HomeArticlesCultureIdealism and Realism, the Yin and Yang of Society


Idealism and Realism, the Yin and Yang of Society — 8 Comments

  1. I am much more sceptical about idealism. I think a person’s ideals are a projection of some part of themselves which they kind of worship – Durkheim’s argument about totem poles and religion being society worshipping itself. Idealists tend to think their ideals are absolute and should be the way the world is. Again rather self-centred expecting the world to change to fit one’s idea of how the world should be. And then they often try to impose these ideals on the world if they get a chance (like the Bolsheviks did in Russia and the neo-conservatives did in Iraq) and re-educate or kill those who don’t want to conform to their ideals. A realist, following Aristotle, would recognise that there are a variety of political structures that work and allow people to flourish. What is important is that they are legitimate to the people who live in them. If they don’t like them it is only they who have the responsibility and authority to change things. So I think your mother was right – idealism, like infatuation, is something one should grow out of.

  2. William, I think I agree with most of what you say about the pitfalls of idealism and its youthful expressions without realism. I was trying to relate “social idealism” more to a set of cultural norms that enable people to function and interact with one another autonomously, and provide the tools of self-governance. In this regard the Confucian system of social order, or the Ten Commandments combined with the Sermon on the Mount, provide the basis of “Yin” in the Chinese and Western culture spheres. However, it is realistic to assume that no society will contain people that are all self-governing and never harm others. Therefore the “Yang” of legally enforced order is necessary. I totally agree that the “Yang” has to be viewed by the people as legitimate.

  3. You make some good points. Without principles and ideals we loose our common humanity and get lost in individuality. In the end we are all looking for the same thing: fulfillment, love and to be loved, and purpose. Unfortunately, we can only find that fulfillment in a country of freedom, under protection of laws that guarantee freedom and free choices. Too much government restricts those free choices. Until now, the U.S. was that country providing that freedom. I hope and pray that the new realism is not suffocating our idealism.

  4. The idea of interdependence of idealism and realism (yin and yang) in society has a flavorful and naturalist appeal. As a person familiar with
    Confucian ethics and American history, your topic whet my appetite. A moral idealism must be coupled with a pragmatism or practiced reality. As it seems the coupling of idealism and realism was the goal of the Confucian meritocracy and framers of the American Constitution. To begin with, I would actually agree that the American Founding Fathers and Confucian public servants viewed religion functionally rather than doctrinally. There is reason to think they shared a type of enlightenment that the inculcation of moral ideals was essential to the cohesion and prosperity of society. However, the Imperial Chinese view of the role of religion was vastly different from the views of Medieval Christian theology. The Founding Fathers were well aware of the abuses of state established Christianity and the bloody conflict between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. Thus the State would be separated from the establishment of religion. On the other hand, the Confucian ideal of the Mandates of Heaven were to be integral to the functioning of the legitimate State. Confucian family ethics, loyalty and friendship were prerequisite to being appointed to pubic office. Over the course of history this proved to be an elusive ideal. The Chinese were not immune to factional infighting, in the West which would be called Machiavellian. Yet this would not lead to the extinction of Imperial China. The fall of the Chinese dynasty would come at the hands of Western power, modernity and sorcery. The Chinese bureaucracy had no answer to Western militancy. The ideals of a Confucian meritocracy fell to the wayside due to the forces of industry, exploitation and political expediency. The decline in the prestige, prosperity and liberty of the United States has similarities to the decline and fall of Imperial China. Religion in America has faltered in its role to inculcate the moral ideals of respect for public leadership, family cohesion, and professional integrity. Rather, it has fallen into moral relativism and doctrinal irrationalism. To stop this decline America must experience a revival of a moral ethic that transcends narrow factionalism or greed that drives political competition and commercial exploitation. It is calls for a serious reflection on the “moral ideals that individuals are expected to follow and the certain justice dealt to people who transgress the law”. It is the return to interdependence of idealism, pragmatism and realism ( Tao ).

  5. Robert makes very excellent points. The US had a “general religion” of the founders that has dissipated and turned into factionalism and moral relativism. If the common values prevalent at the American founding were tempered by Constitutional checks and balances that Imperial China could have benefited from, as the Confucian ethical system had to be balanced by checks on abuse of power that is often called “oriental despotism.” But the Confucian ethical system basically went unchallenged as a system of morality and remained the “social glue” for centuries. Unfortunately the doctrine of the separation of church and state in the USA led to a situation where, in the absence of an official religion, Christianity’s doctrines were insufficiently powerful enough to provide that type of social glue over a long period of time. I think you also need limits set on moral deviation that stem from practical experience and social scientific data. Moral anarchy is no more possible than political anarchy.

  6. I like your thinking on yin and yang: Here is a response I recently made to a short lived article on Newsweek where a journalist had done a story decrying the refusal of New Orleans charter schools to admit a student with learning (and potential behavior)disabilities:

    And what’s the big deal if the charter schools won’t let everybody in? Let’s just continue to live in la-la land in this country. Sure we can continue to afford to have our little Utopia here in the U.S.A.

    Wake up to the real world, You have to match perfect idealism with perfect pragmatism if you want a true utopia. So far, all we understand is that we think we can indulge everyone’s expensive desires. Our schools spend unbelievable amounts of money to babysit our children while claiming it is education.

    We pursue perfect idealism to our detriment. Want to give everybody that can’t afford a lawyer a great one? Fine. At the same time you better make sure that your police have cameras on every street in every house or else all you are doing is letting the system get out of balance. A perfect system gives everyone a perfect defense while giving the prosecution the PERFECT OFFENSE. But you must have BOTH in a truly ideal system.

    How about throwing money at every poor family without making any effort to make sure that those who don’t seem to be able to afford to have or simply don’t need to have children stop having them?

    You think we can continue to indulge yin without giving any thought to yang?

    If New Orleans school system is actually performing well, it is likely because a lot of the crap that says that EVERY single child is going to get EXACTLY the same education and reach EXACTLY the same level of competence is NOT APPLYING to New Orleans new system.

    Go ahead, MAKE our nation’s school continue to dump our tax dollars in the trash with total disregard to the advisability of the way we spend the nation’s money.

    Continue to pursue your completely twisted idea of a Utopia by wanting things that a sustainable economy could not possibly sustain.

  7. I have been struggling with the idea of realism vs idealism for a very long time and I have to say: your article has been quite insightful.
    Check out my ‘young’ ideas on this topic at idzawordsmith.wordpress.com.

  8. Pingback:Introduction | A letter to all idealists

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