A firm believer in Realpolitik
The line No folly is more costly than the folly of intolerant idealism is a quote from Winston Churchill, a masterful speaker and writer and the originator of many powerful quotes (“I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat”, “Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”, et al)
Churchill’s quote about “intolerant idealism” may seem to express a self-evident idea. But the ubiquitous problem addressed by this quote from Churchill –- himself a firm believer in Realpolitik –- continues to pop up. It may deserve a brief analysis.
Benefits of idealism
Let us not forget that idealism per se, without the epithet “intolerant”, is often beneficial and sometimes absolutely necessary. Without idealism we would have no compass, no idea in which direction our efforts should be applied. Most of natural science is a special form of idealism –- theoretical constructs, “ideas”, that help us see what needs to be substantiated by observation and experiment. The “idealism” of science is rigidly regulated, attempting to minimise the risk of intolerance. Other scientists are invited to subject every scientific theory to a ritual of unbridled scrutiny. Changes and refutations are not merely tolerated; they are expected.
In the soft fields of politics and social ethics there are no corresponding safeguards. Here idealism expresses itself by well-meaning, “nice” theories, purporting to give highly benevolent guidelines for a “good” society or “good” individual behaviour. Their inherent lack of precision and detail would pose no problem, if they could be subjected to similar scrutiny as the theories of science. In that case they could be modified or augmented or even rejected, depending on factual circumstances. But generally speaking, this is not the case.
The spectre of Absolute Truth –- Communism and Monotheism
Idealistic theories in the social field frequently claim that they don’t just represent “happiness and good”, but “absolute truth” as well. Absolute truth is undisputable, so alternatives or modifications cannot be tolerated.
Prime examples of intolerant idealism are communism and religion, particularly monotheism. Atheistic religion (Buddhism) and polytheistic religion (Hinduism, et al) can be intolerant as well. But here we have a little more theoretical leeway for tolerance than in monotheism, where intolerance is a built-in integral part of the theoretical structure.
The communist ideas are idealistic in the sense of being “kind” and “nice”, offering freedom, equality an justice for all. At the same time communism claims to represent absolute truth, by virtue of being “scientifically founded” and hence irrefutable. The “scientific” foundation of communism is the “historical materialism” of Karl Marx, an interesting analysis of how societies pass from one stage to the next in a supposedly predetermined way.
Historical materialism may indeed be most interesting and inspiring, but it is not the absolute truth. We now know how costly a folly the intolerant idealism of communism turned out to be –- an estimated 60 million lives.
Monotheism, particularly in its Christian and Islamic versions, is an equally well-meaning social theory, promising love, peace, and happiness to all. Many historians maintain that Marx was inspired by Christian ideas when he formulated communism.
What again makes this well-meaning theory intolerant is its claim of being the “absolute truth” and hence irrefutable. Here the claims are based on an even stronger foundation than mere “science” –- here the foundation is divine command.
If such a theory remained exclusively in the private sphere, then it would pose no threat to anybody. Unfortunately, the claim of representing the absolute truth makes it difficult to keep religion in the place where it rightly belongs –- in men’s private minds, as an inspiration for the soul. This is the reason why religion’s cost in human lives has been –- and continues to be –- higher that that of natural catastrophes, roughly on par with the cost of communism.
Are there any ways of defending ourselves against the folly of intolerant idealism? I believe there is at least one obvious defence mechanism –- the democratic process. It is by no means foolproof. Subjecting social theories to democratic scrutiny will not eliminate the folly of intolerant idealism in every instance. Popular opinion is fickle and can sometimes support highly unwise measures, particularly when such measures have an idealistic and well-meaning ring.
But in the long run, averaged out over longer periods of time, the democratic process has proven itself to be capable of neutralising the worst cases of idealistic intolerance. We can safely assume that this is what Winston Churchill had in mind when he coined his quote “No folly is more costly that the folly of intolerant idealism", even if he originally wrote it in a more specific context.
(A modest nodeshell rescue operation)