps most identifiable with the age of experiment, of ‘free thought’ of a period in European history where the fear of Church and God did not deter scientists and thinkers to invent and write. It was an age where Europe shifted its focus from the afterlife to the current life. Now consider the height of Arab civilization (which would be irrelevant without the advent of Islam). It was markedly different in terms of the pervading thoughts that controlled and shaped those prosperous societies – Islamic Spain, Baghdad, Kufa, Andalusia. It was the tendency to think about the aforementioned ‘Great chain’. Science was seen, again, as an uncovering of God’s creation. There was a focus on the afterlife, but such a focus did not negatively effect the worldly life as well.
Civilizations are but sparks in mankind’s history and to write and speak with an air of ‘this is it’ is not only illusory, but inaccurate.
Western civilization, democracy and thought are significant developments in mankind history. But this is ‘not’ it. Generations after generations will come after us and there may even be a day when the thoughts of the modern world will be transmuted into something new.
When we see shifts in the intellectual development of humanity, we must be humble in the conclusions that we reach.