The intellect is a curious thing. We talk about ideas spreading like viruses throughout society, or even across societies. (And note how, every few months, we see a sudden burst of moral outrage — around some antiquated symbol — flaring up in different states and countries only to die out like so many health scares. The moral outrage, the idea, literally spreads.)
But, although marketers and social media campaigners want to spread their particular “idea virus,” typically, we try to avoid catching actual viruses. But the term is a good one. Ideas not only grab hold of societies, they can become malignant in individuals themselves. Good intentions can pave the road to hell, to paraphrase a well-known proverb. Ideas can metastasize.
Viruses can look beautiful under the microscope, and the germ of an idea elaborated upon to the point of becoming an all-encompassing ideology can prove highly attractive, especially to those not used to dispassionately considering opposing views (which is probably most people). But, once caught by it, not only do the ideological want to spread their virus to as many people as possible, they will often find that, as with catching a biological virus in regard to the physical body, the idea virus starts to undermine the person’s body of ideas, i.e., his or her intellect and spirit. Eventually, this will affect the physical body and the physical world around the individual as well.
An ugly ideology, once it takes over a mass of individuals, manifests in ugly speech — attacking anyone that doesn’t agree — and even in ugly behavior, dress, and physical appearance. (Note, for example, the lack of physical strength among those committed to some ideology or other.)
There might be good reason why the hysterical, screaming mob seems rarely to be composed of the physically fit. Perhaps such displays of anger are, in fact, nature’s way of compensating for a lack of physical training since, notably, anger speeds the heart rate, raises testosterone, and lowers cortisol: all effects associated with physical exercise — though the latter isn’t associated with anger, but, generally with the euphoric release of endorphins.
A euphoria of the mob can, however, be witnessed in probably hundreds of YouTube videos: the mocking of a lone opponent, outnumbered twenty-to-one, the throwing of bottles, the beating of those who disagree or happened to be in the wrong place and the wrong time, and wanton looting and smashing of other people’s property — all done under the banner of some utopian future.
The ideological virus devours the personality, and then the person itself. The individual that has become little more than an angry mouthpiece for beliefs, invented by philosophers long dead, sees only wrong in the world. They have lost, or willingly threw away, the possibility of improving, in a practical way, anything in their own lives. Indeed, to believe that they can make small, practical, incremental improvements in their life, and the lives of those around them, is to deny the ideology.
To improve oneself becomes a sign of blasphemy and wickedness. Even going to a Yoga class or a gym can single one out as a thought criminal.
This is the “pessimism of the Intellect,” to borrow a term from Antonio Gramsci. To the ideological, germs and disease seem to be everywhere in human form.
To be clear, I’m not advocating the politics of Gramsci, a Marxist revolutionary, nor, in fact, am I interested in his thought in general. What interests me, though, is that he contrasted the above statement with “the optimism of the Will.” There is Will and intellect, doing and dogma.
Ideas can devour a person.
Ideologies usually go against nature and against what it is to be human. Whenever they are tested the result is violence and murder on an industrial scale.
The ideological and dogmatic often pose as revolutionaries. Yet, unable to create authentic culture they merely seize power to enforce restrictions, thought codes, technicalities, limits, and laws. They claim to have an elevated sense of humanity but, in fact, despise beauty, strength, and all that gives meaning to life.
The antidote to the strangulating pessimism of ideology, and to every idea virus that floats through the winds of society, is to be invested in the world around us: family, friends, comrades, clubs where you can share your skills, in your own continuous learning and self-improvement, and in developing new skills or improving established. But, perhaps most of all, it requires doing the small things that are easy to put off when you tell yourself you’re too busy trying to change everyone else.
Even if you think society or the world is in collapse, those of the Will must focus on what good things remain and can be cultivated or used as an example, what can be done, what can be improved, and what opportunities arise even in such times.
Doing the small things may not seem very rewarding in comparison to saving the world. But by only by doing them — and doing them consistently — can you develop the Will, and can set yourself on a course to betterment and achievement that might now seem beyond you.