Maybe the departure of ideals from our lives is all to the good. Surely ideals are dangerous: those who commit their lives to ideals sometimes find untimely ends; they can die violent deaths. When they do survive they often do so in poverty and neglect. And perhaps what the past called ideals are substantially based upon illusions. Perhaps there are no authentic ideals, only idealizations. Maybe the quest for perfection in thought, in art, in war, and in the exercise of loving-kindness only leads to trouble. It’s possible that ideals are what Freud (all the time) and Nietzsche (most of the time) said they are: sources of delusion. But then again, maybe they are not. Three common ideals are often; the warrior (the hero), the saint and the thinker. Virtually no child dreams of being an accountant, an insurance salesman, or even a CEO. Children dream of courage and goodness— and so, in some regions of their spirits, do many adults.
Young people have been born into a world where the most pinched version of middle- class values— success, prosperity, safety, health— seems to stand supreme. Some have never encountered alternatives, except in misplaced or disguised form. Every man and woman should have the chance to ponder the question of the ideal. The first ideal that arises in the West, as it does in most cultures, is the heroic ideal. There are two main versions of the Western hero, and we owe them both to Homer. One version is embodied by Achilles, the other by Hector. Achilles, the protagonist of The Iliad,is the warrior who seeks the first place; he yearns to be recognized as the best of the Greeks. He is beyond fear. Achilles does not wish to live forever on earth or in some agreeable afterlife. Though he is the son of a goddess, he knows that he will someday die; and the afterlife according to the Greeks is a gray and dismal state. Homer’s Achilles wants to attain eternal life in the minds and hearts of other men, warriors in particular.
What is better: a short heroic life that brings glory or a long peaceful existence full of humane contentment? For the majority of people living in the civilized West, this is not a difficult question; it is barely a question at all. They seek wealth and longevity. They want to be respected by their neighbors and be secure— and they want the same for their children. They live within the borders of Self. Self can be greedy and grasping, though it can also be civilized and highly responsible. (There are more and less enlightened forms of Selfhood.) Yet ultimately Self puts its own interests first. Health and money, an occupation, a place in the world, success: these are the goals Self establishes and pursues. Self exists within the sphere of its own desires. Even in its most expansive moments, Self has a difficult time imagining that there could be other ways to live, other States.
What Achilles valued and what he achieved would be immediately comprehensible to the Viking warriors, to the Mongol horse men, to the Samurai, and to the fighters in pre- Columbian Mexico and Central America, the Inca and the Aztec. The nobleman fighting from his chariot in Confucian China is a cousin of Achilles. The Sioux warrior, the Maori, and the Zulu would have no trou ble comprehending the vision of the Homeric poem. One is tempted to think that there is something intrinsic to human beings that loves courage and beauty and that can only turn away from that love with great effort.
But now the ideals of Achilles and similar heroes are fading from us. Self has no time for them. Now one wishes to live as long as possible and as well as possible, which is to say as richly and securely as one can. One wants to be diverted and entertained. One wishes above all to be happy. (Warriors do not care very much for happiness— they care for glory.) One has one’s pleasures for the day and pleasures for the night, but health is always paramount. Heroes (like saints, like true thinkers) have no deep concern with wealth. Treasure to them is tantamount to trash, except as it testifies to their preeminence. They receive it as tribute; they give it away to others as a form of largesse and recognition. But material wealth does not mean very much to true warriors. They live for other goals.
Health and wealth used to be means to an end. Health let the warrior enter the battle at the peak of his powers. Wealth made certain that he was well armed and provisioned. To have the material necessities of life and to possess physical well- being put one in a position to do remarkable deeds. Now health and wealth have become ends in themselves. One lives to obstain treasures. One lives— what does one live for? One lives to go on comfortably living. The idea of consecrating oneself to some great task is now patently absurd to many. The goals of the Self are not in themselves ridiculous. One must sustain life, at least for a while. One must eat.
But when the Self ’s priorities become the only priorities known to men and women we risk growing absurd. We invest the acts of staying alive and staying healthy, of eating good food and getting the right kind of exercise, with a level of meaning they will not sustain. One wants to live forever! What for— what will the goal of such a life be? The goal of living forever is exactly that—to live forever. But what is worth doing in such a life no one any longer can tell you. “One still works,” says Nietzsche, “for work is a form of entertainment. But one is careful lest the entertainment be too harrowing” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 18).
When the goals of the Self are the only goals a culture makes available, spirited men and women will address them with the energy that they would have applied to the aspirations of the Soul. The result is lives that are massively frustrating and not a little ridiculous. People become heroically dedicated to middle- class ends— getting a promotion, getting a raise, taking immeasurably interesting vacations, getting their children into the right colleges, finding the best retirement spot, fattening their portfolios. Lives without courage, contemplation, compassion, and imagination are lives sapped of significant meaning. In such lives, the Self cannot transcend itself. But the Self seems to hunger for such transcendence. There is an allure to the states of the Soul. How do we now deal with it? Culture throws up an array of what we might call substitute satisfactions. Culture, we might even speculate, may be dominated by the fabrication of Soul. We will not go to war, no not us. But we will play war in our video games; we will watch it on the screens— large, small, and microscopic. We’ll become obsessed with sports, a safe simulacrum of war. We will read about heroism, imagine it, pine for it. We will dream of Hector and Achilles but fear the dream.
Compassion is the core of Jesus’ ministry. Compassion is the new ideal, the good news that Jesus brings, displacing the ethos of justice that dominates the Hebrew Bible. Love your neighbor as yourself. Who is my neighbor? the lawyer asks Jesus. Jesus answers with a story. A man is beaten and robbed and left in a ditch. Members of his own group pass him by, leaving him to suffer. But a Samaritan comes along, and he lifts the poor man from the side of the road. He binds the man’s wounds and mounts him on his own beast. He takes the suff ering man to an inn and pays his bill and says that he will return to visit the wounded man and also to settle accounts. Then the Savior’s question: Which of these was a neighbor to the unfortunate man? Every man is my neighbor. Every woman is my neighbor. This is the central teaching of Jesus. Jesus came to deliver the gospel, which means the good news. What is this good news? It is, to speak very broadly, that the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Or, to put it more provocatively (and probably with more accuracy): the kingdom of heaven is Now. And what is this kingdom of heaven? It is life free from the Self. Time and again, Jesus comes forward to save us from ourselves and teach us to live in heaven. Now.
The Buddhist sense of time is radical. Gautama teaches that all stability— except perhaps for the apparent stability of the noble truths and the divine path—is illusory. Nothing abides; everything passes. Human beings impose stability—or seek to—to obscure what inevitably awaits. The world of human culture teems with illusions. Love is an illusion, family is an illusion, friendship, the same. Or as Heraclitus once said ”The Only Constant Is Change” .
The hero and the saint wander the earth. They go not where they wish to go, but where they are needed. Achilles and his descendants go to war all over the globe; Jesus and his true followers visit the suffering men and women, who need the gospel of compassion, wherever they may be. The heart can become full only when one separates oneself from one’s origins and turns in the direction of the ideal. Neither the hero nor the saint cares much for material wealth. The hero is happy to amass treasure, but the treasure he collects is chiefly a signifier. It tells the world about his achievements. Each piece of trea sure he owns has a story attached to it. He knows where he won such and such a sword, who gave him this gold cup for brave deeds. He also delights in distributing what he owns. Achilles, presiding over the funeral games for Patroclus, takes pleasure in the god- like activity of deciding who will compete, who wins and loses, and who gets the prize— which he also delights in presenting. Pieces of treasure are signifiers, tokens of glory.
The hero may in time return to a comfortable home— but the pleasures of home matter little to him. Like Tennyson’s Ulysses, he cannot stay still. So he is off again looking for adventure, looking for trouble, even though he is old. Soon he will be journeying again, seeking adventure, seeking immortal deeds.
The saint lives—or tries to live— beyond desire. The saint lives for hope. For the individual who lives in the Self, desire is all determining. He wants certain precise and particular objects. His life is determined by wants. He could almost write his autobiography based on his desire for this or that object and his success (or failure) in at-taining it. He wanted a better house, he wanted a swimming pool, a second car was needful— and lo, the event came, and he had what he wished. But the having was as nothing.
Does the saint not also desire? Doesn’t he desire sainthood? Not quite. He aspires to ideals, which cannot be possessed in the way that a car, a house, or a lover can be. He wants to embody a set of values and live by them moment to moment. He does not want the happiness that acquisition can bring—if it can. He wants the joy that comes from committing to an ideal. And he recognizes that such joy is dangerous— neither Achilles nor Jesus, nor legions of other warriors and saints, stayed alive very long. The man or woman committed to ideals doesn’t live for desirebut for hope. The idealist hopes for joy and presence and unity, not only for himself but for others. A generous impulse lies behind aspiration to the ideal: that much is palpable in Jesus, the Buddha, Confucius, and Hector. Achilles is a more complex case. He does not always seem to care about anyone except himself. But when the dangerous war comes, people look to the descendants of Achilles to carry the fight to the enemy. Achilles is not always beloved, but he is needed, and often desperately, by others.
Culture now largely is the counterfeiting and sale of courage, contemplation, and imagination. The denizen of the contemporary consumer utopia can buy himself a violent video game or howl with warrior joy when his football team wins. He can believe that information is wisdom. He can believe that true insights about the human condition infuse the news reports of the day. He can imagine that the racket of a garage band or the meanderings of a fulminating rapper are art. But compassion is more difficult to counterfeit. Churches preach compassion. But many, if not most, are outright in their worship of Mammon. The fund drive never ceases; the minister is hot with the belief that the lord shows favor by the dispensing of goods. (“Christianity has completely conquered,” says Kierkegaard, “that is, it is abolished.”) The church that still claims to care for the poor— and sometimes actually does—is ridden into horrible absurdity by scandal. Jesus may have achieved a great deal by maintaining the conjunction of the Old Testament and the New— but he left potentially intact the worship of wealth and power that the older book sometimes endorses. He did not pull Mammon all the way down.
He talks to one fellow citizen after another, paying special attention to those who have a reputation for wisdom, or who take themselves to be wise. He questions them closely. He tries to find out what it is they know. And of course he is badly disappointed. Socrates is on the streets of Athens asking people how they define justice, freedom, love?
None of the Athenians he talks with can justify their ways of thinking. The poets cannot say anything of value about the meanings of their poems; the men of law have no real sense of where the laws come from and what makes them just or unjust; fathers have no clear idea of their duties to their children; merchants cannot say for certain what qualifi es as honesty and what does not. Of course Socrates cannot answer any of these difficult questions either, or so he indicates. But at least he knows that he cannot do so. Socrates is unsure what justice and Truth and beauty are, but he knows what it is he doesn’t know. Unlike Socrates, his fellow citizens believe that they know things that they do not—so they are constantly in a state of error. ) Socrates may be in a condition of ignorance, but he’s not ignorant and self- deluded.
The thinker is often a wanderer. He aspires literally or metaphorically to the un- housed condition. So marriage and family are potential poisons to him. In The Genealogy of Knowledge Nietzsche insists on the bachelor status of the true philosophers: Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Leibnitz, Kant, Schopenhauer. What about Socrates? The one philosopher whose life has become legendary was married to Xanthippe, who was shrewish and prone to temper tantrums. She supposedly flung a dish of urine at Socrates when he displeased her. Socrates married, Nietzsche says, as a sort of existential joke. It was a test of his more than human power to concentrate on what matters despite all the blockages the Self and the world of Selfhood could cast in front of him. “If I can bear Xanthippe,” he is reported to have said, “there is nothing that I cannot bear.”
The thinker wants to transform himself into something more pure and universal than he is. The body is a prison to him. He is enchained by his physical being, for the simple reason that a body is a congestion of needs and demands. Poverty, isolation, loneliness, popular contempt, and even (perhaps) danger: these can be the wages of the thinker. What could possibly compensate for such sorrows? What does the existence of the thinker deliver that makes the many obstacles worth facing? This is the question that Plato, Socrates’ pupil, sets out to answer. For Socrates has done only half the work of philosophy. He has shown the enormous flaws in the understanding of life that most men and women sustain.
He has cleared the ground. He has shown the enormous flaws in the understanding of life that most men and women sustain. But he has done little to replace error with Truth, doxa with enlightenment. Socrates has demonstrated how deep the human need is for positive enlightenment, but he has not provided the teachings. And it is this that Plato and all who have followed him have tried to do. For Plato, this life is all illusion, all a show. He understands that what most people live their lives for amounts to nothing: they do not possess the Truth; their two is not the real two; their three not the real three. He is able to look at all the prisoners locked into their seats and see how they suffer. It is to this point that Socrates arrived. He broke away from the chains that bound him, and by his questioning he understood the nature of the illusions that enchanted his fellows. And for this, naturally, they hated him.
Socrates lived a virtuous life, yes. But as his mind’s light expands, Plato asks what it would mean for everyone to live a virtuous life. He begins to wonder how he can give humanity a blueprint for creating a just world. For he understands that Socrates’ kind of good life is not for everybody; in fact, it may only be for the few, the philosophers. What about the rest of mankind— all those who are left down in the cave, wasting their lives like prisoners? What kind of life might they at their best have? To philosophize in the highest form is to think on behalf of everyone and then to off er them—as a gift, not as a form of coercion— a vision of how life can be truer to humanity’s best promise. The fruit of Plato’s encounter with a life outside the cave is The Republic.
Idealism in Art
We have all been told repeatedly how important it is to live in a world rich in creations of the human mind. The problem is that the Self does not like those creations much. Authentic art is always in some fundamental way Utopian. The true artist always begins in some version of protest. What is before us is not good enough. The world as given is not adequate to the needs of the Soul. True art always begins in rebellion against what is, in behalf of what might be. True art is what Matthew Arnold said it was: a criticism of life. But to us now, such a vision of art is not acceptable.
Still, there must be artists. A culture without art is a morally depraved culture. We all know this. So what is the solution? We will make everyone an artist, or at least everyone who half- wishes to be. Anyone who chants an agreeable song that is in tune with the overall music of Self may now be considered to have joined what Keats called “the immortal freemasonry of intellect.” Thug rappers who chant about power, pride, and acquisition are artists; a man with a pencil who can juggle words is a poet, despite the fact that he has nothing to say, only some semi- agreeable sounds to make; put anarchly conceived cartoon on a canvas, sell it to a millionaire, and you are a painter dangerous with subversive intent.
( People do not care what it is you have painted or how; they care what the painting sells for. We speak of a thirty- million- dollar Picasso— and forget the subject and title of the painting.) As long as you do not evoke the needs of anything higher than the Self, and you can proceed with some polish or some eloquence, then an artist is what you are. Congratulations. Anything that possibly can be called art is. Constantly we are pushing the boundaries of art in the interest of what seems to be an aesthetic populism. The latest noise from a suburban garage band? Art!
Much of what we are willing now to call art is inevitably fully compatible with the status quo. It does not really evince dissatisfaction with the way of the world. In our so- called art, the(purported) artist may express grief or sorrow, bemoan his own state, trouble deaf heaven with his cries and all the rest. But he does not indict the world and worldliness. He does not challenge the reign of Self. Anyone who has doubts about Self is understood to be pathetically naïve. We all know that Self is all there is. We all want status, money, and health. Anyone who seems not to desire these things is clearly dissimulating. He must be exposed for the fraud that he is. Or he is a total fool—so naïve as to be below one’s notice. Art is everywhere: art is omnipresent. Yet there is a problem. Almost none of it is art.
- This article is an excerpt from the book:
Self and Soul | A Defense of Ideals – Mark Edmundson