Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Limits of Idealism

In my British literature class today, we were discussing Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, in which Carlyle, who lost his faith in the Calvinist religion he was raised in, conservatively argues that the forms of Christianity (in particular, the idea of duty) have value in structuring culture, even in an age of doubt and skepticism.

Several students raised the issue of religion and meaninglessness and morals, arguing that without a belief in God there can be no morals because life then has no meaning.

Carlyle’s point, though, is that work and action have meaning even without a fundamental faith in myths of origins and without a clear view of the future towards which one is supposedly working. His stance is that doubt is better than faith when doubt works in the interest of a genuine love of truth and faith provides only a pleasant fantasy in which one cocoons oneself from the harshness and indifference of history and the cosmos.

People who say that they need belief in God because existence would be too terrifying without it are, at heart, pleasure-seekers—even worse, as Carlyle implies, because they are pleasure-seekers willing to sacrifice truth on the altar of comfortable illusion.

To act, for Carlyle, is better than to believe. Some students objected though that moral action has no merit apart from a belief in a God who judges those actions. I pointed out that the Greeks developed a sophisticated moral sense based on the needs of society, quite apart from their gods, who, as forces of nature, acted any way but morally.

One student objected, stating that this precisely was her problem with “secular philosophers”: they argued about morality—what made a man or a republic good—but failed to find a center or reason for moral behavior. And therefore each successive philosopher debunks the findings of his predecessor, and we are then left with a belief in nothing.

I pointed out that religion did not solve this problem any better—because just as philosophers cannot agree on their conception of the Good, theologians cannot agree on their conception of God—and, further, a 21st century Christian’s concept of God is markedly different from a 19th century Christian’s concept.

At bottom, there is a problem with idealism, I think. The purity of concept that idealism demands is incompatible with taking action, because no real action can embody an ideal. Our choices are then to preserve moral ideals—encase them, codify them, study and defend them—or to act on them.

Simply to preserve principles of morality is a form of idolatry, one that does nothing to ensure that culture grows and flourishes. Its focus is entirely purity of form, and that purity must never be sullied by crass action—such morality has limitless capabilities, but no duty to act.

To act morally, though, means to rub shoulders with the realities of life at a particular time, under particular circumstances, and in the process almost certainly to watch as that morality mutates or evolves into something altogether different. But it is the latter morality, not pure and not ideal, and constantly mutating, that has the force to push culture forward—whereas the rarefied ideal morality is decadent, self-absorbed, and impractical.

Surely, then, it is better to pursue goodness in one’s actions—even at the risk of making mistakes, perhaps even in unintentionally doing harm (and here it’s useful to remember that Carlyle hated utilitarianism, which argues that ends justify means, regardless of intentions—and judges results in terms of statistical norms)—than to define and defend a pristine goodness that is impossible to perform.

Though I can’t say that I buy into all of Carlyle’s ideas—and hardly any of his Tory politics or love of duty for duty’s sake—I think he’s on to something here. Certainly the problem with the great ideologies—Christianity, for instance, or, for that matter, liberalism or conservatism—is that they are prone to self-absorption, endlessly refining themselves and polishing themselves up to the point that they cannot be touched, much less performed.

We cannot reduce morality to a set of rules without destroying the dynamic power of morality. Likewise, we cannot simply believe in moral precepts and believe that that belief, without works, without action, without performance, is enough. And we cannot so spiritualize or intellectualize morality that it loses touch with ordinary human existence—or fails to address real human problems, such as hunger, homelessness, panic, and despair.

An inflexible idealism, though awe-inspiring to look at, never gets its hands dirty. In effect, in reality, all it can do is criticize and destroy. Nothing, in fact, that leaves a grimy footprint can ever measure up to its pure ideals.

And, as Carlyle puts it, the gulf between capability and performance is immense. Moral and political ideologues work best when they have no power whatsoever—but display a sense of vast though untested capability. Then they can stand on the sidelines and shine superiorly.

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