Drive into a city, Chicago, for example, and the first thing you will see is the skyline. From miles away you can see the Willis Tower, the Trump Hotel and Tower, and the Aon Center. But you cannot see the skyscrapers’ foundations. Even if you stand next to one, its foundation will largely be invisible because most of it is underground – in some cases, descending one hundred feet. Should the foundation be compromised, the skyscraper could topple.
Ideas are, in a sense, like buildings: they are constructed on a foundation and without it they will collapse. This has certainly happened. In the 1980s, for example, the idea of cold fusion – creating nuclear reactions at relatively low temperatures – captured the attention of scientists. It held the promise of cheap and universal energy. But the idea was based on an unrepeatable experiment. It lacked a foundation.
Go further back. Aristotle taught that life was spontaneously generated from inanimate matter. He based the hypothesis on the foundational ideas of earlier philosophers. But the foundation was not well-laid, and the idea eventually toppled.
Like a city skyline, there is such a thing as a cultural skyline. It is not constructed from concrete and steel but from ideas. Some of these ideas can be very prominent but the foundation on which they are built is largely hidden. If it is well-built, the idea may be around for a long time. If not, it may come toppling down like Aristotle’s spontaneous generation.
One of the ideas that stands out in society currently is that gender is, or at least can be, fluid. The idea is that a person can identify as a man or woman (or something else) at different times in his, her, or their lives. This idea has achieved prominence, particularly on college campuses, with their focus on protecting the rights of sexual minorities.
Gender fluidity is an idea, and, like all ideas, it is built on supporting ideas and based on a foundation. As regards gender fluidity, except in the case of intersex (formerly known as hermaphroditic) people, identity is not based on genetics (XX or XY chromosomes) but on feelings and desires.
The idea that we are what we feel has been around far longer than the idea of gender fluidity and is foundational to it. But do our feelings really define us? Do they make us who we are? The idea is certainly widespread, but is it true? Is it safe? Or has it led us into confusion, addiction, and other troubles? Will future generations think of this idea the way we now think of cold fusion and spontaneous generation?
Another prominent idea in the intellectual skyline of our society is that each person has a right to pursue his or her own happiness. This idea has been ensconced in our national consciousness by the Declaration of Independence. But Thomas Jefferson did not create the phrase or the idea. He took it (in all likelihood) from one of his favorite philosophers, John Locke. Locke, in turn, almost certainly borrowed the idea from Greek and Roman ethical philosophy, particularly from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.
Were Jefferson, Locke, or Aristotle to see the excesses and injustices that have been done under the banner of the right to the pursuit of happiness, they would be horrified. Locke realized that “the pursuit of true and solid happiness” would sometimes require us “to suspend the satisfaction of our desires,” an idea that is not only foreign but is antithetical to present-day thinking. Aristotle linked happiness to living well and doing well. Jefferson himself wrote that while “happiness [is] the aim of life,” “virtue is the foundation of happiness.”
The right to the pursuit of happiness, at least as the idea is usually presented in contemporary America, is not a higher story idea built on the same foundation on which Jefferson labored. People who claim it as justification for their behavior – “I have a right to be happy, don’t I?” – may think they are standing on a Jeffersonian foundation, but they are badly mistaken.
Ideas matter. The provenance of ideas matter. Poorly-founded ideas eventually collapse and, when they do, people get hurt.
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 7/7/2018