“The history of mankind is the history of ideas” (Ludwig von Mises).
THE THING THAT WE CALL “HISTORY” IS PRODUCED NOT BY EVENTS BUT BY IDEAS. History is a record of events, obviously, but it was ideas that produced the events, and so the real story of the human race is the story of the ideas that have moved people to do the things they have done. Had the ideas been different, the events would have been different. As the ideas go, so goes the “story.”
One reason ideas are so important is that they produce our personal character. For better or worse, the kind of people we turn out to be is determined by our thinking. Mohandas Gandhi said it well: “A man is but a product of his thoughts; what he thinks, that he becomes.” Some ideas produce Adolf Hitlers, while other ideas produce Abraham Lincolns. If we have bad character, we may try to blame it on our ancestors or our environment, but our character has, in fact, resulted from our own thinking (i.e., from our ideas).
Ideas, at least good ones, are not things to be afraid of. I like what Mark Van Doren said about “entertaining” ideas: “Bring ideas in and entertain them royally, for one of them may be the king.”
The mistake that many of us make is entertaining only comfortable ideas, and by that I mean those that we already agree with. Especially as we age, we find it more difficult to stretch our minds and to evaluate new ideas. Indeed, one measure of our age is the amount of pain we feel when we come in contact with a new idea. But if we never think anything but comfortable thoughts, we’re probably not going to be thinking some new thoughts that we need to think.
Given the far-reaching consequence of our ideas, we need to be careful about the ideas we allow to take up residence in our minds. Albert Einstein said, “If most of us are ashamed of shabby clothes and shoddy furniture, let us be more ashamed of shabby ideas and shoddy philosophies.” Most of us have been too careless in accumulating our ideas. It would do us good to take more responsibility for our thinking and to be more selective in acquiring the ideas that will shape us and bear fruit as the garden of our life grows to maturity.
“Good thoughts bear good fruit, bad thoughts bear bad fruit — and man is his own gardener” (James Allen).