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Necessity and Idealism

What needs are in our hearts, what gods in our temples?

Necessity is the mother of invention, quipped Ben Franklin, and, in quintessential American fashion, he seemed content to let the buck stop with necessity. For a nation whose only original philosophical contribution has been pragmatism, need seems self-evident, self-justified, self-authenticating. If I am a student who needs special provisions made for my religious practices, or an employee who needs insurance coverage for my sexual experimentation—who is to deny me? At times, in the course of human events, things just become necessary.

But is necessity truly a primary cause? Or is there a mother of necessity?

My hometown’s Department of Transportation recently began a highway expansion project. The eventual goal, I am told, is to add express lanes to a portion of our six-lane interstate—that is, lanes walled off from the others, enterable at key points along the highway, in which vehicles traveling long distances can drive without the hindrances of cars exiting, passing, or enjoying the scenery. For, “Based on the forecasted traffic volumes, traffic demand is expected to increase and the roadway will perform below the minimum level of service standard,” explains a Department of Transportation project brochure. By implication, the express lanes are needed to “improve mobility,” “reduce congestion,” and “provide travel options.”

But the project brochure was not the way I learned about this development. I learned of it when the yellow cranes and crews of men suddenly appeared on the sides of the interstate; when the distinctively North Floridian woods of pine, oak, and kudzu vine that canopied the road vanished; when piles of fresh mulch and a corrugated concrete sound barrier wall appeared in their place.

Now, on the one hand, the Department of Transportation has set forth a clear case for the necessity of these express lanes. But, on the other hand—well, Gerard Manley Hopkins may speak for the other hand:

All felled, felled, are all felled . . .
After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.
Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve
Strokes of havoc unselve
The sweet especial scene . . .

(“Binsey Poplars,” ll. 3, 19-22)

Did the express lane need to be added? Did the trees need to be felled? The reaction of the many people in my town who have sided with Hopkins’ protestation belies the self-evident, self-authenticating nature of the “need”—belies the assertion that it was “need” at all. Some of them have said the true need was for the trees to be kept to preserve the regional scenery, or to protect the environment, or to avoid the cost of the project.

These “needs,” then, do not stand alone. Needs are in conflict because ideals are in conflict: Efficiency and Options weigh against Beauty, Preservation, and Economy, and the mother of necessity is idealism.

That assertion rather flies in the face of the modern disparagement that the too-heavenly-minded are of no earthly good, as well as the classical consensus that Plato points upwards and Aristotle down. But assume its truth, and you may see what a ready path to contemplation it opens:

Why did Odysseus need to leave Circe? Because the ideal of homecoming triumphed against hedonism. Why did Aeneas need to leave Dido? Because the ideal of Rome overruled that of romance. Interesting, isn’t it, that these heroes had a similar need but different ideals? What other needs, potentially conflicting, would the Greek and Roman ideals conceive?

Did the ideal of world peace after World War I more directly birth a need for a League of Nations or a need for the Treaty of Versailles? Which need has history confirmed as more necessary—or do these “needs” obscure others? Is not the need of the fallen human heart for redemption ultimately the answer to the ideal of world peace? How do we negotiate the gap between idealism and necessity in light of historical circumstances?

Do my students feel a need to obsess over details, cheat or plagiarize on assignments, and win the last word in class discussions? Could it be that they have brought or I have instilled an ideal of perfectionism into the classroom? If our deep desire is for students to pursue the human needs for wonder, exploration, discovery, joy, and conviction, what ideals must topple the idol of perfectionism? And how do we communicate them?

What ideal underlay Martha’s need to serve? What ideal prompted Mary’s need to listen? Are these ideals intrinsically in conflict, or can they achieve harmony when rightly ordered?

One thing is needed,” said our Lord to these sisters. He said it also to the rich young ruler: “One thing still you lack.” For in the end, the needs we pursue disclose the ideals we reverence, and these are, in the the end, the deities we worship.

What needs are in our hearts, what gods in our temples?

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