Dogma, Idealization, and Fear

In a new and timely afterward to his 2001 book The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics, Mark Lilla offers a compelling contrast between ideology (that human propensity to build mental models about the world) and dogma (that human propensity to cultivate relatively simple beliefs which foreclose the necessity for further inquiry). This distinction may be helpful to contemplate as U.S. elections approach. Lilla informs us that “Ideologies inspire lies… a false pretense to speaking truth about the world…”


Ideologies can be wrong, of course—and with disastrous historical consequences. But dogmas are different. They are immune to questioning and correction: “Dogmas inspire instead ignorance and indifference. They convince people that a single idea or principle is sacred and all they need to know in order to act in the world… [which] kills curiosity and intellectual ambition.”

Lilla argues that contemporary political discourse is beset by an understandable fatigue and cynicism about system-building, and we have perhaps lapsed into an anti-intellectual dogmatism.

An ideology gives people the illusion of understanding more than they do. Today, we seem to have renounced trying to understand as much as we can. We suffer from a new kind of hubris unlike that of the old master thinkers. Our hubris is to think that we no longer have to think hard or pay attention or look for connections… The end of the cold war destroyed whatever confidence we have in the great modern ideologies still remained in the West. But it also left us incurious and self-absorbed. We have abdicated… [W]e need reminding… that dealing with people outside our enchanted gardens requires more than toleration and concern for human rights. Reminding that we need a much deeper understanding of their histories and psychologies, free from idealization and fear, and attentive to the explosive political power of pride and resentment. (emphasis mine)

And, of course, we see much of the twin temptations of idealization and fear—naïve idealization of groups with whom we readily sympathize (e.g., immigrants, ethnic/religious minorities, police) and a sensationalized fear of those with whom we don’t (e.g., immigrants, ethnic/religious minorities, police). Regardless of the outcome of the upcoming elections, we must all strive for as much intellectual honesty as possible and avoid falling for either or both of these twin temptations.

Nearly they stood who fall.
Themselves, when they look back
see always in the track
One torturing spot where all
By a possible quick swerve
Of will yet unenslaved–
By the infinitesimal twitching of a nerve–
Might have been saved.

Nearly they fell who stand.
These with cold after-fear
Look back and note how near
They grazed the Siren’s land
Wondering to think that fate
By threads so spidery-fine
The choice of ways so small, the event so great
Should thus entwine.

Therefore I sometimes fear
Lest oldest fears prove true
Lest, when no bugle blew
My mort, when skies looked clear
I may have stepped one hair’s
Breadth past the hair-breadth bourn
Which, being once crossed forever unawares
Forbids return.

C.S. Lewis, Poems; Nearly They Stood (1933)