Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets



Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


Practical Ideals*


One may very well be a firm believer in the application of ideals to life and yet see the danger of always putting them into instant practice.

For an ideal is essentiality a conception of life not as it is, but as we desire it to be. Ideal modify an actual life; that is their purpose and function. Evidently then, since life is very full of imperfections, if we should find a perfect ideal and apply it at once to life, it would supercede almost entirely real life as we know it and practise it. And that would mean a very uncomfortable disruption of all our old customs, habits and beliefs. And the more perfect the ideal, the farther in advance of our present conditions, the more painful would the process of disruption and substitution be. Indeed, if the divergence were great enough, the substitution would be impossible. It would mean so radical a change as to endanger the very existence of the race.

There is not much danger of that, however, for we are all endowed with a sufficient touch of the conservative spirit to prevent our self-destruction from any such cause. But while we should hold our ideals without compromise and with all the fervor of good radicals, we ought also to recognize the impossibility of their immediate use. They are something always to be striven for, always to be followed, something to which we must always tend. And they are never to be forsaken nor forgotten. At the same time we must deal patiently with life and not expect to realize our ideals at once, or even in our own lifetime.

We all cherish ideals, of course. Some are more radiant and perfect than others. The ideals of some men may be very near and practical-no more than a new kind of steam motor, a car wheel that will not break, or a nut that will not slip from its bolt. These are all ideals that their holders may live to see realized: and they will gladly be accepted by everybody, so obvious are their benefits.

There are other ideals, however, about which we must long remain unsettled, ideals of conduct, of education, of society, which touch our vital needs and happiness as human beings. And on these questions we do well to move with caution-without fear, indeed, but without precipitation. So that however vehemently we may feel on any subject of reform, however firm our convictions may be, we must never forget that the conservative dullard who vexes us as to the point of desperation with his prejudice, his bigotry, his self-satisfied cant, has his place in the great economy as well as ourselves; and that while we should all lapse into barbarism, if the stupid reactionary had his way, just as surely we should fall upon ruin, if the unbalanced and uncompromising reformer had his.

For example, anarchy as it has been conceived by certain social philosophers is an ideal of human society which may very well enlist the interest of any man eager for the betterment of society. It is easy to conceive that anarchy in its best form might be dreamed of as an ultimate state for mortals. When every individual has been made capable of self government, we shall need mutual restraint no longer. But that ideal is so remote, so at variance with our immediate needs as a race of rational but tempestuous beings, as to be perilous for the present. And those persons of generous but headlong temper who give to anarchy all the adherence of a vehement nature only harm their own cause by being precipitate. They have given their allegiance to an ideal of society, which may be admirable and good in itself, but which is not practical as yet. And the attempt to impose that ideal upon a community which is in no way ready to receive it can only produce consternation and panic.

With socialism the case is different. There you have an ideal which is much more practical, much nearer our present needs much more within the range of popular comprehension. It is not yet quite within the range of popular politics, but it is nearing that realm. Every day socialism is becoming more and more a practical ideal. We have not yet begun to make up our minds about it, nor to ask exactly what socialism proposes to do, nor to inquire even exactly what it is. But we are growing familiar with the strange new truth, very slowly and very timidly, after the manner of our kind. And one of these days it will come within the range of our practical politics, and challenge the ideal of democracy, just as democracy slowly came to the front and challenged the ideal of monarchial rule. What should be our attitude toward it? Well, almost any attitude except violence. For whether we are devoted heart and soul to the ideal of socialism, or abhor it utterly, violence is the last feeling we should indulge. The truth is never served by an overheated mind. We can never arrive at the truth except with a cool head, never clear ourselves of error as long as we let ourselves be governed by temper and prejudice. And we shall secure better results, with less terrible friction to ourselves, if always we are content to have the earth move slowly in its own time, and the truth prevail slowly and gradually, as it always has done.

Nothing recently, I fancy, has been of such great educational benefit to the people of this country as the coal strike. It was a very practical demonstration of the folly of that antiquated superstition, the sacred right of private property. It showed people how illogical and absurd that old idea is, and how false to fact. The truth is that any man holds his property by the consent of his fellows in the community where he lives. There is nothing sacred about the right to own property. Indeed, the right to own some kinds of property, like mines, is iniquitous. It is a custom which we cannot overturn all at once. But we have had a gleam of truth on the subject which has materially weakened our tolerance of private control of public utilities. Before long we may all awake to the simple truth that the land belongs to the people who live on it and use it, just as the whole country belongs to the people of that country. You would never expect the people of England to pay rent to France for the use of their island would you? Then why expect the people of Manhattan to pay rent to half a dozen or half a hundred persons who perhaps do not live on the island at all, or render any service whatever to the community? The whole Single Tax question is just as simple as that, logically. And it, too, is gradually coming within the range of practical politics, as they are called.

In all questions of this sort the consideration of compromise naturally comes up. How unflinchingly shall we hold our ideals, and how readily shall we give in to imperative actual conditions?

I suppose that can be answered by two statements. In the first place, it isn't necessary that we should live at all unless we can live well, unless we can live with honesty and honor. And in the second place, if we dwell persistently in a world of dreams, we shall certainly come to grief in this world of deeds, as surely as a star-gazer stubs his toe on every hummock and breaks his ship over every fallen tree. If you never look at the stars you will wander round in a circle; if you never look at the earth you will be battered to pieces before your journey is half done.

We are neither to dwell wholly in a world of ideals, nor wholly in a world of action, but to remember that beautiful ideals are but the architectural drawings and plans for stately deeds, and that actions, however noble, are only our rough attempts to give prominence and form to those fair sketches in the inspired mind.

"Practical Ideals," from galley proofs for Commercial Advertiser, [n.d.] [back]