Idealism and ideals
A couple of weeks ago I went to see a play in Brighton Festival. I was invited by a friend and had no idea what it was about; I knew only its name: ‘And The Horse You Rode In on’. It turned out to be a fascinating mix of physical theatre, improvisation and scripted scenes, that was both funny and philosophical at the same time (this was produced by the theatre group: ‘Told by an Idiot’).
The play moved back and forward in time exploring how philosophy and ideals drives people to violent acts; enlightenment by demonstration being the recurring theme of the play. From the French Revolution to Communism, to Bader Meinhof, the play explored how philosophical ideals held tightly to their logical extremes, can justify violence.
History is filled with such philosophical movements, and the underlying belief, that as George W. Bush put it, “You’re either with us, or against us.” Religions, political movements, philosophies have all delivered such justification over the ages (from the Crusades to Communism and beyond), and it’s so easy to get into simple absolutist conflicts.
It’s a salient challenge to us all. We all have our favoured philosophies, political and spiritual beliefs. I know from feedback I have received that I can be definitive at times, at the very least in the statement of what I believe in my work, if not in the belief itself.
Our beliefs offer us (my beliefs offer me), some sense of clarity in the ambiguity of life. I remember meeting someone a few years ago, whose core talent appeared to be the ability to deconstruct and critique any belief or argument. I remember in conversation with him arriving in a place of being completely at sea – how do I know how to take action in the world now that all that I believe has been deconstructed? I disliked the conversation intensely!
And yet, unpleasant as it was, I probably learnt more from that encounter than all the other conversations with people who either think like I do, or disagree vehemently. You see, what he did was to put me into the place of uncertainty, which is the true place of life. We don’t know! The idea that we do, is a pretence which comforts us. It is in the doubting that we can be human; it is part of our humanity.
Inhabiting the not knowing, holding our beliefs up to the light and acknowledging their imperfections, and being ok with this, is where we arrive at grace. It is a place where we let go of righteousness and inhabit our ideas and beliefs with humility.
Idealism is a powerful thing. It’s intoxicating, and can drive great acts of courage. At the end of the play, the actors sitting around having lost limbs in violent acts of idealism, questioned what we give up of ourselves in return for such idealistic beliefs – the lost limbs being symbolic of something more. Ultimately, I believe, we give up our humanity. An old joke says that: “To err is human; as to moo is bovine.” There’s a huge amount of truth in this statement, and the ideals to which we can so easily subscribe are human creations, and thus are also flawed, just like the ones they seek to replace or fight against.
Does this mean that we stop trying to progress and move forward? No, I don’t think we should and I’m not sure we could, even if we tried. But we must recognise the polarities in which we live (e.g. left and right of the political spectrum) and start to acknowledge the flaws and imperfections of each. Perhaps then we will be able to transcend these polarities with new solutions, although I rather suspect that then we will just end up with new polarities.
You see the polarities, I suspect, are less a function of politics, philosophy and religious beliefs, and rather more a function of us: the people who create those beliefs. It is by coming to terms with our own nature and the imperfections of our thinking that we can perhaps occupy our humanity in a state of grace.