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Grande Strategy

Chapter Six: The World of Ideas

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Chapter Six: The World of Ideas

A society in its pre-civilization stage meets the requirements of its simple activities by means of a set of motivations and operational modalities that correspond to its modest cultural universe. Even at this stage, this universe includes certain key ideas or archetypes that each generation inherits from the preceding one and passes on to the next. It also includes some practical ideas more or less modified by each generation in order to face the particular circumstances of its history. At this stage, the key ideas supporting the society's activity constitute its ethos, while the practical ideas guiding that activity constitute its technique.

As a society moves on to the second stage, thus getting involved in a civilizing process, its transformation will correspond exactly to a cultural revolution which will more or less alter, indeed less, its technique but which will radically shatter its ethos. On the threshold of a civilization, it is not the world of objects that undergoes transformation, but it is the world of people that undergoes fundamental change. At this very stage, even the technique is not object-oriented but man-oriented. It is thus a social technique meant to shape the new relations within society on the basis of a new charter, divinely revealed like the Qur'an, or man-made like the Yasa of Genghis Khan[1] or the 1793 French Constitution. Yet, the primary condition for a society to secure the network of its relations is, as we have just seen, to set the limits for its vital energy.

There is a certain hierarchy in the world of ideas between the ideas transforming human beings and those transforming things. The first category represents the power that conditions the vital energy on the threshold of a civilization, whereas the second embodies the power that conditions matter in the second stage of its cycle.

The power of the first category depends, as far as the degree and duration of transformation are concerned, on the origins, whether sacred or secular, of the cultural universe that has risen in the new society. In fact, a purely secular cultural universe cannot exist from the beginning because such a universe is unable to provide the motivations that can support the early steps of a nascent society.

It is a matter of fact that the founders of a civil society realize such a phenomenon. This was the case with Robespierre who, after the event, added the idea of Supreme Being to the ideology of the French Revolution. As this idea failed, the France of 1798 replaced it with a demiurge embodied in a certain Napoleon.

This aspect of the problem shows that an incipient order will always seek support in some sacred values. Moreover, history shows that a cultural universe will always tend, even if originally founded on such sacred values, towards desecration inasmuch as society advances in the second stage, that of technical problems and expansion. This phenomenon can be explained in two ways. In the understanding of an economist, it is progress, whereas it reflects, according to a historian-philosopher, a loss of energy denoting the beginning of ageing.

These two contradictory interpretations can be reconciled in the necessary law of energy transformation. Governing history and physics, this law implies that in order to generate activity and movement, there must be a degradation or loss of potential[2]. Mechanics call as “moment of strength” the instant at which the lever arm is ready to move a certain resistance, that is to say, to accomplish a particular activity. The idea-force has also its "moment", that in which its projection in our activity exactly represents the integral image of its archetype in the original cultural world. It is at this moment, in particular, that its control over the vital energy reaches its peak. It thus could allow Bilal b. Rabah[3] to challenge, if only by raising his finger as a sign pointing to the Oneness of God, the entire Jaihiliyyah despite the atrocious tortures to which he was subjected. It also allowed the Christian martyrs to defy Roman paganism in spite of the dreadful circus to which they were exposed during the time of the Catacombs.

All ideas, those which concern the moral order and those which govern the material order, have their moment of grace, their Archimedean moment, as their entry into the cultural universe is marked by the cry of joy "eureka"! It was the shout of the Prophet Moses as he saw the Burning Bush of which Pascal was reminding the Christian conscience in the high French style of the seventeenth century: "Feu, feu... Joie...! Larmes de joie!" (Fire, f re! Tears of joy... Bonafire!) It was the cry of Nietzsche too, as he discovered his die ewige Wiederkehrung (law of eternal recurrence)![4] it was also the cry of Christopher Columbus and his seamen shouting, "Land... Land... " as they discovered the Antilles islands in 1492; he was thus announcing to the world not only the discovery of America, but also the decisive entry into the cultural universe of Europe of the idea that "the earth is round, perfectly round!" It is the cry announcing the victory of an idea... Shouted by the Parisian population, the notions of freedom, equality and fraternity succeeded to blow away the Bastille[5] on 14 July 1789! The waves of that historical day would later on in October 1917 blow away the throne of Peter the Great!

The Archimedean moment of ideas depends on the state of their relationship with its archetypes. The latter represent, in the cultural universe, the matrices according to which the ideas expressed through our activities are molded. However, time affects both our subjective and rational being, in a manner that obliterates the salient traits of that molding, just as the characters of a printing press or foundry are obliterated with the passage of time.

It may happen that the printed forms are only pale images of the archetypes. That is, the expressed ideas betray the ideas impressed in the original matrices. This betrayal will be resounded throughout all our activities, thus exposing them to nemesis - a vengeance that is sometimes terrible on the temporal level. For, whenever betrayed, ideas take vengeance for themselves. This can be well understood on the technical level when an ill-manufactured machine explodes or an ill-constructed bridge collapses.

Very often, however, societies, civilizations and empires fall in the same way. All historical debacles are mostly nothing but the more or less immediate results of the nemesis of betrayed ideas. The fall of Carthage as a result of a political mistake committed by its Senate is the tragic but not the sole illustration of such a betrayal.

Therefore, we have to give due consideration to the relation of ideas with the parameters of action lest the latter becomes absurd or impossible. These relations consist of three levels:

1- The political, ideological and ethical level in relation to the world of people. Even the physiological level can be included if account is to be taken of eugenics.

2- The logical, philosophical and scientific level with regard to the world of ideas.

3- The sociological, economic and technical level in respect of the world of objects.

Whenever one factor or another distorts any of the above articulations of the ideas, we should only expect the effects of such a distortion to be manifested in the judgments and activities of society as well as in the behavior of its members. The afore-mentioned effects are manifested in aberrant, sometimes laughable forms.

In a painting exhibition in 1957 in Los Angeles, the prize winning picture, entitled Cafe Laos, was the work of a one-eyed parrot when its owner left it wading in the paint near a canvas. Such an artistic mystification, a sign of the surrealistic times, was possible only because the perverted aesthetical canons of surrealism have distorted the juror's aesthetical criteria. Here, at least, the deception was easily discovered because its author himself - the parrot's owner - confessed to it later. In so many other cases, the deception can neither be confessed nor denounced either by hypocrisy when sordid interests are gagging one's opinion, or more simply due to unawareness.

Be that as it may, any alteration in the relations within the world of ideas (philosophical and logical order etc...), between the latter and the world of people (political and ideological order etc...), or between it and the world of objects (sociological, economic and technical order) will necessarily generate much disorder in the social life and many types of discrepancy in the individuals' behavior. This is so especially when the rupture with the archetypes reaches its extreme; when our impressed ideas are virtually wiped out in our subjectivity, and as our expressed ideas molded according to those matrices become shapeless, incoherent and valueless.

Ideas thus die leaving empty brains and even helpless tongues. Then, society falls into a state of infantilism. For lack of ideas, infants express themselves in a primitive way by means of gestures and sounds. A society falling into such infantilism will then display very curious phenomena to compensate for its lack of ideas. It is thus condemned to make up for them, especially in its intellectual activities, by false ideas.

It is then the gesture that carries on the incomplete sentence because one is unable to complete it: because of lack of ideas, there are no words. Nicholas Boileau, the great seventeenth-century French literary critic, has accurately expressed this fact in his book Art Poetique:

That which is properly thought out is said clearly, and the words to express it come forth easily.

Indeed, when ideas are lacking, incoherence looms large. The voice then rises increasingly to substitute a missing argument. Moreover, it is rhetoric that gains ground in literature manifesting itself in the excessive use of superlatives and in the pomposity of words such as the phrase "the valiant people" inserted in the constitution of an Arab country. In a newspaper of that same country, underneath the photo of a person who has slipped into the Algerian revolution (no one knows how) is the astounding legend that reads, "A giant of the Revolution."

It is, then, pure pathos to say that "it is very serious" instead of merely giving a precise idea about the respective situation. It is the maximizing solemnization as one spells out that "everybody knows..." to support an opinion. It is as well the minimizing attitude as one states that "no one believes..." to undermine another. Briefly, it is the language in which every word casts more shadow of doubt on the subject concerned instead of clarifying it. As for incoherence and inconsistency in the world of ideas, their manifestations are clearly seen in the most elementary activity of society.

For example, in an Arab capital, one can read in a cinema poster the title of the film "Uncertainty and youth", whereas it would have been more appropriate and logical to entitle it "Youth and Uncertainty"! I am personally convinced that the author of the film did not think for one single moment about the question of the natural order of ideas in such a simple title.

Similarly, when incoherence in the world of ideas distorts their logical relations, we only have to expect all sorts of confusion of the minds that will not attempt, in the political domain for instance, to distinguish the causes from their effects. It is in this manner that Muslim society has dealt with the problem of colonialism, while neglecting that of colonizability.

[1] Rules and regulations promulgated by Genghis Khan to govern men's moral conduct and social interaction with a near-religious character.
[2] Degradation of energy: according to the law governing the transformation of energy in physics, this means that an amount of the latent energy in the concerned body has to be utilized in proportion with the movement meant to be produced.
[3] Bilal b. Rabah, of Abyssinian (i.e. present-day Ethiopia) origin, he was a slave of a Makkan notable, Umayyah ibn Khalaf. He was amongst the early people who embraced Islam for which his master subjugated him to severe torture and persecution. Abu Bakr who paid a ransom to Umayyah liberated him. Bilal is well known for endurance and patience for the sake of Islam. It is also reported that he was the first to have used his voice to call for prayer.
[4] Die Ewige Wlederkehrung or "the law of the eternal recurrence": it is believed in some primitive societies that the time of the origins of the universe IS the genuine and creative time in which came into being the archetypes of everything and that this paradisiacal time can be experienced time and again by means of religious rituals performed in the honor of the deities.
[5] The Bastille was a fortress and prison in that era.

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