A friend referred me to Kirby Ferguson’s “Everything is a Remix” web video series, and I found it to be well thought out and produced. Its byline is “nothing is original,” and it focuses on the concept that creative ideas are repeatedly borrowed from previous generations of artists. If that sounds interesting to you, have a look; it’s well worth a few minutes of your time (scroll down the site a bit to reach the video).
Ferguson encourages us to embrace the remix, arguing that it is an important part of the creative process. There may be few genuinely new ideas, but you can combine existing ideas in nearly infinite ways to produce new and interesting interpretations and connections.
The remix idea itself is not new. People have been saying this in various forms for a long time now; for example, “history repeats itself” and “everything has been said before,” just to name a few. Yet these ideas all had to come from somewhere; there was once a time when they were original…or at least somewhat novel.
This got me thinking about some of the truly unique ideas and achievements that have set the bar for all time. I’m referring specifically to things that are repeatable/borrowable. Discoveries are excluded because, by nature, they can only be novel the first time. Here are just a few that I thought of:
Alexander the Great’s campaign – The model for all would-be “conquerors” to follow.
Genghis Khan’s conquest of Asia – “Never start a land war in Asia,” they say. Someone must have forgotten to tell Genghis Khan.
Roman Empire’s “Mare Nostrum” – The Byzantine emperor Justinian tried to recreate it at tremendous cost.
Napoleon’s empire – Hitler basically repeated the same mistake: a two front war with Russia and England.
Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey – The models for later Western epic poems like The Aeneid .
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – Arguably the first science fiction novel. Made famous many popular ideas today like the mad scientist and zombies.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings – Most of the fantasies since have followed the same basic conventions codified in this work.
Plato – Alfred North Whitehead said that philosophy is “a series of footnotes to Plato.” Perhaps this is a bit extreme, but it does drive home the impact of Plato’s remarkable legacy.
Friedrich Nietzsche – One of the most influential modern philosophers, and also one of the most misunderstood. He said a great many things that are still popular today: idea of the Ubermensch (Superman), “god is dead,” and “beyond good and evil.”
Science – I should leave this category out since science is full of discoveries, and I said that I was excluding discoveries. However, there are two giants of science that simply cannot be ignored.
Isaac Newton – He didn’t just discover laws of gravitation and motion, he invented a new branch of mathematics (calculus) to work with them and also published a masterwork on optics. The entire field of mechanical physics was called Newtonian physics for the longest time.
Albert Einstein – Usually science moves incrementally, each new discovery being an innovation or logical progression from the previous ones. But occasionally, it takes a great leap forward, as in the case of Einstein. Maybe you could argue that Newton’s ideas would have soon been discovered by his peers; in fact, Gottfried Leibniz is credited with independently inventing calculus at basically the same time.
However, I do not feel that this logic can be applied so easily to the Theory of Relativity. Relativity is so radical that it probably would have taken many people many years before its principles were unlocked. In fact, it took exactly that sort of effort just to prove its validity! And to think that this idea came from one mind…Perhaps it’s only fitting that Einstein’s name and image is synonymous with “genius.”
I’m no expert, and this list is by no means exhaustive. Feel free to add your list in the comments section. I suspect though that the list will not be that large when it’s all said and done. This makes me realize just how rare such ideas and achievements are. If you are so fortunate to witness one in your lifetime, be amazed. They are indeed treasures.