A principle is “a fundamental, primary, or general truth, on which other truths depend.” Thus a principle is an abstraction which subsumes a great number of concretes. It is only by means of principles that one can set one’s long-range goals and evaluate the concrete alternatives of any given moment. It is only principles that enable a man to plan his future and to achieve it.
The present state of our culture may be gauged by the extent to which principles have vanished from public discussion, reducing our cultural atmosphere to the sordid, petty senselessness of a bickering family that haggles over trivial concretes, while betraying all its major values, selling out its future for some spurious advantage of the moment.
To make it more grotesque, that haggling is accompanied by an aura of hysterical self-righteousness, in the form of belligerent assertions that one must compromise with anybody on anything (except on the tenet that one must compromise) and by panicky appeals to “practicality.”
But there is nothing as impractical as a so-called “practical” man. His view of practicality can best be illustrated as follows: if you want to drive from New York to Los Angeles, it is “impractical” and “idealistic” to consult a map and to select the best way to get there; you will get there much faster if you just start out driving at random, turning (or cutting) any corner, taking any road in any direction, following nothing but the mood and the weather of the moment.
The fact is, of course, that by this method you will never get there at all. But while most people do recognize this fact in regard to the course of a journey, they are not so perceptive in regard to the course of their life and of their country.
Concrete problems cannot even be grasped, let alone judged or solved, without reference to abstract principles.
You have no choice about the necessity to integrate your observations, your experiences, your knowledge into abstract ideas, i.e., into principles. Your only choice is whether these principles are true or false, whether they represent your conscious, rational convictions—or a grab-bag of notions snatched at random, whose sources, validity, context and consequences you do not know, notions which, more often than not, you would drop like a hot potato if you knew. . . .
You might say, as many people do, that it is not easy always to act on abstract principles. No, it is not easy. But how much harder is it, to have to act on them without knowing what they are?
Consider a few rules about the working of principles in practice and about the relationship of principles to goals . . . .
In any conflict between two men (or two groups) who hold the same basic principles, it is the more consistent one who wins.
In any collaboration between two men (or two groups) who hold different basic principles, it is the more evil or irrational one who wins.
When opposite basic principles are clearly and openly defined, it works to the advantage of the rational side; when they are not clearly defined, but are hidden or evaded, it works to the advantage of the irrational side.
When men abandon principles (i.e., their conceptual faculty), two of the major results are: individually, the inability to project the future; socially, the impossibility of communication.
Only fundamental principles, rationally validated, clearly understood and voluntarily accepted, can create a desirable kind of unity among men.