12 Jan The Triumph of Idealism | Inspirational Podcast
Podcast Transcript: Welcome to the Inspirational Living podcast, brought to you in part by Book of Zen, makers of wearable inspiration for a better world. Today’s podcast has been edited and adapted from the essay How to Fight the Battles of Life, By CARL HILTY, published in 1903…
MANY people in our day and age, even well-intentioned people, have lost their faith in idealism. They regard it as something we outgrow after college, and something of little use in later life. Theoretically, they say, idealism has much to commend it, but, practically, things turn out to be brutally material. These individuals thus divide life into two parts: one where we may indulge ourselves in high-minded theories and sentiments, and, indeed, are to be encouraged in them; and the other where we wake rudely from this dream and deal with reality as best we can.
This isn’t anything new. During the 1700s, the philosopher Immanuel Kant dealt with this common defeatist attitude. He showed that the familiar expression: “That may be well enough in theory, but does not work in practice” expressed an absurd contradiction unworthy of a thinking, moral person.
The logical realism of our day, however, is not concerned with theoretical propositions. It turns, on the contrary, to the hard fact of the struggle for existence, in which indifference to others and absolute self-interest are not only permissible, but, as one looks at the real conditions of life, seem more or less demanded.
These modern realists say: “The world we see about us is one where only a few can succeed and where many must fail. There are not enough good things for all.” The question is thus not whether such a state of things is right or just. On the contrary, we are supposed to accept that we live in a hard, unreasonable, unjust universe. And that it is useless for the individual to try to change it. Our only goal is to make certain that in such a universe we are the hammer, and not the nail.
Such is the essence of that worldly wisdom which many people hold today. With it disappears, of course, any need of moral or spiritual education. Such instruction in schools might as well be abandoned—and indeed most of it has been.
In our current society, young people are expected grow clever and practical, while being trained to get and to keep. They are free from every sentiment of honor which might be a hindrance in their path. Most of them lose their physical, intellectual, and moral vigor early in life, while older folks lament, perhaps too late, that their youth had been sacrificed to that which was not worth their seeking—their possessions having become the source of stress and unhappiness rather than comfort and joy.
So, let’s get back to idealism. What is this thing we have sacrificed for the sake of being (quote) “practical and reasonable?” Idealism, as I understand it, is a form of faith, an inward conviction. It is absolutely necessary for the permanence of the world; yet it never can be proved true, and indeed for those who have it, needs no proof.
Further, no one becomes an idealist by being taught about it or by reasoning concerning it. This is not so strange as it might seem, for the very trustworthiness of human reason is proved to us only by experience. That which has power must have reality. No other proof of reality is final. Even our senses could not convince us, if our experience (and the experience of all other people) did not assure us that we could, under normal conditions, trust them not to deceive.
That which brings conviction to you is your experience, and that which rouses in you the desire and commitment to believe in your own experience is the testimony of others who have had that experience themselves.
There is a short treatise, written by the German dramatist Friedrich Maximilian von Klinger (a friend of Goethe’s), which gives testimony to idealism in practical life. First of all, he says that if you hope to overcome the world, you should with all your might, without indirectness, or fear, or self-seeking, simply do what your conscience demands. You should, that is to say, be pure in mind and heart, so that none of your actions shall be stained by selfishness. Where justice and right dealing are called for, there must be in you no distinction of great or small, of significant or insignificant.
Secondly, for the protection of your own strength and actions, you must be free from the desire to shine, free from the shallowness of vanity and the restless search for fame and power. Most human follies proceed from the restlessness of selfish ambition. Ego-driven ambition demoralizes both those whom it masters and those through whom it accomplishes its ends. The boldest and most negative criticism does not wound so deeply as does the foolish longing for fame.
To all of this, we should add another point: while you may BE a reformer, you must cease all ambition to POSE as a reformer and from all signs of that desire. You must not enter into controversy about opinions with people who have nothing but opinions. You must speak of yourself only to yourself and think of yourself only within yourself.
It is important to note that von Klinger felt compelled to write these things down as the result of his stirring and often adventurous career in the real world, and as such his testimony is far more valuable than if it had issued from the office of a university philosopher or a theologian who has had slight contact with practical affairs.
True idealism is not the deceiving of oneself about reality, or the intentional ignoring of reality, or the hiding from reality, or the creating for oneself a world of unreality. Idealism, on the contrary, is reached by a deeper interpretation of the world, by victory over it, and especially by victory over oneself. For we, too, are an integral part of the world and we cannot conquer the whole unless, first of all, we conquer our own part of it, by strength of principles and force of habit.
Von Klinger also wrote that individuals of principle need not succeed. Success is necessary only to schemers. In other words, a genuine victory over the world is not to be achieved through that kind of success which society often labels success, and which for many people make the end of their efforts. Those who play this game of ambition may as well abandon the hope of peace of mind or of peace with others, and in most cases they must forfeit outright their self-respect.
Real success in life necessarily and repeatedly involves outward failure. Unbroken success is necessary only for cowards. Indeed, one may go further and say that the secret of the highest success in important affairs often lies in failure. Those who have most completely commanded the admiration of the world, and who are most conspicuous in history, are not those who have reached the goal of life through success alone.
Caesar and Napoleon would have been remembered only as examples of tyranny, if it had not been for Brutus, Waterloo, and St. Helena. The Maid of Orleans would be recalled as a masterful woman like many others had it not been for her martyrdom. Hannibal would be no noble example if Carthage had not been conquered.
The greatest example of all, the cross, the gallows of its time, became for all the world a sign of honor and self-sacrifice. Looking at Christianity in a wholly human and untheological way, one may believe that its success would not have been possible if the scholars and scribes of that day had actually welcomed it. Failures come with all right ways of living. Without it, life sinks into the rut of commonplace.
No ego-driven person ever reaches the end they most desire. And the most unfortunate among them are to be found among the educated. When they stand on the lower rung of the ladder which they wish to climb, they are consumed by the envy of those above them; and of all the emotions which degrade the soul, the most humiliating is envy. When, on the other hand, they have climbed to the top, then they are distressed by the constant fear of those who are climbing towards them, and whose thoughts and purposes they well know from their own experience.
If they seek safety by surrounding themselves with flatterers, then they are never safe from betrayal; for if they seem likely to fall, no one cares to catch them. If, finally, they close their ears to these disturbing voices within their hearts and give themselves to self-indulgence, then they lose the very qualities which are most essential to success. Beyond all of this, the chances of success among the ego-driven are slight. Not one in ten attains what they desire, and, even of those whom we call fortunate, few should be so reckoned at their death.
Still further, nothing is so exhausting as the pursuit of wealth, power, and fame. The passion which it develops is like a fever which burns away one’s vitality. Strong health, on the other hand, renews itself through self-forgetting work; and thrives on unselfish service done for worthy ends. Only in such service are other people sincerely inclined to help. Thus it happens that some people, though they work hard and never retire to sunny weather, still live to a robust old age.
Looking at people as individuals, their lives appear full of contrasts; but taking them all together, their lives are but a fad: much alike. One section of humanity, of high and of low estate, lives either consciously or unconsciously a merely animal life. Such persons simply follow the path which their physical nature indicates, fulfilling their little span of life, and knowing no other destiny.
Another group is forever seeking some escape from this unsatisfying end of life. Dante, in the first canto of his Divine Comedy, very beautifully describes these seekers of the better life. This search forms the spiritual experience of all great personalities. The first step in this way of life is taken when one becomes discontented with life as it is and longs for something better.
When one has come to this resolution, one experiences that inner happiness which is gained when one has found at last the way they ought to go. While you are now open to the influences of new spiritual forces, your life is only on the second step. A long conflict for supremacy between the old and the new person awaits you. Both people are still inside you, and your goal is to realize the “new man” or “new woman” and bring that person to fullness of life.
Many people who are striving for a better life come to this second step and stay there all their days; and this is the reason why so many lives which are rightly directed still give the impression of imperfection, and why they do not seem to contribute much (though often more than we think) to the ennobling of human relationships.
There remains the third step of spiritual growth, which, once fairly taken, leads to the complete expression of life. It is a stage of daily activity that is driven by our ideals and participation with all that is good and noble, rather than practicality and exclusive self-interest.
This way of life brings with it courage, and this courage manifests itself, not in feverish excitement, but in an outward habit of composure which testifies to inward and central stability. Such a life trusts its way and its destiny. Outward experiences and the judgments of others have no power to move it. Every battle makes it stronger. Every failure renews its strength. It is the transcendent goal of every life.
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