Saturday, May 07, 2022

What is an Ideology?

One of Plato’s most important contributions to philosophy is the doctrine of Ideas, the notion that non-material abstractions, which he called “Ideas”, are eternal, and more real than things in the material world. To give a specific example, the abstraction “horseness” is, according to this doctrine, more real than material horses, and exists eternally in a world of Ideas; actual horses in this world merely participate in that abstraction. Plato would say that if a man who had never seen a horse and knew nothing about them were to see one, and then see another later on, he would immediately know them to be the same kind of thing, not because of their physical similarity (horses can, after all, vary greatly in size, shape and color), but because they both participate in the same Idea. (The larger point of this doctrine is that things more important than horses, such as Virtue and Truth, also exist as eternal Ideas, independently of the degree to which they are practiced or known.)

Aristotle, however, rejected this doctrine of his teacher, a difference which gave rise to the proverb, “Plato was my friend, but the truth is a better friend.” (This is loosely based on a passage of the Nicomachean Ethics, 1096a, 11-15, and often cited in Latin, “Amicus Plato, sed magis amica veritas.”) For Aristotle, ideas, that is, abstractions, are less real than the material objects from which they are abstracted; they exist only in our minds, not in an eternal world of Ideas, and if a certain kind of object were wholly unknown to man, there would be no idea of it. To return to the example given above, “horseness” is less real than horses, and exists only in the human mind. If there were no horses, or no minds to perceive them, there would be no idea of a horse.

The central section of Raphael’s School of Athens, with Plato and Aristotle highlighted by their position under the central arch. Plato, to the left, holds a copy of the Timaeus, and points up to the world of Ideas, while Aristotle on the right, holding the Ethics, gestures downward to the more real material world. (Plato is traditionally, but in all likelihood erroneously, said to be a portrait of Leonardo da Vinci; the figure writing at the desk was added later, and is believed by many scholars, with far greater probability, to be a portrait of Michelangelo. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons, cropped.)
If the second paragraph above seemed more sensible to you than the first one (“horseness”?), that would be because it was the Aristotelian meaning of “idea” that prevailed, and to a large degree, evolved to mean, “something that ONLY exists in the mind.” In the modern term “ideology”, therefore, “ideo-” comes from “idea” understood in its Aristotelian sense of something that is less real than reality. The word’s second element, “-logy”, derives from “logos” in the sense of “reasoning.” “Ideology” therefore means “to reason according to or by means of an idea”, that is to say, looking at and understanding the world by means of a concept that is not real.

To give a specific example (unrelated to horses), Communism is an ideology; it assesses the world through notions about human nature and economics that have no relationship to reality, but exist only in the mind of communists. One of these notions, which would prove to be particularly catastrophic in the Soviet Union, was that one very large collective enterprise (say, a million acre farm) is better than many small enterprises (say, 1000 thousand-acre farms), because it will bring greater equality among the members of society. This was only true to the degree that it brought all the farmers on whom it was imposed to a roughly equal degree of poverty and misery.

The worst problem with assessing the world through such non-real notions is that they can render people permanently, and in some cases incurably, blind to reality. For example, there was no degree of failure of the Soviet economy, however catastrophic, and no degree of ensuing human misery, that could convince diehard members of the Communist Party that their ideology was a failure.
Religious liberty in the workers’ paradise: agents of the Soviet state steal one of the bells of the cathedral of St Volodomyr in Kyiv, Ukraine, on January 5, 1930, the day before Christmas Eve on the Julian Calendar. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
There is probably no area of the Church’s life today that is unaffected by ideologies in a similarly destructive way, but there is certainly none in which this is more the case than in the field of the liturgy. Many people insist on looking at the post-Conciliar reform only through certain ideological lenses. Through these lenses, it is declared to be the product and fulfillment of the original Liturgical Movement inspired by men like Dom Guéranger and Fr Romano Guardini, whose ideals it betrayed, whose principles it largely rejected, and whose goals it did not fulfill. It is declared to be the product and fulfillment of the will of Vatican II as expressed in Sacrosanctum Concilium, whose ideals it also betrayed, whose principles it also largely rejected, and whose goals it also did not fulfill. Concerns that the scholarly premises of the reform were erroneous at best, and its methods fraudulent, are ignored or dismissed. It is declared to be a spectacular pastoral success, as churches and religious houses and schools empty and close, and membership in the Church collapses precipitously. And because it is in the very nature of an ideology to blind those who believe in it to its failures, those who point out its failures are either insulted or silenced, but never answered.
The great renewal of the liturgy proceeds apace in the land of the Synodal Way...
Reality, however, inexorably forces itself on the ideologue, or breaks the system he builds for himself out of his ideology. There came a point when nobody believed in Communism enough to order the troops to shoot those who protested against its failures, longing for a better world, and the deep shadow of evil and oppression that loomed over the world through most of my childhood vanished with an unimaginable suddenness. “Let God arise”, our Byzantine friends sing at Easter, “and let his enemies be scattered...” And so He did, and so they were.

Likewise, there will come a day when the ideological conviction that the post-Conciliar reforms have been a spectacular success no longer holds the unreasonable fascination that it does on so many minds, especially among those who lived through them and remain unduly attached to the naïve optimism of their youth. Then the insults and forced resignations and suppressions will come to an end, and there will begin the difficult process of honestly assessing what went wrong, and why it went wrong, and determining what needs to be done to put it right.

It can be tiresome to wait for that to happen, but happen it always does, and in the meantime, as St Paul reminds us, “love beareth all things.” In Poland, it took ten years, and they were ten undeniably difficult years. But in Czechoslovakia, it took ten months, in East Germany, ten weeks, and in Romania, ten days.

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