There has arisen in our time a most singular fancy: the fancy that when things go very wrong we need a practical man. It would be far truer to say, that when things go very wrong we need an unpractical man. Certainly, at least, we need a theorist. A practical man means a man accustomed to mere daily practice, to the way things commonly work. When things will not work, you must have the thinker, the man who has some doctrine about why they work at all. It is wrong to fiddle while Rome is burning; but it is quite right to study the theory of hydraulics while Rome is burning… For the man of action there is nothing but idealism. —G.K. Chesterton
The idealist is an optimistic realist: A realist because he sees things as they are (hence his discontent), an optimist because he sees them as they might be, as they should be. Without idealists there could be no progress and no reform, for progress must be toward something and reformation demands a form. But of course one cannot get from A to B by wishing, so every good idealist must also have a System.
The System is the route from here to there, from status quo to what ought to be. “If only we…” then the ideal might be realized. Communism, courtship, and classical education are all Systems. The System takes the ideal and grounds it, explains how you and I can push toward it. And therein lies the danger, because Systems are much easier to hold onto than are ideals.
To follow an ideal requires imagination and will, conjuring up what is not yet and may never be. Far easier to hold onto the System, the concrete plan with steps and routines that can be accomplished today. And so we gradually lose the ideal in the System, becoming like the Texan who was told he could reach the Black Hills if he headed north and now battles polar bears as he makes his dogged way to South Dakota. It is hard to keep our eyes fixed on the horizon; they soon slip downwards and take up the easier task of merely making sure we continue to put one foot in front of the other.
It is for this failing that God rebuked Israel in Amos 5, beginning with one of the most chilling passages in Scripture:
Alas, you who are longing for the day of the Lord,
For what purpose will the day of the Lord be to you?
It will be darkness and not light;
As when a man flees from a lion
And a bear meets him,
Or goes home, leans his hand against the wall
And a snake bites him.
Will not the day of the Lord be darkness instead of light,
Even gloom with no brightness in it?
“I hate, I reject your festivals,
Nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer up to Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
And I will not even look at the peace offerings of your fatlings.
Take away from Me the noise of your songs;
I will not even listen to the sound of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters
And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
The Jews had not abandoned the elaborate system of festivals and solemn assemblies, burnt offerings, grain offerings, and peace offerings of fatlings, songs and music, by which the Lord commanded them to worship and serve him, but somehow in all that pile of worshiping and serving they had lost the Lord. The problem, of course, lay not in the system itself (which was good and necessary), but in allowing it to become the ideal.
This easy transmutation of means into end-in-itself is not confined to religious matters. We see it on a national scale as America fights to spread democracy throughout the world, forgetting that democracy is merely one good way of protecting the inalienable rights of the individual, without which it offers nothing but another flavor of tyranny. In my own field, increasing numbers of homeschooling parents seem to assume that simply schooling at home is a sufficient condition for educational success, as if the type of building in which a child is seated when a textbook is dumped in front of him is somehow determinative of his comprehension.
Even the best system will start to warp and distort if it becomes the focus, like an engine trying to power itself. To take an example mentioned earlier, the courtship system is founded on excellent ideals: involve family and community in the relationship, maintain physical and emotional purity, and of course seek God first in everything. And yet, one can’t help noticing a certain unhealthy mania in the way some families handle it, as if the key to an exceptional marriage is checking all the boxes on the courtship chart. We’ve all heard stories of girls who got cold feet at the last minute when they suddenly realized their fiancé would be marrying them, not their father. They had checklisted their way through the System so thoroughly that they forgot where it was taking them.
Ideals matter. Systems matter too, because they are the means by which ideals are realized. And in general, we spend more time thinking about systems than ideals, simply because they are more complicated since they must consider not only what should be but what is, and how to move from the one to the other. It is easy to become overly attached to the product of so much thought, prayer, and effort, but it is important that we hold our systems lightly, always remembering why we have them in the first place; motivated not by allegiance to the system, but by love for what the system seeks.