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Friday, July 28, 2017

Idealism–Idle Dreaming Or A Necessary Feature Of Morality?

Idealism has gotten a bad name since Plato whose carefully-constructed model of goodness has been the basis for Western moral thought for millennia.
Plato believed that the Forms were interrelated, and arranged in a hierarchy. The highest Form is the Form of the Good, which is the ultimate principle.Like the Sun in the Allegory of the Cave, the Good illuminates the other Forms. We can see that Justice, for example, is an aspect of Goodness. And again, we know that we have never seen, with our senses, any examples of perfect goodness, but we have seen plenty of particular examples which approximate goodness, and we recognize them as ‘good’ when we see them because of the way in which they correspond to our innate notion of the Form of the Good (Scandalon, Philosophy of Religion)
Classical idealism, a philosophical idea first conceived by Anaxagoras, refined by Plato, and reprised by Kant, Berkeley, Schopenhauer, Leibniz, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard was concerned with the nature of reality, the role of the observer, and the existence of higher planes of existence and morality.  The discussion was metaphysical as well as ethical.

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Idealism became more practical and immediate thanks to Hegel who postulated that ethical reason can and does go beyond ‘finite inclination’.  His philosophical idealism formed the basis for socialism and the idea of progress according to higher collective ideals.

Kierkegaard violently disagreed. "What is rational is actual; and what is actual is rational", he said.  Hegel's absolute idealism blurs the distinction between existence and thought. Our mortal nature places limits on our understanding of reality.
So-called systems have often been characterized and challenged in the assertion that they abrogate the distinction between good and evil, and destroy freedom. Perhaps one would express oneself quite as definitely, if one said that every such system fantastically dissipates the concept existence. ... Being an individual man is a thing that has been abolished, and every speculative philosopher confuses himself with humanity at large; whereby he becomes something infinitely great, and at the same time nothing at all.
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Robert Tucker, critic of Marx and Hegel, put it more succinctly:
"Hegelianism . . . is a religion of self-worship whose fundamental theme is given in Hegel's image of the man who aspires to be God himself, who demands 'something more, namely infinity.'" The picture Hegel presents is "a picture of a self-glorifying humanity striving compulsively, and at the end successfully, to rise to divinity." (Philosophy and Myth in Karl Marx)
Today idealism has little to do with either the academic disciplines of Plato and Kant and more characterized by a deliberate disassociation with reality, history, and discipline.  Idealism has come to mean belief before reason, and hope above all.  The world can be a better place, idealists say, with purpose, commitment, and zeal.  This conclusion is a radical departure from logically-arrived, rational induction; and can only be characterized as idle dreaming.

History has shown the folly of these ideas.  The world has had few periods of Pax Romana – itself not a product of noble ideals but temporary geopolitical hegemony – and every century has had its bloody wars, civil unrest, coups, insurrections, and violent revolutions.  One has only to look at the Twentieth Century to realize that if anything the world is staying the course of bloodshed, aggression, and territorialism.

The best example of Hegelian social idealism – Soviet Communism – despite 70 years of trying – failed completely, its noble ideals all but lost entirely in Stalinist autocracy, bureaucratic corruption, and violent intimidation.

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Nevertheless, American progressives continue to glean some seeds of renewal from the experience.  The ideas of Marx and Hegel, they say, are still valid, appropriate, and relevant; and the fall of the USSR came about not because of them but despite them.  Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot were common historical figures – innately powerful, canny, amoral, and intelligent and unconcerned with political philosophy and only interested in absolute power.  In other words, communism per se was not the culprit in the Soviet Union’s demise.

So what, then, can latter day idealists find in the rubble of the noble Soviet experiment? Communalism, social cooperation, government paternalism, equal distribution of wealth?

Again, one need only go back further in history to see how all of these ideas are examples of neo-idealism.  Individualism, individual enterprise, competition, and evolutionary territorialism have been the rule since the Paleolithic. Civil and public societies emerged out of family, clan, and tribal associations when and only when the served individual interests.

Once the authoritarian regimes of Eastern and Central Europe collapsed after the Berlin Wall, entrepreneurial activity which had been stifled for decades re-emerged with a dynamism seen only in the days of early 20th century America.  India and China, their economies long repressed by socialism, quickly became capitalist powerhouses once socialist policies and programs were dismantled.

Economics are not the be-all and end-all say progressives; and valid socialist assumptions about collective action for the collective good still apply in other spheres.  The fight against global warming, for example, can only be won if citizens give up their parochial interests and join a national movement to effect positive change.  The movements to reduce crime, equalize incomes, eradicate racism are equally socialistic in conception – only through collective action and the voluntary banking of individual enterprise for the good of the society at large can progress be made.

Yet these ambitions are similarly flawed in concept.  Once again history has shown that evolution (‘progress’) occurs through individual, social, and national competition.  Empires may come and go, but with them are always brought innovation, new ideas, and new social and institutional structures.  Weak regimes are compromised, beaten, or annihilated by the strong – a Darwinian culling – and evolutionary advantage is gained.

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Finally progressives rely on the concept of goodness.  Didn’t Jesus, his disciples, Paul, and the early Christian apologists place an a priori value on mercy, forgiveness, charity, and society?

Yes, in part; but the focus of all of the Gospels is on the application of such virtues within the newly-emerging Christian community.  Brotherhood, fraternity, charity, and goodwill were all deemed important to strengthen the solidarity of the new church which during the first centuries of its existence was put upon by all sides.  The  New Testament, for all its homilies and moral lessons, is still very much a book about political cohesion and expansion.

In other words, the Biblical nostrums often cited by religious progressives to validate their secular ambitions, are little more than that – idealistic prescriptions designed first to help expand the Church, and second to maintain civil order. 

Dostoevsky was exactly right when he wrote (through the words of Ivan Karamazov) that the best way to maintain civil order was through the establishment of the Church as supreme authority and the state subsumed within it – not the other way around.

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Political conservatives have spared themselves this intellectual angst for they have concluded that human nature – essentially self-serving, aggressive, territorial, and fierce – has not changed since the Stone Age; and the same ambitions, desires, and fears that have motivated human beings throughout human history drive current events.   Such history has been defined by the clash of competing interests, and the world has evolved because of them.  If there is to be any change – positive, negative, or neutral – in the world, it will come in similar fashion.

Idealism is a hearty flower and will not die easily.  Every generation seems to grow a pretty patch, nurture them but watch them die, and plant more in their place, only to repeat the discouraging cycle.
Perhaps idealism, despite the distortion of its original ideas, serves a useful purpose.  Although ideals may never be achieved, without them we would always have our noses to the grindstone without ever looking up.  Perhaps.

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