Norms & Nobility, chapter 4, section I
David Hicks opens this chapter by saying, “An Ideal Type tyrannized classical education.” It's a simple sentence, but it implies so much. The very concept of an Ideal Type is antithetical to our post-modern culture, because it presupposes that there exists some kind of moral absolute value by which we can judge ourselves (and others). Moral absolutes are not popular, and it seems to be the gleeful task of our culture to tell the kinds of stories that undermine absolute values. Killing is usually unacceptable, but what about this scenario....? So ask our movies, books, and talk shows. I recently watched a peculiar movie (on an airplance) called “The Invention of Lying” which basically showed that lying is an important and desirable aspect of our culture--that life with lies is more comfortable and pleasant.
An Ideal Type is prescriptive--normative--because it presents us with a picture of how we ought to be--how we ought to behave, think, respond, and speak. I have absolutely no notes or underlining in the first section of this chapter, which means I glossed over it the last couple of times I've read this. For some reason, this time around I was arrested by what Hicks is saying about how the Ideal Type has to be defined, and contrasting it with the definition of liberalism.
The definition of liberalism is a moving target—it shifts and changes according to current trends and mores, and the definition of a century ago could sound like a definition of conservatism today. The definition is not prescriptive, but descriptive, changing as needed to suit the mood du jour.
The Ideal Type, on the other hand, is not dependent on history or current thought. It seeks to provide a prescriptive, higher standard by which we will judge ourselves as more or less successful according to how well we measure up against it.
Oddly enough, no matter how degraded our culture, we still seek for mythic versions of the Ideal Type. The majority of us approve of a “good man” and abhor a “bad man.” No matter how much psychologists might leap to the defense of the ill-used, misunderstood “bad man” and attempt to elicit our pity and sympathy for him, they cannot convince us that he is a model that we should try to emulate. Most of our educational systems are not actively teaching any kind of Ideal Type, but in some ways, it still “tyrannizes” our thinking. Unfortunately, in our culture, we have no frame of reference for what it looks like.