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19 June 2019

The perils of the human imagination

Ideas drive history. But what if most ideas are evil?  

By John Gray

Many, perhaps most, ideas are evil or delusive or both.” It is a remarkable conclusion for a book that argues with some force that ideas are the driving force of history – “not environment or economics or demography, though they all condition what happens in our minds”. If ideas drive history and most ideas are bad, as Felipe Fernández-Armesto believes, what follows for politics? A sceptical sort of anti-utopianism, perhaps, which regards any large scheme for human improvement with suspicion. Something like this was the political philosophy of Dr Samuel Johnson, not mentioned by Fernández-Armesto, and of David Hume, mentioned once but not in connection with his political thought. Both were 18th-century conservative thinkers who lived and died before the French Revolution showed how big ideas could be immensely powerful forces.

 The problem with this sort of sceptical conservatism is that it has very little practical application in times of revolutionary upheaval. Edmund Burke lived to witness the French Revolution, if only from the other side of the Channel, and his response became one of the inspirations of modern conservative thought. But for Burke the answer to the Jacobin pursuit of utopia was not scepticism but faith – specifically, a Christian faith in providence, which assured him that anarchy, terror and tyranny of the kind he perceived occurring in France had some redemptive meaning. Without this faith, history would be not much more than a succession of large idea-driven changes, quite often disastrous, followed by countless minor adjustments, all going nowhere. This appears to be Fernández-Armesto’s view, though he seems reluctant to spell it out directly.

A prolific author of highly original books of universal history, he begins this one with the observation that there are two ways of accounting for the human imagination. One thinks of this capacity in scientific terms as the product of the workings of the brain, the other describes it metaphysically as “an immaterial faculty, commonly called a mind or a rational soul, which is unique to humans, or of which humans possess a unique kind”. Imagination, he tells us, “best denotes what is special about human thinking”, covering “fantasia, innovation, creativity, re-crafting old thoughts, having new ones, and all the fruits of inspiration and ecstasy. Imagination is a big, daunting word, but it corresponds to an easily grasped reality: the power of seeing what is not there”. In previous books such as Civilizations (2001), Ideas (2003) and The World: A History (2007), he focused on global history through biomes or ecosystems – communities of living things rather than countries – and this geographical perspective has led some readers to view him as a materialist. But he has “always thought that ideas are literally primordial”, he writes here, and regarded world history as the history of the human imagination.

It is hard to do justice to the grand sweep of this book and the intriguing detail with which it abounds. If this is a book about ideas, there is one on every other page. Commenting on Hobbes’s bleak picture of how humans live in a “state of nature”, for example, Fernández-Armesto writes:

Maybe there was an era, long before the emergence of Homo sapiens, when life was “poor, nasty, brutish and short” and hominids scavenged without leisure for ratiocination; but for hundreds of thousands of years thereafter all our ancestors, as far as we know, were relatively leisured foragers rather than relatively harried, hasty scavengers. The artefacts they left are clues to creative minds. From about 70,000 years ago, and abundantly from about 40,000 years later and beyond, art displays a repertoire of symbols that hint at how Ice Age people reimagined what they saw.

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Our hunter-gatherer ancestors were far from being the impoverished savages of Hobbes’s early Enlightenment philosophy. They showed clear evidence of the power of imaginative thought that the author thinks is the most distinctive power of the human mind. But while humans are unique among animals in the fertility of their imagination, they do not produce new views of the world very often. Many of the ideas by which we are ruled today date back to antiquity. “Probably no more than a dozen subsequent ideas compare, in their power to change the world, with those of the six centuries or so before the death of Christ. The sages scraped the grooves of logic and science in which we still live. They raised problems of human nature that still preoccupy us, and propose solutions we still alternately deploy and discard. ” Zoroastrianism and Judaism, Jainism and Buddhism, Confucianism and Daoism, can all be traced back to the ferment of ideas that broke out in different places and cultures around that time.

Among today’s missionary faiths Christianity harks back to Jesus, “an independent-minded Jewish rabbi, with a radical message”. Islam, which appeared with Muhammad in the seventh century after Christ, was a development from Jewish and Christian prophetic traditions: “Every page of the Quran – the revelations an angel whispered into his ear – shows Jewish (and, to a lesser extent, Christian) influence.”

An idea older than monotheism, Fernández-Armesto suggests, made possible the dominant way of thinking today. In ancient India, the thought emerged that the world might be an illusion. In the Mundaka, one of the earliest ancient Sanskrit Upanishads, going back to the late second millennium before Christ, the world flows from Brahman – an infinite, eternal mind or process of thought – like sparks from a flame. A somewhat similar conception appeared later in Plato’s myth or metaphor comparing what we perceive through the senses to shadows on the wall of a cave: the particular things we perceive are chimerical; only universal ideas, timeless and immutable, are truly real.

It is a mark of Fernando’s astuteness that he considers this mystical philosophy to be among the origins of modern science. “In one sense, science begins with a form of scepticism: mistrust of the senses. It aims to penetrate surface appearances and expose underlying truths.” Modern science received another stimulus from a tradition of empirical thinking that emerged from Christian theology. St Thomas Aquinas “was part of what can properly be called a scientific movement – perhaps even a scientific revolution or renaissance – in high-
medieval Europe”. In Thomistic theology, God was bound by natural laws; the study of the natural world was therefore a religious obligation. Rational theology led to the idea that science was the discovery of a rational order in the universe.

 In the comic-book history of ideas that is promoted by rationalists today, Isaac Newton is revered as one of the authors of “the Scientific Revolution”. In fact, as Fernández-Armesto points out, “Newton was a traditional figure: an old-fashioned humanist and encyclopaedist, a biblical scholar obsessed by sacred chronology – even, in his wilder fantasies, a magus hunting down the secret of a systematic universe, or an alchemist seeking the Philosopher’s Stone.” It is not the first time Newton has been seen in this way. John Maynard Keynes, in a lecture titled “Newton, the Man” – meant to be given on the tercentenary of Newton’s birth in 1942, but delayed by the Second World War and delivered after Keynes’s death by his brother in 1946 – wrote: “Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind which looked out on the visible and intellectual world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than 10,000 years ago.”

Having been the first person to have seen some of Newton’s manuscripts that had been kept secret until they were sold in 1936, Keynes had solid evidence for this claim. Yet it has not dented the rationalist view of modern science as the product of something called “the Renaissance” – supposedly a movement that rejected mysticism and magic in favour of reason. Fernández-Armesto is unusually caustic on this subject: “If I had my way, we would drop the word ‘Renaissance’ from our historical lexicon. It was invented in 1855 by Jules Michelet, a French historian who wanted to emphasise the recovery or ‘rebirth’ of ancient learning, classical texts, and the artistic heritage of Greece and Rome in the way people thought about and pictured the world.” But Michelet saw the past in the terms of his own time, when more pupils were learning Greek and Latin than ever before. Following Michelet, we are told that the Renaissance “dethroned scholasticism and inaugurated humanism”, when actually Renaissance humanism grew out of medieval scholastic humanism. We are taught that the Renaissance was secular or pagan, but throughout the period to which the term is commonly applied “the Church remained the patron of most art and scholarship”. The popular idea of the Renaissance, transmitted by legions of writers who inveigh against medievalism and religion, is a phantom not a historical reality.

There is much else in this brilliantly stimulating volume that upends received notions of the human past. The singularity of modern racism is highlighted. Distinguishing it from “prejudice to alterity” and “commitment to a narrowly circumscribed moral community of the like”, racism is “the doctrine that some people are inescapably inferior to others by virtue of belonging to a group with racially heritable deficiencies of character”. Racism in this sense is “an unintended consequence of Enlightenment science, with its obsession with classification and measurement”. 

The worst crimes of modern times were products of “racial science” mixed with the utopian imagination: “The first perpetrators of ethnocide and genocide, the first theorists of massacre, were truly radical utopians.” The Nazis used medieval millenarian ideas in their campaign to demonise minorities, but they also deployed the authority of modern science to validate their fantasy of a harmonious, racially homogeneous society. Many more examples could be given where Fernández-Armesto shakes up conventional historical interpretations and suggests others that are not only more interesting but more likely to be true.

Not everything in the book is plausible. Among the sections on individual thinkers, those on Freud and Nietzsche are notably weak. Some of Fernández-Armesto’s assertions are impossibly strong. “Without existentialism”, he writes, “ways of life adopted by millions, such as beat culture and 1960s permissiveness, would have been unthinkable. So, perhaps, would the late 20th century’s libertarian reaction against social planning.” But if permissiveness means greater sexual freedom, it owed as much or more to improvements in contraception as it did to any idea, while the libertarian rejection of state control came partly from the prestige of mathematics in economics, which gave credence to the claim that free markets are maximally efficient. Existentialism doesn’t come into it.

 There is a larger question about how such claims are to be critically assessed. If existentialism did have an influence on popular social movements, how would we know? An even bigger question looms. What counts as an idea? Was the idea embodied in the cathedral at Notre Dame a Gothic idea in architecture? Or was it an idea about a transcendental God? How, in any case, can we tell?

Most puzzling in this fascinating compendium of ideas is Fernández-Armesto’s own idea that human imagination is an immaterial faculty. “Human intelligence,” he avers, “is probably fundamentally unmechanical: there is a ghost in the human machine.” Again, he is not the first to suggest that the human mind may not be wholly explicable in mechanical terms. Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer with Darwin of modern evolutionary theory, believed the human animal emerged via natural selection but at some point acquired higher mental powers from a non-natural source. Having studied animal minds and emotions, Darwin was horrified by Russel Wallace’s suggestion. What was at stake for Darwin was not just his own theory, which was meant to include the human mind. It was the idea of science itself, which – though he never unequivocally rejected theism – he thought meant explaining events in the world by reference to natural processes within it. Whether Fernández-Armesto rejects this idea of science is unclear.

The puzzle is deepened by his observation that most ideas are bad or wrong or both. If what makes humans unique is the power of seeing what is not there, what makes them so destructive is that they believe what they have seen to be real. Untold millions have killed and died for the sake of dreams – gods, utopias, visions of the past or future – conjured up in the imagination. The ancient Gnostics, discussed by Fernández-Armesto when he considers the origins of Christianity, believed a malignant deity or “demiurge” had consigned human beings to a lower world of ghosts and phantasms. It’s an entertaining metaphysical speculation. But perhaps we should consider the more mundane possibility that in the course of its evolution something went badly wrong with the human brain. The destructive power of ideas may have a natural explanation. There may be no ghost in the human machine, simply some crossed wires we cannot untangle. 

John Gray’s books include “Seven Types of Atheism” (Allen Lane)

Out of Our Minds: What We Think and How We Came to Think It 
Felipe Fernández-Armesto
Oneworld, 480pp, £25