The Vision of Perfection
[Note: This is taken from Hamilton Wright Mabie's Books and Culture.]
These writers are also, by virtue of the faculty of discerning the interior relations of appearances and events, the expositors of that ultimate Idealism which not only discovers the possibility of the whole in the parts, of the perfect in the imperfect, but which discovers the whole, the complete and the perfect, and brings each before us in some noble form. The reality of the Ideal as Plato saw it is by no means universally accepted as a philosophical conclusion, but all high-minded men and women accept it as a rule of life. Idealism is wrought into the very fibre of the race, and is as indestructible as the imagination in which it has its roots. Deep in the heart of humanity lies the unshakable faith in its essential divinity, and in the reality of its highest hopes of development and attainment. The failure of noble schemes, the decline of enthusiasms, the fading of visions and dreams which seemed to have the luminous constancy of fixed stars, breed temporary depressions and passing moods of scepticism and despair; but the spiritual vitality of the race always reasserts itself, and faith returns after every disaster or disillusion.
Indeed, as the race grows older and masters more and more a knowledge of its conditions, the impression of the essential greatness of the experience we call life deepens in the finer spirits. It becomes clear that the end towards which the hopes of the world have always moved is farther off than it seemed to the earlier generations; that the process of spiritual and social evolution is longer and more painful; that the universe is vaster and more wonderful than the vision of it which formed in the imagination of thinkers and poets; in a word, that the education which is being imparted to humanity by the very structure of the conditions under which it lives grows more severe, prolonged, and exacting as its methods and processes become more clear. The broadening of the field of observation has steadily deepened the impression of the magnitude and majesty of the physical order by which men are surrounded; and the fuller knowledge of what is in human experience has steadily deepened the impression of the almost tragic greatness of the lot of men. The disappointments of the race have been largely due to its inadequate conception of its own possibilities; its disillusions have been like the fading of the mirage which simulates against the near horizon that which lies long leagues away. These disappointments and disillusions, as Browning saw clearly, are essential parts of an education which leads the race step by step from smaller to larger ideas, from nearer and easier to more remote and difficult attainments.
The disappointment which comes with the completion of every piece of work well and wisely done does not arise from the futility of the work, as the pessimists tell us, but from its inadequacy to express entirely the thought and force of the man who has striven to express himself completely in a material which, however masterfully used, can never give its ultimate form to a spiritual conception. It is not an evidence of failure, but a prophecy of greater achievement. A world in which the work was as great as the worker, the piece of art as the artist, would be a finished world in more senses than one; a world in which all work is inadequate to contain the energy of the worker, all art insufficient to express the soul of the artist, is necessarily a prophetic world, bearing witness to the presence of a creative force in workers and artists immeasurably beyond the capacity of any perishable material to receive or to preserve.
A rational Idealism is, therefore, not only indestructible in a race which does not violate the laws of life, but is instilled into the higher order of minds by the order of life as revealed by science, history, and the arts. And this idealistic tendency is not only the poetic temper; it is the hope and safeguard of society. The real perils of the race are not material; they are always spiritual; and no peril could be greater than the loss of faith and hope in the possibility of attaining the best things. If men are ever bereft of their instinctive or rational conviction that they have the power ultimately to bring institutions of all kinds into harmony with their higher conceptions, they will sink into the lethargy of despair or the slough of sensualism. The belief in the reality of the Ideal in personal and social life is not only the joy and inspiration of the poet and thinker; it is also the salvation of the race. It is imperishable, because it is the product of the play of the imagination on the realities of life; and until the imagination perishes, the vision of the ultimate perfection will form and reform in the heart of every generation. It is the inspiration of every art, the end of every noble occupation, the secret hope of every fine character.
Idealism in this sense, not as the product of an easy and ignorant optimism turning away from the facts of life, but as the product of a large and spiritual dealing with those facts, is the very soul, not only of noble living, but of those noble expressions of life which the greater writers have given us. They disclose wide diversity of gifts, but they have this in common,—that, in discovering to us the spiritual order of the facts of life, they disclose also those ideal figures which the race accepts as embodiments of its secrets, hopes, and aims. It is a significant fact that, in portraying the Greek of his time, Homer has given us also the ideal Greek and the Greek ideals. His insight went to the soul of the persons he described, and he struck into that spiritual order in which the ideal is not only a reality, but, in a sense, the only reality.
Cervantes, in the very act of destroying a false Idealism, conventionally conceived and treated, made one of the most beautiful revelations of a true Idealism which the world has yet received. Shakespeare's presentation of the facts of life is, on the whole, the most comprehensive and impressive which has yet been made; in the disclosure of tragic elements it is unsurpassed; and yet what a host of ideal figures move through the plays and invest them with a light beyond the glow of art! In the Forest of Arden and on Prospero's Island there live, beyond the touch of time and the vicissitudes of fate, those gracious and beautiful spirits in whom the race sees its noblest hopes come true, its instinctive faith in itself justified. These spirits are not airy nothings, woven of the unsubstantial gossamer of which dreams are made; they are born of a deep insight into the possibilities of the soul, and a rational faith in their reality. Prospero is as real as Trinculo, and Rosalind as true as Cressida. These ideal persons are not necessarily fortunate in their surroundings or happy in their lot; they are simply perfect in their development of a type. They are not abnormal beings, rising above normal conditions; they are normal beings, rising above abnormal conditions. They stand for wholeness amid fragments, for perfection amid imperfection; but the very imperfection and fragmentariness by which they are surrounded predicts their coming and affirms their reality.
In the rounded and developed nature there must be a deep vein of the Idealism which grows out of the vision of things in their large relations—out of a view of men ample enough to discern not only what they are at this stage of development, but what they may become when development has been completed. Nothing is more essential than the courage, the joy, and the insight which grow out of such an Idealism, and no spiritual possession is more easily lost. The spiritual depression of a reactionary period, the routine of work, the immersion in the stream of events, the decline of moral energy, conspire to blight this noble use of the imagination, and to chill the faith which makes creative living and working possible. The familiar companionship of the great Idealists is one of the greatest resources against the paralysis of this faith and the decay of this faculty.