The word “idealism” comes with an overly generous connotation. Most often, the word gets used to describe fresh and youthful points of view. No one ever refers to any negative belief system as “idealistic.”
What underlies the notion of idealism, however, does not naturally bend toward good or evil. The function of idealism can serve either path.
Idealism comes from one of history’s titans of philosophy, Plato. Plato expressed his ideals on the subject in “The Allegory of the Cave.” One begins one’s path toward enlightenment in the pit of a cave, with just enough light from flambeaux to see the forms of shadows reflected on the wall. Plato explains that most people see their reality here and never leave the pit of the cave.
In his philosophy, Plato outlines the notion that reality comes from within. If one can struggle to find their way up from the pit, toward the real and natural light of the Sun. Once one escapes the cave and enters an enlightened state, they can then become philosophers or other sorts of leaders.
Idealism, then, is the idea that one should create a reality in the mind, then work to change the world to fit it.
The problem with idealism at its most extreme point is that each member of the human race has their own unique vision of the way things ought to be. Some have more power than others to create their vision. Again readers may reflexively think of positive examples of idealism, but know this.
Adolf Hitler, Mao Tse Dong, and Josef Stalin were the 20th Century’s most successful idealists.
To make one’s vision come true in its purest forms, one must run over the ideals, rights, and lifestyles of a lot of other people. Plato’s Republic, which serves as a design for his ideal society, is ruled by philosophers. Philosopher kings, as he called them, work with subordinate soldiers and businessmen for defense and economic prosperity. So far, so good, but the evil is coming.
The evils emerge at the bottom of society. For idealists to have the freedom to think, Plato assigns a large class of slaves to prevent those at the top from having to endure manual labor or menial tasks. The more pure the idealism followed, the more individuals must surrender their rights and freedoms to make way for the Vision.
Aristotle, Plato’s most famous student, thought differently.
To Aristotle, the world represented all of reality. He studied science, politics, and a number of other subjects in more depth than most had before. To him, trying to impose one’s vision on the world and its people represented futility. He taught the philosophy of realism.
Realistic people accept the world as it is and conform their minds to fit it. They solve problems presented by the world with tried and true ways that worked in the past. Extreme realism would lead to endless cycles of the same, with no change expected or possible. It is not as potentially evil as idealism carried to extremes, but the staleness would have a negative effect.
Thomas Jefferson, as in many other fields of endeavor, showed us the way down the middle path.
During the 1780s, Jefferson worked on one of the early nation’s most pressing problems, what to do with the unorganized territories north and west of the Ohio River. Like most Americans prior to the 1820s, he believed that only landowners had enough stake in their country to be allowed to vote.
Jefferson also believed, however, that as many Americans should enjoy that right as possible. The Ohio Country gave him the solution. He developed a plan to allow almost any American with any money at all to purchase lands owned by the Articles of Confederation government north and west of the Ohio.
This infused much needed cash into the central government, but also followed plans to pay for the establishment of infrastructure in the West. The grid pattern visible on these lands and those of the Great Plains, visible from space, follow Jefferson’s vision.
Jefferson’s idealism worked because he grounded it in the political realism of the mid 1780s United States. A more pure idealist may have suggested simply overturning the property requirements, but that would have created divisions and not solutions.
Idealism does its most good when checked by, and grounded in, realistic assessments of people and situations.