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.
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.