Wendell Berry On The ‘Real’ And The ‘Ideal’

In ‘The Loss of The Future’ (from The Long-Legged House, Shoemaker and Hoard, 2004 (1965), New York, p. 48) Wendell Berry writes:

One of the most damaging results of the loss of idealism is the loss of reality. Neither the  ideal or the real is perceivable alone. The ideal is apparent and meaningful only in relation to the real, the real only in relation to the ideal. Each is the measure and the corrective of the other. Where there is no accurate sense of the real world, idealism evaporates in the rhetoric of self-righteousness and self-justification. Where there is no disciplined idealism, the sense of the real is invaded by sentimentality or morbidity or cynicism and by fraudulent discriminations.

Berry seems to employ both meanings of ‘idealism’ here. It may be understood as ‘systems of thought in which the objects of knowledge are held to be in some way dependent on the activity of mind’ and, of course, ‘the practice of forming or pursuing ideals, especially unrealistically.’

Be that as it may, Berry is on to something here in his suggestion that the ideal–a kind of non-substantial, immaterial counterpoint to the real–acquires the form that it does because it is informed by our impressions of the real. (Plato thought of course that the sensibly real or the ‘apparent’ was informed by this ‘ideal’ as a kind of imperfect, incomplete, and prone-to-decaying manifestation of it.) Our sense of what the ideal is formed by a kind of extrapolation from the real; the ideal suggests in turn how the real falls short. In the second sense of the word, idealism informs us of possibilities and horizons and limits visible from our actual placements in the here and now; and in doing so, it lets us demarcate and circumscribe the immediately tangible and realized. The real in turn suggests what ideals we could possibly aspire to.

Berry’s claim that without an ‘accurate sense of the real world, idealism evaporates in the rhetoric of self-righteousness and self-justification’ is now clarified; here, our idealism becomes a kind of solipsism, uncorrected by any contact with the real; our ideals, always straining under the burden of their elevated rhetoric, now begin to fall apart; we seek and find confirmation within ourselves for their validity; with nothing substantial to map on, or be applied, to, the ideals become incoherent. An ideal aims to elevate the real world; with no sense of its ‘target of improvement,’ the ideal runs blind, and aground. (A reformer must know what he or she aims to reform; a prophet must have a sense of his potential flock, of what it is that is to be corrected; otherwise their sermons become mere fantastic ramblings.) Conversely, without the elevating ideal, we remain mired in ‘sentimentality or morbidity or cynicism’ because these offer us easy compensatory consolations in its place. Each is readily available at most turns in our lives; without idealism to draw us up and away from them, we are content to wallow in their depths.

3 thoughts on “Wendell Berry On The ‘Real’ And The ‘Ideal’

    1. You could take real to be the concrete objects of our common sense–as an example; the ideal is now defined in contradistinction to these–so you could take abstract objects like numbers to be ideal. (‘Real’ and ‘ideal’ only have meaning within particular theories or perspectives; in this example the theory is ‘commonsense.’)

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