Ideology, which drives political and social discourse these days, is
a set of doctrines or beliefs … shared by the members of a social group or that form the basis of a political, economic, or other system.
Get that? An ideology comprises doctrines or beliefs, not hard-won knowledge or social and economic norms that have been tested in the acid of use. An ideology leads its believers down the primrose path of a “system” — a way of viewing and organizing the world that flows from a priori reasoning.
An ideology, because of its basis in doctrines or beliefs, puts something at its center — a kind of golden calf that is the ideology’s raison d’être. The something may be the dominance of an Aryan Third Reich; the dictatorship of the proletariat; the destruction of infidels; big government as the solution to social and economic ills; free markets at all costs regardless of the immorality that they may spawn; “social democracy” in which all matters of social and economic importance are to be decided by a majority of the elected representatives of an electorate that has been enfranchised for the purpose of arriving at the “right” decisions; stateless societies that (contrary to human nature) would be livable because disputes would be settled through contractual arrangements and private defense agencies; etc., etc., etc.
You might expect that the bankruptcy of ideological thinking would be obvious, given that there are so many mutually contradictory ideologies (see above). But that isn’t the way of the world. Human beings seem to be wired to want to believe in something. And even to suffer and die for that something.
That can be a good thing if the something is personal and benign; for example, the satisfaction of raising a child to be mannerly and conscientious; sustaining one’s marriage through trials and tribulations for the love, companionship, and contentment it affords; getting through personal suffering and sorrow without resort to behavior that is destructive of self or relations with others; believing in God and the tenets of a religion for one’s own sake and not for their use as weapons of judgement or vengeance; taking pride in work that is “real” and of direct and obvious benefit to others, however humdrum it may seem and how little skill it may require. In other words, living life as if it has meaning and isn’t just an existential morass to be tolerated until one dies or an occasion for wreaking vengeance on the world because of one’s own anxieties and failings.
What I have just sketched are the yearnings and tensions that modern man has acquired, bit by bit, as old certainties and norms have been undermined. Is it any wonder that so many people since the dawn of the Enlightenment — where modernity really began — have wanted to quit the “rat race” for a meaningful life? Not creating an empire, leading a conquering army, or founding a dynasty. Just doing something self-satisfying, like farming, owning a small business in a small town, or teaching children to play the piano.
Ironically, Voltaire, an icon of the Enlightenment, sums it up:
“I know also,” said Candide, “that we must cultivate our garden.”
“You are right,” said Pangloss, “for when man was first placed in the Garden of Eden, he was put there ut operaretur eum, that he might cultivate it; which shows that man was not born to be idle.”
“Let us work,” said Martin, “without disputing; it is the only way to render life tolerable.”
The whole little society entered into this laudable design, according to their different abilities. Their little plot of land produced plentiful crops. Cunegonde was, indeed, very ugly, but she became an excellent pastry cook; Paquette worked at embroidery; the old woman looked after the[Pg 168] linen. They were all, not excepting Friar Giroflée, of some service or other; for he made a good joiner, and became a very honest man.
Pangloss sometimes said to Candide:
“There is a concatenation of events in this best of all possible worlds: for if you had not been kicked out of a magnificent castle for love of Miss Cunegonde: if you had not been put into the Inquisition: if you had not walked over America: if you had not stabbed the Baron: if you had not lost all your sheep from the fine country of El Dorado: you would not be here eating preserved citrons and pistachio-nuts.”
“All that is very well,” answered Candide, “but let us cultivate our garden.”
the main virtue of Candide’s garden is that it forces the characters to do hard, simple labor. In the world outside the garden, people suffer and are rewarded for no discernible cause. In the garden, however, cause and effect are easy to determine—careful planting and cultivation yield good produce. Finally, the garden represents the cultivation and propagation of life, which, despite all their misery, the characters choose to embrace.
And so should we all.