Ideas – The Ultimate Basis

Sometimes when we sit down to think things over we some­ how approach a detached attitude as we compose our thoughts. Several such sessions have led me to the general conclusion that it is the intangibles of life that are the most permanent and therefore the most influential. I further conclude that the actions of man­kind operate to prove this.

When Shelley writes of Ozymandias’ statue he ends with:

” Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

It is one example of the impermanence of the tangible. The ” Seven Wonders of the Ancient World ” also have been used frequently as examples of the ” Ravages of Time.”

Let us look at the matter from another viewpoint. When a person has lived his life through, what has he left but the intangibles called memories? Again I find expressions of this matter in poetry. In” When You Are Old,” Yeats asks his readers, in particular the women, to:

“Take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream.
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true.”

And Edgar Lee Masters in writing the obituary of Abel Melveny has his mill owner realize that his life had been as his unused machinery in outdoor storage.

” A fine machine, once brightly varnished,
And eager to do its work,
Now with its paint washed off­
I saw myself as a good machine
That Life had never used.”

In other words, the net result is not the physical things we have done in life but the feelings, the attitudes, the ideas that remain.

Some time ago the lead article of an issue of the Saturday Evening Post described a particular portion of the Southwestern United States in terms of broken illusions. In particular the author made deprecating references to a senile half-pint of a man. The author learned later that his subject had been one of the most active of the old-time sheriffs, a famous and feared marksman. He was now useless, but ideas he had sworn to uphold continued to flourish.

Politics of the theoretical sort illustrate my point that ideas are the permanent articles. One can see it in the books propounding political beliefs. In the ” Declaration of Independence ” the ideas set forth therein are of extreme intangibility. So extreme are some they can hardly be universally defined. Still, there are few documents which have had more effect on the world. The ” Declaration ” itself is an excellent example of the continuity of an idea from its Greek origins. The idea was modified hut spans hundreds of years of eclipse. Sacco and Vanzetti put into words and action the concert of furthering an idea (in this case an approximation of the ” Declaration of Independence “) by martyrdom – the idea being strengthened by a tangible loss.

Religion is a particularly fertile field with reference to the permanence of ideas. In substantially all formal religions there are ideas basic to the particular religion which are so imponderable that they must be called dogmas, ideas beyond challenge. Some of the most effective men in history have been actuated by these beliefs. Gandhi, Cromwell, and John Brown are rather good illustrations of the power of ideas.

One might also consider the necessity and the basicity of intangibles in science. The explanations of light, radio, gravity, electricity, and the other intricacies must be “explained” in appropriate terms before they can be fully used. Even then ” semi dogmas ” are needed to coordinate the physical laws, dogmas of which we may never be completely sure. Try to define “ether,” the “substance ” which allows transmission of electromagnetic and gravitational forces. The quantum and the photon are inventions of the mind with little behind them beyond the intangible – even if logical – proofs of mathematics. For that matter, even the exact science of mathematics must start with a small number of axioms – i.e., dogmas.

Even in our everyday lives ideas are the supreme fact. Expressions such as ” laugh and the world laughs with you; weep and you weep alone ” and “Nothing succeeds like success” illustrate the point. Prof. Aiken of the Harvard Computation Laboratory gives ” imagination ” as a basis for differentiating man from the highly specialized machines he makes. Imagination may be indefinable but from experience one knows the part it plays in our life. In a broad sense it is the agency that sets our attitudes and guides our thoughts, even if in a sometimes illogical manner. Still, what is it but an intangible?

There are many who have striven to explain the universe, yet they must somewhere base their statements on a thought, an axiom, or some such thing that cannot be thoroughly explained. For in­ stance, Cartesian philosophy struggles through the possibility that our senses are deceiving us, that possibly we might all be suffering mass color-blindness and improperly functioning senses, that a ball might not really be round by a ” true ” criterion but only seems so to us. Descartes reconciles his conclusions with the statement that God would not mislead us so, and he thereby comes back to dependence on dogma.

One might sit back at this point and think about the matter for himself; see if the definite in life is not actually based on the intangible.

by  Albert L. Walker

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