There’s a well worn idea that men of thought (intellectuals, artists and other similar types) are impractical idealists whose elevated thinking and theorizing has little to do with everyday practical affairs. We’ve all heard this argument in one form or another. But it’s obviously false: ideas shape who we are, how we think and how we act. Behavior is a direct result of how one “perceives.” And ideas are the instrument that grinds the lens of perception. The economist and philosopher John Maynard Keynes spoke to the power of ideas in one of his most famous quotes:
The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas. – John Maynard Keynes
The great novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald also has some notable words about the power and influence of ideas. After publishing his first novel, This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald received some “hate mail.” The letter chided Fitzgerald for how his book treated affluent people in business and politics and the high society that surrounds them. Here is a copy of Fitzgerald’s apt reply:
Your letter riled me to such an extent that I’m answering immediately. Who are all these ‘real people’ who ‘create business and politics’? and of whose approval I should be so covetous? Do you mean grafters who keep sugar in their ware houses so that people have to go without or the cheap-jacks who by bribery and high-school sentiment manage to control elections. I can’t pick up a paper here without finding that some of these ‘real people’ who will not be satisfied only with ‘a brilliant mind’ (I quote you) have just gone up to Sing Sing for a stay — Brindell and Hegerman, two pillars of society, went this morning.
Who in hell ever respected Shelley, Whitman, Poe, O. Henry, Verlaine, Swinburne, Villon, Shakespeare ect when they were alive. Shelley + Swinburne were fired from college; Verlaine + O Henry were in jail. The rest were drunkards or wasters and told generally by the merchants and petty politicians and jitney messiahs of their day that real people wouldn’t stand it And the merchants and messiahs, the shrewd + the dull, are dust — and the others live on.
Just occasionally a man like Shaw who was called an immoralist 50 times worse than me back in the 90ties, lives on long enough so that the world grows up to him. What he believed in 1890 was heresy then — by by now its almost respectable. It seems to me I’ve let myself be dominated by ‘authorities’ for too long — the headmaster of Newman, S.P. A, Princeton, my regiment, my business boss — who knew no more than me, in fact I should say these 5 were all distinctly my mental inferiors. And that’s all that counts! The Rosseaus, Marxes, Tolstois — men of thought, mind you, ‘impractical’ men, ‘idealist’ have done more to decide the food you eat and the things you think + do than all the millions of Roosevelts and Rockerfellars that strut for 20 yrs. or so mouthing such phrases as 100% American (which means 99% village idiot), and die with a little pleasing flattery to the silly and cruel old God they’ve set up in their hearts. [Bolding is mine.]