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Why do I call some thinkers realists, others idealists and a few even wise?


Leopold von Ranke’s
ideal for a historian was “to tell it as it really was”. Realism, to me, is to see reality as it really is. Well knowing how difficult it is to do so.

Idealists, for me, are of two kinds. We have those who think that somebody else, perhaps a destiny, perhaps a God, is responsible for all that happens and will, in due time, cure all evil. They expect salvation from without.

On the other extreme we have those who have a belief in man’s totally free will and his power to do anything he wants to.

Cusanus is a good example of the first, Condorcet of the second type. The first thinks man has too little, the second that man has infinite power.

How difficult it is to tell who is an idealist, who a realist, can well be exemplified with Nicolaus Cusanus, who soon will be found in the Park.

“So help us God, you the only one who can”, Cusanus wrote. With my definition that is an utterly idealistic attitude, ruling out all realistic hope that man can help himself.

On the other hand, when the Turks took Constantinopel in 1543, Cusanus devoted all his strength to contribute to “Peace between the religions”, “De Pace Fidei”, as the resulting book was named. In practice he evidently thought that God could use some help from man, that everything was not predetermined.

Now, half a millennium later, with renewed enmity between the three monotheistic religions, we might well ask if his efforts really were realistic. Or, possibly, if it is God or our Genes which forces Jews, Christians and Moslems to kill each other today, just as we did 450 years ago.

My own hunch is that we certainly should act as Cusanus did, guided by our best realistic analysis doing the little that we may be able to do, however idealistic it may appear to cynics, even to the cynic within us.

Wise are, for me, those who can combine a ruthless realism with idealistic dreams, who do not believe in violent revolutions built upon dreams but in small attempts to improve the Human Condition, well knowing that progress is a trial and error process. They realize the difficulties but nonetheless they continue to try with too much neither of resignation nor hubris. They find support in the three miracles of life (which you can read about in my Meditations on Western Wisdom) ) and take up his or her responsibility for what the individual in a given situation is able to do to create a fourth miracle, a peaceful world for our children. 

Isn’t it wise to fill your head with ruthless realism but your heart with warm idealism?

You may taste this wisdom even before you enter the Park. Assume you come walking from the centre of Anacapri on its only remaining car free road, via Migliara. Just before you reach Ristorante Gelsomina, on your left side you will see a big white stone with an inscription from Marcus Aurelius, warning you never to become either a slave or a tyrant.

This can be understood as an exhortation to do what we can to slow down the present tendencies in the world towards ever more People being reduced to tools for ever fewer globally powerful Alfa-males. Which “the meditator” has summarized on a stone a few meters behind the first serious philosophical advice to mankind, the Delphi motto: Know thyself!

You will find both, also on your left, half way between Gelsomina and the Belvedere.

Ten meters further on, somewhat hidden in the green, you will discern T. S. Eliot’s fear that deep human wisdom nowadays is reduced to superficial information. If so, may it be because we have not been able to manage the five eternal conflicts of mankind which George Steiner has found in Antigone? And which you can discover a few meters before the Belvedere.

And now, do enter the Park !

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