Idealism and Experience

At one point in Dostoyevky’s Brothers Karamazov, Ivan is speaking to his younger brother Alyosha and says that “we in our green youth have to settle the eternal questions first of all. That’s what we care about.” By contrast, “the older generation is all taken up with practical questions.” The writer Turgenev, a contemporary of Dostoyevsky, commented in his memoirs that intellectual enthusiasm is natural to youth. Further he said that “it can hardly be denied that the aspirations of youth are always unselfish and honest.” Whether these aspirations are always really altruistic is open to debate. Dostoyevsky certainly saw the pitfalls.

Writing at a very different time and place, Samuel Johnson offered some relevant thoughts:

It is very natural for young men to be vehement, acrimonious and severe. For, as they seldom comprehend at once all the consequences of a position, or perceive the difficulties by which cooler and more experienced reasoners are restrained from confidence, they form their conclusions with great precipitance. Seeing nothing that can darken or embarrass the question, they expect to find their own opinion universally prevalent, and are inclined to impute uncertainty and hesitation to want of honesty, rather than of knowledge (Rambler, No. 121).

No doubt young people can be pardoned for their naïveté. They may not be capable of distinguishing between idealism, self-interest and stupidity; nevertheless, over time we do expect hard reality to produce greater caution. Further it is often the case that the more outrageous one’s initial hopes the greater one’s final disappointment and inclination to despair. In another essay Johnson warns that

Suspicion is not less an enemy to virtue than to happiness: he that is already corrupt is naturally suspicious, and he that becomes suspicious will quickly be corrupt. It is too common for us to learn the frauds by which ourselves have suffered; men who are once persuaded that deceit will be employed against them, sometimes think the same arts justified by the necessity of defence (Rambler, No. 79).

A certain ingenuousness is natural to our early years, and for that reason a jaded young person is far more insufferable than the enthusiast. As Dostoyevsky says, “in some cases it is really more to one’s credit to be carried away by an emotion, however unreasonable, which springs from a great love, than to be unmoved.” The aging radical, however, is less tolerable. Early idealism may be precocious, but it is not as yet wholly vitiated by pride. Skepticism, meanwhile, is the luxury of middle age. Perhaps it is best if we strive for a happy medium between the two, outgrowing immaturity gracefully, and cultivating good intentions so that they become more constant virtues.

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