[Another older post that I thought had a Lenten character about it--the Church is not an ideal because it is not an idea, but the Body of Christ, not existing in some intellectual way, but in and through the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Our Lord. Pax!]
So I was droning on with someone about how idealists are the worst kind of people, who cause all the troubles in the world (yes, just a wee bit hyperbolic, I admit, ha!), but a thought that arose made the grumbling worthwhile.
You see, when you go around telling people you are not an idealist, and indeed, you are a pessimist of some sort, people often accuse you of being something like a nihilist. This comes about in one way because people assume all Christians are "idealists," but as I am fond of pointing out, I think this rings quite hollow. Knowing that Original Sin exists does not necessitate misanthropy, but it does beg a certain realism about human affairs, and the Cross to my mind is the fulfillment of Plato's dictum "all beautiful things are difficult, and prone to fail."
But more so than this, people accuse pessimists of nihilism for the sheer reason that, if you are suspicious of ideals, you must not believe in anything they assume, or perhaps you think all things are ultimately futile, etc. I think nothing of the sort, but it was precisely here where the epiphany came about: I figured out that of all people, nihilists are especially idealists! Or if they are not idealists, its not that they are anti-idealists, but more like nega-idealists, bizzaro-idealists, or for the more mathematically inclined -(idealists).
For you see, to be a nihilist is to have a pure commitment to the unraveling of everything. There is no use making things hang together as long as possible, or even trying to redeem that which is broken. For the true nihilists, there is only the burning down, forever (and this is why even Nietzsche does not see himself as a nihilist, because the will-to-power and "art's mastery over life" is what all the burning down is done FOR in his mind, even if those things have no ultimate grounding, they become their own grounding as it were).
I think this idea was fomenting in my head based on a quote I saw floating around from Sigrid Undset. “One cannot escape dogmas—those who hold most firmly to dogmas today are those whose only dogma is that dogmas should be feared like the plague.” In the end, the nihilist holds more firmly to their ideal more so than anyone else.
But for me, the real epiphany was this: even that ideal would fail. We couldn't burn the world down if we wanted to. If we wanted to ruin the planet, turn it into an ecological wasteland, if we wanted to do these things on purpose, we would ultimately fail. We would set about burning the place to the ground and accidentally have a civilization pop up somewhere, somehow. To think what sheer brutality humanity has enacted upon itself, and yet here we stand--I don't think the concerted efforts of the nihilists could so to speak "finish the job" even if they committed their best lights to it. And I think this not only because I think good ultimately overcomes evil, but because evil, by its very nature, cannot pull off what it attempts to do!
This, of course, is the argument of Plato is all sorts of places, but most wonderfully espoused by Boethius in the Consolation of Philosophy--evil cannot accomplish anything without the good, and the good requisite to completely pull off what evil would require to vanquish good undermines the evil intended. The truly evil person doesn't have the requisite goods of working together, integrity, or even lack of laziness to organize the grand coup he hopes for in his heart. The absolutely wicked don't know how to get out of bed.
This is why the most wretched danger facing mankind is the wickedness of those who understand themselves to be doing good, but who are in fact mistaken! Or in other words: idealists (still a bit of hyperbole, but not as much as earlier!). And I have said this quite often, this is where the devil really does his dirty work. You don't need to convince someone attending a crack-pipe convention (if these existed?) to follow the ways of the Father-of-all-lies. They are doing a fine enough job on their own. No, what the devil does is find an idealist, convince them that a wretched idea is the best thing for the human race, and gets them motivated to see it come about.
Thus, during Lent, we come around to the all-important point in human endeavors: humility. Do not go about your work to "solve problems" or "make things right" or "heal the world" even. Go about your work in order to do it faithfully, nobly, and justly. Do those things, all while being aware of how easy and probable it is that you have missed the mark in some way, and you really will do some long lasting good for the world.