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"A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on. Ideas have endurance without death."
What is the most resilient parasite?
An idea. A single idea from the human mind can build cities, rewrite all the rules, and transform the world. Neither armies, nor dictators, nor even mortality have power over them; people die, but their ideas do not.
In fiction, we get heroes dying but hope passed onto the audience by knowing that somehow his idea has lived on. Sometimes the hero is a martyr
and his death is a beginning
as people use it for inspiration; they are throwing off some kind of mind-breaking torture attempt
to show that the forces of fascism can't control them. A book of philosophy or some diary may have survived him, or one of his inner circle may tell his tale and so the story ends on a happy note, but not too happy. Our story is sad but the tide of inevitable revolution will come.
The Trope Namer
is American civil rights activist Medgar Evers, who stated that "you can kill a man, but you can't kill an idea." He was later shot dead by a Klansman, but the civil rights movement endured.
of Can't Stop The Signal
. The characters who pass on the idea are likely Doomed Moral Victors
. Likely to inspire an Innocent Bystander
to make a Defiant Stone Throw
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- In One Piece, both Gold Roger and Dr Hiruluk died embracing this ideal. Gold Roger manages to start the Golden Age of Piracy.
- In the face of a Marine Victory which could have snuffed out the Golden Age of Piracy, Whitebeard, with his last breath, proclaims Roger's treasure does exist, thus reigniting the idea once more. The Marines were not happy with this.
- The villains of the Fishman Island arc attempt to invoke this, hoping to have their grudge against humans carry to the next generation by killing as many people as they can (humans and Fishman alike) when it looks like they're not going to win. As it turns out, you can kill an idea, if you do it with a contrary one. Luffy's human (though we use that loosely) crew fighting to protect Fishman Island causes that idea to blow up in their faces.
- Happens in Code Geass. Lelouch's ideals were to fight against injustice and tyranny caused largely by the Britannian Empire. Later, he causes changes in the empire itself, and in the end helps make the world a better place for almost everyone, at the cost of his life and reputation, while passing on the torch of Zero to Suzaku.
- Earlier in the second season, Lelouch pulls off a Crowning Moment Of Awesome by exploiting this trope. When cutting a deal with the Britannians, they want to know if he's the original and he gets them to agree that it doesn't matter, because anyone who wears the costume and espouses the beliefs is "Zero". Then when the Britannians announce that they're formally exiling Zero from Japan, a million of his supporters put on Zero costumes, meaning the Britannians are forced to exile all of them, giving him a million-strong army.
- After the formation of the team Dai Gurren in Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, Kamina dies in middle of the battle against every prediction. During the rest of the series he is remembered constantly as a role model for the main cast, specially Simon. To the point than the new futuristic city is called Kamina City.
- V for Vendetta: The anarchist title character, to Eric Finch, who's just shot him:
"Did you think to kill me? There's no flesh or blood within this cloak to kill. There's only an idea. Ideas are bulletproof."
- In 300, Xerxes angrily declares that once he defeats the Spartans, he will completely destroy them and wipe out any trace of them from history. Leonidas coolly responds:
"The world will know that free men stood against a tyrant, that few stood against many and, before this battle is over, that even a god-king can bleed." (The ironic part is that, if Xerxes had followed through on his promised plans, the world wouldn't know of the Spartans last stand)
- Bruce Wayne isn't the only one whose taken on the role of Batman. Many incarnations of the character support the theme of Batman being more of an idea than a single person (especially The Dark Knight Saga).
- In Babylon 5, at the climax of the Vorlon-Shadow War Delenn and Sheridan point out that, even if they and their coalition are killed, their assertion that the younger races no longer need the First Ones is true. All the First Ones can do is subjugate them, not "teach" them as the two sides insist they want to.
- Doctor Who: The Doctor was able to destroy a prime minister with this trope. He only needed to say six words to an aide. "Don't you think she looks tired?" He doesn't die (quite the opposite, really), and the PM isn't necessarily evil, but he does use the principle of an idea being unkillable.
- Star Trek: The Next Generation, "Rightful Heir": Chancellor Gowron talks about the symbolic effect of the return of the Klingon God Emperor.
"Kahless has been dead for a thousand years; but the idea of Kahless is still alive. Have you ever fought an idea, Picard? It has no weapon to destroy, no body to kill."
- Later in the episode, the same argument is used to convince Gowron to let Kahless be a figurehead Emperor rather than oppose him. When Kahless counters that this Kahless is a clone, Worf points out that it won't matter to a good number of Klingons, who will still see it as reincarnation, and would only result in fracturing the Empire. Gowron is forced to, reluctantly, kneel before Kahless (even though Gowron is still in charge).
- Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "Far Beyond The Stars". Benjamin Sisko, dreaming that he's a science fiction writer in the 50s, reacts rather badly to having his story pulped because it has a black Captain.
"You can deny me all you want but you can't deny Ben Sisko – He exists! That future, that space station, all those people – they exist in here! In my mind. I created it. And everyone of you knew it, you read it. It's here. Do you hear what I'm telling you? You can pulp a story but you cannot destroy an idea, don't you understand, that's ancient knowledge, you cannot destroy an idea. That future – I created it, and it's real! Don't you understand? It is real. I created it. And it's real! It's real!"
- In the Sherlock episode, The Reichenbach Fall, Donovan and Anderson manage to sow the seeds of doubt regarding Sherlock's authenticity as a (relatively) aboveboard detective. When Lestrade comes to warn Sherlock of his impending arrest:
Sherlock: After all, you can't kill an idea, can you? Not once it's made a home... (Taps Lestrade's forehead) There.
- That's the whole point of the episode, with Moriarty managing to convince everybody that Sherlock is a fraud and that even "Moriarty" is a paid actor hired by Sherlock. He proves it by killing himself, forcing Sherlock to jump from a rooftop lest all his friends die.
- On The Daily Show, Mo Rocca suggested that to adequately fight the War on Terror, what America needs is "a bomb that destroys ideas".
- Peter Gabriel invokes this trope in the song "Biko", a tribute to South African martyr Steven Biko, with following lyric:
"You can put out a candle, but you can't put out a fire,
Once the flames begin to catch, the wind will blow it higher."
- The point of the song "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night", as recorded by Paul Robeson, Joan Baez and others.
- In Assassin's Creed II, one of the Codex pages reveals that Altaïr mused on this subject more than once, noting that the Templars waged war by seeking to win over the hearts and minds of people with ideas, rather than more conventional weapons. This made it rather difficult for the Assassins to fight back... But it also makes it rather difficult for the Templars to exterminate them.
Altaïr Ibn-La'Ahad ...how does one wage war against a concept? It is the perfect weapon. It lacks a physical form yet can alter the world around us in numerous, often violent ways. You cannot kill a creed. Even if you kill all of its adherents, destroy all of its writings – these are a reprieve at best. Some one, some day, will rediscover it. Reinvent it. I believe that even we, the Assassins, have simply re-discovered an Order that predates the Old Man himself...
- Invoked again in Assassin's Creed III by Haytham Kenway when fighting Connor. His reasoning why the Templar Order can never be beaten is because the idea for order simply makes sense.
Even when your kind appears to triumph, still, we rise again. And, do you know why? It is because the Order is born of a realization. We require no creed! No indoctrination by desperate, old men. All we need is that the world be as it is. And this is why the Templars will never be destroyed!
- Invoked in Deus Ex when the terrorist leader says 'You can't fight ideas with bullets'.
- "A single artist, a single general, a single hero or a single villain may all die, but it is impossible to kill a people, a nation, an idea — except when that idea has grown weak and is overpowered by one that is stronger." —The Doctrine of the Mighty
- In MadWorld, XIII says that he wants to see an idea die. A culture. A religion. Any idea. He got his wish. The Blood Sport Deathwatch is dead.
- Knights of the Old Republic: This is one of Kreia's favorite tropes. She points out that killing men is easier than killing belief and that Revan, in the process of fighting the Mandalorians, adopted Mandalorian tactics and their intolerance for the "weak." She also points out that every time the Jedi and Sith fight each other to near-extinction, the ideals of either side still remain as strong as ever, waiting for their chance to strike back in revenge and dooming the galaxy to endless warfare.
- Subverted with Kreia herself. Not being the most social woman, her worldview ultimately died with her, since the only person she bothered teaching it to didn't share it (plus she had a nasty habit of killing those to whom she preached). No other character in the Star Wars universe ever expresses the same view on the Force ever again.
- Tactics Ogre:
Sisteena: If you want to kill me, go ahead. I may die but my ideals will live on!
- The Victoria Games by Paradox Interactive, spanning from the early 19th century (specifically, 1836) to right before World War II has this in the game-play where your population will get silly ideas such as minimum wages and universal suffrage on their minds. Starting revolts if the pressure of having enough people saying they want it isn't enough.
- Victoria 2 adds a suppression mechanic to stop ideas you find dangerous. However, it is a temporary reprieve - the suppressed movement will most likely show up again after a few years and be more radical and inclined to violence.
- In Metal Gear Solid 2 the main bad guys The Patriots invoke this trope to justify why they will always exist. They (through their AI programmed to talk to Raiden) explain to Raiden that they are the very moral and intellectual consciousness of the United States of America, every idea that comes into the collective consciousness of each American citizen originates from them. You can't kill the Patriots as an organization because they aren't simply a business that can be shut down but an idea in and of itself.
- In Mass Effect 3 the Illusive Man cites this trope as the reason Cerberus will never fall, even with their headquarters in ruins and their forces scattered.
- Invoked in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim by Ulfric Stormcloak. Partially subverted if you complete the Imperial Legion questline, as while there would still be holdouts, most would eventually lay down their arms and return to their homes eventually.
- Remus Shepard had a go at this in Indefensible Positions, then deconstructed it in Genocide Man. In the former ideas are actually living creatures known as demons, but are dependent on belief from humans to survive. However the protagonist of the latter argues that an idea can be killed, and that some ideas ''should'' be killed—even if the only way to do so is to slaughter every single person who holds the idea.
- Invoked in the Global Guardians character Amnesty, an enormously powerful superhero who regularly opposes dictatorships and oppression world-round and is known for doing things like destroying entire armies in order to save refugees caught in a war zone. She's been "killed" any number of times by the people she opposes, but keeps popping back up fresh as a daisy because she is the Anthropomorphic Personification of Hope, Kindness, Mercy, and Compassion and no matter how dark the world gets, you can't kill hope!
- Unfortunately, the same can be said for the Blood Red King, Amnesty's fiercest rival and the most feared villain in the Global Guardians universe: he is the Anthropomorphic Personification of Terror, Despair, and Man's Inhumanity to Man... something that has proven just as impossible to kill as hope.
- Subverted in Futurama: "You can crush me but you can't crush my spirit!" *crushed by giant claw* "Ow! My spirit!"
- The whole basis for The Game.
- Che Guevara's last words, according to at least one biography:
I know you have come to kill. Kill me if you wish, coward, but know that you can only kill a man.
- There were several sects of early Christians that are only known about by official church writings condemning them. In some cases we only have the names and there must have been others where even that hasn't survived. Of course since we don't know what their ideas were it is impossible to say whether those ideas were killed, absorbed by the Catholic Church or recycled by better known groups.
- Josef Stalin had a go:
Ideas are more powerful than guns. We would not let our enemies have guns, why should we let them have ideas?
- Government propaganda targeted at an enemy intentionally invokes this trope, especially during wartime.
- Opponents of the War On Terror and War On Drugs invoke this trope as one of their points. We shall not go any further.
- Generally, outside attempts to forcibly repress or destroy an idea are doomed to fail, but ideas can destroy themselves if they inspire widespread revulsion and their practitioners are doing horrible things.
- A legal punishment in ancient Rome was damnatio memoriae, which was an attempt to erase a political figure completely from history after his or her death. Their faces would be removed from portraits, statues damaged, and anything mentioning their name would be destroyed or erased. This is extremely difficult to pull off completely - for instance, we have some surviving busts of Publius Septimius Geta, denarii featuring his image, and a wealth of information about his personality, tastes, family politics and eventual assassination - and obviously it's impossible to know if a complete damnatio memoriae ever occurred.
- A saying from the Norse Poetic Edda, attributed to Odin:
Cattle die, kinsmen die, we ourselves also die; but the fair fame never dies of him who has earned it.
- A similar saying is utilized in the Occupy protests, by the slogan "You cannot evict an idea".
- 2012 Presidential Candidate Ron Paul has stated this about his ideas:
"Ideas spread, you can't stop them. An idea whose time has come cannot be stopped by any army or any government!"
- Black Panther Fred Hampton once said that "You can kill the revolutionary, but you can't kill the revolution."
- Sometimes not Truth in Television. Examples of lost ideas like Roman cement, Greek fire, ancient stoneworking, literacy, etc. can be lost if everyone who has that idea is dead or they can't get the materials or not enough people can get together to operate the machinery, etc. On the other hand, while the specific recipes for Roman Cement and Greek Fire were lost, the idea of cement and fire weapons survived until the world re-invented the concepts (modern cement and Napalm); sometimes, even when the original form of the idea disappears from history forever, it will be re-invented later on. There has even a specific type of red glass, typically used in stained glass, that has been lost and rediscovered three times through history.
- Plato was a pioneer of this trope. His philosophizing posited 'forms' existing independently of the real world, i.e. every chair may look different, but we recognize them as 'a chair' because they all reflect form of the eternal chair. Hence, mankind will never forget how to make chairs because the idea exists separately from any one man. Things like 'justice', 'virtue', and 'goodness' were also forms. In his 'Republic', the leaders communed with 'the Form of the Good' and embodied it completely.
- Two and a half millennia later, Carl Jung would adopt Plato's ideas for his theory of "archetypes", that every person is hardwired with mythological symbols that manifest in their myths and religions, while another Carl - Sagan - would savage Plato for the rise of religious dogma, by championing the supremacy of the mind over the science of the 'corrupt' natural world.
- This trope is one of the main reasons why many people (often Sci-Fi writers) claim that going back in time to kill Hitler wouldn't work, as once his sick idea was planted in the minds of the Nazis once he was killed, someone (perhaps even crazier than he was) would have continued on his work.