The practicality of idealism

Think of this as notes toward a future essay, not as a finished product. There are inexcusable leaps in logic here, and I have not found time to go back and hammer in a more rigorous set of links.

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Ideals fall into one of three categories: the idealistic, the pragmatic, and the corrupt. Of the three, the idealistic is the most pragmatic, that is, offers the most practical benefit to the believer; and the corrupt ideal offers the least, or even works harm.

By an ‘ideal’ here I mean any rigorous articulation of a world view, religious or philosophical or both. Any system that proposes to answer life’s deep questions we can call an ‘ideal’ for the purpose of this essay.

I call ‘idealistic’ any ideal that holds that man can know ultimate reality and hold it in his reason. This category of world view, of religious or philosophical belief, addresses fundamental ideas: the nature of reality, the role of man’s reason, the mystery of life after death, the meaning of life.

An example of an idealistic philosophy is Platonism, which holds that the invisible ultimate reality of the universe can be known through reason, or, at least, glimpsed through a Socratic myth.

Another example of an idealistic philosophy is Aristotelianism. This philosophy is not ‘idealistic’ in the technical sense. Aristotle does not believe ideas have independent substance. But it is ideal in the narrow sense I mean in this essay: Aristotle answers ultimate questions about the nature of reality, and holds that humans can know it. 

An example of an idealistic religion is Christianity, which holds likewise that many aspects of invisible ultimate reality can be known through reason, but also that we can trust what the Author of ultimate reality has told us about reality— truths revealed to us which, while not jarring with reason, could not have been deduced by unaided human reason. By reason and by revelation, then, reality can be known.


The benefit of an idealistic ideal is obvious. A knowledge of the universe surrounding gives man, or a group of men, a confidence born of orientation. He knows whence he comes and wither he goes. The central role of revelation— the sense that he has life’s answers— and the central role of reason— the sense that he can find whatever answers he does not yet know— give to the idealist a spirit adversity or opposition will not quail. The benefits are magnanimity, courage, optimism. Anyone who follows Aristotle’s metaphysics is likely to follow Aristotle’s ethics. Anyone who follows Aristotle is likely to live as a great-souled man.

Aside from this hard-to-define benefit I call confidence, there is a benefit more easy to define, and that is, ethics. Any philosophy or religion that address ultimate issues has a skeleton on which to hangs the living organs of an ethical philosophy, and in intellectual structure to resolve (where possible) intellectual disputes that arise within the system (depending on how robust it is). A solid philosophical foundation can support a tower of conclusions; a deeply-rooted tree can fling out wide branches.

A third benefit: the completeness and universality of an idealistic world view lends itself to a many-sided world-view. The philosophy, once a metaphysic and ethic is established, can speculate with rigor, and perhaps fruitfully, in areas like aesthetics, or other theories equally far afield.

I call ‘pragmatic’ any ideal which sets aside questions of deep and ultimate things, dealing instead with human questions closer at hand: questions of how best to live, how prudently to seek happiness, how to deal with sorrow and death given total human ignorance of what meaning (if any) human suffering has, and given total human ignorance of what (if anything) lies beyond death.

An example of a pragmatic philosophy is Stoicism. The Stoic concerns are almost exclusively ethical; questions of duty and propriety. The Stoics never dwelt long on metaphysical or spiritual questions, and their account of the cosmos and man’s place in it is sketched in so roughly into the Stoic scheme of thought, that it can be changed or discarded without the least effect on the rest of the philosophy. Some Stoics held that the stars were divine beings, or glorified a cosmic mind called ‘Pronia’ or Providence, others bowed to a monotheist form of Zeus or Deus, while others held that the gods dwell in bliss and take no notice of men and ask no worship of them. An atheist can be a Stoic. Whether you are a Stoic or not depends on what you hold to be the nature of desire and the proper attitude of the soul toward desire. It does not depend on what you think about the stars.

Epicureanism is another example of a pragmatic ideal. It is a world view based on Pleasure as Stoicism is based on Duty: it is saved from mere vulgarity by the recognition of the “pleasure paradox”— namely, that immoderate pursuit of pleasure leads to displeasure. The Epicurean seeks only prudent and moderate pleasures.

The best modern-day example of an Epicurean is Ayn Rand.  She upholds the pursuit of selfish pleasure as the highest ideal, and the fountainhead of all virtues, but she defines the pleasures to be sought, and the fashion of the seeking, only as those worthy of a rational and heroic being; or, in other words, a prudent and moderate pleasure.

Here again, the Epicurean or Ayn Randian is unconcerned with ultimate realities, life after death, metaphysical subtleties. The Epicurean is concerned with his one life on this Earth, none other. One can be a theist or atheist Epicurean, or agnostic, indifferently.

An example of a pragmatic religion is Taoism. Ultimate questions are not asked or answered: the Way is the Way, and it cannot be spoken. One lives by seeking harmony with the troubled world all about; but the center of the wheel does not move. If this religion has any doctrine of reincarnation or resurrection, I have seen no hint of it in what I have read. It urges obedience to rulers and benevolence from them. It suggests a detachment from suffering parallel to what a Stoic seeks. Taoism is primarily concerned with ethical realities, or personal quietism.

The main drawback of a pragmatic ideal is that it is defensive and negative, cynical and weary, rather than positive and expansive. Pragmatism is the sign of a defeated people, people who have lowered their sights from high things to deal with every-day matters.

Noble as the Stoics were, they flourished in the day when the ideals they sought to articulate were dying out, as a matter of common culture, from Rome. The Imperium was sweeping away the remnant of the old, fierce Republican culture and its old, hard virtues. The Pagan religion was not answering the spiritual needs of the people. The boundaries no longer expanding; no new lands were becoming Roman.

It is an interesting historical observation to note that Epicureanism has never been the main cultural myth of any society. Ayn Rand’s libertarianism might be a perfect philosophy for an expanding, industrialized version of America, in some parallel timeline where America was not founded by Pilgrims seeking religious liberty, and not peopled by men with families who want to pass along their way of life, their culture, intact to their children. But, as a matter of fact, while Randianism has many points in common with the Enlightenment philosophy of the Founding Fathers, it falls short. It is too stunted a code to fill the buckled shoes of those Founders, who saw human rights as naturally endowed by a Creator. The American Revolution was not in the name of Reason, as was the French Revolution, but also had roots in those deeper things, mythic realities, where pragmatic minds cannot reach. These are men who vowed their lives and fortunes and sacred honor to the proposition of liberty. That is not something an Epicurean, for whom nothing is sacred, can articulate a clear reason to do. A Randian can swear by his life and his love for it; but on what grounds can he swear by something bigger than one man’s life?

A pragmatic ideal is useful for preserving a man, or a culture, from further philosophical degeneration; but pragmatism does not have within it a spirit of new growth. The ultimate purpose of things is unknown. No goal larger than life can be aimed at.

Too often, it seems, pragmatism slips into cynicism, and even the every-day, practical matters allegedly easily handled by these hard-headed thinkers, are answered with increasingly impractical and unreasonable responses. Here we stumble into the third category of ideal.

A corrupt ideal is one where the link between the mind and reality has been completely severed. In the same way pragmatism is the resignation that certain ultimate realities are beyond human knowledge, corruption is the resignation that every-day things are beyond human knowledge; whereupon simple standards of decency and indecency, right and wrong, good and bad, all fall by the wayside.

A corrupt ideal is one that sees no grounds for right and wrong in life, and refers to all of life as a power struggle between implacable contending powers, men, historical forces, nations, groups, races or genes: an endless war with no peace treaty possible. 

An example of a corrupt religion— perhaps the most corrupt in history— is that of the Aztecs. Their gods roared for human blood, and failure to provide the slaughter of men, women and children in ever-increasing numbers would darken the sun and destroy the universe. The Aztec could not live in peace with his neighbors, because the Aztec gods did not demand worshippers or even slaves, but victims. Far better to be conquered by raging Paynim, who can be placated by conversion to his religion, or payment of the tithes of submission.

Of corrupt philosophies, the modern age has produced them in more number and abundance than healthy philosophies, so much so that the words “modern philosophy” can almost be taken as a synonym for the resignation of reason in all things.

The result of a corrupt philosophy is not a timid pessimism, as you might expect. No; the result of a corrupt philosophy is a loud, thunderous, furious crusade to destroy every pillar of decency and virtue supporting the common roof of our shared intellectual universe. The know-nothings are not content to retreat from the world stage in peace, admitting they know nothing; they wish to drive from the public eye anyone who claims to know anything. The moralist, the philosopher, the theologian, the economist, anyone who makes a positive claim that man is more than machine, more than animal, and under a unique burden to live up to the natural moral law that reason reveals to him— these are the enemies of the modernist.

One of the more entertaining, and shocking, moments in my life was watching a public debate during which attorney Alan Dershowitz (he of the O.J. Simpson fame) made the point that no one knows right from wrong, true from false… and he bellowed this bromide into the audience, pink-faced with ear-quivering rage, eyes blazing, in tones of ringing and magisterial, nay, godlike authority, each word like a clanging iron bell. There was no certainty in life, no final answers. That was final. That was certain.

The irony was apparently lost on this earnest little man, not to mention the logic of it.

Somewhere beneath all this storm and thunder, he was trying to make the point that, since we must all be agnostic on questions of personal morality, no one has the right to impose his beliefs one on another by enforcing a moral code at law.

Now, this is a classical piece of soothing modernist reasoning. Whatever cannot be proved scientifically, such as moral reasoning, should be set aside as agnostic, a matter about which reasonable people can differ (so goes the thought). Science has proven that morality cannot be proven, no more than the ultimate prime can be derived, or an angle trisected with ruler and compass! Therefore to insist on moral rules is unenlightened, and we all know that Thou Shalt Not Be Unenlightened is the Whole of the Law, Amen.

The irony of deducing a moral imperative from a posture of radical moral agnosticism is lost on the modern mind, which is entirely too sober and Germanic for its own good.

In any case, what starts as a perfectly reasonable plea for tolerance (Don’t lynch the Black Man! You do not know for certain that mixed marriages are morally wrong!) degenerates to moral retardation (How do I know cannibalism is wrong?) then to total moral paralysis (You come home and find your thirteen-year-old daughter in bed with her teacher, Mrs. Froomey. Join them? Why not?! How do I know incestohomolesbopoly-pedagogic paedophilia is wrong?).

The reason why I call it corrupt is that such radical unreason is not content to rest in the paralysis of skepticism. The logic of its position forces it, step by step, away from merely saying “science cannot prove morality” (or whatever silly variant of this axiom the particular modern dogma embraces) to a positive opposition to whatever is normal, either truth in language (witness Political Correctness) or respect for life (witness the Terri Schaivo affair) or respect for democracy (witness activist judges) or respect for law (witness the chic admiration paid to rioters, thugs, killers, Che) or respect for the family, or respect for the innocence of children, or respect as a concept in and of itself (witness simply everything in modern society). In the name of freedom, or in the name of nothing at all, everything good is dismissed by a corrupt ideal as an evil, and there is practically no evil, no sexual perversion, no act of theft or terror, no lie, which the new and modern and enlightened morality not merely excuses, but lauds. What we call evil, they call good.

Of course, one cannot run a brain, a household, or a civilization, on a corrupt idealism. The corruption can only exist for so long as there is a healthy idealism in the environment to feed from and strangle. It exists by virtue of its hypocrisies and shortcomings, its failure to live up to the logical result of it nihilistic culture-of-death axioms. It exists because grown-ups continue to go to work and pay the bills, and keep the wheels of industry in motion, the torch of civilization burning, feeding a culture increasingly infantile, and increasingly hostile to everything the grown-ups work to do.  

Once the remnants of pragmatic sense of duty, or idealistic sense of life, are dead in the public mind, nothing remains but a bitter gangland struggle over power, and a total and absolute devotion to falsehood that permeates every level of society: witness the Soviet Union from the Stalin days onward. 

Is it possible to reverse a civilization committed to a corrupt ideal, once the corruption has set in? I strongly doubt it. The battlefield here is all in the mind. Facts do not change people’s minds on a philosophical or religious level, which is the level we are talking about. The modern philosophy paralyzes the rational faculties like a snake’s gaze paralyzing a small bird.

Once one is convinced that reason is insufficient even to determine perfectly obvious things, nothing can convince reason to take up the dropped weapon of reason again. Convinced by what means? By reasoning? That is the very faculty modern thinking impeaches.

 The modern philosophy also unleashes the most powerful and selfish forces in the human psyche, such as the sexual impulse, or envy, or acquisitiveness, or self-righteousness, by granting a blanket indulgence to any act of selfishness and cruelty. In a world where there is no right and wrong, one can always criticize an act of self-command or self-sacrifice as inauthentic, or hypocritical, or oppressive; which therefore makes the opposite act of self-indulgence or selfishness a matter for admiration. Caine is being true to himself and his inner child by striking down Abel, who must have been a bit of a holier-than-thou prig anyway.  Lancelot is just being true to his inner romantic needs by gallivanting off with Guinevere. How dare Arthur oppress them by means of that patriarchic old-fashioned tabu called marriage?  

The combination of a captive reason and a sovereign appetite is impossible to beat. A generation of smug, self-satisfied spoiled brats raised by a generation of smug, self-satisfied spoiled brats, are not going to fall out of bed someday, and start talking like Marcus Aurelius or Cato of Utica, or reasoning like Jesuits.