Friday, June 03, 2005

Column on Impossible Idealism

Ideals One Can't Practice

Tibor R. Machan

One very troublesome influence of the philosophy of Plato, one of three
very influential ancient Greek philosophers, is the popularity of
idealism. Of course, "idealism" is used to mean different things but his
version was widely interpreted as meaning: an impossibly perfect version
of something. So an ideal apple, for example, simply cannot exist in the
actual world, nor an ideal political system. (Less extreme versions of
idealism ask not for some kind of impossible dream but the best of what is

The bad influence of this version of Plato's idealism is evident in how
people so often depict what good people would be like, especially in
fiction. It is ironic--major Hollywood studios or New York publishing
houses give us stories in which the heroes, for example, routinely demean
making money and profit, only to earn big bucks from the sale of these
movies and books.

I was a fan of Rockford Files, the long running show staring James Garner
as a PI who lived in a trailer, parked near the Pacific shores by Los
Angeles. There were some pretty nifty aspects of this show but one always
irritated me: Rockford always made a point of losing money on his cases.
His clients could rarely pay him and he could rarely pay his associates,
including his attorney. And this was presented on the show as a virtuous
trait of the protagonist. At the same time, of course, the show itself was
making gobs of money for all those involved in its production, certainly
not excluding its star, James Garner.

William Lashner is a best selling author of legal thrillers and his
attorney is another of these heroes who keeps losing money hand over fist.
That's supposed be a part of what makes him heroic, while, of course, if
his books didn't bring in big bucks for HarperCollins Publishers, they
would not be published, at least not for long.

Then there are all those annoying actors, actresses, pop signers,
musicians, and other show folk who keep telling their TV talk show hosts
and fans everywhere how little they care about money, all the while raking
in tons of it from their gigs and letting their staff worry about
negotiating their percentages and salaries. How they get away with
pretending not to care about money while actually caring about it via
their highly paid delegates without being called on this beats me.

But, of course, these are just the more mundane versions of the bad
influence of reckless idealism. The notion that we must all strive to
achieve the impossible dream--in morality, politics, foreign affairs,
fitness training, and the rest--is far more serious and, indeed, quite
destructive. Out of this attitude, which places on us all demands that
cannot in principle be satisfied, arises a widespread attitude of cynicism
and defeatism for many people. Why bother trying if the chances of success
are hopeless?

Some answer this by saying that it is useful to have such impossible
goals because then people will keep on trying to do better and better.
Yes, if they are stupid. But if they have any brains at all, they will
abandon the task of doing well since they will quickly realize that it is
an impossible one. Unfortunately they usually haven't the time to figure
out that this entire scheme is a misguided one from the get go. So then
they will turn to pragmatism, the idea that all principles are useless.

Plato appears to have gotten the notion of the impossible ideal from his
admiration of geometry. In that discipline we do have notions of the
perfect circle, square, triangle, or straight line that simply cannot be
achieved in actual practice. They are mere models, kind of like those
beautiful people on the covers of Vogue or GQ. No one expects any actual
circles or squares to be perfect like those formally defined in geometry.
Unfortunately, even the models on the covers of these magazines can do
some harm by creating persistent frustration for people everywhere as they
strive but cannot ever achieve the looks depicted there.

If one could live a purely non-profit life, perhaps it would be a good
thing, although I doubt it--there is a good chance that this would lure us
into thinking that neither effort, nor, especially, budgeting, is required
for living successfully. But as the world actually is, these images are
highly misleading. Sadly, many people take them seriously, which is one
reason ordinary profit-seeking business people get such a bad press while
non-profits are admired.

Here it may be useful, ironically, to learn a lesson from Plato. He also
taught that the arts are a bad guide to truth. Maybe if we remembered
this, we would stop demanding of human beings that they live up to the
expectations projected via impossible dreams.

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