Without ideals, practicing justice is impossible.
- Far away there in the sunshine are my highest aspirations. I may not reach them, but I can look up and see their beauty, believe in them, and try to follow where they lead. [Louisa May Alcott]
- The measure of a society is not only what it does but the quality of its aspirations. [Attributed to Wade Davis]
- In a constitutionally ordered state, where laws are derived from broad principles of right and wrong and where those principles are enshrined and protected by agreed upon procedures and practices, it can never be in the long-term interest of the state or its citizens to flout those procedures at home or associate too closely overseas with the enemies of your founding ideals. [Attributed to Tony Judt, Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century (Penguin Books, 2008).]
- I have never looked upon ease and happiness as ends in themselves. The ideals that have lighted me on my way and time after time given me new courage to face live cheerfully, have been Truth, Goodness and Beauty. [Albert Einstein, The World As I See It (1949), Chapter 1, Part I.]
An ideal is a conception of a state of justice. An ideal can be modest but usually it is associated with a bold and dynamic vision for the future. Ideals seem to provide energy to personal quests and social movements. This infusion of energy is a main value of an ideal.
The other value of an ideal is in moving a person or a society toward a more just state. The emphasis here is on the direction of the impetus and movement. Our system of justice favors ideals that respect and honor all people. This is the element of harmony, which is a necessary companion to the element of strength.
We will see these two elements – strength and harmony – in many other values. In each case, the quality of the value (whether it works for good or for ill) depends on whether the value is in harmony with justice, i.e., the service of the well-being of living beings. As a counter-example, Javert’s ideal of justice was misguided. The twentieth century saw the rise and fall of two movements with epically misguided ideals: Nazism and Communism. On the other hand, the idealism of the civil rights movement in the United States went a long way toward liberating a race of people who had been mistreated for centuries. The democratic ideal has helped to bring about a more widely shared prosperity than was possible in the age of kings. Having ideals is important; having good ideals is essential. A society with bad ideals is like a child who wishes for an end to bedtime and restrictions on candy consumption, and does everything he can to realize his infantile notion of utopia. An ideal is a little like love: the desire to be in love may drive us but only a responsible conception of love can drive us forward.
This section on ideals refers not to the German, British or other schools of idealist philosophy but to idealism as a matter of conscience. This topic is an extension and an amalgamation of the first three – conscience, objectivity and fairness – sometimes called pragmatic idealism, or an idealism firmly grounded in reality.
In the United States, the person who most comes to mind on the subject of idealism is John F. Kennedy. Having attained the presidency at the age of forty-three, he challenged a nation to address its challenges, challenged the American people to volunteer in service to their country and put the dream of landing men on the moon first into words and then into action. Politicians from both political parties continue to invoke his legacy.
- Robert Dallek, An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963 (Little, Brown and Company, 2003).
- Richard Reeves, President Kennedy: Profile of Power (Simon & Schuster, 1993).
- Richard Reeves, Portrait of Camelot: A Thousand Days in the Kennedy White House (Abrams, 2010).
- Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House (Houghton Mifflin, 1965).
- Terry Golway and Les Krantz, JFK: Day By Day: A Chronicle of the 1,036 Days of John F. Kennedy's Presidency (Running Press, 2010).
- Chris Matthews, Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero (Simon & Schuster, 2012): “ . . . a valuable reminder of Kennedy’s skill at uniting toughness with inspirational leadership.”
- Other books on ideals and idealism include the following.
- Gary Tillery, The Cynical Idealist: A Spiritual Biography of John Lennon (Quest Books, 2009).
- C.W.R. Long, Bygone Heat: Travels of an Idealist in the Middle East (I.B. Tauris, 2004).
- Robert Coles, The Call of Service: A Witness to Idealism (Houghton Mifflin, 1993).
- Williamjames Hull Hoffer, The Caning of Charles Sumner: Honor, Idealism, and the Origins of the Civil War (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010), about an attack on the Senate floor because a Senator openly opposed slavery.
- Alan Khazei, Big Citizenship: How Pragmatic Idealism Can Bring Out the Best in America (Public Affairs, 2010).
- Jon Meacham, The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels (Random House, 2018): “At a time when liberalism is besieged by populisms of both the right and the left, these portions of Meacham’s book offer a strong if unfashionable reminder of all that progressive American government has achieved.”
- Michael Kazin, American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation (Alfred A. Knopf, 2011): “According to Kazin, the American left has never been much good at building institutions, or getting people elected or seeing its economic programs realized. But it has been enormously effective at shifting the nation’s moral compass and expanding its sense of political possibility.”
- Jill Lepore: This America: The Case for the Nation (Liveright, 2019): “Purging American identity of nationalism and refounding it on a purified liberalism is her purpose in this brief but ambitious book, based on essays in Foreign Affairs and The New Yorker.”
- Samantha Power, The Education of an Idealist: A Memoir (Dey Street Books, 2019): “People told me she was a — not a tortured one like me. But then she had to eat some heaping plates of realism in public, like defending Obama’s nonintervention in the genocidal Syrian civil war.”
- Alexander Vindman, Here, Right Matters: An American Story (Harper/HarperCollins, 2021): “. . . the story of an ordinary man placed in extraordinary circumstances who did the right thing.”
- Robert A. Gross, The Transcendentalists and Their World (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2022): “One learns a great deal in this book — about religious history, the railroad’s influence on smaller-town living, changing theories of education, tensions between individualism and collectivism that still bedevil the country today.”
- Mark Clague, O Say Can You Hear? A Cultural Biography of “The Star Spangled Banner” (W.W. Norton & Co., 2022): “. . . it’s a song for a country that is still in the fight, for its existence and its ideals, and it offers an invitation to any and all — the ‘you’ of the first line —- to join that fight, even if in Key’s time the 'you' was hardly inclusive.”
Query whether Communism, with its focus on economics, was truly an idealistic system.
- Francis Spufford, Red Plenty (Graywolf Press, 2012): about "the dream that mobilized a generation, created one of history's largest industrial monsters and ultimately doomed it to failure."
- Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim (1900).
- George Eliot, Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life (1874).
- Edwidge Danticat, Claire of the Sea Light (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013): the author imagines her childhood Haitian village in glowing images.
- Matt Gallagher, Youngblood: A Novel (Atria Books, 2016): “Idealism and Doubts In the Iraqi Desert”
- Mary Gordon, There Your Heart Lies: A Novel (Pantheon Books, 2017): “”
- Lawrence Osborne, Beautiful Animals: A Novel (Hogarth, 2017): “Of the central character, an entitled young Englishwoman named Naomi, her father observes: ‘She wanted to be a Samaritan: the easiest job in the world, and perfect for the useless European middle classes.’”
- Salman Rushdie, Victory City: A Novel (Random House, 2023), “is about a kingdom that is founded on pluralism but fails to live up to its ideals.”
- Nicolas Poussin, The Realm of Flora (1630-31)
- Salvador Dali, Poetry of America (1943)
Film and Stage
- Camelot, about ideals won and lost
- Smith Goes to Washington: an idealist in the U.S. Senate
- For Whom the Bell Tolls, a realistic story about the challenges of idealism
- Lost Horizon: one view of Utopia
- Gallipoli, about “two idealistic young friends . . . who join the Australian army during World War I”; reviews were mixed
- Miniver: British idealism during World War II
- The Big Chill, portraying ideals lost
I followed you like a rainbow of peace along the paths of heaven; I followed you like a friendly torch in the veil of darkness, and I sensed you in the light, in the air, in the perfume of flowers, and the solitary room was full of you and of your radiance. Absorbed by you, I dreamed a long time of the sound of your voice, and earth's every anxiety, every torment I forgot in that dream. Come back, dear ideal, for an instant to smile at me again, and in your face will shine for me a new dawn. [Paolo Tosti, “Die Ideale” (The Ideal)]
Over the carnage rose prophetic a voice, / Be not dishearten'd, affection shall solve the problems of freedom yet, / Those who love each other shall become invincible, / They shall yet make Columbia victorious.
Sons of the Mother of All, you shall yet be victorious, / You shall yet laugh to scorn the attacks of all the remainder of the earth.
No danger shall balk Columbia's lovers, / If need be a thousand shall sternly immolate themselves for one.
One from Massachusetts shall be a Missourian's comrade, / From Maine and from hot Carolina, and another an Oregonese, shall be friends triune, / More precious to each other than all the riches of the earth.
To Michigan, Florida perfumes shall tenderly come, / Not the perfumes of flowers, but sweeter, and wafted beyond death.
It shall be customary in the houses and streets to see manly affection, / The most dauntless and rude shall touch face to face lightly, / The dependence of Liberty shall be lovers, / The continuance of Equality shall be comrades.
These shall tie you and band you stronger than hoops of iron, / I, ecstatic, O partners! O lands! with the love of lovers tie you.
(Were you looking to be held together by lawyers? / Or by an agreement on a paper? or by arms? / Nay, nor the world, nor any living thing, will so cohere.)
[Walt Whitman, “Over the Carnage Rose Prophetic a Voice”]
Edgar Lee Masters, “Ballade of Dead Republics”
- Edgar Lee Masters, “Magrady Graham”
- Jorge Luis Borges, “Adam Cast Forth”
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
Western “classical” compositions:
- Franz Liszt, Symphonic Poem No. 12, Die Ideale (The Ideal), S. 106, LW G15 (1857) (approx. 27’)
- Howard Hanson, Symphony No. 1 in E Minor, “Nordic”, Op. 22 (1922) (approx. 25-32’), “stands as some of the most honest and powerfully expressive music ever written.”
- Hanson, Symphony No. 2 in D-flat Major, “Romantic”, Op. 30 (1930) (approx. 27-30’): a musical idealist, Hanson saw the work as “a protest against the growing Schoenbergism of the time.”
- Louis Théodore Gouvy, Jeaane d’Arc Overture, Op. 13 (1858) (approx. 12’), after a woman who died for her ideals
- “I want to make the world better”, says contemporary American composer Gordon Getty, who writes in the style of the nineteenth century. Sample his choral works on the album entitled “Young America” (2005) (63’).
- Cesar Franck, Les Béatitudes (Die Seligkeiten), oratorio for chorus, soloists, and orchestra, M. 53, CFF 185, FWV 53 (1879) (approx. 111-138’): “This nine-movement piece can be summed up as a fervent and even passionate public-facing prayer or invocation.” “Following a brief prologue, each of the eight Beatitude movements set the scene of the vices and/or longings of this world . . .” Here is a link to the lyrics.
- Franck, Violin Sonata in A Major, FWV 8, M8 (1886) (approx. 28-30’)
- John Foulds, Music Poem No. 5, Op. 20, “Mirage” (1910) (approx. 25’): the six movements represent “Immutable Nature,” “Man’s-ever-ambition,” “Man’s-ever-unattainment,” “Mirage,” “Man humbled” and “Man’s self-triumph,” respectively.
- Kurt Atterberg, Symphony No. 7, “Sinfonia romantica”, Op. 45 (second version, 1972) (approx. 34-37’); first version (1942) (approx. 29’): The work “was conceived as a protest against the anti-romanticism of the day . . .”
- Joan Baez came of age artistically during a peak era of idealism in the United States, when social justice, civil rights and pacifism seemed to be gaining a foothold. She has maintained her ideals throughout her life, and expressed them in her music. Her playlist is extensive.
- The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem were Irish folk singers who gave voice to the concerns of ordinary people. “Their popularity is the result of several factors. There was already an American folk revival beginning in the United States, and men such as Ewan MacColl popularizing old songs on the other side of the Atlantic. But it was the Clancys' boisterous performances that set them apart . . .” Their playlist, too is extensive. Here they are live in Tipperary in 1995.
- Archie Roach, “Looking for Butter Boy” (1997) (58’) and “Charcoal Lane” (1991) (44’): Archie was a loving activist for justice.
- Brian McCarthy Nonet, “The Better Angels of Our Nature” (2017) (70’): “From one of the bloodiest, most divisive episodes in American history—The Civil War—saxophonist Brian McCarthy finds inspiration for a jazz album that makes a cavernous impression for its arresting beauty and conceptual brilliance.”
- Ray Charles, “A Message from the People” (1972) (40’): a plea for social and racial unity, expressed visually by the album cover
Music: songs and other short pieces
- Joni Mitchell, “We Are Stardust”