How to be Realistically Idealistic

When we think about how to act in life, we set ideals, or virtues, for action: rulesets to guide us. We may honor the virtues of courage, or honesty, or resilience. Or less formally, we can think about whatever it is to be a man, or a woman, and follow whatever related ideals we have there.

Normally, following ideals is an expedient way to make decisions. Without any ideals, we would be much slower to make decisions in real time, because there would be nothing to tell us how we should quickly go about them. Ideals also motivate us to reach for higher goals, and give us some identity.

Thus, we reward ourselves or at least feel contentment when we live up to our ideals, and otherwise feel shame when we fail to hold ourselves accountable for our standards. I think it is clear enough how unattainable standards can impact our mental health; yet, there is another caveat to following and setting ideals. They really are just rulesets of conduct that have usually yielded good living for some people, but we have a tendency to see them in extremes, in black and white. So an ideal is seen as right, and anything which it counters is wrong. But nothing is really like this.

To take a less obvious example, take the virtue of humaneness. In The Prince, Machiavelli mentions Pertinax, a king who came into power against the wishes of his acquired soldiers. When Pertinax tried to subject the soldiers to live honest lives, although they had before lived ‘licentious’ lives, they immediately overthrew him at the beginning of his reign. To directly rule a corrupt group, Machiavelli says, a prince must therefore appeal to its corruption. Goodness, or humaneness, will hurt him, not just in practical terms: Even in ethical terms, it may be best for a ruler to gain some power over a group before later restructuring and subjecting it to honesty. Or, his not getting himself killed could otherwise put him in the position to do more good later on. Even Sun Tzu, who taught with humaneness, said too much love for people could ‘trouble’ a general.

If ideals can fail, it is tempting to say we should just act practically and forget them. But in some bodies of thought, following virtues is indispensable. Reading through Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, I see how a virtuous man was able to lead Rome and hold on to his humanity. He believed in the inherent goodness of others (although he thought many people failed to act well because they knew no better). And he kept telling himself to hold onto his humanity, the highest virtue for him. He believed that humanity was placed in humans by nature, or God, which was perfect; so that as long as he could hold his humanity intact, he was unharmed.

Instead of rejecting ideals, I think we should practice pragmatism by holding onto ideals, insofar as they align with our moral and practical aims, and diminishing or altering them if not. For example, when a general’s excessive boldness leads to the death of his army, he must consider diminishing boldness as a virtue and perhaps implement more hesitation.

So when we live our ideals, we must have some kind of flexibility. There are some short sayings that get at this mindset better than an analytic analysis could. I like this quote from Machiavelli: “The lion cannot protect himself from traps, and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves. One must therefore be a fox to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten wolves.” I also like this idea: Good people can do bad, and smart people can do dumb things. The best thinkers say things they inevitably regret. The best of rulers are forced to make sacrifices.

Who will you be? Here are some virtues listed by Aristotle: Courage, temperance, generosity, magnificence, pride, honor, temperament, friendliness, truthfulness, wit, friendship, and justice. But it is no surprise to say the virtues, or ideals, you will emphasize or hold should depend on your own context. Whether you choose to align more with humanity or magnificence, you will put on different faces at times. The ideals will demand flexibility, you will be imperfect, and you may yet be a virtuous person.