The Dangers of Idealism

It kind of annoys me – the way people use the words ‘idealism’ and ‘idealistic’ to denote a starry-eyed faith-filled approach to life. “Believe that the best is possible,” shriek the voices,  “be idealistic.”

Yech. Blech. Mech. Saith the Young Curmudgeon.

All “ism’s” are philosophies that place some unifying idea at the center of their thought. Feminism is a view of history and society with the female at the center. Communism is a political philosophy built around the central idea of people’s holding property in common rather than privately. And so on. Idealism is a philosophy about how people ought to live, govern, and conduct relationships, centered around the idea of an idea. If you have a mental image of how your life, your relationship, your world could be, then, so it goes, you attempt to conform whatever falls under your influence to that idea. This act, regardless of the virtue or soundness of the idea being implemented, is supposedly a beautiful and courageous one. I’m all for ideas in the sense of inventions or solutions to problems or creative works of art. But I’m calling the Emperor naked when it comes to the virtue of reinventing people, societies, and institutions to fit someone’s private scheme.

Here’s why.

1) Ideals function as replacements for principles. A person with principles values his own integrity to the point that even if a seemingly good end is in view, he will not commit an act of, say, treachery. Or duplicity. Or miserliness. And so on. But a person with ideals is loyal, not to the good that already exists but to something that does not yet exist anywhere except in his own mind. When he has to choose between them, he chooses the end rather than the integrity of the means, because he is centered around the made-up vision of an altered reality, not the true vision of genuine virtue. ‘Ideal’ means, of course, “of or having to do with an idea.” In the sense it is commonly used, this ‘idea’ is a thought that originated in someone’s mind – a thought of varying complexity, profundity, and perception, but always a thought that claims to be better and seeks to impose itself on other people and existing situations. I do not believe we are here to induce reality to be something other than it is. I believe we are here to attain virtues, do our jobs, and let God work on the troubles spots that infect present reality – in his own way.

2) Ideals always try to replace reality. Our imaginations exist to  make the leaps necessary to grasp reality. When idealists invent new realities they misuse this power; and the new reality is never better than the old. God creates reality; ideals are the visualization of discontent. By ‘reality’ I do not mean ‘the way things are.’ It’s quite likely that the way things are is the realization of dozens of broken and half-implemented ideals from those who came before. Reality, as I use the word, is the eternal truth that lives in the mind of God. It is the archetypes, the beauty, the pillars of nature, the structure of what informs creation, to which we ought to be loyal. It is the reality from which our imperfect experience deviates and to which we must wing our determined way daily. “Having ideals” is a feel-good way of saying that we get to determine what reality ought to be, and then try to re-invent it. Being real is being honest. It is breaking your heart on your own blindness over and over again until little by little you begin to awaken from the dark dreams of deception in which you wandered.

3) Idealism is violent. Because of what I said above, it comes about that an idealist is not only annoying, but the most dangerous person in the world. To have a fantasy about changing reality is to commit, mentally, an act of violence against God’s work. With this beginning, any other form of violence is ultimately possible, from bullying to genocide. It turns out that these supposed starry-eyed idealists are the Trotskys and Hitlers and Bin Ladens of the world, the people who have rejected the good that exists in favor of a situation they have determined will be better. The idealist will destroy institutions and pull down societies in order to install, forcibly, their vision of the new world. These are the nagging mothers, the disapproving fathers, the merciless librarians, teachers, pastors, legislators, terrorists, and tyrants. Worse, they are the people who multiply truth claims infinitely until finding the original truth is nearly impossible. Idealism is fantasy – it is violence.

In conclusion, it ought to be clear that idealism has no place in the Christian church or in any religion. Nor does it have any place in anti-religion and certainly not in politics, where the amplification of personal power also amplifies the potential danger of enforcing an unproved vision on others. The only place where a certain kind of idealism might be proper is in art. The act of creation often represents an “ideal” object. The idea in “of or having to do with an idea,” in this case refers to an archetype and a person’s grasp of that archetype through his love of real things, not a vision of a new reality that originated in someone’s mind. Here language becomes somewhat confounded, so that what I have been calling reality is now called (more properly, in fact,) by the name of its opposite. The important distinction here is that such an ideal never physically exists, and no one tries to force it to. A proper ideal, it stays in Plato’s world of the forms where it belongs, and allows itself to be venerated by the imaginatively gifted on Earth. Thus a sculptor, bless his heart, may represent the ideal woman in marble; but God, bless his name, makes only real women in flesh.

Amen. Saith the Young Curmudgeon.

23 thoughts on “The Dangers of Idealism

  1. Honestly, wat the hell are you ranting about in this? It’s like idealism is an actual thing to you that you could find on the street and lock-up, except, it isn’t that at all. I’m not sure you even have an idea what you are against. All I got was at the end you said some crap about females in the flesh, and art. Are you saying we should have ideals for women, and just take them in the flesh? Unless it’s art, then we should just know it’s idealistic art?

    I think you are missing the point. Anyway, it’s mostly a semantic problem, as no one gives a fuck about any of the stupid things you are saying.

    The world fucking sucks. You, fucking suck. What is this bullshit about “reality” and “principles” ? Like you could even define reality.

    I have an ideal for you (let’s not confuse idealistic thoughts with “ideology”, which I saw you said something about elsewhere. You will miss any meaningful point in all this if you can’t realize that the words mean nothing. Ideology is not at all used with the same connotations and emotions as idealism, something being “idealistic”, etc. Don’t screw up the word game.

    The idealistic thought, is that the world fucking sucks. And that people really could change, and that things could really be MUCH better than they are now given technologies, information accesability, a general increase in intelligence, blah. But it’s hard because so much evil exists in the world and it births confusion and stifles goodness.

    That’s all really.

    for forethought, I got here searching — “young” “idealistic” not the “way things are”–
    My idea was to find some pages about, well an idea, a situation, where older people (or simply, indoctrinated people of any age) resort to saying that someone is being “idealistic” and that they don’t see “reality” and such. Often, attempting to sway them from thinking a certain way, or in response to a grand idea of theirs.

    These often older, but more importantly indoctirnated people, who are all SO FUCKING BITTER, they simply can not stand to see someone wanting to do what they once wanted to do, but have lost all passion for. Whether you remember it or not, there is a time where all people realize, even if just for a fleeting moment, that the world IS ABSOLUTELY FUCKING DISGUSTING. People are so horrible. And some people, they are indescribably horrible. I can almost believe in Satan because there is no sense, nothing that should drive some of these people to make the world of humans so horrid. The devils advocate… I know I’m not using it as it’s often used but, I can see where the devil comes into it… because some of these people can’t even step back enough to see how trivial their arguments are, and how they aren’t making sense on either side of the argument, and that the argument is just a huge illusion blocking any truly positive change. It’s like the ‘devil’ really would have to be present to trick these people into such ridiculous thought.

    but the world is so sick, and everyone with even a little brain can see it. And then they can’t change it. They go to college (which is bullshit, worthless, outdated, in case you wanted to know), then they get a job they might think they want, then they have to do something else to live, or are forced to move. Marriage comes in, kids, bills, blah, and what do you know? They forget it all. they suppress their feelings and their perception because now they ‘don’t have time’ or god knows what to do something that MEANS something.

    On more than one occasions, these people have told me and others I see something like
    – well I remember being young and idealistic, you will grow out of it eventually
    -when you grow up you will see how things really are
    – I’m old, I’m depressed. I bitch at my family, I take it as all I really have. I have hardly done the things I dreamed of doing and wanted to accomplish. The world stole all that from me, because it is cold and unrelenting. I couldn’t do a thing about it. YOU think YOU can do a thing about it? Ha. As if. I have no faith in you, I mean, no one had faith in me? etc.

    except they don’t vocalize the last one. It’s just what they obviously feel.

    Then, the phrase “productive member of society” is likely to come up with these types.

    indoctrinated. So indoctrinated. Fuck all of you. Idealistic my ass. Just because some of us realize what it would take to get the world into a better spot, that people aren’t hopeless, that you can change and people can realize that the common good is the true good and that the ‘cheesy’ love everybody type thinking really has a lot of credence. Productive member of society = putting yourself into the position where you can’t change anything. On a gandhi type thought, If you are being part of it you are adding to it. Have fun losing everything that matters, I hope god can forgive you for not recognizing your purpose and I hope I am hearing him well when I am filled with the feeling that I MUST aim for NOTHING LESS than the eradication of malice, evil, ignorance and that somehow I am supposed to help turn the world upside down and get us on the right track.

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  2. The feeling is a good one and does you credit. But you are already in the embitterment process, obviously. You will destroy yourself, your faith, and other people if you try to force the world to conform to a false vision, and you will save yourself and others if you devote yourself to a true vision. Even if the vision is true, you will corrupt it if you use force to implement it.

    The path you want to walk is a highly demanding path. I suggest you inform yourself thoroughly about both ends and methods.

    I believe I am here to be a truly good person. And yes, I get all sorts of criticism and mocking and argument from people who believe it’s impossible and we should just accept the “fact” the we are all evil and it’s inevitable.

    I wish you would not use such vile language, it does you and your beliefs no service. Love does not behave unseemly.

    You should also learn to recognize your fellow – visionaries. I refuse to use the word idealists because whatever it means to you, to me it means a person that wants to force others into a plan that they imagine will change everything – without evidence, experimentation, thought, imagination, and all the hard, hard, work it takes to arrive at the truth in this benighted age. My bitter experience is that of a person who has been brutally punished and damaged by idealists whose ideals were false, whose methods were pitiless, whose attitude was unbearably scornful of ordinary people, and who refused to take any honest look at the results of their beloved ideals. Often such people end by loving their visions more than the people that they started out to help.

    Be careful, and take care.

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    • Oooo, my very own troll! Be sure to stop by every single day now. Eventually, of course, you’ll get tired of coming up with a new name every time, of composing your carefully spelled messages, of summoning that false sense of superiority… and of course I’ll have stopped approving your comments and answering them long before then. But in the mean time… keep at it, you Busy Little Bee!

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  3. You’re onto something here, and offer a thought-provoking perspective. But you do yourself a disservice by muddying the waters with arbitrary & unorthodox definitions of basic terms. Also, your semantic distinction between “ideals” and “principles” is elusive.

    You conflate the various connotations of “idealism”. Presenting current reality as ideal is panglossian. But that’s not the same as conceiving an attainable ideal to craft an improved future reality — a natural behavior of all thinking creatures without which no progress could ever be made.

    When an unattainable ideal (success, body image, morality, happiness, etc.), is presented not only as achievable, but obligatory, only frustration, shame, self-loathing and lack of peace follow. The mantra of self-improvement con artists like Rhonda Byrne and Tony Robbins, that the only reason you’re not successful/rich/thin/happy is because you aren’t thinking positive thoughts, is caustic.

    “But a person with ideals is loyal, not to the good that already exists but to something that does not yet exist anywhere except in his own mind. When he has to choose between them, he chooses the end rather than the integrity of the means”

    “Zealot” is a better term here than “idealist.”

    “By ‘reality’ I do not mean ‘the way things are’…. Reality, as I use the word, is the eternal truth that lives in the mind of God. It is the archetypes, the beauty, the pillars of nature, the structure of what informs creation, to which we ought to be loyal.”

    1) I suggest using the word “reality” the way everyone else does, and, if your concept still defies description, coin a neologism;

    2) Your guess as to “the eternal truth” inside god’s head is no more valid than any one else’s — bin Laden was certain he knew what it was. By attempting to establish your philosophical bent as THE truth, do you not commit the very sin you decry: “forcibly installing” your vision of the world on others?

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    • LOL, no, not really. I don’t even force my own six-year-old son to sit through a church service if he finds it too boring.

      I’ll grant you the article is not the best-written essay I’ve ever turned out. And even my best are not as good as many written by others. However, your reply suggests that you suffer from a worse problem, namely, a deep ignorance about the history of words and philosophy. Possibly this deep ignorance is, all the more pitiably, an ignorance inculcated by something you were given to believe was an education.

      Are you really telling me that everyone is agreed on the meaning of the word ‘reality’?

      Liberals such as yourself inevitably protest that I am using words in an un-orthodox manner. What they mean, of course, is “in a manner that implies the existence of something I have not experienced.” I find this amusing, since the essence of liberalism is supposedly to change everything for the better, including words. Why then are liberals so inevitably priggish about the meaning of words? Isn’t it because you need the word to mean what you think it means, in order to continue to believe what you believe? Well, so do I. That is why people who disagree philosophically begin by defining their terms. However, if you are ignorant of the science of formal logic and of rhetoric, perhaps this is not obvious to you. Perhaps you are stuck in a grammar-school assumption that everything is all settled and your views are the obvious ones.

      How do you know whether I am using the word ‘reality’ in one of its original senses or in a sense which I spontaneously made up? For that matter, how do you know whether that sense of the word you consider the normal one was not spontaneously made up, once upon a time, by some philosopher whose ideas you are therefore carrying about with you, unbeknownst to yourself?

      My guess is that you don’t really care. As long as everyone is agreed on the meaning of the word, the language should work just fine – that’s the assumption underlying your protest.

      However, that assumption does not even represent, really, a thoughtful answer to a philosophical question. It merely represents your ignorance of the science of philology. Just so, a primitive living without technology might be ignorant of the science of history, and might therefore be indignant if you should claim to know the name of a king who lived 8000 years ago.

      Just a few centuries ago, the whole world was agreed on the meaning of words. They argued about other things. If we were debating at that time, your complaint might have some validity. However, we are now living in a time when it’s commonly assumed that, as your final point assumes, there is no one way, no one truth to be grasped. In fact, the inability of human beings to know truth is the single philosophical proposition which everyone around me is defending – reflexively, desperately, fiercely. You assume it has been proved. Yet it is the one idea which, if it is true, nothing can ever be proved.

      It is also the one idea which forever revokes your right to argue against anything I say to you. I can be positive and definite in my belief because I consider knowledge of truth to be possible. Can you make the same boast, or to put it another way, are you sane?

      Still, I’m sympathetic. I know very well that authority sinned against humanity, and that ever since, humanity has gone armed against authority. I think the weapons are ludicrous.

      If it has become common for people to use philosophical terms like ‘reality’ in a certain way, isn’t that because they were educated to do so? And if they were educated to do so, isn’t that because their teachers taught them a terminology which is in agreement with the philosophy or ideology they were promoting? And if this is so, isn’t it true that what you are calling commonly agreed-upon words are actually philosophical propositions in disguise?

      By declining to use the word ‘reality’ in the common way, I am refusing to fight on my adversary’s home turf. I shall continue to enjoy my privilege to do so, your helpful instructions notwithstanding.

      That there is a reality that is not simply the changeful state of affairs brought about by human choices and ideas, is self-evident. If this is not obvious to you there are two possibilities. Either you are blind or I am hallucinating. It is permissible to make an argument for one or the other. It is insane and childish to assume one or the other simply because it belongs to yourself.

      Now I say this reality springs from the mind of God; you appear skeptical. Yet the definition of God, philosophically speaking, is simply “the source of whatever is good.” Therefore, to say reality comes from God requires only one simple assumption – the assumption that reality, whatever it is, is good. (Is this apparent to you? If not, you should review syllogisms.) Once this assumption is made, it is necessary to refute the idea that the evils we see around us are a part of reality.

      It is at this point that it is necessary for me to restrict my definition of reality to the eternal reality, and not to admit the changeful human affairs which are mixed with evil. To put it simply, I’m not talking about that, in this essay. In this essay, I’m talking about something else.

      What, then, is in God’s mind? What are the patterns according to which the source of the world brought forth the world?

      My point is not that I know the answer to that question. My point is that I have no right to invent one. That being the case, my only choice is to attempt to discover what reality and goodness consist in and to align myself with them. Impossible, you cry with furious passion. Heresy! Perhaps you assume that because science and mathematics cannot propose any reasonable answers to these questions, therefore no other science can as well. And my reply is simply that when I think and act in this manner, I find the proper uses for all my faculties as a human being. When I do not, I find no reason to regard even my own existence as good. Neither do you; that is why you will presently tell me that I need to invent one.

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      • I read your piece and engaged you in discussion because my dear friend recommended you. Blogging is an open invitation to the entire world to entertain one’s propositions and to invite response. I responded, as I was intrigued. In return, I receive reflexive, ad hominem attacks.

        You assume a quite a lot — about my beliefs, about my background, about my erudition in language, philosophy, and logic — even about my inner thoughts and motives. You err greatly in all these areas.

        From your bio, I see that you are young. I am much older than you. I see that you are an aspiring writer. For many years I wrote professionally. Yet you dismiss my suggestions and deign lecture me.

        “Are you really telling me that everyone is agreed on the meaning of the word ‘reality’”

        Yes. There are dictionaries. We cannot have a meaningful discussion atop ever-shifting sands. Late into your essay, after referencing ‘reality’ several times, you say, ‘oh, by the way, when I say “reality”, I mean something else I made up on my own.’ You have a message, you have a vision, and you want to convey it. This is not an effective way of communicating.

        “Liberals such as yourself inevitably protest that I am using words in an un-orthodox manner.”

        I’d venture that not just a liberal would be perturbed by your arbitrary definitions. Are it not the Jesuits who always insist that one must first define terms?

        “since the essence of liberalism is supposedly to change everything for the better, including words.”

        Well, there you go again, concocting your own unique definition for liberalism, just as you fabricated an entirely incorrect definition of feminism.

        “However, we are now living in a time when it’s commonly assumed that, as your final point assumes, there is no one way, no one truth to be grasped.”

        Whether you realize or not, you are an ardent disciple of Foucault and Derrida! You err again in your assumption of ‘my point’, which simply was that meditation on the mind of god is worthless as a way of determining reality.

        “I can be positive and definite in my belief because I consider knowledge of truth to be possible. Can you make the same boast, or to put it another way, are you sane?”

        The Scientific Method, on the other hand, has proven eminently capable of determining what’s real and what’s not.

        “Now I say this reality springs from the mind of God; you appear skeptical.”

        Indeed, as you have yet to prove: 1) the existence of a god; 2) that your personal ‘read’ of god’s mind is the correct one; 3) a way to falsify your claims.

        “Yet the definition of God, philosophically speaking, is simply ‘the source of whatever is good.’”

        Is this your own definition? Because I’m having trouble keeping up with your on-the-fly rewrite of the English language.

        “Therefore, to say reality comes from God requires only one simple assumption – the assumption that reality, whatever it is, is good.”

        1) Define “good”;
        2) Your, my, anyone’s Aristotelean assumptions are worthless. Quantifiable observation is what counts;
        3) You ignore the possibility that a godless reality could, by chance, turn out ‘good’;
        4) However, reality is neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’, only real. Both pleasure and suffering must be embraced. Are you ignorant of the teachings of the Buddha?

        “Is this apparent to you? If not, you should review syllogisms.”

        And now I must conclude that you are a smug little girl, secure in her insular bubble of pretension, self-referential pseudo-logic, and hubris. To attempt to engage you further in intellectual discourse would be a waste of time. I wish you well.

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        • Well, well, I’m sorry I hurt your feelings. At the same time I can’t help thinking that I’ve saved us both a lot of time. After talking to what feels like the same person with all same thoughts, arguments, ideas, and insights over and over again through the years, I’ve mastered the art of reducing my opponent to scolding and chauvinism in a single exchange. It used to take me at least a dozen.

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          • It’s funny that you think you hurt Matt’s feelings. Go check out his blog to see how easy his feelings are hurt (not ever). A “single exchange” is all that is needed when talking to an irrational/irrelevant/predictable person like yourself.

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            • O Relevance! Thou sacred state!
              When shall I in thy hope abide?
              When shall my life’s low car commence
              on thy broad thoroughfare to ride?

              My reputation squints in vain
              for Thou art reputation’s sun;
              by dint or daunt I cannot find
              that I refer to anyone!

              Alas, alack, oh horrible,
              for now my very life I rue –
              Why was I merely born a girl,
              as recently as ’82?

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          • Few years have passed and I hope you’ve realized that the one you called “ignorant” was a wise man that did you nothing but a lifetime’s favor of opening your eyes to a world devoid of your delusions. You preach one thing yet your words say the other thing. You’ve set your own definitions and standards of how one is measured by the things he know and believe, thus, calling people names when they fall below your standards. Idealism, indeed, is a dangerous thing.

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            • Not remotely, no.

              I still continue to use words in their full semantic ranges, even if that inconveniences the reductionist teachings of cult-leaders. I continue to define terms for the purposes of single essays, at my will. And I am even more resistant to the invitation of false authority than I was back then.

              I am, in short, a Curmudgeon even further along in her training than I was when I wrote this. And I invite you to see who really called who names here.

              Don’t let him take your soul.

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      • I think your use of “ignorance” might be a bit insulting. Maybe it’s just me. Perhaps something to think about.

        RE: Capital T “Truth”:

        I can’t help but believe it exists. However, I have trouble with the idea that any of us are smart enough, dispassionate enough, intellectually honest enough, … to arrive at “a truth” with 100% certainty.

        I would think that having any experience of being absolutely certain of something say when you’re 23 years old and then thought life experience, coming to place where you don’t believe that any more or, perhaps where you just aren’t 100% certain anymore would suggest that 100% certainty is unwarranted.

        I’m not a theologian, but it seems like 100% certainty is the providence of God, not us.

        And if you not 100% certain, then …

        I mean this is how big my brain is, and this is how big the universe is, you do the math.

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        • Oh yes, it is insulting. Very occasionally one meets someone whom one must insult in order to retain one’s integrity. Another good reason to insult someone is so that their gullible young cult followers can see their pompous aghast ragey reactions and be disillusioned. The key is never to insult someone without speaking the truth. If the truth insults him, he’s in a bad position.

          As far as 100% certainty, I think that is not the same thing as knowledge. Many kinds of knowledge can be had without possessing 100% certainty. I think setting the goalpost at 100% certainty has been a way for idealists to provoke doubt about human knowledge, which while never perfect has always been real – and which, of course, mitigates against their utopian doctrines.

          To descend from generalities, I’m talking about The Abolition of Man kind of thing.

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  4. I’m sure how it happened, but recently I had a similar epiphany about idealism. To get a conversation going I will throw a bomb like “Idealism kill more people in the 20th century than any other cause.” (Mao, Hitler, Lenin, Pol Pot, … were all driven to turn ideas into facts (no matter the cost.))

    I think maybe my epiphany is related to something I read about chasing utopia. In a utopia, everyone is happy (forever.) So there is no crime, no matter how monstrous, that can’t be justified by the infinite happiness to come.

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      • Ideal-ideology-idol-death.

        The Blessed Seraphim Rose made the cogent point that the Truth is not an idea, sought and embraced by the brain but a person, The Person (fully God and fully man) sought and loved with the heart.

        That Peter is how we know the truth. Real truth changes nothing outside my own heart and therefore requires no force. The only death it requires is the death of my own pride, shame and fear.

        Fortunately Jesus also took care of that on the Cross. As I embrace Him who hangs on the Cross, I experience the death of my sin, through that death I enter into the Ressurection and a deepening union with Him who made me and knows me as I am. I become truth through communion with the Truth.

        So I say to all idealists (not Platonic ones), nominalists, idealogs and tryanants, especially the ones in my own heart, Anathema.

        Christ is Born! Glorify Him!

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