The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

The Perversion and Senesence of Great Ideas

If you’re in the idea game, you notice three things really fast: there are very few great new ideas, the form of ideas lose their power, and a truly great idea will be torn from its moorings and used in perverse ways.

Marx, famously, said that he was not a Marxist and predicted the withering away of the State.  He said that Communism couldn’t happen before Capitalism, but those who called themselves Communists and obtained power came from peasant societies which had never gone through Capitalism and created some of the most powerful and despotic states in all of human history.


It is hard to imagine the historical Jesus (if he existed), who hung out with whores, told people to give away all the possessions, leave their families and who thought that tending to the poor and afflicted was so vastly important that if you didn’t do it God would turn from you, would be happy with so many of those who follow him today, who follow none of his teachings.  Jesus was not a Christian.

Adam Smith believed in public goods, public education, that humans were driven by fellow feeling more than selfishness and that  businessmen were constantly conspiring against the public.  Yet he is known for a single line about the invisible hand, the rest of his writing ignored by those who claim to be his disciples.  One imagines that he, too, might say something like “I am not a Smithian.’

A powerful idea, a great idea, will be misused.  Disciples will seize on that which seems useful to whatever they want to do, and ignore both the essence of the idea (Communism MUST come after Capitalism), and the caveats (Capitalism cannot produce public goods) without which the system will fail.

It is, thus, instructive to seek out ideas which have been little perverted (none have not been perverted.)  Amidst ideas that have worked, and worked, and worked, and done far more good than evil, one stands out: Buddhism. Oh, to be sure, you can find Buddhist bigotry and even the occasional riot (Burma, I’m looking at you); you can find Buddhist monks chopping off people’s heads and playing palace politics, and so on.  Yet, a history of Buddhism shows a belief system which has proved remarkably resistant to perversion.  It is simple, and powerful.

I will suggest that it is because Buddhism is a practice.  To be a Buddhist you must do certain things, with a specific end (removing suffering).  If you do not, you are not a Buddhist.  These practices work, you can measure the effect on people who practice on the brain with modern imaging technologies, you can see them when you interact with dedicated Monks or laypeople who take meditation seriously.  Meditate, send your compassion out to the four quarters of the world, and you become a certain type of person.

A great idea, then, let me suggest, must require something of its adherents.  A philosophy which is empty of practice may be great, but it will be perverted if it does not have a practice which creates the sort of people who are able to live by the idea.

The great sociologist Max Weber looked at how ideas would form people: how the idea of predestination made people work like dogs so that they would have proof they were saved, for example.

Whatever your idea requires people to do is what that idea will become.  If it does not require of them practice which makes them suitable to the idea, the idea will not succeed.

Of course, even if it succeeds, most ideas will eventually be perverted. It’s (relatively) easy to create a great idea that a generation or two lives by, it’s hard to create an idea which is capable of replicating itself down through the Ages.  What is mighty about Buddhism is its sheer longevity.  Twenty-fix hundred years, and it’s still doing more good than evil.  Early Christianity was pretty much perverted five centuries after Christ’s death, and one can argue for earlier than that.  Marxism was going bad even before Marx died.  Smith’s ideas were being used as justification for the very mercantalist policies he argued against within a century of his death.

Pity the great moral philosopher, then (and economics is just a branch of moral philosophy). Most will fail, their greatness destroyed by their disciples, their ideas perverted, their warnings ignored.  Look to the great ideas and ask yourself, “to make this work what sort of people are needed?  Can those people be created?  What would it take to create them?  Are they being created?”

In the answers to those questions you will discern much of the failure or success of any great idea, and will see not just that it will fail, but in what horrible, twisted debased form it will come live, a mockery of the hopes of its creator.

Or perhaps, just perhaps, you will see a bright shining idea, able to create a better world for however long it lives in a form capable of creating followers who can carry it.


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  1. Celsius 233

    Thank you for realizing Buddhism is NOT a religion. I live in a country that is 95% Buddhist and I can assure you it has been perverted and religionized by many.
    So, as you say, ideas do get perverted.
    But for those who follow the dharma (Buddha’s teachings) there is no perversion and there aren’t different versions; the dharma is the dharma. The Forest monks, as they are called, are the true followers/students of the dharma. They avoid the cities and live simple lives.
    When I take off the rose colored glasses, I see the answers are not to be found “out there”.
    But rather in oneself, if one dares to look…

  2. Everythings Jake

    Good ideas don’t grow old and obsolete. They are murdered purposefully. Bernays and his ilk have been at it for a hundred years now. Even then, good ideas have survived in some places (thanks IWW!!). See ILWU v EGT. When things get bad enough that you simply can’t swallow the bullshit anymore, then things will begin to change.

    In some ways this is an argument for behavioralism.

  3. Steve H.

    M. Hudson: “Ideology: A set of assumptions so appealing that one looks at their abstract logic rather than at how the world actually works. (See Insanity.)”

    J. Boyd: “To Be or To Do”

  4. Celsius 233

    What I don’t get; what’s with the harpies? Rice, Rice, and Clinton.
    Women would rule/lead, better, kinder, and gentler than men?
    Holy shit! What a load of bollocks!

  5. This is sort of trivial actually, but I am old enough and have been sober long enough to have watched what I believe was a great idea of “Doctor Bob” and Bill W perverted and deteriorated into a glorified social club. The program of AA as formed by these men was one of inner spiritaul change, requiring inner personality rework, and it was hard. It involved “moving outward from self, toward others,” meditation as a way of life, and a removal of one’s self from the center of one’s universe. Today it is essentially a social milieu which supports not drinking and places no real value on personal inner change.

  6. zot23

    I’ve read there are three ways to know God:

    1) Positive – God is everything, add everything up (and God is still more.)
    2) Negative – God is nothing you can understand, don’t try as it’s impossible.
    3) Induction – God is in what you do, so treat what you do with reverence.

    For example, Christians might say God is everything. Some other sect might say God is beyond your possible ability to comprehend (so God is nothing). Whereas in Buddhism (or Yoga), you get closer to understanding life and God by doing something (which usually you want to do a lot to get there.) You go through the body and leave the mind out of it. Think about cheesecake or duck hunting or whatever you like while you mindfully do Yoga (though eventually you do have to focus on the action itself), if you are doing it enough you will bring your body and mind into better harmony and experience peace.

    It strikes me that’s what you are talking about here Ian: faith through induction. Only you are talking about social structure via induction, which is a good idea (but not new.) Involuntary service in the military, making everyone serve jury duty, Orwell’s 3 minutes of hate. These things all shift a society via induction of the citizenry.

    So what should we have people do to get the kind of society we want?

  7. S Brennan

    Well, I feel remiss if i didn’t give a shout out to that Christian dude who teaching Jesus’s old time Gospel.

  8. someofparts

    So I’m left wondering what it is that creates people who pervert ideas?

  9. Formerly T-Bear

    On consideration, I disagree with the premiss.

    Great ideas are always great ideas, however some great ideas have a time limitation for the conditions that forged the great idea. Few great ideas are timeless (as in mathematics and logic), others have a use by date, still others address fundamental characteristics and pertain as long as those characteristics continue.

    Great ideas derive from the workings of great minds (maybe a transitory condition of greatness) and are perceived by minds capable of judgment or discernment. Not all minds are so capable, the vessel of these minds hasn’t the capacity to encompass a great idea as it’s presented but must rely on others to comprehend, digest and translate into terms the diminished mind can utilize, loosing the power and coherence of the original idea. Such dilution does not change the quality of the great idea itself, rather the received idea becomes thin gruel feeding enfeebled minds.

    To avoid senescence, those inquiring are required to have a direct interface with the original material making up the idea and the context its author presented that idea (or as near to the original as practical, wary always of possible prejudice of language and translator). There is no excuse not to do so; failure to do so becomes an affront to the integrity of the author’s efforts.

  10. Celsius 233

    @ T-Bear
    To avoid senescence, those inquiring are required to have a direct interface with the original material making up the idea and the context its author presented that idea (or as near to the original as practical, wary always of possible prejudice of language and translator). There is no excuse not to do so; failure to do so becomes an affront to the integrity of the author’s efforts.
    Agreed. And Buddhism’s dharma, would be a great example.

  11. Formerly T-Bear

    @ 233ºC

    And Buddhism’s dharma, would be a great example.

    Not so, wouldn’t dharma be characterized by ethics, not ideas? Social laws, traditions and strictures and their enforcement govern the permissible conduct amongst social members of a group attempting to reduce conflicts arising from differing needs, wants or desires.

    Ideas and epiphanies are not constrained or enforced by laws and customs. Ideas illuminate. Ideas inform. Ideas model how the world is perceived and works. Ideas are the clay the building blocks of words are made and meanings are communicated. Ideas help expand the horizons of understanding.

    Opinions attempt to pass as Ideas and are often confounded as being ideas. Opinions often are fraudulent, useful in gaining ascendancy of some agenda over another; opinions tend to be political. Opinions can be constructed from a broad spectrum of materials, any substance from fantasy, or beliefs, or anecdote, or experience, or facts or even knowledge can become the substance of opinion. Opinions are a right, anyone can have one if they desire; opinions are not limited by being correct.

    Other than that, Thanks for agreeing! (smiley thing)

  12. Celsius 233

    @ T-Bear
    Not so, wouldn’t dharma be characterized by ethics, not ideas? Social laws, traditions and strictures and their enforcement govern the permissible conduct amongst social members of a group attempting to reduce conflicts arising from differing needs, wants or desires.
    The dharma is about none of those things, IME. Are you thinking of the teachings of Confucius?
    My point was simply this; do not accept from others that which one can find for oneself, directly. No filters (other than ones own[which the dharma deals with]).
    The dharma is an inner journey having very little to do with the world, out there, (at least directly). The result of that certainly affects the way in which one interacts with the world.
    As to ideas? If anything, a student or master (one who actually comprehends) of the dharma would likely be capable of truly original thinking. Whether or not accepted by others I cannot say.
    In getting back to the original point of perversion and the growing old of ideas (senescence); the dharma isn’t an idea, and one best learns it by reading and studying it for oneself, thereby avoiding the perversion aspect. But therein lies a problem (this is getting circular); can one not pervert?
    Some yes, most no. IMHO…
    A very famous koan; “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” Zen Master Linji

    I would add this; without truly understanding oneself, which is to say, human nature; ideas, in and of themselves, are of little importance/value. At least in the context of this discussion as I understand it, IMHO…

  13. Lars

    Buddhism puts a huge emphasis on what’s called the three poisons: greed/clinging/attachment, aversion/hatred and ignorance/delusion. Note the emphasis on delusion – there’s a recognition that it’s very easy to be deluded about delusion, especially when attached to views and opinions.

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