Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Dream of Perfection 1

It would seem to me that perhaps one of the main reasons why humankind is heir to much mental and not a little physical suffering is its desire for perfection - whatever, indeed that might be.  Over the next several posts I shall attempt to delineate a little of the historical pursuit of perfection.  However, here, essentially, I wish to make the point that our desire for perfection can lead us as human beings into all types of mental problems.  In other words, we believe that "the other man's grass is always greener - the sun shines brighter on the other side." (I quote the song "The Other Man's Grass is Always Greener" sung by  Petula Clark  and written by Tony Hatch and Yvonne J. Harvey.)  This misleading belief in turn leads to a host of problems and not a little mental suffering - we become restless, frustrated, jealous, envious and possibly and probably depressed because we perceive ourselves to be not so lucky, and indeed, not so perfect as Mr. A, Ms. B or Professor X.

I suppose that a note on Gottfried Leibniz's (1646-1716) famous phrase, "the best of all possible worlds" would not go amiss here. Leibniz wrote mainly in Latin and French and we often come across this famous phrase in its French original "le meilleur des mondes possibles."  It is the central argument in Leibniz's theodicy, i.e., his attempt to solve the problem of evil.  Therein he argued, some might say cogently and correctly, that the best possible world would have the most good and the least evil. For example, courage is better than no courage. It might be observed, then, that without evil to challenge us, there can be no courage. Since evil brings out the best aspects of mankind, evil is regarded as necessary. Therefore, in creating this world God made some evil to make the best of all possible worlds. On the other hand, the theory explains evil not by denying it or even rationalizing it - but simply by declaring it to be part of the optimum combination of elements that comprise the best possible Godly choice.  So much for Leibniz's theodicy, but the horrific examples of suffering that I have outlined in previous posts, of which I think and feel our Leibniz could never have conceived, surely give the lie to his rather neat or all-too-neat theory of reconciliation of a benevolent God with the presence of Evil in the world.  Anyway, historically this idea fell almost completely out of favour with philosophers after the horrific earthquake in Lisbon in 1755.

Be this philosophical interlude as it may, we are still left in this less than perfect world with a seemingly innate desire for perfection.  I believe as I have outlined in my opening paragraph that this is the the very crux of many of our existential problems.  What then is this ideal of "perfection."  It has been variously pursued as an ideal or goal from time immemorial by humanity.  Perfection can, therefore, be variously defined, but I am quite taken with the definition that sees it as "a state of completeness or flawlessness."  Whatever about "completeness", the word "flawlessness" jars with this writer at least. 

After 50 years in this world I have seen very few, if any "flawless" things or even persons.  In the 28 years I have taught school I have come across some really excellent students.  I even had the privilege of teaching one boy who achieved 7 A1s in his leaving and many others who achieved over 550 points.  I'm sure all the young persons who achieve 600 points - the optimum points achievable - would not consider themselves perfect.  Is their work perfect?  Yes, probably!  But, I'm sure some of them made spelling errors here and there, blotted or smudged this or that page, and still rightly achieved 100%.  Is this still perfection?  Near enough to it  at least, I suppose.  Indeed, it is possibly the pursuit of perfection, rather than perfection as an end in itself that is the more important thing in this debate.  While absolute and complete perfection may not exist in itself, the pursuit of it always brings about a better state of things, a continual renewal and renovation that is at all times desired.

"Completeness" seems a far more attractive and indeed more realistic a word to me.  Something can be complete in itself without being 100 percent perfect.  While a work of art may not be 100% perfect, it can be really complete in itself in so far as it may contain elements that jar or conflict with many other elements in the overall picture.  For instance, take a symphony or any great piece of music - the jarring notes, the crashing sounds of cymbals, the thuds of great drums, the screeches of certain stringed instruments at certain junctures add to the completeness of the whole - they add to the mystique and the mystery of the overall work of art.  Melody alone simply does not capture the overall reality.  Harmony needs Disharmony. Black needs White.  Somewhere in the middle between the polar opposites the tension that is the pulsating reality of life lives.

Over the many years that it has taken what we term civilization to grow and develop, our history has witnessed the pursuit of many Utopian ideas.  We have Sir or Saint Thomas More, depending on your preference, to thank for writing his famous eponymous book Utopia in 1516 for the very word.   The title of  the book itself is delightfully paradoxical insofar as More, who as a classical scholar, would have understood the word to mean at once "No-place" and "Good Place."  Utopia in this little book is a fictional island in the Atlantic Ocean that possesses a perfect socio-politico-legal system.  More had read Plato's Republic, another utopian work to which he  refers several times in his own work.  Utopian ideas seem to have two things in common - they all seem wonderfully plausible at the beginning, and they all end up eventually being disasters.  While they all inevitably fail, the ideals captured in them are all worth pursuing.  As I have argued above the pursuit of the ideal is the important thing, not the ideal as an end in itself.  We must realize that utopian ideals embody humanity's noblest impulses, yet we must also take on board the bitter truth that pursued obsessively and ruthlessly they can lead to horrors such as Nazi Germany and the Soviet regime. 


I'll finish this post with the first verse and chorus of the famous song to which I referred at the opening of this post.  Perhaps a little meditation on the words therein would not go astray. or better still listen to the song!

Life is never what it seems, we're always searching in our dreams

To find that little castle in the air

When worry starts to cloud the mind, it's hard to leave it all behind

And just pretend you haven't got a care

There's someone else in your imagination

You wish that you were standing in their shoes

You'd change your life without much hesitation

But would you if you really had to choose?

So, don't look around, get your feet on the ground

It's much better by far to be just who your are


The other man's grass is always greener

The sun shines brighter on the other side

The other man's grass is always greener

Some are lucky, some are not

Just be thankful for what you've got

Above I have placed a picture I took of a copy of Michelangelo's wonderful David standing in the original location in front of the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence. I took this picture July 2006 while travelling in Tuscany with my brother Gerard.

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