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This Great Society

 
 

Illustration: Joel Bentley


"On the Lives of Ideas” by Emily Neufeld
Illustration: Joel Bentley

Things, in general, are born, thereby coming into existence, followed by a period of living, in which something will develop and interact with other things, and finally it comes to death, in which an existence’s imminence is reduced to a mere subject of reminiscence, living on, yet not alive.
          It is a curious thing how something is born, ages, and dies – or rather, not so, because it simply occurs inevitably, that is all. Perhaps what is most curious is how this progression applies to all things – both the animate and the inanimate, the concrete and the immaterial – albeit in different ways. This process is manifested quite obviously in living creatures, with the aging of the body, the tiring of the mind, and the wearying of the spirit; however, the aging of that which was not physically “alive” in the first place follows quite a different progression. One might wonder at first how it is possible for a thing that is not physically alive to be born and die at all – yet were we to speculate that something does not necessarily need to be “alive” to live, then it is suddenly made clear how something, such as an idea, can be born, live, and die, interacting with other beings as it does so.
          Upon hearing the term “idea” in a defined sense, we often think of some grand concept like the theory of relativity or empiricism or true love, but it must be noted that there is an idea to everything – meaning that anything we perceive and think about has, in a way, become an idea. Thus, in their own ways, Für Elise is an idea, the latest pop idol is an idea, the warmth of a summertime sapphire sky is an idea, and your dinner plans for tonight are ideas. Surely, it is obvious how certain individual ideas, like a shopping list, are born (when you figure out what you need and remember it) and die (when you buy what you need and subsequently forget about the list); however, some ideas are never definitively born and never completely die, and it may be difficult to detect the aging of certain ideas. Nonetheless, we may gain some insight from trying to do so.
          Some ideas are so old that they have become an integral part of our thinking – there are many such ideas, such as simple arithmetic, the concept of zero, or Plato’s first forms. These ideas have endured so long because they are fundamental to our understanding of reality, and however developed, faded, senile, or pale they have possibly become through environmental changes such as discovery or over-familiarity, it is doubtful that their essence will ever leave us.
          Then there are those ideas that are old, but new enough to still bear a defined form in our memory, such as medieval chivalry, Victorian morality, or Enlightenment rationalism, some of which still affect our lives, while others are merely familiar to us in the form of art and fantasy. These must be potent to have survived as long as they have, and often evoke a certain air of reminiscence and enchantment when we recall them at length, becoming the subject of much study and popular fascination. There are also those ideas that have a very concrete hold on our reality even now, such as modernism or early rock ‘n’ roll, which came into being rather recently in broad terms, and yet are foundational in the specific reality we live in today, becoming an intrinsic part of our culture.
          Then there are even more recent ideas, whose lives and aging we have yet to witness in full – ideas that may or may not have long, fruitful life spans. There are ideas like the fashion of the 1970s, which merely fell asleep, only to be awakened forty years later, equally as popular and commonly enjoyed. There are the ideas like the aesthetics of 80s glam rock, which send those of us born after 1990 into hysterics. There are the pop idols of the 90s, most of which are mostly forgotten in spirit, though not quite, because we know they existed. However, we cannot honestly say what we make of these ideas, because we have not seen them in any way close to completion. Ideas, depending on their time, place, and manner of birth, live, age, and die in different manners – however, an idea can never remain dead forever, and is always reincarnated in some way.
          There is always some notion of romanticism, always some inkling of patriotism, always some form of morality present – there are some immortal ideas which never die. However, these are always manifested in diverse ways. Looking at the reality we know from a distance, we come to see that our perceptions of culture, art, life, success, happiness, and science are only manifestations of certain things we know, and have always known. These manifestations are temporary; these ideas will age and fade at an ever quickening pace. In twenty years, will human beings value the same things we do? In forty years, will our practices disgust them? In eighty years, will our way of life seem presumptuous and primitive? No doubt, what is not forgotten and dead will be reincarnated, sharply contrasting yet vaguely, still potently, reflecting the reality we know today. What clothes our ideas – culture, the arts, society – will always wither and fade, but the very soul of these ideas cannot simply be forgotten, and must forever live on.
          Ideas are curious things. Among other paradoxes, they are created by human beings and yet control them. They are built on immortal principles, but they themselves are mortal, being born, living, aging, sickening, growing weak, and sometimes dying. Nonetheless, they have a certain transcendent yet imminent nature that is nothing short of captivating, enthralling many into a quest to understand them. However, despite the importance of understanding ideas, it mustn’t be forgotten how lovely they are to simply gaze upon, contemplate, and admire. That being said, ideas are very much like living people; they are born of something that already existed, carrying on its essence; they live and interact with others; and finally they die, leaving a memory and legacy that never ceases to exist. Did we make ideas so much like us, or did they make us who we are – beings that are tragically mortal yet profoundly unfading in nature? Were ideas human beings, I wonder what kind of people they would be as they silently live alongside us, molding our selves and our reality.

 

 
 

 

 
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