Realist or Idealist? Part II

Most of the prophets and reformers in history were no doubt considered idealists by their contemporaries, and they probably were. For one thing, it’s not realistic to think that one individual might create a way of thought and belief for the entire world. (Remember Sartre saying that as a person thinks and does, he is in effect setting the standard for all humanity? Inspired individuals not only do that, but make a vocation of broadcasting it.) Secondly, these individuals typically set the bar so high that it’s idealistic to think that the majority (or even a large minority) could ever measure up.

To reiterate a case in point: Jesus of Nazareth. Though I probably admire him above all, he envisioned a supra-biological ideal. And although he virtually achieved that ideal himself—making an exemplary “son of God” (as conceived by Paul)—it’s just too difficult an act to follow. One only has to look around to see evidence of this. I think that’s the main reason he’s worshipped rather than emulated. It’s simply easier. Closer to home, Thomas Jefferson was a man who also set his standards so high that it seems we’ll never be able to live up to them. That’s why we’ve (unknowingly) taken after Alexander Hamilton, the Republic’s unabashed materialist, instead. His way of living seems so much more accessible than Jefferson’s. The movement in Texas to remove Jefferson from the American pantheon demonstrates this, I think—to some people today, he doesn’t even seem quite American. If his ideals were as achievable as Hamilton’s, maybe this wouldn’t be so.

Prophets and reformers are idealists, then, though I don’t presume to say that two examples make my case. But I think any thoughtful reading of history will show that whenever someone proposes a better way that people consider improbable at the time—could this be the majority of cases?—they are pointing toward an ideal and must be considered idealists. There’s nothing wrong with that! Even if the aim seems unachievable, at least we’re pointed in a positive direction. Let’s face it—humanity really doesn’t know where it’s going and needs these signposts along the way.

Shall we go back to the question posed in the title of the post? Am I a realist or an idealist? I answered “realist” in the previous post, but I can just as easily say “idealist” now. Am I contradicting myself? Or is it possible to be a realist and an idealist at the same time?

It’s entirely conceivable that one can be both. I’ve based my life’s work on an ideal: a fulfilled human being, living more or less in harmony with other fulfilled human beings—or at least working toward it—and yet I’ve based this ideal on a lifelong and realistic appraisal of what a human being actually is and thus might be able to achieve. Call me a realist, then—I’ll concede. Call me an idealist—I’ll concede. And I don’t see any contradiction in that.

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