A colleague and friend of mine recently stated his belief that Biden’s administration is in actuality being run by Obama. Whether he meant literally or only essentially, I do not know, but what I can say is that while I’m not aware of conclusive evidence that verifies belief in the former, in the main, the distinction between the two is not relevant, because whether Obama is actually dictating policy and staff choices or his malevolent spirit is reigning in the hearts and minds of the apparatchiki coursing through this country’s halls of power, the end result is the same. And it was this notion that brought to the fore of my mind the phrase ‘idee mere.’
Many years ago, when I had not yet been blessed with so many children and there were no car accidents in the books, I used to keep track of new words I came across and where I came across them. So, I looked in that document, and found ‘idee mere‘ and it pointed me to Hayek’s The Intellectuals and Socialism. I then remembered that I had had a discussion with my uncle about that phrase, and so I looked that up in my email archives, and in so doing, I found that I had first turned to my mother via a phone call for an explication of its meaning (for I could find it neither in the 3rd-Edition of Webster’s Unabridged, nor within the 22 volumes of the OED) in 2007. I also turned to my uncle for help and in so doing also forwarded the Hayek piece to him.
My uncle, one of the (if not the only) very few people I’ve ever met who I would consider to be educated, had the most well-rounded mind I’ve encountered. Whether the topic be advanced mathematics ((I still have his gift of a red edition of Brown and Churchill’s Complex Variables and Applications)), Newtonian physics, electricity and magnetism ((I learned from him that without Oliver Heaviside, it is highly unlikely that Maxwell’s Equations would have had the wide and immediate impact that they did in the 19th century and beyond)), quantum mechanics ((I still have his gift of Quantum Electrodynamics and the Men Who Made It)), complexity theory ((I still have his gift of Mandelbrot’s The Fractal Geometry of Nature)), poetry ((I still have his gift of a copy of Untermeyer’s poetry anthology which he sent upon the birth of our first child)), philosophy, music, rifle ballistics, reloading, photography, the grammars of Greek, Sanskrit, and English, computer programming, and those are just the topics that come to mind in a few minutes of reflection, he invariably had a well-thought out and evidentiary foundation upon which discussion and discovery could take place.
On paper, my mother was perhaps not so well educated or diverse as her brother was, but that didn’t mean she was not highly intelligent, thoughtful, and articulate. Her early education had included the rigors of Latin and French (to my knowledge she never tackled Greek) to a level where she was fluent in each and she had one of the best working vocabularies of any one I’ve ever known (rivaled only by her brother). God grants people different abilities and math was not her strong suite. I remember her telling me of her father patiently working with her in vain to help her to comprehend geometry, the pons asinorum of mathematical aptitude. But, math wasn’t C. S. Lewis’ strong suite either, and I’d be hard-pressed to take anyone seriously who didn’t consider one of the brightest minds and thinkers of the 20th-century highly intelligent. But that inaptitude did not impede her ability one whit to help me in my younger years with her decided aptitude to decipher what was for me, inscrutable at the time. There were many instances I’m sure, but a couple that spring to mind are:
- In reading the Federalist #1 by Alexander Hamilton, I remember being stuck on a turn of phrase with which I was unfamiliar: commencing demagogues and ending tyrants. I puzzled over it a bit, and then brought it to her. She immediately understood and explained it to me.
- I shared with her Don Henley’s The End of Innocence and she, as always, endeavored to participate with me in that which I found interesting, and so she came out to my car parked in front of the house, listened patiently and thoughtfully, and at the end she tried to be positive, but made the observation that while some aspects of the tune were catchy, it was difficult for her to endorse it due to the lyric “tired old man that we elected king” being an attack on Ronald Reagan, something to which I was totally oblivious after having listened to it many times.
My discussions with my mother were always lively and edifying. For many years we would challenge each other with vocabulary words. She would usually win and to my delight tell me how pitiful I was and that perhaps, someday, when she was in her dotage, I could finally triumph.
She was also a great encourager. If thoughtful and meaningful encouragement is not a sign of intelligence, then I’d prefer to not be considered intelligent. Her wit and brightness of personality affected everyone she met and when she retired, over 500 people attended a luncheon in her honor.
But back to ‘idee mere.’ It was no surprise to me that it is French in origin because my mom’s definition of it in her email was just from memory and her recollection was that it touched upon “ideas received from mother/father from early infancy and so firmly entrenched as to not only be unconsciously held but very hard to fool with.” In her usual thoroughgoing way, she also reached out to a friend: “Have call in to attorney with practice in France and USA. Should hear pretty soon.” I have no record of any feedback on that, but it could have been relayed via another phone call and I have simply forgotten it.
How Hayek used it “He may be perfectly right, and yet his resistance will be overwhelmed and all the sorry consequences which he foresees will follow if his is not supported by an effective refutation of the idees meres. So long as the intellectual gets the better of the general argument, the most valid objections of the specific issue will be brushed aside.”
What I find for “idees meres” is extremely interesting. My understanding that “idees meres” is French and that it means, more or less literally, “mother ideas”. What that means, I believe, is that our worlds of ideas can be seen as elaborations from a much, much smaller core of “root” ideas. This is a concept which has obsessed me most of my life from the first time in early youth that it occurred to me. It is also a good part of the reason that I am intrigued with Sanskrit. Max Müller is associated with this “idees meres” concept and he wrote a book “The Science of Thought” which makes his case for it. I find that this book is no longer in print. I will go to reasonable efforts to find one used. Max Müller is one of the truly seminal thinkers of the western world and an intellectual in the better senses of that word.
You hit a bulls eye with your email. I thank you for it.
A bit later in the email chain I noticed that I said I had found a copy of the book mentioned by my uncle and that I would be purchasing it, but regrettably, I can find no evidence that I did so (it could be in one of many unopened boxes of books I have yet to put into bookcases). In any case, I endeavored to reacquaint myself with Max Müller of whom my uncle spoke so highly, and that resulted in this.
I miss them both.
When I am out and about, and see parents with their children, the vast majority have their eyes glued to some sort of device. It concerns me that the wonderful memories you have of both your mother and your uncle will never be memories for these kids I see while out and about. Sure, the parent could be reading some great historian, literary great, or just adding to the knowledge they already have. But, according to much of society, it is more likely they are playing a game, reading about famous people or crimes, or shopping. My point is, your experience with your mother and uncle are indeed to be cherished. Because like the art of conversation, it also is becoming harder and harder to have such experiences with family. Thank you for sharing these memories with us.