The Ideal in the West
“You're such an Idealist...”
“In an ideal world....”
“Ideally, we could....”
The influence of “Idealism” has so penetrated our language and our
thinking that we don't recognize it as perhaps the oldest
continuously-operating philosophical system in the West. Although its
influence rises and falls, its conception and articulation of "the Good"
continues to shape our beliefs and aspirations. This is not good as
opposed to evil, but the absolute source of all beneficence, beauty, and
This book grew out of realization that Western civilization is itself in
possession of this spiritual tradition which is every bit as compelling
and magnificent as any to be found in the East--not that there’s
anything wrong with them. But I have found myself at each point along
the way in studying it saying “yes” in recognition, feeling kinship
with figures who lived hundreds and thousands of years ago. As with all
true spiritual writing, I feel they are speaking directly to me at this
moment. They make me want to be a better man; to be, in fact, Ideal.
Since its founding by Socrates and Plato over 2500 years ago, "Idealism"
has been the rootstock of all Western philosophy. Alfred North
Whitehead of course said famously that all Western philosophy consists
of a series of footnotes to Plato, and Plato's formulation of the Ideal
set the tone for something new and unique in the world. It is rational
without being dry; spiritual without being religious; it acknowledges
the shortcomings of humans, but also believes they can be as gods.
The aim of this book is to show the Ideal not as an abstract
intellectual construct, but as an eternal and ever-present reality that
can be known in experience by people everywhere. Many attempts have been
made to “define” the Ideal, and many of them will be examined in
this series, but they all point to it as the ultimate Reality, eternal,
ever-present, imperceptible to the senses, but knowable to the
intellect. This is not the intellect in the ordinary sense of the
thinking or critical mind, but a “higher” faculty of consciousness
suited perfectly to knowing the Ideal, sharing its nature. The Ideal is
the source of all the transient objects and thoughts that can be
perceived, but these are seen derivative, depending on the Ideal for
their existence, therefore being less real. In Plato's formulation,
they are mere shadows.
For this reason we will not speak of “Idealism” as a school of
thought that can be compared and contrasted with other schools of
thought. This too is a limitation. As we will see, Plato’s school of
the Ideal was not in competition with other schools of thought such as
Stoicism or Pythagorianism; although they all had different
starting-points they all attempted to transform the lives of their
students through study and practical exercises. Plato founded his
Academy to to teach the Ideal, but he always returned to its
indefinability, saying we cannot speak of the Ideal or the Good itself,
but only the child of the Good.
It is not that it is supernatural; it is that we are subspiritual.
Underneath all the names that are used for it--the Ideal, the Good, the
One, the Over-Soul, yes; God, even--is the consciousness that lives also
within each of us. It is the source of all we can see or know, but
without the anthropomorphic limitations we place on it. In Plato’s
memorable phrase, it is “the universal author of all things beautiful
and right.” Many people have studied it, some have written about it,
but a small few have known it first-hand, as Emerson says, “without
mediator or veil.” It is their unmistakable voices on which I have
centered, attempting to let them speak for themselves. They are not
historical writers, but every bit as contemporary as the most recent
Excerpted from "The Ideal in the West" by David A. Beardsley. Copyright © 0 by David A. Beardsley. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.