Idealism burns

I stood in the class like William Yeats among school children, old and grey-headed among all that well-scrubbed freshness. I had been asked to come and speak.

It was a history class and the bright young men and women in their seats were talking about American government and the genius of the American constitution for providing practical compromises for knotty problems.

I was gratified by the intelligence and interest of the students, but what struck me the most was the palpable glow of their idealism. It radiated from their faces like heat; it broke my heart.

That sort of idealism — the concern for justice and fairness in the world, and the belief in the ability of government to ameliorate wrongs, and in the essential goodness of humankind — is essential to have at that age, just as it is essential to cast it off as you grow older.

It doesn’t take too much living to wear the luster off that kind of naïve idealism. The more you are exposed to the world, the more cynicism seems like a measured response. Certainly the self-righteousness of both sides in the current presidential debacle draws from the world-weary a sigh of recognition.

Yet, it isn’t just experience that sandpapers away that shine from their faces.

As they get older, they will come — if they have brains — to mistrust that idealism for other reasons, too.

For idealism in adults is a dangerous thing. It leads to a great deal of blood and human suffering. It is Robespierre ordering those who did not measure up, to the guillotine and it is Robespierre in the tumbrel himself.

When people are motivated by ideas rather than things, by their idea of how the world should be instead of how it is, they do reprehensible things.

In fact, most of the misery humankind has inflicted on itself, from slavery through the Inquisition were driven by ideals. McCarthyism — though not Joe McCarthy — was idealism in action. Jingoistic nationalism, colonial imperialism, wars and starvation have been fueled by self-righteous idealism.

There has been no segment of the American population so idealistic as the Southern White slaveholder. Read what they wrote: They were proud of their idealism and their civilization. They really and truly thought of themselves as good, moral people.

Let us not forget that both sides in the abortion debate are driven by ideals.

The acrimony is intense, and compromise is impossible. It always is with committed idealists.

And let us not forget that Hitler was an idealist. It may be odd to think of him that way, but that is what drove him: wretched, perverted and seriously misinformed ideals.

Any thoughtful, observant adult must be suspicious of idealism carried into adulthood.

I am reminded of Jons, the squire, in Ingmar Bergman’s film, “The Seventh Seal,” who comes back to Europe with his knight from the crusades, having wasted 20 years of their lives.

“The crusades were so stupid and wasteful, only an idealist could have invented it,” he says.

Yet, my heart breaks when I see such students, because it is my own idealism I mourn for. Without ideals, you no longer have anything to strive for. You give up. That is not good.

Ultimately, you have to come to a compromise, just like our founding fathers.

Idealism turned outward upon the world is a horror. It must be blocked by reasonable people if we are to avoid throwing people into dungeons, chopping their heads off or gassing them.

But idealism turned inwards on ourselves — forgetting the world, but holding ourselves to the highest possible standards — is as necessary as air. Anything less is an abdication.

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