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7 Ideas That Changed Civilization Forever

What is the strongest force in the world? An atom bomb? Love? That need you have to watch every new SideProjects video? 

How about an idea? Sophocles thought so: “You can kill a man, but you cannot kill an idea.” So did John F. Kennedy: “A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on. Ideas have endurance without death.” Even V gloatingly thought so: “Did you think to kill me? There is no flesh and blood within this cloak to kill. There’s only an idea. Ideas are bulletproof.” 

Ideas are responsible for splitting the atom. Ideas have leveled cities and built nations. Ideas have given people the love of their life and taken it away. Every single SideProject video started off as a simple idea. 

Ideas are annoyingly persistent. They outlive generations, spread beyond borders, and are harder to get rid of than COVID. 

If you need more proof, just look around at our modern world. The computer you are watching this on is a product of the ideas of the technological revolution. YouTube is a byproduct of the ideas of freedom of information. The country you live in is run by the political, moral, or societal ideas of any number of people. 

Ideas are the driving force behind any action you take; a principle modern advertisers take advantage of to grab your attention and make you want to eat this, or buy that, or wear the latest trend. Ideas the size of a mustard seed can change the course of history, or maybe just the course of your day. 

Ideas are everywhere. You have probably thought of a thousand different ideas just in the time I’ve been talking. But there are several ideas that stand out as world-changing. These ideas altered the course of history and shaped the world we live in today. Although there are many that fit this description, let’s keep it to a reasonable limit today. Here are seven ideas that changed civilization forever.

Democracy

The ancient world was a showcase of autocratic rule. God-kings reigned with supreme power. Generals used military might to conquer as much of the known world as they could. Religious officials handed down moral judgements and consolidated power in the name of their deities. 

Modern bust of Cleisthenes, known as "the father of Athenian democracy", on view at the Ohio Statehouse, Columbus, Ohio
Modern bust of Cleisthenes, known as “the father of
Athenian democracy”, on view at the Ohio Statehouse,
Columbus, Ohio. By https://ohiochannel.org/

And then the year 507 B.C.E rolled around. That is when Cleisthenes, the leader of Athens, introduced political reforms known as demokratia, or “rule by the people.” After this, everything changed. Well, not everywhere, only in Athens. And not forever, only for a short time. And not for everyone, only for a small segment of males in Athens who were considered citizens.

But the introduction of everyday citizens taking part in the governance process was a revolutionary idea. Never before had a common sailor, soldier, or worker had a say equal to a wealthy aristocrat in how their civilization was run. 

Each year, 500 eligible male citizens were chosen to serve in the government. They would make new laws and be responsible for the workings of all different parts of the government. 

This direct democracy, though, did not last long; it ended after only 100 to 200 hundred years. Plague, warfare, and foreign interference caused Athens to shift to more of an aristocracy. But democratic ideals lived on. 

Athens showed that democracy worked well for small entities. But history showed the larger the entity grew, the more likely the government was to turn autocratic. At the same time, though, small political entities were shown to be more susceptible to attack from foreign invaders. As Montesquieu succinctly said, “If a republic be small, it is destroyed by a foreign force; if it be large, it is ruined by an internal imperfection.”

But the idea of democracy persevered despite these difficulties. More and more modern countries have adopted democratic ideals and practices. 

These ideas and practices have transformed to fit the changing times. Today, instead of the direct democracy Athens practiced, many countries practice representative democracy. 

Direct democracy may have worked well for Athens, as there were only 40,000 eligible men taking part in the democratic process. But modern countries must govern hundreds of thousands to hundreds of millions of people. Including every citizen directly in the governance process is a behemoth of a task, even with modern technology. 

The most iconic example of representative democracy is the United States. In a country of over 300 million people, citizens, instead of having a direct say, elect representatives—senators and congressmen—to represent their viewpoints. 

This system isn’t without its flaws. But this imperfect idea lives on in the minds of citizens, workers, leaders, and politicians thousands of years after it was first used. 

Heliocentrism

Perhaps it was the self-importance democracy gave us, but for thousands of years, humans thought the universe revolved around us. This idea might sound ludicrous now, but think of how many people still believe the earth is flat. Trust me, they live all around the globe. 

It wasn’t until 1543 that heliocentric beliefs as we know them today started to take root. But these beliefs existed much earlier, as early as the 5th century B.C.E. Greek philosophers theorized the Earth was a sphere revolving around a “mystical central fire.” Later Greek astronomers fine tuned that definition of the sun to “a definite central object” that regulated the universe. 

But this idea was dismissed by people, Aristotle among them.  They couldn’t understand if the earth moved why the stars seemed to be stationary in the sky, or why a ball thrown in the air does not land behind the thrower. Enter Ptolemy of Alexandria. He claimed that the earth remaining stationary while the sun and other celestial bodies revolving around it could explain these logical conundrums.

And that belief held for nearly 1400 years until Nicholas Copernicus published his “Six Books Concerning the Revolutions of the Heavenly Orbs.” They did, indeed, concern the revolution of all “heavenly orbs,” but posited that it was around the sun, not the earth. These claims concerned those in power, leading them to reject and persecute this idea. Galileo Galilei’s trial before the Inquisition for supporting heliocentrism is a famous example of the feelings of the time. 

But the sun never set on this idea. Based on the principles of Copernicus’ heliocentric claims, Johannes Kepler later defined the orbits of the planets around the sun. This led to Isaac Newton drafting his three laws of motion and theory of gravity. This cause-effect chain continued to Albert Einstein, who challenged Newton’s then-220-year-old laws with his theory of relativity. 

All of these ideas are the basis for launching satellites into orbit and predicting their motion, traveling to the moon, sending rovers to mars, and eventually, traveling beyond, further into the solar system. All this because humans could finally admit that we aren’t the center of the universe. 

The Scientific Method

Many scholars attribute much of humanity’s success to the scientific method. Humans’ inquiry into nature has revealed many of the secrets of the world and led to epoch-defining developments: the Enlightenment, the Technological Revolution, and the Information Age, just to name a few. 

The Scientific Method
The Scientific Method. By Efbrazil, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Aristotle—always present when we discuss the foundation of Western academia—is widely thought to be the first person to write formally about this kind of logic-based inquiry. He claimed that in scientific research, the ordering and display of empirical facts were just as important as the facts themselves. 

The method of scientific thinking was further refined by minds the likes of Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, and William of Ockham, among others. Their works and writings focused on observations of nature, inductive reasoning, the application of empirical facts and inductive assumptions, and a slew of other concepts that honestly hurt my brain just to read. We see these works today as essential parts of modern science. 

One of the biggest names in the development of the scientific method is Sir Francis Bacon. His method for scientific research is commonly taught in science class. It simplified the research process and allowed anyone to take part in inquiries into nature. At the same time, though, it has been criticized as being impractical and too rigid for the practicing scientist. 

Countless other great minds contributed to the development of the scientific method, Isaac Newton, Voltaire, Immanuel Kant, and John Stuart Mill among them. This constantly refined system of making sense of the world around us has led to many stepping stones in human history: the scientific revolution, the discovery of fundamental laws of nature, and the publishing of theories that challenge those fundamental laws. 

Science has been a major force, pushing human civilization forward into an enlightened future. The method by which this exploration of the world takes place is the backbone on which human intellect builds its understanding of life. 

Providing a systematic process anyone can follow to carry out experiments has made research more accurate. We can better describe the fundamental laws of nature and use them to develop mind-boggling theories, futuristic technology, and life-saving medicine. Most importantly, though, it allows us to make awesome videos talking about all these things. 

Free Market Economics

1776, the year American colonists declared their independence with their aptly named Declaration of Independence; also the year Adam Smith declared the economy’s independence from government with his Wealth of Nations. His revolutionary theory details an invisible hand that guides a free market back to equilibrium. It caused shock waves in economies around the world because it went against many of the main economic theories of the time, namely mercantilism. 

Mercantilist trade.
Mercantilist trade. By Samhitha Bhat, is licensed under
CC-BY-SA

Mercantilism was formed during a time when economies relied heavily on agricultural production. This system held that a nation’s reserves were the main builder of their wealth. It promoted protectionist policies so reserves could amass under the control of an absolute ruler. 

Then Adam Smith came along saying governments should have no control. No one had dared to suggest that people should just make transactions and exchanges among themselves freely. You can imagine how nonplused the thinkers and rulers of the time were. His only assurance to them was the invisible hand that would maintain the market’s balance. 

His ideas took off, though. So much so that most of the western world today bases their economies on Smith’s theories. He is even known as the “Father of Modern Economists.” It is nearly impossible to have a discussion about economics in this day and age without mentioning Smith’s name or his theories, whether or not you agree with them. 

There is debate, though, over how much government regulation there should be to prevent or correct failures. Monopolies, costs not matching value, and over-exploitation of resources are all shortcomings critics called attention to as needing government intervention to fix.  

Defenders of the free market were quick to speak out in defense of their system. Economists like Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, among others, stuck to their guns and claimed that leaving the market be would allow the invisible hand to correct these supposed failures. 

And the debate continues today. This goes to show just how influential Smith’s ideas were, even more influential, some say—read: non-Americans—than the contemporary Declaration of Independence. How a country regulates, or doesn’t regulate, their economy is an enormous factor in how everyday people transact and exchange with each other, and even how different countries trade and engage in relations together. 

Communism

So influential was Adam Smith’s free market ideology that it spurred the creation of several economic and political ideologies: libertarianism, conservatism, liberalism, socialism… and communism. Oh, yes, the “red menace.”

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote about their views of the injustices they saw in 1800s German and European capitalist societies. Their most famous work, The Communist Manifesto, gave the most succinct critique of free market capitalism and offered a blueprint for possible communist futures. Marx further elaborated on this theory of communism in his tome Das Kapital

Ideas similar to communism date back to as early as the 4th century B.C.E. with the “perfect society” described in Plato’s The Republic. Other works and movements throughout history have had traits in common with communism—the solidarity and sharing of earthly possessions that early Christians practiced; the society Sir Thomas Moore describes in his work Utopia, where money does not exist and people share public goods with everyone; even groups that tried to put these ideals into practice, like the Anabaptists in Munster in 1534 or the Diggers during the English Civil Wars in 1650. 

But the idea of communism as it is thought about and practiced today wasn’t formed until the publication of The Manifesto of the Communist Party in 1848. With this book, decades of free market capitalism were turned on their head and the ugly underside of the industrial revolution was laid bare for all to see. 

Much of the lower classes identified with the struggles Marx detailed in his work. His theories stirred unrest in the perpetually working class. Philosophers and political theorists grappled with these revolutionary ideas; revolutionary both in the sense of disrupting contemporary thought and in the way they were to be put into practice.  

Less than a century after Marx’s and Engel’s works were published, the world was introduced to the first practical implementation of this ideology. In 1917, Vladimir Lenin, well-versed in Marxist philosophy, having published many works on the topic already, led the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution. 

The overthrow of the Russian Empire, one of the largest empires in the world, sent shock waves across the world. Although the Tsar of the time, Nicholas II, was seen as inept and old-fashioned, no one expected a party of political outliers practicing radical-left policies to overthrow this nearly 400-year-old institution. 

As time marched on through the 20th century, revolutions spread across Asia and Latin America like wildfire, set ablaze by the spark of the ideas Marx put forward. Some of the biggest names in modern history built their movements and countries on the back of Marxist thought: Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, Leon Trotsky, Ho Chi Minh, Che Guevara, Fidel Castro. 

The United States, emerging as a superpower after World War II, built much of their 20th century foreign policy around reacting to and containing this ideology. And still today, China, one of the fastest growing nations on earth, in terms of population, economy, and power, bases their political ideology on the ideas of Marx. 

The Cold War, the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Ping Pong Diplomacy, the Berlin Wall, and so many other iconic moments in modern history would not exist if not for the ideas Marx and Engels put forth. Many present-day movements, political parties, and organizations keep this idea alive, either by professing their belief in it or by working against it. Examining the impact of communism on the world today is enough to make your head spin—or, rather, our head spin. 

Feminism

The same year Marx and Engels published their ideas of economic equality, women’s rights activists gathered in Seneca Falls, New York to discuss gender equality. This gathering marked the very first Women’s Rights Convention. 

Feminist ideas had existed prior to this convention. All the way back to the 3rd century B.C.E., in fact, when Roman women swarmed on the Capitoline Hill to block every entrance to the Forum. This was in response to the consul Marcus Porcius Cato arguing against the repeal of laws that limited women’s use of expensive goods. “As soon as they begin to be your equals, they will have become your superiors,” he mansplained. 

Marcus Porcius Cato
Marcus Porcius Cato

Recorded history after that proves scant in the arena of feminism until the 14th century. Female philosophers and authors came onto the scene with their radical calls for female education and their preposterous goal of raising awareness of the plight of women. They wrote letters, articles, and books; made lists of women of courage and accomplishment; and upheld the belief that women could be the intellectual equal to men if given equal access to education. 

So, according to Marcus Porcius Cato, equal education would make women the intellectual superiors. It doesn’t take superior intellect to out-think Cato’s fear-mongering logic. 

The debate around women and equality continued on into the Enlightenment period. But, as thinkers, writers, and revolutionaries worked to even out class inequalities and let reason reign supreme, they conveniently forgot to address issues of gender. 

The old refrain of women being inferior, or, according to Rousseau, “silly, frivolous creatures,” persisted. Even landmark historical documents like the Declaration of Independence from the American Revolution, and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen from the French Revolution ignored gender inequalities altogether. 

Feminist thinkers called out this lack of attention and persevered in their calls for equal opportunities for women in jobs, politics, and education. They held that women were not only men’s equals but also their partners. Mary Wollstonecraft even went as far to say that women do not exist only to please men. Imagine the angry internet comments she would get today. 

A product of that first Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls was the Declaration of Sentiments drafted by Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Based heavily on the Declaration of Independence, this document asserted the equality of women and men and both gender’s unalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. 

The suffrage movement took the focus of feminism for much of the rest of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. In the 1960s, second wave feminism blossomed alongside the Civil Rights Movement, focusing on modern issues, mainly employment discrimination and pay inequality. 

The 1990s saw the beginning of third wave feminism which took advantage of that era’s media boom to address the perception and discourse surrounding gender and femininity, among other issues. 

Many experts argue the 2010s brought about a fourth wave of feminism which focuses on issues surrounding sexual harassment, body shaming, and rape culture. The #MeToo movement and many powerful and famous peoples’ fall from grace after allegations are examples of this. 

For much of history, women were seen as subordinate to and the property of men, objects to be used, second-class citizens, and/or not deserving of equal rights. The advent of feminism did much to change these beliefs.

Total equality has not yet been reached everywhere, some people argue anywhere. But the fact that these debates are still happening and these issues are still being raised is a testament to feminism’s effect on civilization. 

Human Rights

By 1948, history had shown those in power that the desire for equality was more than just a leisurely stroll whose destination was back to the status quo. It is a march toward the future and the formation of a new normal. 

People wanted a say in their government, businesses wanted to run without government interference, workers wanted economic equality, women wanted equal rights. 

human rights campaign
Human Rights Campaign. By Amnesty Finland, is licensed under CC-BY

The leaders of the world decided it was time to formalize the rights that every person on earth deserved. In 1948, the UN published the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As it states, “everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration…” It lists 30 conditions, among them, the “right to life, liberty, and security of person,” the freedom from “slavery or servitude,” and the right to not be “subjected to torture or to cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment or punishment.” 

Following the devastations and horrors of two world wars in 30 years, these human rights created a global community dedicated to a certain quality of life for everyone. There was no mention of one country being better than the other; no diminishing of life based on race, gender, or nationality; and no allowance for any person, group, or country to infringe on anyone’s rights. 

Human Rights was one of the first steps towards the global world we live in today. They are frequently brought up in international talks and negotiations, called upon during times of crisis and war to protect anyone involved, and the basis of societal interactions in our modern world. 

Sources

https://www.history.com/topics/ancient-greece/ancient-greece-democracy

https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/democracy-ancient-greece/

https://www.britannica.com/science/heliocentrism

https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/features/OrbitsHistory

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/scientific-method/#HisRevAriMil

https://economics.stackexchange.com/questions/140/what-was-economics-like-as-a-field-before-adam-smith-the-father-of-modern-eco

https://www.investopedia.com/updates/adam-smith-wealth-of-nations/

https://www.britannica.com/topic/free-market

https://www.investopedia.com/terms/f/freemarket.asp

https://www.britannica.com/topic/communism/Marxian-communism

https://www.britannica.com/topic/feminism/The-fourth-wave-of-feminism

https://www.britannica.com/event/Declaration-of-Sentiments

https://humanrights.gov.au/our-work/education/introduction-human-rights

https://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights

https://www.biographyonline.net/ideas-that-changed-the-world/

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