On the road – methods through which ideas traveled

Ideas have always followed in the wake of trade, war and religion

How do ideas travel? It may seem incongruous to ask such a question in a magazine that is published in several dozen languages and is read all over the world. If we make no distinction between the notions of representation, belief and information, and regard « ideas » very broadly as all those products of a human mind that can be appropriated by another mind, then we see that ideas do nothing but travel. It is no more surprising to find that there are practising Buddhists in California, that Euclid’s theorems are studied in China and that Latin American politics are debated in Australia than it is for a European to watch a Japanese-made television or wear cloth woven in Pakistan.

Globalization, a notion which attempts to describe recent changes and which has itself travelled, designates the circulation of material goods as well as the intangible circuits of knowledge, patterns of thought and judgements. Current philosophical and political trends in the West strongly approve of the creative potential of the free flow of ideas that technology seems to promote. True, there is debate about which views ought not be allowed to spread, whether control of the media does not sometimes lend itself to intellectual manipulation, and whether, metaphorically speaking, the bad money of stereotypes, disinformation and triviality does not drive out good. But the question of how ideas travel arouses relatively little interest, so completely does it seem to have been solved.

This is to pass lightly over the fact that an idea is an invisible entity made visible by traces left by its passage and that it cannot change the world unless it travels. Except in the necessarily limited case of direct verbal communication, obstacles and intermediaries come between the inception of an idea and the brain of the person who picks it up, sometimes much later or in a faraway place.

To conquer time and space an idea must endure and it must move. It must be stored in a memory and be transported. Of course, during the performance of these operations, which may take a few fractions of a second on the Internet or centuries in the case of certain religious beliefs – the idea changes. There may be many reasons for this change, including the vagaries of translation, distortions introduced by intermediaries or copyists, the format required for transmission, and other factors such as loss, censorship, interference and interpretation. Movement has changed the message.

* Intellectual highways

Ideas spread along routes which are changed by technological innovation. Printing increased the number of books and made the preservation of ideas less dependent on the risks of copying, destruction, censorship or a broken journey. With the invention of the telegraph, messages for the first time travelled faster than people. On the airwaves words (and soon after, images) no longer travelled from place to place but covered whole territories, defying frontiers and walls. With telematics and the interconnection of millions of computer memories, recording, researching and transmitting data has become almost a single operation.

During most of human history ideas were conveyed in small numbers and with difficulty, peddled with a human escort moving slowly in dangerous conditions. In short, along roads. For centuries there was no difference between the movement of people and the movement of ideas and material goods. Consigned to manuscripts and illustrated by images or simply memorized by scholars or religious believers, ideas travelled on horseback or by camel, in the holds of ships or at walking pace. The range, the cadence of propagation and ultimately the success of the technology, scientific conceptions and religious ideas we have inherited can be explained by all the factors that have stimulated or handicapped travel by land or sea.

UNESCO has rightly adopted the theme of routes to bracket together projects connected with cultural dialogue and cross-fertilization. These very ancient routes owe their names to a precious commodity that was transported along them: silk, iron, and even slaves. Other routes were determined less by trade than by the centre towards which they converged, e.g. Jerusalem, the holy city of the three monotheistic religions, and al-Andalus, the province where three cultures lived in peace.

The metaphor is unequivocal: by road comes all that is new, all that is exchanged and that changes us, all that transcends and transforms us; because of the road there is always a little of someone else in us and any attempt to make identity an isolate can never succeed. Such contacts are not, of course, necessarily pleasant or peaceful: invaders, persecutors, prisoners and deportees also arrive by road. But if movement distorts or alters ideas, the opposite is also true: conquerors assimilate the civilization of the defeated and the victims of slavery fertilize the cultures of the lands to which they are exiled.

And so, just as there are memorable places which symbolize the common past of communities, there are also memorable routes: geographical itineraries where traces of physical movement associated with mental change have survived. As well as the chronological mystery veiling the preservation from generation to generation of beliefs, patterns of thought, knowledge, references and other forms of representation, there is the geographical mystery associated with their movement, the movement of intangible things. The question of time is connected with that of geographical range. By following the tangible traces of intellectual transmission or the routes taken by groups of travellers we can learn more about the spread of iron or paper technology, of astronomy or the figure zero, of Buddhism or Islam, a legend or a form of music. We can also find out about what happened to them during their journey.

All thinking about the origin of cultures, their complexity, the dialogue between them, and cultural intermingling raises very precise questions. What kind of people travelled? How long did it take to travel and at what cost in terms of loss of human life? What languages did they speak? What kind of archives did they keep ? What letters did they write ? What images did they carry?

* Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor. . .

Some of the greatest travellers were soldiers. War encourages technological invention and stimulates mechanisms of transmission. As the victors settle in new lands, some populations are put to flight and others are deported. War also causes the intermingling of peoples, beliefs and knowledge. The conqueror is sometimes the first to understand the value of new information. Alexander the Great’s troops were accompanied by scientific expeditions. The Umayyad armies brought paper-makers back from Central Asia. Tamerlaine spared from massacre the scholars, writers and artists he wished to enroll in his service. If espionage is considered as warfare waged by other means, we are beholden to it for the spread of many secrets in the field of technology (the most famous being that of silk manufacture), cartography and the sciences.

The routes taken by ideas also dovetail with those taken by merchandise. The quest for products yielding profits compensating for the time and risks involved in travel to distant parts has always been one of the main reasons for scattering to the ends of the earth people who were interested in setting up networks and organizing safe and frequent travel, and were in many cases adept at writing and curious about novelty.

Merchants do not seek to change the world or to describe it, and what they say or see is not always recorded or broadcast, but they spread ideas and information as a kind of by-product of their travels. More specifically trade has indirectly been one of the great vectors of religion. Getting together in foreign lands and practising their faith, traders have often made converts. Arab traders propagated the Qur’an farther afield than any of the Arab conquests of the first century of the Hegira. For reasons of security it was often wise for the preacher’s itinerary to coincide with that taken by the merchant. It is safer to travel with caravans or merchant ships to cosmopolitan cities where the religious message will get a better reception from an open-minded public. This also explains why Buddhist monks also followed trade routes.

The universalist religions are the third great medium whereby ideas travel, in this case with a deliberate purpose. Buddhism, Christianity and Islam define the corpus of canonical texts, the type of images and the kind of community whereby the preachers of the faith should spread salvation throughout the world. Such questions foment doctrinal disputes and even heresies. Should the Buddha’s body be depicted ? Should the Prophet Muhammad be painted ? Should icons be allowed ? Should the Qur’an be translated or the Bible be propagated? Which Sutras belong to the accepted canon? Who should interpret the word of the Prophet? Should monks devote themselves to their own personal nirvana or should they be responsive to the concerns of laymen? To what extent should Jesuits adapt the evangelical message to Chinese culture? The form taken by a religious « idea » transposed thousands of kilometres results from the theoretical and practical answer to these questions.

Ideas are imported as well as exported. A map of spiritual and intellectual poles of attraction, starting with centres of pilgrimage, must be overlaid on that of the propagation and transformation of ideas. People from all over the world meet and mix in Jerusalem, Mecca and Santiago de Compostela. There, and on much-used routes invested with a strong symbolic meaning, important cultural changes come about. For centuries students converged on the universities of Taxila, Bologna and the Sorbonne. Sometimes the inclinations of a prince or caliph attracted talented individuals, gifted scientists or rare manuscripts. Those who journeyed to the Library of Alexandria, the « house of wisdom » in Baghdad, and the court of Cordoba and the court of Roger II of Sicily, were not seekers after salvation or the fount of knowledge but bringers of ideas, philosophers, physicians, astronomers and translators who found material security and intellectual stimulation.

What we see here is a complex set of physical and mental barriers, topographical lines of force and human strategies which decides whether or not an idea crosses time and space, whether a piece of writing produced in a particular place and culture has an impact at the other end of a continent. Was propagation deliberate or accidental, due to expansion or attraction? Did an idea travel from one place to another slowly or as the result of a historical cataclysm? Was its journey governed by geographical constants or by the fortunes of war, by the attraction of ancient crossroads of civilization or by the discovery of a new route? To understand where we have come from, we still have far to go in retracing the highways and byways of the past.

En français

English texts by F.B. Huyghe

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