Idealism and Spirituality

What is the functional difference between an idealist and someone who is not an idealist?
By: Ira Allen

Introductory Questions
Who is an idealist? One who pursues an ideal? Are all people idealists, to some degree? Who sets the ideals that are pursued? Is the degree of intensity with which the ideal is pursued what separates an idealist from a non-idealist? Let us say, for the moment that an idealist is one who pursues his ideals with a high degree of intensity. In this case, idealism may be a dangerous thing, but may also be necessary for changes. Which brings us to a difficult question: Is the conscious engineering of changes of great moments desirable? And another question: If all people pursue some ideals (regardless of who defines the ideals in question) with a degree of intensity that might be characterized as something beyond simple presence, does the term 'idealist' retain any meaning? And finally: What are the similarities between an idealist and the spiritual?

Some Difficulties with Idealism
Let us begin by noting that some people, of varying dispositions, develop concepts of the ideals, of the most favorable state imaginable, and that they try to realize these conceptions in the world in which they live and interact with other beings. This set-up, first of all, underscores the provisionality inherent to idealism. There is no unifying ideal possible by this definition, since the state imagined as "most favorable" will vary widely from individual to individual. In the most extreme case, one man's ideal might be a pure white race, an idea quite rightly condemned by the majority of world population. On the other side of the fence, the ideal of some sort of spiritual communion with a Higher Power, held by a vast majority of human beings, is scorned by a few as completely unnecessary.

The moral values of one culture tend to differ from those of other cultures, and the question of whether certain universal values exist, remains unanswered. In addition, even if a universal ideal should exist, it is surely imagined differently from person to person, as may be seen in differing attitudes among persons of similar political persuasions, even between areas as culturally similar (relatively speaking) as the United States and Western Europe, towards the implementation of values such as social justice. This wide variety of approaches of implementation does not prove the nonexistence of an ideal, but it does cast a doubt on the assertion of any individual or group to have a model of idealism that is valid for all human beings.

Why Study Idealism?
The dubiousness of an ideal itself might seem to render further inquiry into the nature of idealism unimportant, given that it must be no more than imagination. Two points mitigate against so easily casting the question aside. First, we have, as stated above, not proven the nonexistence of the ideal, and it may thus prove worthwhile to investigate the behavior and nature of those who act on the belief that they are acquainted with universally valid ideals, as they could be right. Second, the fact that idealists may be wrong does not change the importance of their behavior in the course of history, nor does it render an examination of their approach to reality less necessary. In fact, if they are wrong, the thinking and behavior of idealists needs to be understood, so that we may minimize or prevent altogether the harm that may result from their activities.

Harm? I hear some readers asking. Harm? But what about Jesus? Buddha? Gandhi? Mother Theresa? Idealists, all. On what grounds should we assert the harmfulness of idealism? First, as we shall discuss, it is not certain that all the above-mentioned personages should be considered idealists, by our conception, as their focus seems in many cases to have been on the individuals with whom they interacted, rather than on the principles or ideals. Second, it may be shown that harm results from the actions of all four, especially those whom we might classify as idealists, and that the degree of harm in each case corresponds to the degree of idealism informing their activities.