A couple of my books touch on this question. We’re faced with this any time there are proposals to rejuvenate society—is anything really able to be done? How much is realistic? Moreover, how do my proposals fit into this scheme—possibility or pipedream?
I’ve always been a world-changer, in the sense that I observed what was around me, found it wanting and tried to do something about it. By the time I got to high school, I was sure there was something special about this, and it wasn’t until I started reading history that I realized that it’s a common theme and has been since the beginning. My feeling was decidedly different from others, then, but not really special.
Okay, having such a world-changing perspective from an early age naturally leads one to the question: if there’s something wrong with the way we do things—to put it simply—what’s a better way? It’s one thing to wring one’s hands over the state of the world but quite another to come up with solutions. Yet history shows no lack of ideas on the subject. Plato wanted a philosopher-king to lead us; Jesus said to honor the Father by loving His children; Jeanne d’Arc believed in the force of arms divinely sanctioned; Luther, defiance of religious hypocrisy; Jefferson, a free and independent mind; Marx, to strip the rich of their power over others; Gandhi, change the system through non-compliance; ML King, mass mobilization. These are just a bare handful of the many.
Certainly all of these ideas must have seemed quixotic when first introduced. Idealistic or not, each of these world-changing themes contributed in some way to the expansion of human horizons, more in a collective sense than the success of any one individual—because when you look around, none of them were that successful in achieving their ultimate purpose. We’re still a troubled race and I think no happier (though we have far greater possibilities) than the Greeks were during Plato’s time. So what’s the problem?
All along we’ve been trying to organize basic human interaction—and by extension, all of society—in a way that’s just, while our biology inclines us to do what’s expedient. That is, we want a fair society but the actual result is that the strong (or just plain ruthless) end up getting what they want. Pushed by the same urge, the rest of us fight to become strong or, if unable to do so, condemn the injustice of the world on the one hand and try to tear down (or glorify) those who succeed in the arena on the other. This is an essential part of what we call the human predicament. Just how are we supposed to “love thy neighbor” under these conditions? Yet that’s a prerequisite for any kind of decent society.
So how are we to solve this dilemma? Today we seem to be presented with two fundamental approaches, one spiritual and one humanistic. It won’t hurt to look briefly at each, if I can beg your indulgence for a moment.
First, the spiritual. The problem with thinking we live in a divine world and need only align our thinking and behavior with divinity (“the divine plan”) in order to have a just and fulfilling society is that it fails to adequately take into account our innate biological substructure. This is the fundamental flaw of Christianity—turn the other cheek is its essence—because it doesn’t give full credit to the intrinsic animality and demand for survival of humans. Because of its inability to translate turning the cheek into something actually workable, it’s been largely unsuccessful in bringing fulfillment or even peace to the world. (This is not to deny its extraordinary value, however; even if the bar was set unrealistically high, it is an ideal worth striving for.) Likewise other religious traditions, to the degree that they present a heavenly plan that we ought just live up to.
On the other hand, humanists who take a worldly or evolutionary approach may be to one degree or another unappreciative of the spiritual dimension of life and thus neglect all the possibilities found in that. This is why Marxism (some think humanism at its best) failed so disastrously on the world stage—a purely material solution to human problems led to an inevitable devaluation of the person (“man has no divinity”) and ultimately permitted the sort of mass slaughter and persecution we saw with Stalin and many lesser Marxist dictators. (Religion has permitted this too, mind you.)
What do I see as the solution? I can’t say in twenty words or less because I’ve written entire books about it and can’t do it justice here. But I can at least state a principle: we’ve got to understand and satisfy both the animal and the divine in us if we’re ever to create the kind of environment where human fulfillment is possible. Most of my later writing is about how we might go about this. And I think for this very reason, my work is potentially unpalatable to some—I may lose the humanists when I talk about “spirituality” and lose the spiritualists (in the broader sense) when I root around too much in biology. (Moreover, spirituality need not always be conceived of as being theistic, so I may lose yet another band of readers with that assumption.) Each group may feel justified in saying, “He’s not one of us.” Be that as it may, either camp alone—humanists or spiritualists—is doomed to failure because it perceives only half a human. To become whole and to create the sort of society where we can function as complete human beings, we have to understand and respect the entirety of our nature.
Let me return to my original question: am I a realist or an idealist? A realist, obviously. Why do I say that? For one thing, it seems idealistic to think that somehow our problems will be solved by “fine-tuning” the system we live with today. Some really do think that politics is the solution and that either Republicans or Democrats (as they are now) have answers that will bring us out of our malaise. If only that were so! Anyone who believes that “more of the same, only doing it a little better” will solve anything is being idealistic. Get real!
I’m saying that only a fuller understanding (and integration) of what some might call our “higher” and “lower” natures will lead us in the direction of something better for ourselves, because it’s the only realistic approach. It’s realistic because it’s based on the reality of the human being. To say that we’ve got to “get back to spirituality” alone or that we have to further “rationalize” and “humanize” our schools, economic system and the other institutions we live by is to see only half the problem. It’s only when we see the human being in totality that we have any chance for success. Anything else is idealism.