The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Monday, May 17, 2010

Ideals or Principles?

Contemporary popular culture exalts youthful idealism. One does not have to look far to find a movie, television show, or novel conveying the idea that the world has been messed up through the hypocrisy and greed of older generations and can find salvation only through the leadership of uncorrupted, idealistic, youth. To those who share this notion, there can be no sin greater than shattering the ideals of young visionaries.

Yet this idea, that youth and ideals, are the traits most to be desired among our leadership defies both common sense and the collective history of mankind.

Which would you rather your leaders possess – a great vision for your community or wisdom? If your reason is at all functional, the latter will be your choice. Wisdom, which is more than just the knowledge of facts but the ability to discern and make right choices is essential to good leadership. It is a trait, however, that one does not ordinarily associate with youth.

The reason for this is obvious. Wisdom, in most cases, is the product of long experience which people simply do not possess in their youth. Some people never achieve wisdom and the old saw “there is no fool like an old fool” conveys much truth. In general, however, wisdom is the property of age, for which reason communities worldwide have traditionally been led by their “elders”. 

The road to wisdom, however, begins in youth. For this reason it is important that we do everything possible to encourage young people to develop principles. Principles are sounder and more lasting than ideals.

What is the difference, you ask?

An ideal is the product of looking at the world, comparing it to a perfect model you have imagined in your mind, and concluding “I could do better”.

Ideals generate passion. Someone who believes in the ideal of equality, for example, will passionately desire to change the world so that everybody is equal. What if, however, the world does not want to be changed and the only way to achieve one’s ideal is through force that harms other people? “You cannot make an omelet without breaking a few eggs”, Stalin famously remarked. That is idealism talking.

Principles differ from ideals in a number of ways.

First of all, principles have a different origin than ideals. Principles are not the product of imaging a perfect world, but are learned from your own experience, and from the collective experience of your society and of mankind, passed on to you through society’s traditions, folklore, folk wisdom, and religion.

Secondly, principles are behavioral guidelines that you strive to follow in your own life experience. They do not require you to try and change anyone other than yourself. The best way to pass principles on to others is by living them out and demonstrating them by your example.

In the ancient Greek stories, the hero Theseus, son of the king of Athens, having been raised by his mother in her father’s kingdom in Troezen, upon coming of age was sent to his father’s kingdom. On the way, he encountered and defeated a number of monstrous villains. One of these was Procrustes, who would invite people who passed by his home to stay the night. He insisted, however, that they be the exact length of the bed he had made. If they were not, he would stretch them if they were too short, or chop a bit of them off if they were too long.

Procrustes was the epitome of idealism.

Someone with principles however, has a standard of right and wrong, to which he hold himself and nobody else accountable. If he is a man of character, he upholds his principles even when everyone else around him is doing the exact opposite. He tells the truth, when all around him are lying, he is honest in his business dealings when everyone else is cheating, he is loyal to his wife and children when others are betraying and walking out on theirs.

Character is growing harder and harder to find because we simply don’t value it the way we used to.

It was only a few generations ago that Rudyard Kipling wrote his famous poem “If”, illustrating the qualities of character. “If you can keep your head when all about you/Are losing theirs and blaming it on you/If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you/Yet make allowance for their doubting to/If you can wait and not be tired by waiting/Or being lied about don’t deal in lies/Or being hated not give way to hating/And yet don’t look too good nor talk too wise” he began.

Kipling’s philosophy of personal restraint and accountability would be regarded as alien by many today. The same popular culture that exalts the idealism of youth teaches us to put self and pleasure first.

It is easier, you see, to demand that the world change to accommodate ideals, than to hold yourself accountable to a moral code. It is less painful to blame others for failing your vision, that to admit your own guilt when you fail to live up to your principles.

The easier, less painful road, however, is seldom the right road.

It is tempting to ask the question: “What if we all stopped dreaming up utopian fantasies, gave up our ideals, and ceased striving to change the world, but instead strove to develop our personal character and to live up to principles”? The ironic answer, might be, that the world would be a much better place.

To ask that question and come to that answer, however, is to miss the point entirely. Attempts to change the world and recreate Paradise are doomed to failure. We should develop character and strive to live up to moral principles, because it is the right thing to do. 

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