What Makes An Idea Popular?

In my recent piece on James C. Scott’s toweringly excellent The Art of Not Being Governed (2010), I suggested that there are unwritten laws governing the up-take of particular theories.  Laws that have less to do with logic, reason and scientific rigour than they do with our deep psychological needs.

For example, Gibbons’ The History of The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire (1789) argues that the Roman Empire fell into decline because the Romans lost their sense of civic responsibility and their hunger for military conquest.  This idea that power leads to moral corruption and that moral corruption leads to social decay seems to coincide with a similar pattern of rise and fall that features in the theories of both Giambattista Vico and Ibn Khaldun.

These different works attempt to account for radically different societies and yet they all share a similar underlying narrative.  A narrative of rise and fall that even pops up in places such as The Bible and Plato’s allegory of The Cave.  In my piece, I suggest that the over-arching narrative described by Scott in The Art of Not Being Governed is so powerful that it may come to rival that of Vico and Ibn Khaldun as a source of inspiration for writers and artists (let alone academic historians and political scientists).  My aim with this piece is to delve further into this intuition and try to unpack some of the ideas contained within it.  Does it make sense to talk about selecting theories on the basis of criteria other than truth? Do these other criteria in any way relate to truth?  What are the aesthetics of ideas?  These are some of the questions I will try to address with this piece.

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