How Big Ideas Matter:
Whitehead and the Magna Carta
Do big ideas matter? Whitehead believed they did. He believed that history unfolds, not only in terms of economic circumstances, environmental changes, and political whims, but also in terms of big ideas that capture people's imaginations.
He knew that big ideas are not all-determining. Their influence can pale in relation to other factors: social, political, psychological, geographical, and circumstantial. Still, they can make a difference for good and ill. Big ideas need not be good in order to be influential. Racism and sexism, fascism and nationalism are big ideas, too. But they can be good, inspired by a goodness that dwells within the heart of the universe.
One such idea is the Rule of Law: the idea that everyone, including governments, must abide by and be subject to the law. It means that no one is above the law and that all individuals and institutions are accountable to the law, regardless of their status, wealth, or power. Many trace this idea to the Magna Carta. Since 1215, the Magna Carta has evolved from a political peace treaty in a small corner of England into an international symbol of individual freedoms and the rule of law.
King John of England (one of the worst in English history) would have been surprised that the charter he sealed has become such a powerful document. It began as a practical solution to a political crisis.
Now, however, the document functions as a symbol of hope in America, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, India, and elsewhere. After the Second World War, the UN set up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which Eleanor Roosevelt called a “Magna Carta for all mankind”.
In our time, many people lift up still another possibility. It is that humans can live together, not only by the rule of law but also by, as it were, the rules of the earth. Thus we have the Earth Charter, one of the most promising documents of our time. It highlights and spells out how we humans can live with respect and care for one another and the community of life. The rule of law would be part of this larger context in which we live.
This page, however, is not on the Earth Charter, it is on the Magna Carta. I offer a Whiteheadian appreciation of the document, offering a way of thinking about symbols as lures for feeling in human life.
- Jay McDaniel, 4/14/2023