Tuesday, December 23, 2008

G.K. Chesterton on Practical Politics

When the business man rebukes the idealism of his office-boy, it is commonly in some such speech as this: “Ah, yes, when one is young, one has these ideals in the abstract and these castles in the air; but in middle age they all break up like clouds, and one comes down to a belief in practical politics, to using the machinery one has and getting on with the world as it is.” Thus, at least, venerable and philanthropic old men now in their honoured graves used to talk to me when I was a boy. But since then I have grown up and have discovered that these philanthropic old men were telling lies. What has really happened is exactly the opposite of what they said would happen. They said that I should lose my ideals and begin to believe in the methods of practical politicians. Now, I have not lost my ideals in the least; my faith in fundamentals is exactly what it always was. What I have lost is my old childlike faith in practical politics.

As a young man, the above passage, from Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton, was encouraging to read. I can't count the number of times I've been told that I'll soon abandon my ideals for something more practical. Yet, every time I'm told this all it does is convince me further that political philosophy must precede practical politics. The reason many people abandon their ideals with time is that their ideals were visions of things they really wanted to see happen, rather than developed convictions about what ought to happen. When idealists of this more shallow sort are confronted with the real world, where their vision will never be realized, they are left hopeless. Such idealists have ideals so shallow that it is believable that they might be enacted. The idealist who does not falter, however, has ideals grand enough that he would never be so foolish as to expect that we messed up human beings would actually live according to them.