I am not sure if this cycle has a name—sociologists have noticed it, I’m sure—but is as old as at least civilization itself. My experience with it has been in the realm of religious studies. A number of years ago I read a study that indicated that within a decade of the founding of a religion it will have changed beyond the recognition of its original form. In other words, it will evolve. I suspect this is true of most memes. In literary studies this recognition goes by the sobriquet of “Reader Response” theory. Once an author (or any initiator of something new) produces a written work s/he has lost control over what it “means.” Each reader interprets a piece in the light of her/his own context, some perhaps close to the original intent of the author, some far distant. In the broadest sense of the word, this is a corruption. According to Reader Response theory, it is natural and to be expected.
On a larger scale, human endeavors are often beset with divergent agendas. A founder may start a school with the intention of training teachers. Soon interest and clientele grow and further program options are offered. The teacher’s school becomes a college. If the college meets a larger societal need, it becomes part of a university. Universities, despite all posturing and muttering, are becoming very much alike through the mediation of the Internet. Is this a corruption? Perhaps not in the sense of being a benign development, but it general terms it reflects the dilemma of changing ideals. Various religions point in different directions to explain it, but most explanations are mythological. The “fall” in Eden does not fit the view of the Hebrew Bible, but it is a popular Christian explanation for why corruption sets in.
A more humanistic response might call it “human nature.” We are fully capable of lofty ideals. In my admittedly limited experience, I have found that those with such ideals are often ill-equipped to realize them. Those who grow such ideals into institutions tend to have an entrepreneurial outlook that benefits from following the greatest returns. To court investors, a tangible payback must be included. We see this all the time in churches: popes, archbishops, televangelists—soon they find themselves powerful people with access to great wealth. A far cry from a working-class carpenter preaching love. The pattern is ubiquitous throughout history, and there seems to be no cure other than, as you suggest, to begin again.
Chaz and I would like to invite comments and discussion on this issue. Idealists and more pragmatic types are both encouraged to reply!
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