Describe the personality, behaviors, and traits of an idealist and a realist

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The profound French writer of the Romantic era, Victor Hugo, remarked,

The human soul has still greater need of the ideal than of the real.  it is by the real that we exist; is it by the ideal that we live.

In philosophy, Idealism is defined as a theory that reality is formed by people's ideas and strong beliefs; Realism is concerned with facts and the belief that reality has a veritable and absolute existence apart from people's feelings, beliefs, and thoughts and consciousness. Realism relies upon the pragmatic.

Perhaps, if one wishes to use images to depict idealism vs. realism, there may be the depiction of the young humanitarian vs. the older businessman. The humanitarian, in his idealism devotes himself to improving the conditions of others, believing that his altruism and work will "make a difference in the world," basing his actions upon a hopeful goal, a conception. Further, even if he does not succeed, he continues because he believes in the goodness of man that will eventually respond to his unselfish efforts.

An example of a man who was an idealist is Monseigneur Flanagan, who had a vision of providing orphaned and derelict boys a nourishing environment; for, he was convinced that every child would become a productive citizen if provided with a home, an education, a trade, and, above all, love. Father Flanagan constantly reiterated, 

"There are no bad boys. There is only bad environment, bad training, bad example, bad thinking."

His positive and optimistic belief in the intrinsic goodness of man convinced philanthropists to donate to him, yet he struggled against famine, drought, financial and political setbacks, and even ill health. Nevertheless, he persevered in his idealism and made his dream become a reality.

A humorous example of a realist is used in a 1986 movie entitled Back to School with the comedian Rodney Dangerfield. Rodney's character is a wealthy businessman who enrolls in the college where his discouraged son attends, hoping to inspire his boy. Although he has no high school diploma or entrance exam scores, Rodney/Thorton Melon is admitted after donating enough money for the construction of a new school of business named Melon. In one episode, Rodney attends an Economics class in which the professor guides his students in their creation of a make-believe enterprise. As Dr. Barbay proposes various constructs, he asks the class where they think they should build this enterprise. Melon sarcastically calls out, "Why don't you try Utopia?" Then, turning to the students and speaking from his own experience, he discusses realities and the students quickly begin taking notes from him, instead. First of all, Thornton Melon tells them, they cannot build anything until they negotiate with the garbage companies. "These people are not exactly the Boy Scouts," he tells the students, intimating that the mob often controls the garbage industry. "You have to make deals with these people." Of course, this movie is a comedy, but there is some truth to Melon's extreme pragmatism. Before opening any business, there are, indeed, outside elements or political and other influences that must be realistically considered. Returning to the example of Father Flanagan, his Boys Town would not have been a success without the charity and pragmatism of a businessman who was his friend.

The greatest difference between the idealist and the realist is in their perspectives. While the idealist is more of a dreamer with a vision of what can be, setting goals that may be unreachable; the realist deals in facts and realities, setting goals that are achievable in a practical, systematic way. The idealist runs on hope and emotion; the realist separates emotional involvement from his perspective.

Truly, there is a need for a certain amount of idealism within the realist or else the world would be without many of its inventions, the arts, and architecture. But, as T.S.Eliot once said, "Between the idea and the reality...there lies the shadow." It is the realist who makes things work and work well; the idealist inspires others, but cannot successfully work alone for any length of time.

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