Conventional ideals

Whatever you set up as a human ideal will be rare. Part of this is that any ideal is rare since the ideal is opposed to the average. Some ideals – call them conventional ideals – are valuable not just for those who attain them but also for the vast majority of persons who take them as ideals. Where the conventional ideal is honor and war-strength few attain it, but it makes the plots of those who tell stories and the curricula of those who teach, and so in turn determines what stories we find entertaining, the students we find brilliant and promising, the achievements we celebrate as heroic or condemn as depraved, what counts as “vibrant” or “dead” in culture, etc.

Conventional ideals are independent of the actual ideal of human life and can either more or less approximate it or be largely contrary to it. It’s unlikely that any higher civilization can escape having such an ideal. As Werner Jaeger puts it, the fundamental fact of the history of culture is that higher civilization springs from the differentiation of human beings into an aristocratic and lower class, where the aristocratic element becomes the prime mover of a culture that will forever carry its reflection.

 

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