Philip Marsden

Ideas are history

For centuries, the imagination has held sway. But as cultural differences are eroded, there will be a slowing down of ideas, argues Felipe Fernández-Armesto

Wallace Stevens called it ‘the necessary angel’. Ted Hughes thought it ‘the most essential bit of machinery we have if we are going to live the lives of human beings’. Coleridge described its role a little more vigorously: ‘The living Power and prime Agent of all human perception… a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM’.

The imagination is the subject of Felipe Fernández-Armesto’s latest grand sweep of a book. Not a historian to dwell on individual kings, queens or battles, he has identified the creation of ideas as the driver of history, the imagination as their source and the pool of evidence the past 800,000 years. Even this, he admits, narrows the study because it leaves out non-human thinkers — we know that animals dream. But to compensate, he allows his dog Beau a couple of walk-on appearances.

It’s a compelling thesis, and one that the author takes on with gusto: behind the whole monumental enterprise of human endeavour lies ‘the power of seeing what is not there’. We imagine things, then we strive to create them in the real world:

A human can hear a note and compose a symphony, survey a landscape and envision a city, endure frustration and conceive perfection, look at his chains and fancy himself free.

Three things, he claims, swelled the imaginative faculty in our species. We have poor memories, or rather the tendency to select and distort what we recall. Anticipation, on the other hand, is our great skill; early hominids learned to picture their prey when it was not there, to imagine its movements — and then to develop elaborate strategies for trapping it. Such solutions meant growth in the capacity for idea-making, and have enabled us to overcome the disadvantage of our fairly feeble frame.

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