The Decline Of Idealism

by Rebecca Bynum (Nov. 2008)


There is ground for declaring that modern man has become a moral idiot.
– Richard Weaver


Today’s accepted wisdom dictates that it really doesn’t matter what a man believes in so long as he doesn’t take those beliefs too seriously or pursue them too far. In modern usage the words “ideal, idealist and idealism” are all tinged with a hue of unreality. When we describe someone as an “idealist” we do so with that slightly bemused condescension reserved for the overgrown child. We think of idealists as having their heads in the clouds and as being insufficiently grounded in the facts of reality. A pervasive attitude of cynical relativism effectively stifles the striving after any ideal. Yet, it is certainly not what facts a man knows that determine his conduct and character, but rather what he believes, and the ideals he holds. The decline of idealism, therefore, has not ushered in an era of realism, but one in which guiding principles have gradually been reduced to increasingly superficial standards until there is nothing left but the crudest Darwinian materialism, behaviorism, and genetic determinism as an explanation for the sheer childish selfishness that cloaks itself in the guise of rational self-interest.

This coupling of the ideal with the concept of unreality gained force in philosophical circles seven long centuries ago, but is only now coming into full fruition in society at large. Platonic philosophy had predominated in the Western world for many centuries, advancing the idea that material reality was an imperfect manifestation of spiritual form or the perfect ideal. In this view, the values of truth, beauty and goodness are the comprehensible aspects of transcendent reality – a reality which lies behind or above the material surface we perceive with our senses. William of Occam, however, argued in the fourteenth century that no transcendent reality exists and it is logically unnecessary to propose that it does. Rather these “universals” are simply the product of mental reflection, a necessary result of thought, and are not transcendent over mind or material reality. The world of the senses emerged as the only verifiable reality possible, and anything outside that narrow sphere was banished to the realm of unreality.

In this view, man could be liberated from having to endure the effort to attain ideals, because ideals were thought to be of his own making and could be made and unmade at will. Man could then realize a higher freedom and find ever greater self-realization because he was no longer confined to certain social forms which were all ideals seemed to have become.

The promise of freedom is a mighty lure, almost as strong as the promise of power. Pure logic, liberated from value, seems to provide both. Nature, far from concealing transcendent reality, now seems to contain the mystery of its own genesis as well as its own evolution. Man could break down natural processes through the practice of science, understand how nature works and thus become dominant over the natural world. This would give him power, even over life itself. The great mystery which lies at the heart of existence may be bypassed, or even regarded as superfluous: for it is simply non-utilitarian. In the words of William of Occam, “entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity.”

Unfortunately, man underestimated his need for values, because without values, he has no way by which to measure and therefore to judge reality. Logic operates just as well on untrue premises as on true ones and man found that logic alone is not as reliable a path to truth as it first promised to be. The cold logic of Nazism, communism and Islam all operate perfectly well in the absence of truth, beauty and goodness. Values and ideals are the first casualties of a purely logical ideology. In fact, the loss of these ideals may very well prepare the ground for fascism, as men search desperately for something to believe in, some vessel into which to pour their loyalty.

Yet, if the material word holds the secret of life, then by simple extension, wealth and the sensual comfort it provides must hold the key to happiness. American currency, passed down to us from an earlier and sturdier time, is still engraved with the words “In God We Trust,” a welcome reminder that trust in money is a foolish act, certain to end in frustration and tears. Warnings ring down through the ages:

Will you set your eyes on that which is not? For riches certainly make themselves wings; They fly away like an eagle toward heaven.

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal;
but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.”

“So He humbled you, allowed you to hunger, and fed you with manna which you did not know nor did your fathers know, that He might make you know that man shall not live by bread alone; but man lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the LORD.”

And yet the rot is so deep in American society today that we seem to think we live in a world apart from the natural human condition, a world where property values will rise effortlessly and predictably, where our investments will steadily swell, and where our jobs will remain ever secure as our economy expands forever like the universe itself. This world owes us a living and it is expected of our demagogic politicians to ease our anxiety and boost our confidence in the clock-like regularity and certainty of our mechanistic world. If the machine doesn’t run, it is their job to fix it.

Modern man is fond of blaming some person or persons for everything that goes wrong and will no longer tolerate those who claim there are forces outside his control. Witness the Senate hearings on the economic crisis and their frantic search to find someone to blame, some particular someone who was asleep at the wheel of the great economic machine at the crucial time; someone who should have foreseen that unforeseeable something that, if it had been altered in time, could have prevented the current catastrophe. Witness the effort to assign blame for not preventing the 9/11 attacks or even to blame those attacks on people other than the Muslim terrorists themselves, people more under our control, such as those in the U.S. government. This reflects a primal need to reclaim the certainty that there is nothing outside human direction in the great machine known as the material world. Babies, of course, see themselves as the center of the universe and imagine they are in control of everything. They cry and their needs are met. Have we so elevated wanting over deserving that we have forgotten what maturity means?

Maturity must entail a sense of gratitude for the very hardships so deplored by the young, because it is mainly through adversity that meaningful growth is achieved. Maturity also comes with the growing conviction that it is wrong to live only for oneself and that for life to have value, it must be lived for something greater – for others. Maturity also comes with increasing personal identification with values.

When seasoned by experience, the idealist is an extremely potent force in the world. He is loyal to his ideals to the point of self-effacement. He is not moderate when it comes to virtue or belief. He is an extremist, but not a fanatic. He repudiates the anti-hero and shames the cynic. Consider the following scene, one which can only be described as heroic.


Then Pilate entered the Praetorium again, called Jesus, and said to Him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”

Jesus answered him, “Are you speaking for yourself about this, or did others tell you this concerning Me?”

Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you to me. What have you done?”

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here.”

Pilate therefore said to Him, “Are you a king then?”

Jesus answered, “You say rightly that I am a king. For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.”

Pilate said to Him, “What is truth?” And when he had said this, he went out again…[4]

Jesus was obviously not engaging in the “spirit of dialogue.” He did not care if Pilate understood him or not, he would not compromise the truth as he saw it; whereas Pilate, in the modern spirit of the true cynic, expressed doubt in the very existence of truth. He asked his question and did not wait for the answer because, like the modern man he represents, truth to him was a relative, fungible commodity. But for Jesus, truth was absolute and his loyalty to truth was also absolute.

The man of moderate virtue would be appalled, for it must seem to him that in his refusal to defend or explain himself, Jesus was throwing his life away. Indeed, he handed Pilate ample cause to put him to death. He admitted to being a king: a king in the world of the transcendent surely, but a king nonetheless. Pilate clearly thought Jesus was delusional, but probably harmless. But who in the end should be judged delusional: Pilate, who washed his hands of the affair and went on with his life as though nothing had happened, or Jesus, who went to his death refusing to compromise with evil, loyal to his ideals to the end?

Today, however, we are steadily counseled that solutions to our problems mostly lie in compromise and that there is really nothing worth dying for, actually nothing worth risking much for. “Moderation in all things” is really advice to seek grounds for complacency, to elevate comfort over virtue and to bury our ideals in the graveyard of materialism.

[1] Proverbs 23:5 Bible, New King James version

[2] Matthew 6:19-20  Bible, New King James version

[3] Deuteronomy 8:3  Bible, New King James version

[4] John 18: 33-38  Bible, New King James version

To comment on this article, please click here.

To help New English Review continue to publish thought provoking articles like this one, please click here.

If you have enjoyed this article, and would like to read more by Rebecca Bynum, click here.

Rebecca Bynum contributes regularly to The Iconoclast, our Community Blog. Click here to see all her contributions, on which comments are welcome.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

New English Review Press is a priceless cultural institution.
                              — Bruce Bawer


Pre-order on Amazon or Amazon UK or wherever books are sold

Order at Amazon, Amazon UK, or wherever books are sold. 

Order at Amazon US, Amazon UK or wherever books are sold.

Available at Amazon US, Amazon UK or wherever books are sold.

For the literature lover in your life on Amazon US, Amazon UK or wherever books are sold. 

For children of all ages. Order at AmazonAmazon UK or wherever books are sold.

Send this to a friend