February 11th, 2014

Robert Frost on idealists

The following is from a speech Robert Frost gave at Bread Loaf on July 4, 1960 (from the book Robert Frost: A Living Voice, edited by Reginald L. Cook), where he’s describing an encounter with a Boston cab driver:

Now in Boston I said to a fellow who was driving me: “You in college?” He looked about like that—looked as if he was crowding in for an education. He said, “Yes.” I said, “What are you going to do?” He said, “There’s a question whether there’s anything to do in a time like this.” I said, “Oh-oh” sounds like Boston, you know. He said, “But Emerson says that no man should leave the world unless it’s the better for his having been in it.” He said, “But on the other hand, Voltaire says: Mind your own garden. Mind your own business.” I said, “That leaves you hung up somewhere.” And he said, “Yes.” And then I said, “Of course. Never give a child a choice.”

Later in the same lecture:

Now, I have a poem I’ll read you about a typical idealist: he’s unscrupulous. Some people don’t get that. I don’t want to carry that too far. Let me tell you [a story] of it…I had a clipping sent to me from a magazine that we won’t name in which my name was used as having sent a box of apples—sprayed apples, sprayed with chemicals—and that they were rotten when they got to my friend, and so my friend threw them in the compost heap and it ruined the compost heap that year—the chemicals in it. See, it was an organic [farming] magazine. There were three lies in that. I never sprayed an apple in my life. I never boxed an apple in my life. And I never gave any apples to anybody. Three lies in one. That was all just in the interests of organic farming. Three lies. That’s what I call unscrupulous. It’s idealistic, though, wanting to do that.

26 Responses to “Robert Frost on idealists”

  1. reliapundit Says:

    Utopianists are the most dangerous type of isealists because if you think you can create a utopia, then you are of course willing to do whatever it takes – including genocide.

    mao, stalin, hitler, mohamed were all utopianists.

    Judaism is not utopianist and says utopia can ONLY occur with the advent of the moshiach. (Christianity pretty much agrees.)

    Until then, we must each do our best to be moral in all our deeds.

    And only G-d is perfect.

    No earthly king is perfect.

    Which is why tyrannical utopianists hate the Jews and target us.

  2. Ymarsakar Says:

    Utopians are significantly different from ordinary social and human authority structures, in that Utopia requires the concentration and redistribution of power to a single source: the Deus Ex Machina godhead.

    In Japan, authority is distributed downwards. It’s a real hierarchy, rather than a pyramid scheme where 99% of the people obey the Pharaoh only. Each person in the Japanese social hierarchy has their own social status, subordinates, and superiors. Thus they learn to not only give orders like in the military, but to obey orders as well. But it is in a chain of command, it is not a cult or Utopia where the single source of authority is invested in only one Godhead or source.

    By redistributing sources of authority amongst the population, you get a more interesting and workable society than Utopian society.

  3. Ymarsakar Says:

    One of the reasons Singapore is authoritarian and maintains law and order, is due to the severity of punishment but also to the equalness of punishment. If only the sons of upper class individuals could escape punishment while everyone else had to get their hand chopped off for theft, then it would be no different than Obamaca. The severity of punishment would only create a North Korean environment of black marketeering and survival of the fittest.

    Japan’s law and order is also maintained by police cubicles set every 1km or set of city blocks. This way they are literally in shouting distance of any victims on the streets that need help, with quick distributed counter insurgency style reaction. Primary heavy forces are centralized, but the police boxes are the frontier scout and sentry system. This emulates the distributed system of true individual liberty first developed in the US frontier zones (the modern system is called armed citizen first responders more or less). But it emulates it in the sense of an authoritarian central structure, where police are given a special role in society and law.

    This is how “natural” human authoritarian societies evolve and develop. What the United States has is most definitely unnatural. And we all know why that is so, in a fashion.

  4. Mike Says:

    The Liberal, the Democrat, Lies.

    That is the substance of the entire issue between Us and Them.

    This should never be forgotten. It should never be gainsaid. It should begin every approach to the Liberal and every leaving from the Liberal and never leave the mind or heart of anyone in any of their dealings with a Liberal or a Democrat.

    Thee lies in one? A great example. How about a million lies in one? How about lie after lie after lie after lie. About about The Lie as the First Principle and Foundation of the Liberal and the Democrat?

    There are only two times when a Liberal tells the truth. Two and only two. There is not a third time.

    1. When a Liberal has to declare in their hearts whether they personally want to be subjected to their own policies.

    2. When it is a small truth in the service of a bigger lie.

    That’s it.

  5. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    Perhaps the surest way to leave the world the better for having been in it… is to mind your own garden.

    Idealism and realism are the two sides of our humanity. Idealism disconnected from reality leads us to the “isms” of the left. Realism that rejects idealism ultimately abandons progress.

    If the Declaration of Independence is not laid upon a framework of idealism (grounded in reality) then it cannot be justified. While America’s Constitution is the noblest attempt yet conceived to make real our noblest aspirations.

  6. Tonawanda Says:

    These Frost posts are fascinating eye-openers.

    About his proposition that idealists are unscrupulous, he says “I don’t want to carry that too far,” which is a prudent acknowledgement that even the truth can be over-generalized. That is the insight of a wise person.

    There was a wonderful discussion on site about half a year or so ago concerning Dostoyevsky, and it is very relevant. I do not remember the details, but it had to do with Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed, a perfect explication of utopians.

    Utopians (as Frost corroborates) are foremost and principally nihilists. Their ever receding unattainable goal needs to be preceded by destruction of the impediments.

    The moral superiority of utopians, shared by the enlightened few, also justifies any action toward any fellow human being if it is deemed necessary.

    As reflected by history, the sense of moral superiority and the commitment to destroy (nihilism) are the only invariables.

    Utopia never (and can never) come, although the bogus substitution is always present in the temporary ecstasy of the deluded masses.

    A batch of utopians can and do differ in their understanding of what they are doing and why, but never in their ultimate belief that the ends justify any means, and that their superior moral sense is sufficient to allow destruction.

    Truth, fact, a determination to understand history with as much accuracy as possible, or at least to discuss history in good faith, are dealt with only to the extent they might be obstacles.

    But it is actually exhilarating to this uniformed one to discover that Frost has so much more to him.

  7. Sam L. Says:

    Lies in the furtherance of The Cause are, by definition, not lies.

  8. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    Utopianism is a convenient excuse to avoid self-examination.

  9. neo-neocon Says:


    I felt much the same way when I started reading Frost’s speeches and notebooks. He is really a very deep thinker about politics, science, philosophy, all sorts of things.

  10. Eric Says:

    America’s Founding Fathers were idealists.

  11. Ann Says:

    Isn’t the idea of utopia an integral part of Christianity — you know, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”?

    And St. Thomas More’s Utopia — what was that all about?

  12. Eric Says:


    Yep. Idealists come from throughout the spectrum. They come from the Right, not only the Left.

    Ideals provide the markers of the moral, cultural, and intellectual framework of a society. Which ideals are the controlling norms is not determined by merit, religious or otherwise. It’s decided by the winner of activist competition in the social-political arena.

    The Founding Fathers were more than idealists. The Founding Fathers were expert, dynamic Marxist-method activists before Marx was born.

    Then as today, only right-idealed Marxist-method activists can save America from wrong-idealed Marxist-method activists.

    If the right-idealed Marxist-method activists don’t win, then the wrong ideals will be made right in the social-political arena where our social norms are determined.

  13. J.J. Says:

    In my village there is a co-op grocery store. I like to go there because they carry a big selection of “hippy” foods. You know what I mean – organic this, natural that, hemp based products, and my targets, low sodium soups. The place is reasonably well run, but the patrons are, for the most part, the most humorless, unhappy people I see around these parts. They are mostly the hard core progs who are unhappy about the way things are going. There’s too much pollution, too many cars, too many houses, too much profiteering, too much war, too much global climate disruption, etc., etc. – all things they are unhappy about. They know I’m not one of them – I’m clean shaven, hair cut short, neatly dressed, and don’t wear Birkenstocks – just not their type. They give me dirty or disapproving looks like I’m intruding in their space. They are the utopians and there are quite a number of them hereabouts. It must suck to be so angry all the time.

  14. Ymarsakar Says:

    If the Founding Fathers were idealists, they would never have tried with compromises such as splitting the slave vote amongst white owners. The idea that slaves aren’t human peers yet can vote for their white masters, was functionally a hypocritical ingredient in the concept of individual liberty, no matter how much time passes.

  15. Ymarsakar Says:

    Ann, there are numerous Christian doctrines and dogmas but it’s mostly about good works producing salvation. If you hold to the divine laws, Earth will be annihilated and then a kingdom of heaven will descend. But it cannot be done by human hands, since the rulers will be angels like Michael or Jesus Christ. The more modern Christians probably don’t believe in armageddon, just sin and hell. The more fundamental Bible believers such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses or 7th Day Adventists, certainly believe in it. But so long as they don’t believe that God commands to create this kingdom on earth using government power and the power of the sword, they live normal lives for the most part.

    As for the novel Utopia, it was a kind of urban fantasy back in the day, in which a person depicted a place that does not exist. Except in this case, the fantasy was about a political goal and about socio-political forces vis a vis humanity.

  16. Gringo Says:

    I have read very little of Robert Frost’s poetry, most likely because I had bad experiences with poetry in high school and college English classes. Sorry, but I never aspired to be a Junior Literary Critic.

    I recall seeing Robert Frost on TV at JFK’s inauguration, white haired [in a snowstorm IIRC- but it could have been bad vision "snow"] . Yes, I knew his “miles to go before I sleep” poem, but that is about all- and I always liked the poem, in spite of my ingrained dislike of poetry. Perhaps I liked it because it reminded me of the snowy New England evenings of my childhood.

    Neo’s postings on Robert Frost have encouraged me to learn more about him. What Neo has posted about Robert Frost and his politics reminds me somewhat of Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan began as a political Folkie, but after several years of that eschewed politics- and took some flack for it.

    Consider this little gem from the September 1939 issue of Soviet Russia Today, which is relevant to the discussion because it was signed by many prominent writers and poets. [excerpt]

    One of the greatest problems confronting all those engaged in the struggle for democracy and peace, whether they be liberals, progressives, trade unionists, or others, is how to unite their various forces so as to achieve victory for their common goals. The Fascists and their allies are well aware that democracy will win if its supporters are united. Accordingly, they are intent on destroying such unity at all costs.

    On the international scene the Fascists and their friends have tried to prevent a united anti-aggression front by sowing suspicion between the Soviet Union and other nations interested in maintaining peace.

    On the domestic scene the reactionaries are attempting to split the democratic front by similar tactics. Realizing that here in America they cannot get far with a definitely pro-fascist appeal, they strive to pervert American antifascist sentiment to their own ends. With the aim of turning anti-fascist feeling against the Soviet Union they have encouraged the fantastic falsehood that the USSR and the totalitarian states are basically alike. By this strategy they hope to create dissension among the progressive forces whose united strength is a first necessity for the defeat of fascism.

    Some sincere American liberals have fallen into this trap and unwittingly aided a cause to which they are essentially opposed. Thus, a number of them have carelessly lent their signatures to the recent manifesto issued by the so-called Committee for Cultural Freedom. This manifesto denounces in vague, undefined terms all forms of “Dictatorship” and asserts that the Fascist states and Soviet Russia equally menace American institutions and the democratic way of life.

    ….The Soviet Union considers political dictatorship a transitional form and has shown a steadily expanding democracy in every sphere. :)

    So democracy is “steadily expanding” in Stalin’s Soviet Union. So Fascist Germany and Fascist Italy are totalitarian, but the Soviet Union is not. Tell me another one. Ironically, the party line about opposing Fascism changed about the same time this was published, when the USSR signed the Non-aggression Pact with Nazi Germany. No more need to ally the Soviet Union and the USA on the side of democracy against Fascism. At least, not until June 22, 1941.

    Here is a partial list of the writers and poets who signed this gem, which indicates how common it was in the 1930s for writers and poets to align themselves with the far left.

    Miriam Allen de Ford
    Dashiell Hammett
    Granville Hicks
    S.J. Perelman
    Vincent Sheean
    Dr. William Carlos Williams
    Richard Wright
    Stirling Bowen
    Langston Hughes
    Louis Untermeyer
    Paul de Kruif
    Clifford Odets
    Ernest Hemmingway [sic]
    George Kauffman

    Considering all the writers and poets who signed this manifesto, it would not surprise me that there was some peer pressure exerted on Robert Frost to sign this. Whether there was peer pressure or not, it is of note that Robert Frost’s non-signing of this manifesto is a good indication that he didn’t follow the same road that many of his fellow writers and artists did. Which is greatly to his credit.

  17. renminbi Says:

    The first thing an idealist will do for his ideals, is lie.

  18. neo-neocon Says:


    Many leftist literary critics panned Frost during his lifetime, starting mostly in the 30s. They were most definitely out to get him for his politics. That they didn’t totally succeed was not for lack of trying. He never capitulated; he wasn’t that sort of guy.

    For a little background, read this.

  19. DNW Says:

    “Gringo Says:
    February 12th, 2014 at 1:37 pm

    I have read very little of Robert Frost’s poetry, most likely because I had bad experiences with poetry in high school and college English classes. Sorry, but I never aspired to be a Junior Literary Critic. …”

    Geez. I guess that I didn’t quite know in any meaningful sense who he was. Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, or even Edward Guest … all the same same …

    Or apparently not.

    Had a girlfriend once who was a big fan of ee cummings. Even tried to get me to read some of his stuff.

    I won’t quite quote Plato on poets since I don’t fully agree. Nor will I paraphrase and redirect John Ball’s remarks regarding lawyers … since it’s found in Shakespeare, and he’s certainly worth reading. At least the plays.

    But there’s something about hearing a man reciting poetry in anything but Old English that makes me feel vaguely … well, combative toward him.

    Just tolerating the jabbering effrontery for a short while is tough enough. Listening to some pock-faced English professor with a scant beard declaiming in front of the class for 40 minutes, as he occasionally paused to peer meaningfully at us over his half lenses, was altogether too much.

    There were three of us, one of whom was a woman, in the back of the room who even discussed putting a stop to it by stabbing him to death with sharpened pencils.

    We settled instead for insulting Walt Whitman’s humanity loud enough for him – the professor that is – to hear.

    But that’s just me and I recognize the attitude as a fault. Sort of.

    Didn’t do much for my grade in that class.

    Trusting Neo on this one, I’ll read up on Frost.

  20. neo-neocon Says:


    Robert Frost on Carl Sandburg (in 1922, when Sandburg appeared at the U of Michigan):

    We’ve been having a dose of Carl Sandburg. He’s another person I find it hard to do justice to. He was possibly (three) hours in town and he spent one of them washing his white hair and toughening his expression for his public performance. His mandolin pleased some people, his poetry a very few, and his infantile talk none. His affectations have almost buried him out of sight. He is probably the most artificial and studied ruffian the world has had. (Frost’s daughter) Lesley says his two long poems in The New Republic and The Dial are as ridiculous as his carriage and articulation. He has developed rapidly since I saw him two years ago. I heard someone say he was the kind of writer who had everything to gain and nothing to lose by being translated into a different language.’

    Ouch! Frost certainly thought Frost could be distinguished from Sandburg (as so I; I’ve never cared for Sandburg’s poetry).

    Somewhere else I remember reading that Frost actually was referring to Sandburg’s politics as infantile (Sandburg was a far leftist).

    Edgar Guest was not really a poet. More of a versifier.

  21. Matthew Says:

    When I was young I remember reading a story in literature class. In it a publisher was visiting a friend in New England. He complained about having to work with writers. He considered them divas, snobs, and ridiculous. His conversation is interrupted by the arrival of a neighbor. The publisher talks to the neighbor whose a farmer and says he prefers him to the writers because of the farmers humility and common sense. His friend replies that was Robert Frost.

  22. Ymarsakar Says:

    The communists did infiltrate the writing community rather early on. Since writers are their own gods within their fictional universe, it was easy to convince them of the religion of Marxism.

  23. Gringo Says:

    Neo, I have downloaded the article for my e-reader. Thanks for the tip.

  24. Gringo Says:

    Neo in your comment @ February 12th, 2014 at 2:54 , you cited Stanlis’s article on Frost . The article made a very good match with the Open Letter from “Soviet Russia Today.” A number of the signers of the Open Letter, a.k.a. “Look at me. I’m a craven apologist for Stalin,” were also cited in Stanlis’s article on Frost. Only one signer, Louis Untermeyer, was described as a friend of Frost, or agreeing with Frost.

    Louis Untermeyer [friend of Frost]
    F.O. Matthiessen: Frost’s most aggressive enemy at Harvard during the 1930s
    Granville Hicks
    Newton Arvin

    The article mentions that Arvin criticized Frost for not writing “proletarian literature.” Conclusion: the enemies Frost made is an indication of his stature.

    In reading some of his poems, I am struck with how the New England landscape he describes resonates with my younger memories of same.

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  26. Dusan Says:

    Bill O’Reilly needs to learn the correct prnicnuiatoon of Cavalry. The US Cavalry should not be confused with the place where Jesus died on the cross Calvary. Also, his use of Secretary Seward and Secretary Steward interchangeably, was really annoying.Linda Reese

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