The Problem of Ideology


“The most thought-provoking thing in our thought-provoking time is that we’re still not thinking.”
– Martin Heidegger

Slaves to an idea

Ideology is properly defined as “a system of ideas and ideals, especially ones that form an economic or political policy.” But it’s important to note that political ideology is inherently social. It impacts every facet of our lives. If you fail to recognize this, then you’re confused by the meaning of the word, “political.”

Politics is derived from the Greek word, politeia. Politeia literally means the community of citizens in a city-state. A community is a fellowship with joint participation, sharing, communion, and intimacy. The political life is the social life. This is the reason that Plato discussed the types of souls that ruled under various types of governments, as well as the types of people that they ruled over. To various degrees, the government is a reflection of the social life of the people.

This is not concerning in and of itself. After all, we need a structural foundation in place from which to spring forth from. As we seek to gain knowledge, we incorporate new ideas and let go of things that no longer make sense. We begin to grow, and as we grow, our value structure evolves.

But if we’re not careful, ideology can seduce us into complacency. We become blindly obedient and no longer wish to spring forth from it. We become content in resting within the comforts that it provides. We begin to see existence only through the prism of that ideology. Anything that doesn’t fit within its narrow view is discarded, reshaped or criticized beyond reason. We stop seeking better ways to think about the world around us. We stop listening to the opinions of others. We become slaves to the idea.

Pick a political or economic pundit. Now go visit their Twitter feed. Notice how that feed is perfectly curated. Everything they share fits nice and tightly within the ideology that they are promoting. But it’s a lie. It’s a mockery of existence. Existence has never been so neatly indexed. Deep down they know this. Deep down we know this as well, yet we continue to play the game.

But why are they so effective? And why are we so vulnerable to their deceit?

The absurdity of suffering

The Buddha had the perfect answer. “Life is suffering,” he said. And he’s right. Life is hard. Existence is brutal. Even Job, as righteous as he was, endured profound suffering beyond the human imagination. Hiroshima happened. Hurricane Katrina happened. 9/11 happened. Sandy Hook happened. Cancer happens.

It all seems rather absurd. And that’s exactly how philosopher and author, Albert Camus, described it. Camus likened human existence to the toil of Sisyphus. If you are unfamiliar with the myth, Sisyphus was the king of Ephyra. He was a despicable tyrant, both cruel and deceitful. The Gods punished him by forcing him to push a boulder up a hill. But just as he reached the top, the rock would roll back down to the bottom. He repeated this process for eternity.

Cursed to remain incomplete, yet also cursed to strive for completeness, Sisyphus endured. He is like us. And the similarities to our own cyclical suffering led Camus to conclude that in order to be happy, “one must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

But suffering and hardship make us ask tough questions. “Why is this happening to me? How could this be? I’ve done everything that I’m supposed to. I live a good life.” In asking these questions, we become vulnerable, and we seek out answers to explain our misery. Too often, however, the easy answers are the ones we choose to believe.

And what’s an easier remedy than pointing the finger outward? What’s easier than refusing to accept responsibility for the pitfalls of existence? What’s easier than being Sisyphus and saying “to hell with this boulder, I’m going to sit down for eternity?” What’s easier than saying “it’s you, not me?”

The ideologues see this, and they prey on your weakness. That’s how they gain power in the first place. It’s “not your fault,” they’ll say. “You aren’t responsible for the hardships you face.” It’s the immigrants, millionaires, billionaires, white men, white women, Mexican gangs, border security, China, drugs, guns, not enough taxes, too much taxes, automobiles, and most recently, “airplanes and cow farts.”

But how do you know it’s someone else’s fault? How do you know that your ideas are so profoundly intelligent that no contrary idea is Good? Has the history of philosophy evolved for the last hundreds of years just to culminate in your grandiose ideology?

Have you taken a long hard look into the inner crevices of your soul before blaming anyone other than yourself? Have you even pushed back the curtains to take a peek at yourself? Are you afraid of what you might find?

The burden of Being is hard to live with and comprehend. I’ll give you that. But once we find a scapegoat, we stop seeking. We have someone or something that we can blame. The culprit has been identified. If only they would just go away. If only the world followed my idea, then things would get better. If only…

Escaping the cave of ideology

But once we stop seeking, we stop re-creating ourselves. We turn away from the pursuit of the truth. We become citizens of Plato’s Cave. As Socrates so wonderfully describes:

“Make an image of our nature in its education and want of education, likening it to a condition of the following kind. See human beings as though they were in an underground cave-like dwelling…

They are in it from childhood with their legs and necks in bonds so that they are fixed, seeing only in front of them, unable because of the bond to turn their heads all the way around…

Between the fire and the prisoners there is a road above, along which see a wall…

Then also see along this wall human beings carrying all sorts of artifacts, which project above the wall and statues of men and other animals wrought from stone, wood, and every kind of material.”

In our blind adherence to ideology, we bear a striking resemblance to those in the cave. We become stuck, immobile, with our heads locked into place fixing our gaze straight forward. We are unwilling to turn around and see the world for how it is. That which we claim to know for certain, are mere artifacts, shadows, and puppets. Their certainty is an illusion, a facade.

But how do we get out of the cave? Can someone come and show us the way out? Well, that’s not so easy. As Socrates says, if a wise man were to come down into the cave, they would be “infected by darkness.” Their eyes, use to the light of truth, would not be able to comprehend or understand the ignorance of the dark cave. The dwellers would consider the teacher a fool.

If you’ve ever had a conversation with someone possessed by an idea, you can certainly understand this sentiment. Like a virus, the idea builds walls and puts filters in place to protect itself. Anything brought forth to bring the walls down is met with opposition. When you’re a slave to an idea your goal isn’t to listen to others. Your main objective is to prove your false sense of superiority. You are driven to defeat, not to understand, even if what you need to understand most of all is yourself. The vaccine of reason is all too easily resisted.

Because of this, I can only see one other way out of the cave. It has to start from within the infected individual themselves. A willful blindness can only be overcome by a willful acceptance of one’s own ignorance. Maybe the ideology will begin to fall apart at the seams. Maybe its internal contradictions will become too loud to ignore. Maybe the rock will fall back down to the bottom of the hill.

And there, at the bottom, maybe you will decide to relinquish the bonds of ideology and turn around.

You will stand up and walk over to the shadow puppets that you thought you knew. You will pay attention to them. You will look at them and learn what they really are. You will let go of what you thought to be true and become a better version of yourself.

In turn, you will accept the absurdity of suffering. You will accept your own ignorance. You will embrace the Socratic maxim “I know that I know nothing.” And with it, you’ll begin to wonder. You start your trek out of the cave.

But what awaits you on the outside?

Revealing the concealed

The journey out of the cave will not be easy. You have accepted responsibility for your own suffering. The burden is immense. You will be tempted to return. Socrates recognized this as well. “And when he came to the light, wouldn’t he have his eye full of its beam and be unable to see even one of the things now said to be true?”

Without the false structures of your ideology in place, you will be unable to see much of anything. Your entire worldview will be disrupted. Confusion, panic, and anxiety set in and blinds you. The foundation of your life has been ripped out from under you. You won’t have anything to grab hold of. Stay persistent. Socrates continues:

“Then I suppose he’d have to get accustomed…first he’d most easily make out the shadows…after that the phantoms of the human beings…and, later, the things themselves. And from there he could turn to behold the things in heaven and heaven itself…

Then finally I suppose he would be able to make out the sun…and after he would be in a position to conclude about it that this is the source of the seasons and the years, and is the steward of all things in the visible place, and is in a certain way the cause of all those things he and his companions had been seeing.”

Once your eyes become adjusted to the outside world, the sun, the light of truth, will begin to shine and your possibilities will begin to present themselves.

No longer will you feel the pressure to restrict your opinions within the confines of an idea. You’ll start to think for yourself. You’ll begin to speak your own word. And with it, you’ll begin to recreate yourself, to become anew. You’ll turn towards the sun and see the truth, your truth.

But what is your truth? Truth here is not a set of facts or mathematical proofs. Truth is more like a direction. It’s a willing acknowledgment of your own ignorance. It’s the knowledge that, like Sisyphus, you are perpetually incomplete, yet constantly striving for completeness. But we can gain even more insight by once again turning to the Greek.

Aletheia is the Greek word commonly translated as truth or disclosure. The literal meaning is “the state of not being hidden.” To borrow from Martin Heidegger, it is “unconcealedness.”

When you’re a slave to an ideology, so much is swept under the rug to stay convinced of its truth. So much is ignored and so much is hidden, not the least of which is yourself. But once you turn towards aletheia, you begin to reveal yourself to yourself. You uncover all that has been lost. You become unconcealed. You see all of your unique possibilities laid out in front of you. You begin to understand what you truly are and to see the person that you can potentially become.

You are free.

Conclusion: Sisyphus is happy

“The most thought-provoking thing in this thought-provoking time is that we’re still not thinking,” Heidegger said in 1954. It’s just as true now as it was then.

After all, what disrupts thinking more than certitude? If you’re certain in what you know, why think at all? Why should you even listen to anyone that may think differently? You have the facts. Just let the world bend to your will.

But ideology leads us down a nefarious path of hatred for the other. We close ourselves off to the world around us. We fix our gaze on only what we want to see. At best we politicize every battle and become increasingly divided. At worst, mutually assured destruction.

However, we can turn around and make our way out of the abyss. We can imagine Sisyphus happy and shoulder the burden of Being. We can place the sanctity of the individual above that of the herd-animal who promises the easy cure.

We can begin to push the boulder up the hill.

But along the way up, we are aware of our ignorance. We can understand our errors because we know that we are Beings that error. We listen to others because we know that we don’t know. We can let go of what we previously held onto because we no longer balk at the sight of a contradictory thought.

But just as we think we are nearing completeness, the boulder will inevitably roll back down the hill.

The ideologues, in their thirst for power, will emerge and try to tell us who or what to blame.

Instead, bearing the responsibility of our own existence, we’ll happily start pushing the boulder again.


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