idea . Compare OPINION.


How comes it that the word Idea, so redolent of Platonism, has been the fulcrum on which British philosophy has turned in its effort to dislodge Platonism from its foundations, and to lay bare the positive facts? The vicissitudes of words are instructive; they show us what each age understood or forgot in the wisdom of its predecessors, and what new things it discovered to which it gave the old names. The beauty which Plato and the English saw in Ideas was the same beauty; they both found in Ideas the immediate, indubitable object of knowledge. And nevertheless, hugging the same certitude, they became sure of entirely different things.

The word Idea ought to mean any theme which attention has lighted up, any aesthetic or logical essence, so long as it is observed in itself or used to describe some ulterior existence. Amid a thousand metaphysical and psychological abuses of the term this purely ideal signification sometimes reappears in polite speech; for instance when Athalie says, in Racine:

J'ai deux fois, en dormant, revu la même idée.

Here, perhaps by chance, the word is used with absolute propriety and its chief implications are indicated. An Idea is something seen, an immediate  presence; it is something seen in a dream, or imaginary ; and it is the same Idea when seen a second time, or a universal. That universals are present to intuition was the secret of Plato; yet it is the homeliest of truths. It comes to seem a paradox, or even inconceivable, because people suppose they see what they believe they are looking at, which is some particular thing, the object of investigation, of desire, and of action; they overlook the terms of their thought, as they overlook the perspective of the landscape. These terms, which are alone immediate, are all universals. Belief—the expectation, fear, or sense of events hidden or imminent—precedes clear perception; but it is supposed to be derived from it. Perception without belief would be mere intuition of Ideas, and no belief in things or ulterior events could ever be based on it. A seraph who should know only Ideas would be incapable of conceiving any fact, or noting any change, or discovering his own spiritual existence; he would be mathematics actualized, a landscape self-composed, and love spread like butter. The human mind, on the contrary, is the expression of an animal life, swimming hard in the sea of matter. It begins by being the darkest belief and the most helpless discomfort, and it proceeds gradually to relieve this uneasiness and to tincture this blind faith with more and more luminous Ideas, Ideas, in the discovery of facts, are only graphic symbols, the existence and locus of the facts thus described being posited in the first place by animal instinct and watchfulness. If we suspend these eager explorations for a moment, and check our practical haste in understanding the material structure of things and in acting upon them, it becomes perfectly obvious that the data of actual intuition are sounds, figures, movements, landscapes, stories—all universal essences appearing, and perhaps reappearing, as in a trance.

I think that Plato in his youth must have seen his Ideas with this mystical directness, and must have felt the irritation common to mystics at being called back out of that poetic ecstasy into the society of material things. Those essences were like the gods, dear and immortal, however fugitive our vision of them might be; whereas things were in their inmost substance intricate and obscure and treacherously changeable; you could never really know what any of them was, nor what it might become. The Ideas were our true friends, our natural companions, and all our safe knowledge was of them; things were only vehicles by which Ideas were conveyed to us, as the copies of a book are vehicles for its sense.

Nevertheless, the happy intuition of pure essences of all sorts, as life vouchsafes it to the free poet or to the logician, could not satisfy the heart of Plato. He felt the burden, the incessant sweet torment, of the flesh; and when age—as I think we may detect in the changed tone of his thoughts—relieved him of this obsession, which had been also his first inspiration, it only reinforced an obsession of a different kind, the indignation of an aristocrat and the sorrow of a patriot at the doom which hung visibly over his country. The fact that love intervened from the beginning in Plato's vision of the Ideas explains why his Ideas were not the essences actually manifested in experience, as it comes to the cold eye or the mathematical brain. When love looks, the image is idealized; it does their several visions; yet of the origin and of the end of life we know as little as ever. And the reason is this: that intuition is not a material organ of the Psyche, like a hand or an antenna; it is a miraculous child, far more alive than herself, whose only instinct is play, laughter, and brooding meditation. This strange child—who could have been his father?—is a poet; absolutely useless and incomprehensible to his poor mother, and only a new burden on her shoulders, because she can't help feeding and loving him. He sees ; which to her is a mystery, because although she has always acted as if, in some measure, she felt things at a distance, she has never seen and never can see anything. Nor are his senses, for all their vivacity, of any use to her. For what do they reveal to him? Always something irrelevant: a shaft of dusty light across the rafters, a blue flame dancing on the coals, a hum, a babbling of waters, a breath of heat or of coolness, a mortal weariness or a groundless joy—all dream-images, visions of a play world, essences painted on air, such as any poet might invent in idleness. Yet the child cares about them immensely: he is full of sudden tears and of jealous little loves. "Hush, my child," says good mother Psyche, "it's all nonsense." It is not for those fantastic visions that she watches: she knits with her eyes shut, and mutters her same old prayers. She has always groped amidst obstacles like a mole pressing on where the earth is softest. She can tell friends from enemies (not always correctly) by a mysterious instinct within her, and the rhythm, as it were, of their approaching step. She is long-suffering and faithful, like Penelope; but when hard-pressed and at bay she becomes fierce. She is terribly absolute then, blindly bent on vengeance and wild destruction. At other times she can melt and be generous; in her beehive she is not only the congregation of workers, but also the queen. Her stubborn old-womanish temper makes her ordinarily unjust to her best impulses and hypocritical about her worst ones. She is artful but not intelligent, least of all about herself. For this reason she can never understand how she gave birth to such a thankless child. She hardly remembers the warm ray from the sun or from some other celestial source which one day pierced presents actually will be only a few, and not the most welcome, since this world is a most paradoxical, odd, and picturesque object, and not at all the sort of world which the human mind (being a highly specialized part of it) would have made or can easily believe to be real. The Ideas which a philosopher says govern the world are not likely to be its true laws; and, if he has really drawn them from observation, they cannot possibly be all, nor the best, Ideas on which his free mind would have chosen to dwell. The truth, which is a standard for the naturalist, for the poet is only a stimulus; and in many an idealist the poet debauches the naturalist, and the naturalist paralyses the poet. The earth might well upbraid Plato for trying to build his seven-walled cloud-castle on her back, and to circumscribe her in his magic circles. Why should she be forbidden to exhibit any other essences than those authorized by this metaphysical Solon? Why should his impoverished Olympian theology be imposed upon her, and all her pretty dryads and silly fauns, all her harpies and chimeras, be frowned upon and turned into black devils? How these people who would moralize nature hate nature; and if they loved nature, how sweetly and firmly would morality take its human place there without all this delusion and bluster! But I am not concerned so much with the violence done by Plato to nature; nature can take care of herself, and being really the mother even of the most waspish philosopher, with his sting and his wings and his buzzing, she can comfortably find room for him and his system amongst her swarming children. I wish I knew if the real wasps, too, have a philosophy, and what it is; probably as vital and idealistic as that of the Germans. But I am grieved rather at the servitude and at the stark aspect imposed on the Platonic Ideas by their ambition to rule the world. They are like the shorn Samson in the treadmill; they have lost the radiance and the music of Phoebus Apollo. Socrates taught that to do wrong is to suffer harm; and his Ideas, in establishing their absurd theocracy over nature, were compelled to bend their backs to that earth-labour, and to become merely a celestial zoology, a celestial grammar, and a celestial ethics. Heaven had stooped to rule the earth, and the crooked features of the earth had cast their grotesque shadow on heaven.

This is the first chapter in the sad history of Ideas. Now for the second.

The honest Englishman does not care much for Ideas, because in his labour, he is occupied with things and in his leisure with play, or with rest in a haze of emotional indolence: but finding himself, for the most part, deep in the mess of business, he is heartily desirous of knowing the facts; and when, in his scrupulous inquiry into the facts, he finds at bottom only Ideas, and is constrained to become a philosopher against his will, he contrives, out of those very Ideas, to elicit some knowledge of fact. Ideas are not intrinsically facts, but suppositions; they are descriptions offering themselves officiously as testimonials for facts whose character remains problematical, since, if there were no such facts, the Ideas would still be the same; yet, says the melancholy Jaques to himself, "Is it not a fact that I have made this dubious supposition? Am I not entertaining this Idea? This sad but undeniable experience of mine, not the fact which I sought nor the Idea which I found, is the actual fact, and the undeniable existence." Thus the occurrence of any experience, or the existence of any illusion, assumes the names both of fact and of idea in his vocabulary, and the existence of ideas becomes the corner-stone of his philosophy.

The most candid and delightful of English philosophers (who was an Irishman) was Berkeley. In his ardent youth, like Plato, he awoke to pure intuition: he saw Ideas, or at least he saw that he did not see material things; but instead of studying these Ideas for their own sake with a steadier gaze, he took up the disputatious notion of denying that material things existed at all, because he could not see  them. It was a great simplification; and if he had not had conventional and apologetic axes to grind, he might have reached the radical conclusion, familiar to Indian sages, that nothing could exist at all, least of all himself. Language, however, and the Cartesian philosophy, made it easy for him to assume that of course he existed, since he saw these Ideas; and he was led by a malicious demon to add, that the Ideas existed too, since he saw them, so long as they were visible to him. Bat if he existed only in that he saw the Ideas, and the Ideas existed in that he saw them, was there any difference at all between himself seeing and the Ideas seen? None, I am afraid: so that he himself, whom he had proudly called a spirit, would be in truth only a series of ideas (I spell them now with a small i), and the ideas—in which he had not stopped to recognize eternal essences—would be only the pulses of his fugitive existence.

Here is substance for an excellent ironical system of the universe, such as some philosopher in Greece might have espoused; a flux of absolute intensive existences, variously coloured and more or less warm, like the sparks of a rocket. Some scientific philosopher in our day or in the future may be tempted to work out this system, and it might have been the true one. But I see an objection to it from the point of view of British philosophy, which covets knowledge of fact. The philosopher conceiving this system, if the system was true, would be only one of those sparks; he could have no idea except the idea which he was; the whole landscape before him would be but the fleeting nature of himself. Although, therefore, by an infinitely improbable accident, his philosophy might be true, he could have no reason to think it true, and no possibility of not thinking it so. A genuine sceptic might be satisfied with this result, enjoying each moment of his being, and laughing at his own perpetual pretension of knowing anything further. And since extremes meet, such a mocking sceptic might easily become, like Plato, a lover of pure Ideas. If he really abandons all claims, all hopes, all memory which is more than fantasy, and simply enjoys the illusion of the moment, he dwells on an Idea, which is all that an illusion can supply. The immediate has a mystical charm; it unveils some eternal essence, and the extreme of renunciation, like a sacrificial death, brings a supreme security in another sphere. Berkeley and Hume were little more than boys when they fell in love with Ideas; perhaps, if we knew their personal history, we should find that they were little children when they first did so, and that pure Essence was the Beatrice that had secretly inspired all their lives. But though they were youths of genius, there was a touch in them of the prig; the immediate, dear as it is to fresh and honest hearts, was too unconventional for them legally to wed and to take home, as it were, to their worldly relations. In England to love Ideas is to sow one's intellectual wild oats. There may be something healthy and impetuous in that impulse which is engaging; but it must not go too far, and above all it must not be permanent. The British philosopher dips into idealism in order to reform belief, to get rid of dangerous shams or uncongenial dogmas, not for the sake of pure intuition or instant assurance. He wishes to remove impediments to action; he hates great remote objects as he hates popery and policy; imposing things are impositions. Better get rid, if possible, of substance and cause and necessity and abstractions and self and consciousness. The purpose is to reduce everything to plain experience of fact, and to rest neither in pure intuition nor in external existences. For instance, he has two arguments against the existence of matter which he finds equally satisfactory: one that matter cannot exist because he can form no idea of it, and the other that matter cannot exist because it is merely an idea which he forms. He descends to the immediate only for the sake of the ulterior, for the immediate in some other place. If he found himself reduced to essences actually given now, he would be terribly unhappy, and I am sure would renounce philosophy as a bad business, as he did in the person of Hume, his most profound representative.

Thus European speculation, like the Athalie of Racine, has twice in its dreams beheld the same Ideas; but like that uneasy heroine it has been troubled by the sight, and has stretched out its arms to grasp the painted shadow. The first time, instead of Ideas, it found a celestial hierarchy of dominations and powers, a bevy of magic influences, angels, and demons. The second time, instead of Ideas, it found an irrevocable flux of existing feelings, without sense, purpose, connection, or knowledge. Perhaps if on the third occasion the Ideas visited a less burdened and preoccupied soul, that could look on them without apprehension, they might be welcomed for their fair aspect and for the messages they convey from things, without being, in their own persons, either deified or materialized.