“I am only one, but still I am one.
I cannot do everything, but still I can do something.
And because I cannot do everything,
I will not refuse to do the something I can do.”

Edward Everett Hale

Saturday, 11 August 2012

The Tragedy of Idealism

As we have spent the last ten days in Poland, I thought it fitting that my holiday reading should be Nostromo by the brilliant Polish-born author, Joseph Conrad. I studied it for A level many years ago, and hadn't read it for years. I had forgotten how brilliant it is.

image from Amazon UK

It is a story on the grand scale, whose main theme concerns the (generally tragic) consequences of idealism, either in oneself or in others. Most of the main characters suffer on account of their own or somebody else's devotion to an ideal.

What hadn't struck me until two-thirds of the way through the novel and the end of the holiday was how it fitted in with our visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau. The Nazis too were obsessed by an ideal: the supremacy of the Herrenvolk, the German race, and the elimination of all others. And this ideal, like many in Nostromo, led to death and destruction on a large scale.

It seems that if we allow ourselves to become obsessed by an ideal, its skews our judgement and corrupts our reason. If we idealise something or somebody, we don't see it / them straight. Examples of this are littered throughout history (and sadly, very often have to do with one party's religious ideals conflicting with another's).

Think about the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Great Ejection 350 years ago this month; and in more modern times, Hitler's Final Solution, the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, the Rwandan massacre, 9/11 and so on. And if you strip every example back to basics, they all happened because one group of people stopped recognising their essential commonality with another group of people (that of being fellow human beings) and got carried away by the idea that their point of view or ideal was the only correct one, and that therefore people with different points of view should be eliminated.

It is only by the exercise of compassion, by being open to the hearts and minds of others, by recognising that each of us is "unique, precious, a child of God", that the closed mind and consequent intolerance can be avoided.

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