August 20, 2019

The Dangers of the Human Imagination

“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.”

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