THEOSOPHY, Vol. 91, Fall 2002
(Pages 5-12; Size: 15K)


[Article number (20) in this Department]

Are high ideals ever too ideal?

Looking up in the night sky, at constellations recognized and mysterious, telescopes open up a universe that alters our sense of place in the world and our potential as well as an awareness of limitations. Exploring these celestial territories changes our perception and perhaps even how receptive we are to new ideas and challenges. Our decisions reflect our basic assumptions on what is true and what is potential, and yet we can find the diversity of worldviews staggering. Consider one response to recent peace efforts amid violent conflict: "That might be alright for Jesus or Buddha, but this is different." Is it?

On one hand, we hear that all cannot be love and unity without incredible self-deception about the state of the world and about our role in it. On the other hand, we often see people acting from what is considered a divine inner instinct for good, a sense that the universe looks kindly on us, etc. Whether accused of being mired in cynicism or looking out of rose-colored glasses, our efforts variously depict the underlying belief that all actions work in accordance to conceived (or preconceived) laws. The roots to the dilemma are complex as we work our way to inner revelations and start asking core questions. Who are we? Are we aspects of one mind? Is "god" a collection of individual minds? Do we pay homage to the One or the Many? What is our faith centered on? What do we trust to be true?

Politically; idealism is one of those culturally loaded words. Whether the intention is personal criticism or merely political rhetoric, the meaning becomes easily muddled. Yet the heritage of idealism is impressive. Beginning with Plato, the lineage includes Thomas Paine, Albert Schweitzer, and Mohandas Gandhi. Labels such as idealism also are associated with the theosophical movement.

In the first volume of The Secret Doctrine (p. 631) H. P. Blavatsky called esoteric philosophy "objective idealism," in regard to our relationship to perceived reality, drawing a "practical distinction between collective illusion ... from the purely metaphysical stand-point, and the objective relations in it between various conscious Egos so long as this illusion lasts." We live in this world, as even Buddha's disciples return to the marketplace, and are intended to integrate the theosophical practices within these lives. So what does this mean to us, this idealism? In what follows here, several students of theosophy explore this question of high ideals, by examining different facets of this inquiry.


Usually the ideal is contrasted with the real -- a way of saying, "The idealist has his head in the clouds," or "she has lost her sense of reality." The philosophy of theosophy states the exact opposite. The ideal is the real. Idealists are the only ones who have their fingers on the pulse of reality. So-called realists are lost in the clouds of illusion from which no escape is possible until they admit the reality of the ideal and the unreality of the non-ideal.

As Plato reiterates in all his dialogues, behind this material world of flesh, shapes, physical events, emotional responses and finite thoughts, is a world of absolute forms or ideals. The table we see with these oh-so-fallible physical eyes is only a shadow of the real table, which is the idea of tableness itself that exists forever in universal mind. That ideal table is perfect in every way, indivisible, indestructible. Without that ideal table, there could be no existence at all for the shadowy material table. Similarly with justice. Similarly with goodness.

Similarly with ourselves. We are first and foremost spirit, which is the highest ideal of all. That is what we are. When we strive for the ideal we strive for what we always have been and what we always will be. Evolution is the gradual realization of that true ideal nature.

If spirit is our ideal, it can never be too high, because that is what we are. If universal love is our ideal, it can never be too high, because that is what we are. If compassion for all beings, kindness, patience, courage, and generosity are our ideals, they can never be too high, because that is what we are.

Our problem is not ideals or their height. Our problem is our attitude towards them. One problem: we deny their reality. Another problem: we think they are impossible to achieve. Another problem: we think they may be possible to achieve by others, but not by us; we are too insignificant and weak. All these are ruses of the lower mind to trick us into falsely defining ourselves as puny, selfish, mean and separate human beings and avoiding the awesome truth that we are in fact infinite, selfless, all-wise gods.

Masters of wisdom -- Krishna, Buddha, Jesus and their like -- are the manifestation of the highest ideal in human flesh. Their lives and their teachings remind us of what we all can become. They tell us to cling to the ideal; do not let it go; do not give in to doubt, to fear, to illusion, to any distraction that leads us away from achieving our spiritual destiny.


To be human is to be idealistic. The most ancient religions of the East, the art of classical Greece, the Christian Gnostics, and the human potential movement of our own day, all reflect a vision of something higher, more powerful and universal than we presently understand, express or fully embrace. The idea of "the higher life," a sense of the miraculous, an inspiration that lifts us out of the repetitive, habitual life, or the feeling of deep love or unity -- all of these declare human idealism.

The bloodstained pages of history hide the divine discontent that we all feel. Humankind is always trying to improve upon whatever we have achieved in every area of human endeavor. A kind of idealism is what allows us to stand up against "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" that physical life heaps upon us. If life were merely the struggle for survival, the perpetuation of the species, we would have perished long ago.

The question is: pipe dream or possibility? The great sages of the past and present, East and West seem to agree that each of us is a work in progress, and a grand work at that. We have the possibility to reach much greater heights, not only of understanding ourselves and the world we live in, but to develop the capacity to more fully express our innate spirituality and to harmonize with others to actually create a living expression of the "radical unity" of all life, a heaven on Earth. The visionary poets, spiritual philosophers, great composers and artists of all sorts, in all ages, declare through their work that our idealism is worth the price of the Promethean sacrifice. (Prometheus dared on behalf of all beings to live up to his potential.) The mythic idea of a golden age is the story of what we can become. Each moment we make the effort to live in greater harmony with our neighbor, each choice we make that considers the welfare of the planet and not only our personal comfort, every time we break the habitual way of seeing ourselves and others as bundles of opinions, likes, dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, etc., and harness our energy, and every time we open our hearts and minds with honesty and without anticipation -- we are surging into the realm of idealism -- we are weaving the threads of a golden age.

Will we fail to live up to our ideals? Of course we will. The fact that we always see more than we can possibly embrace, yet strive to fulfill, a higher vision of what it means to be human is the engine of our evolution. Our challenge is to keep our spiritual eye open and not lapse into the common oblivion that Wordsworth expresses so powerfully in his "Ode To Immortality":

Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature's priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away
And fade into the light of common day.

"To the profound understanding, the most abstract idea is practical and its theory is its own evidence," wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, in "Nature." In other words, an ideal and a paradigm are synonymous and represent the models or basis for all our thoughts and actions. Every thought and act is guided by an ideal that we hold to be true.

When we hear people say, "that is too idealistic," implicit is the sense or knowledge of something better but unreachable in our consciousness. Our aims and goals constantly recede before our eyes. What is our estimate of our ideals? Do they need adjustment or are they fixed? Are we mimicking a metaphysical process? That is, is not a paradigm required before we can have the realization of an idea? Once we actualize an idea or goal, we have become consciously aware of something that was previously considered to be "too idealistic." The relative and the absolute ideals are the ideals that are reachable within our view and those that are still to be realized. Beyond both of these is the unchangeable; this realization is devoid of duality and is full consciousness of the highest state attainable over a vast period of evolution through a series of initiations, for all is consciousness and its states.

There are three lines of evolution that set forth the process of moving into higher awareness: monadic or spiritual, intellectual or manasic, and physical. Blavatsky describes this process:

These three are the finite aspects or the reflections on the field of Cosmic Illusion of ATMA, the seventh, the ONE REALITY. ... This body serves as the vehicle for the "growth" (to use a misleading word) and the transformations through Manas and -- owing to the accumulation of experiences -- of the finite into the INFINITE, of the transient into the Eternal and Absolute (SD i, p. 181).
The Bhagavad Gita describes three qualities that reside in nature and might be considered modes of thought and action: satva, truth; rajas, action; and tamas, darkness or ignorance. Above these three qualities is a higher Satva or Truth and is realized by the "Perceiver; is assuredly vision itself pure and simple; unmodified and looks directly upon ideas." (Patanjali, Book ii, Aphorism 20.)

Bearing in mind the gunas and this three-fold evolution, the one absolute existence includes many realities:

... all things are relatively real, for the cognizer is also a reflection, and the things cognized are therefore as real to him as himself. Whatever reality things possess must be looked for in them before or after they have passed like a flash through the material world ... Whatever plane our consciousness may be acting in, both we and the things belonging to that plane are, for the time being, our only realities. ... the upward progress of the Ego is a series of progressive awakenings, each advance bringing with it the idea that now, at last, we have reached 'reality'; but only when we shall have reached the absolute Consciousness, and blended our own with it, shall we be free from the delusions produced by Maya (SD i, pp. 39-40).
We are in a constant initiation into higher consciousness. At any given point, we may say that an ideal is too high for our perceptions because it has not yet been realized. Without absolute potentiality, the paradigm that might be realized would be intellectual reasoning without the illumination of Atma-Buddhi, or divine reason. Divine reasoning, according to Plato's four modes of knowledge (cited by Thomas Taylor in his Introduction to the Phaedrus), surpasses scientific inference and religious revelation. Beyond these two types comes the dialectical "progression through all ideas," wherein "we arrive at the first principles of things, and at that which is no longer hypothetical; and this by dividing some things and analyzing others, by producing many things from one thing, and one from the many." Taylor continues with the highest kind of knowledge:
(direct perception) is still more simple than this; because it no longer uses analysations or compositions, definitions or demonstrations, but by a simple and self-visive energy of Intellect speculates things themselves, and by intuition and contact becomes one with the object of its perception.
And, this is divine reasoning.

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