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Practical Idealism

If we are to be utilitarian, let it be in a true and broad sense. Exclude not the Spirit which gives life; exclude not the beautiful, which has a vast bearing on life. Be true to the import of utilitarianism and utilize whatever is available. Men will not be content with electricity and compressed air and steam, but shall pass on to psychic forces and harness these. We may not stop short at action but shall deal with thought which precedes and conditions action. Invention has provided us no rapid transit; it is at best a snail's pace. We shall soon tire of creeping thus. A little less cultivation without: a little more within. Let us no longer be indifferent to real issues; inner forces, divine relationship—shall they be ignored? Let us infuse some daring into the utilitarian mind and essay the wings of the Spirit.

What, then, is utilitarianism? Is it something apart from art? Is it something separate from beauty, from the spiritual, the psychic, the occult? Then something apart from being and hence a figment. Let us pour new life into the old forms if we must still retain them. Let us lay aside our ancient history, our ancestral gods; let us be up and thinking. The vice is not utilitarianism, but it is that utilitarianism is faint-hearted—mole-eyed. It would hitch up Dobbin but leaves Pegasus out to pasture; it invents spectacles but sees no visions. And now it would prove that the Soul is immortal. But religion and inspiration come not so. The bread of life is not to be baked in loaves. He who must have algebraic demonstration of the Soul would not be greatly benefited by the proof.

The apostle of realism must first learn what is real; the advocate of might must know wherein is true power. So shall he come to deal with substance and not shadow, with the unseen often, rather than with the seen. In our effort to be practical let us be divinely practical—not stupidly so. Shall we then save our pennies and waste our thoughts; shall we bolt the house door and leave open the door of the mind; fumigate the dwelling and take no precaution against mental contagion? Shall we sit in our sun parlors, but exclude the blessed sunshine of love—toast our feet and freeze our hearts? There comes a time when we must have done with symbols and consider the reality. Faith! Suggestion! Thought! These are the agents of a spiritual energy of which force is but the sign. To be deeply practical is to engage spiritual activities, to utilize the mind to which we are channels—to let the tide run our mills; it is the ability to utilize occult affinities, to use to the utmost the cosmic force of love.

There is a spiritual hearing and a spiritual seeing. Five senses will not suffice; the utilitarian must needs have seven or more to develop his full capacity. The practical world once did without steam, once paid its .bills in garden stuff—so much hay or potatoes for a pair of boots. And five senses shall presently be as inadequate as a currency of cowrie shells; we must have a more universal medium or be left in the lurch. Gravity carries freight and moonshine will float ships. But there are forces more intangible than moonshine, and on this tide shall our ships come in. It was only necessary to liquefy air to reveal a new field of available energy; and the control of thought shall disclose the vast field of spiritual dynamics.

Here are those who claim to be healed by thought; others who run and leap because of faith. We have hugged our delusions and they have failed us; but these have found new delusions—it may be—and cannot contain their joy. It were well, perhaps, to forsake the old delusion for the new if such are its fruits. Let us brave the dragon of public opinion and see if here is not something we may utilize and thus add to our utilitarian category. What faith have we not put in ipecac and pills, and with what returns—O ye gods! They have stayed not the hand of the Lord. Shall the obituary column teach us nothing? A soul passing from some bedside every second of time and leaving there its house of clay—sad, mute commentary on the unavailing phials! What if, after all, the idealist has become more practical than we?

Strictly speaking, all men are in a sense idealists, far though they may be removed from sympathy with the spirit of idealism—the difference lies in their ideals. Whatever in the mind stands for truth; whatever sum of ideas impresses itself as paramount; whatever concept is entertained of the existing order, is the ideal upon which it dances attendance—be it never so sophistical. That which we actually believe to be the best of which the universe is capable, such is our ideal—such our present inspiration, or our damning limit. If our ideas are emotional rather than rational, so will be our lives. Vulgar ideals make vulgar people; fleshly ideals make sensualists. And the consecration of thought to transcendent ideals is responsible for poets and seers. The materialist is a man of material ideals and holds an ideal of himself as a thing of atoms—of flesh and bones; his materialism is the outcome of this ideal of himself and of the universe. Men are influenced directly by that which they believe and not by what they would like to believe. We become optimists or pessimists according to the harmony or inharmony of our own minds. This, namely, that we work from ideals to externals—specifically, that ideals are externalized in the body—is the psychology of the ideal, the practical aspect which distinguishes modern idealism. It is not the soul which grows but our realization of it merely, and it is this that constitutes development. Growth is the process of uncovering and bringing to light that which is, rather than any accretion from without. This process of discovering hidden truth—of uncovering the Soul—may be likened to a journey through well nigh impenetrable forests, seeing at rare intervals a fitful glimpse of the overarching blue, and plunging again into abysmal depths. And to us there come at times, as to Siegfried, the offspring of Wotan, strains of a sublime motive, awakening knowledge of the Soul's greatness—intimations of a divine lineage.

Sanity does not consist in conformity to custom, nor to social precedents and human decrees, as such, but to whatsoever in these is in accordance with truth. Sanity, out and out, is nothing less than parallelism with truth. It alters not the case that our departure is conventional; the results of aberrant thought are always evident. One unfortunate bethinks himself a god and is taken to the asylum; but many another made in the spiritual image of God dubs himself a miserable bit of clay. Unsoundness of a certain kind is prevalent wherever men are not true to God and to the brotherhood of man; and every man is still unbalanced who perceives not his own divinity. Oh, for the divine physician who shall cast out these devils from our consciousness; for the spiritual mind which shall bring us peace; for the tonic of pure thought which shall make us whole!

Idealism per se never attains the fatal dignity of a system; it is always somewhat undefined and open to further accessions of truth. It is rather a spiritual bias and predilection—a refined clay, plastic in the hands of every age, which, whenever the time is ripe, is molded to the form of some philosophic system. The philosophy of the ideal is indeed older than history; idealism was already venerable when writing was invented. But it has now come upon practical times and received a new investiture, a new value; and its gift to this age is the science of mental therapeutics.

This budding science, classed by the unthinking as a kind of astrology or necromancy, is perhaps the astrological stage of an exact science destined to revolutionize all therapeutic systems. It starts with the premise—and this premise at least was known to Swedenborg—that the members of the body are correspondences, their various functions symbolic of the spiritual office, and not in themselves final; eye and ear of an inner vision and hearing; hands and feet of certain faculties; sex of the creative principle; head, torso, limbs, all corresponding to the spiritual man. And this has given rise to an experimental psychology that shall be of use outside of the schoolroom. Hitherto has psychology been milk for babes; here is meat for strong men. Opposite our category of emotions we must now write a corresponding list of effects. Here are grief, fear, anger, hatred and the rest arising in the mind, and far from vanishing into thin air, our psychology reveals that they act directly to derange the functions of heart, lungs, stomach and liver. Here again are love, trust, joy and serenity acting to produce normal conditions and to sustain the body in health. Here, then, is the remedy for the effects of false emotion; where fear has deranged, love will restore. And through force of pure logic we are constrained to admit that false emotion and wrong ideals are responsible for pathologic conditions. We read in the earliest scriptures that it was then an old rule that hatred was overcome by love, never by hatred; and now it appears that anger and hatred are productive of poison in the blood, and true to the old rule, this is overcome by the current of love. There is a certain sympathy and co-relation between the advance of physical science and this new psychology—strange bed-fellows though they may be. Science demonstrates telepathy, and this becomes at once the vehicle of this idealism, the winged Mercury of this therapeutic Jove—the emissary from the rational to the erring consciousness. Again the intuitive perception of the idealist is corroborated by the chemist analyzing the blood under stress of various negative emotions, for lo! there are the poisonous produces corresponding to each and every one. When before did chemistry reveal facts so momentous—big with revolution and the downfall of hoary systems.

It is precisely because of the revelations of this transcendental psychology that ontology is become the basis of idealism, and that present idealism is so largely metaphysical, for the demonstrated effects of thought and emotion serve to emphasize the vital character of the science of Being. We must know entity, essence and substance, not as abstractions, but as means of life, as targets for thought. Whether good or evil, order or chaos obtains—whether evil exists at all—shall not be a matter of sentiment but of metaphysics. And it is in its metaphysics that our idealism stands most indebted to the past: its psychology is the child of this vigorous century. So in this marvelous coming age our lares et penates is to be a volume of metaphysics and a treatise on mental therapeutics in place of the old family medicine book.

The ground on which we stand is derived from earlier formations, from prehistoric lands, but sand is sand and clay is clay, whether they figure in secondary or in tertiary rocks. The Rocky Mountains are journeying piecemeal to the sea, there to lay down new strata of the old, old material which doubtless shall be re-elevated and become the territory of future races. And so do the grains of truth of an Archean metaphysics constantly figure in newer formations. If we briefly examine into the philosophical grounds of this idealism, we are made sensible first of the influence of the Upanishads declaring the inner Self—absolute and unconditioned; the venerable Aryan doctrine of nescience; and the perception of the Self as the basis of freedom and happiness. And so does our idealism inculcate a rather modified and practical Yoga—a relating of the consciousness to the real, and a concentration of thought thereon; in other words, the assumption and maintenance of a God-consciousness. Here are none of the externals of Christianity but much of the cherished teaching of Jesus, proclaiming the relation of man to the Father, the efficacy of love, and of faith—the necessity for spiritual living. Never since the days of the primitive Church has such unqualified allegiance been offered to the glorious spirit of that man's teaching as is manifest in the idealism of today; never before has his life and work been brought home to us with equal fervor and made so real, so tangible, so very present. And for this reason, if for no other, this day would leave its radiant mark on history; this page would be turned down for future reference. As for the rest, it is perhaps not overstating it to say that idealism must always be indebted to Plato; that here is some trace of the broader principles of the Stoics, though none of their self-limitation. Here also the a priori knowledge and intuitionalism of Kant and of the Transcendentalists, God, freedom, and immortality—now as then. Here also Swedenborg's doctrine of Correspondences, or its counterpart. But here is something more substantial than the visions of Plotinus. Here are no howling dervishes, as some would have it, foaming at the mouth and walking over the bodies of infants. As we glance backward through the long vista of years—over idealism in its many phases to Vedic times, when kings sat at the feet of wise men—we perceive that it everywhere reverts to one common source—the Soul.

In the nature of a composite it assuredly now is—but it is more than this. It has focused many benign rays but has caught some further effects of the spectrum as well. The watchword today is application; it would make of itself an applied science. The hidden doctrine is made public. The fragments gathered here and there it has fitted together with fair accuracy, and has builded a firm foundation. This stability has it secured, and thus potent are its facts, that, whereas the idealist was once a crank and with difficulty adjusted himself to life, he who lives in this present idealism fares somewhat better than other men; his mind is clearer, his eye brighter and his step more elastic. If men do not apprehend the peculiar tenor of his views, they still recognize that he has somewhat that they have not, an assurance born of trust—a freedom which they lack; and they attribute it doubtless to destiny, or luck, or inheritance and temperament. But it is truth alone which shall make us free, and a very little lends us wings. Here is a little philosophy well rounded at any rate, for it treats of man—not of fingers and toes merely, but of man in his essence and in his entirety; of man the spirit, and his garment the mind, and his outer garment the body—and of the relation and dependence of the outer upon the inner.

This is the mark, then, by which the idealism of these times shall be known, that it aims to be practical, that it is the friend of the present, of the eternal Now. It has asserted for itself an individuality in this radical departure from medieval and recent idealism, for it is not content to hope merely—it would realize. It asks believing that it has received. It is no postponement, no mere glimpse of a future bliss that bids us put up with present ills; but it would have us see that now is the accepted time, and demands of us regeneration to the end that we may uncover the Soul and shed its luster upon these present conditions. It claims to bake bread; it is applied or nothing. And who shall say it is not exacting—as truth is exacting. It demands first a moral cure; if the eye offends, pluck it out. It says wisdom conditions happiness; therefore first be wise. It delves deep and lays its finger on the diseased spot in mind. Cut out the moral cancer; give a tonic for the mental debility; build up the understanding. It deals with cause first, last, and always; and this is its paramount claim to practicality. It has evolved a system of spiritual economics; it is a moral disciplinarian, an ethical martinet. If man is spirit, then no patching and painting of the exterior will set him on the right road; as well sew up the crater of a volcano with intent to stop an eruption. He must get into alignment with truth—with the facts of being. If the consciousness is warped, straighten it out. If man has related himself to the seeming, bring him back to the real; put him in touch with his divine source and God will work miracles through him.

This idealism is accused of some extravagances; and why not, since we may have a metaphysical as well as a theological dogmatism. But a sifting process is ever at work. We need but give an extremest rope enough. Men have always been a little fearful lest truth were not self-sustaining; and all systems receive a vast deal of boosting and propping which their truth needs not at all, and which is ever inadequate to uphold their tottering error. It is a puny truth indeed that needs our vociferations. The roots of a practical idealism are permeating many institutions and modes of living. Physical culture assumes a new basis and its enlightened advocates address themselves to the mental action as the governing principle in physical exercise; and so with voice culture. A psychological basis is found for the kindergarten and the young idea is taught to shoot with definite aim. Wherever its roots reach, there is the ground stirred, there begins a new life—a new activity. The "advanced movement" of every age is the bantling of great idealism. And now from the rock of truth has it made its imperative call—there "raised high the perpendicular hand in America's name."

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Stanton Davis Kirkham

  • Born on December 7th, 1868 in Nice, Alpes-Maritimes, France and died on January 6th, 1944 in New York City.
  • Graduated from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
  • Quoted in As a Man Thinketh by James Allen
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