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.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Suffering 4

Jesus has many wise sayings, truisms that are timeless.  One of them is "the poor you will have always with you."  One could almost hear him averring the truth of another such saying like "wars you will always have with you."  One need not be a very good historian or even a tolerably good politician to realise the truth of this latter contention.  A casual glance at the news in any medium will convince you of the endurance of war, of its seeming endlessness.  I shall start this post with a few quotations from real-life witnesses of the horror of war.  Once again, one of my quotes comes from the wonderfully insightful and learned Jonathan Glover's Book Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century  "We lived happily together for many years and now it has come to killing each other's babies.  What is happening to us?"  This heart-felt cry was by one Indira Hadziomerovic who was mourning in SarajevoGlover took his poignant quotation from the Independent (8 August 1992) (quoted Glover, p.123)  The list of crimes perpetrated by all sides during the ethnic conflict after the break-up of Yugoslavia is beyond description almost in both quantity and in the actual horror perpetrated by one ethnic group on another.   Glover recounts the following among his many examples of wanton cruelty: "Other Serbian forces created a reign of terror in eastern Bosnia.  There were at least 17 rape camps, where Bosnian women and girls were held for weeks and repeatedly raped.  A European Community investigation later estimated that 20,000 women had been sexually violated.  Some of the victims were as young as three or four."  (ibid., p. 127)


Glover's account of the Rwandan attempted genocide is blood-curdling and I shall refrain by quoting any of the testimonies he cites or lists of horrific crimes which he outlines rather clinically, but very sympathetically.  One always gets the sense of Glover's sheer recoil as he lists his brutal news.  In the Sunday Times Culture supplement of November 4, 2007 there are many references also to the literature that is spawned by war from the poetic testimonies of the poets of the Great War - Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Edward Thomas and Ivor Gurney to the recent poetry of Simon Armitage who wrote his poems as the result of listening to the accounts given by the veterans of Bosnia, Iraq and Malaya. (see pp. 6-8 Culture Supplement).  On page 8 of this same supplement we read a soldier called Eddie's words which describe the suffering of war all too clearly:


But of all three combatants, Eddie seems to have suffered the most, despite the fact that he was on duty in Bosnia as a UN peacekeeper and wearing a "blue lid."  A born soldier, he expected to shoot and be shot at: that's what he was trained for.  Instead he lifted the barrier at the checkpoint to wave through the death squads.  A couple of days later, he'd be a member of the party that went in to witness the horror and clean up the mess.  He describes a pregnant woman tied to a tree, sliced open, with her dead unborn baby hanging from her womb.  There are other things he won't describe, he says, because they are worse.  To try to cure his nerves and overcome his paranoid reactions to loud bangs, he once took a revolver out into a field and fired round after round of blanks against his head.  He tried to hang himself from a tree, but the branch couldn't bear his weight.

Here we witness third-hand the suffering Eddie witnessed first-hand.  We also witness Eddie's own mental suffering.  In that same supplement of The Sunday Times we read the review by Max Hastings, a war correspondent of note, of Arkady Babchenko's revealing book One Soldier's War in Chechnya.  Hastings confirms his contention that all wars are hell by appropriate quotations from Babchenko's book.  Therein the author recounts how almost daily young soldiers were sadistically beaten by veterans; how almost every Russian soldier in Chechnya was drunk nearly all the time; how the Russian army is a brutish, demoralised , drunken rabble and how soldiers refer to badly burnt corpses as "smoked goods" and to the morgues as "canning factories."  Those soldiers were often sick and hungry and sometimes even went without boots.  On how the rebels tortured and killed one of Babchenko's comrades, we read:


The rebels had slit him open like a tin of meat, pulled out his intestines and used them to strangle him while he was still alive.  On the nearby whitewashed wall above him, written in his blood, were the words "Allah akbar!" - God is great" (quoted by Max Hastings page 51 of Supplement)

Of the poor creatures who managed to go home from Chechnya, many of them maimed and horrifically crippled, he reports that all of them are irreversibly mentally scarred.  Babchenko tells us succinctly that these scarred veterans "see the world from below, and not only because they have only half of their bodies left, but because half of their souls are gone too." (ibid., p. 51)  Strangely, or more correctly serendipitously and sychronistically, in this same supplement I also read the review of Manguel's Homer's The Iliad And The Odyssey, reviewed by Mary Beard.  Therein one is reminded of Homer's sage words from those long-gone ages that "all life is battle" (The Iliad) and "all life is journey" (The Odyssey). How right the critic Harold Bloom was when he wrote that "Everyone who reads and writes in the West is still a son or daughter of Homer."  It would seem, also, regrettable that everyone who makes war, or upon whom war is made, is also one of Homer's suffering offspring.

Above I have uploaded a picture I took in May 2007 of recently dug graves - shortly after the tragic deaths of two of our young students at school.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Suffering 3

I shall begin this post with a longish quotation which I deem apt to my present musings.  I was just dipping in and out of Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman's international bestseller Long Way Round (Time Warner Books, 2004) - after all they have proved that it is possible to ride all the way around the world by motorbike.  Here is the relevant quotation:

A few weeks later, we arrived at the first big river in Siberia.  It was too wide, too fast and too deep to cross on a motorbike.  There was a bridge, but it had collapsed.  I thought Charley would be itching to get ahead, impatient with the hold-up.  But he was in his element.  He knew that someone or something would be along to help.  The delays were the journey.  We'd get across is when we got across it.

I understand now that it didn't really matter that we hadn't stopped beside that cool, fast-flowing Mongolian river.  The imperfections in our journey were what made it perfect.  And maybe we wouldn't be in Magadan now if we had not got that burning desire to keep going.  After all, the river would always be there.  Now that I knew what was out there, I could always return. (opus citatum, p. 3)

Long Way Round is a marvellous little travel book - the account of a journey taken together on motorbike.  In a way all physical journeys are metaphors for the journey that is life.  In other terms, all long journeys are really pilgrimages on the road to self-knowledge.  In the above quotation McGregor italicises "were."  Therein he has realised that most fundamental insight of all pilgrims, of all kindred spirits, of all searchers and explorers, of all spiritual travellers, namely that the journey is indeed the destination.  Hence all spiritual traditions talk about the pilgrim journey and the necessity for the pilgrim to live in the present or in the "now."  So for McGregor the delays became not alone part of the journey, but were actually and fundamentally the journey.  Another sentence from the second paragraph quoted above is also very important, I feel, namely where he says that the imperfections in their journey were what made it perfect.  In a real sense here we have another deeply spiritual insight namely that reality is a whole that comprises polarities or oppositional realities or antinomies, call them what you wish.  The poets William Blake, S.T. Coleridge and W.B. Yeats were obsessed with oppositional realities or polarities.  They felt and believed that it was the polar tension between these opposites that gave a dynamism to life; that, indeed, in a very real sense they defined the very essence of life or living.  How can one know the good if you do not experience the bad?  How can you know pleasure if you do not feel pain?  How can you know perfection if you don't know imperfection?  A beginning makes no sense unless there is an end.  Life in a very profound way is meaningless without its contrariety or opposite, namely death.

In previous posts I have alluded to different attempted theodicies - the Augustinian, the Irenaean, the more recent ones advanced by the likes of the theologian John Hick - which tried and try to square Good and Evil in the world and how a good God could allow evil and senseless suffering.  See the following links : Augustinian Theodicy and Irenaean Theodicy

Trying to explain why things happen as they do can drive us crazy.  At an existential level we all cry out, "Why me?" or "Why was I singled out to bear this or that cross?"  However, at our less angry and more placid and accepting moments we realise all too well that the opposite question is also a very true one namely "Why not me?" "What's so special about me that I should not have to suffer this or that?"  Life is all about luck (or synchronicity, which I have explained elsewhere in these pages), I feel, and making the best of what life has deemed fit to have given us.  Believers will talk about the providence of God and use all shades of theological and spiritual language to put across their point.  However, I feel their God is terribly selective.  Some people believe in fate or fatalism. This is the way things were meant to be, and that is that.  I have mentioned the great theoretical and cosmological physicist Stephen Hawking in these pages before.  He sees life as a question of luck, and that each of us should quit complaining and make the best of the "hand of cards" we have been dealt.  Hawking, despite being severely handicapped by ALS (or Motor Neuron or Lou Gehrig's disease) has a stoical attitude to life (in fact, Stephen is a gentle type of atheist, I feel): Here he explains his philosophy of life in his own words:

I think I'm happier now than I was before I started.  Before the illness set in I was bored with life.  I drank a fair amount, I guess, didn't do any work.  It was really a rather pointless existence.  When one's expectations are reduced to zero, one really appreciates everything that one does have. (quoted, Stephen Hawking: A Life in Science, eds., Michael White and John Gribben, Viking, 1992, page 192)

...One has to be grown up enough to realize that life is not fair.  You just have to do the best you can in the situation you are in.  (ibid., p. 293)


Trying to explain why things happen as they do can and does drive us crazy. In like manner, I feel that in places Albert Camus drove himself crazy with his stated desire to seek clarity above all in all things.  No full clarity exists in this world.  No complete one hundred percent explanation exists.  Once we jettison such Utopian ideals we can then be much more realistic and in fact much happier in ourselves.  As quoted in these pages before, Professor Ivor Brown argues for the abandonment of the "desire to be happy" because it is a foolish and unfulfillable desire.  Contentment and acceptance of one's lot might be nearer the point, though.  When we stop fighting against the tide and begin to use our energy to survive by going with the flow we surely will draw some contentment from our journey.

Above I have uploaded a picture I took in Boston in March 2002 of the sculpture depicting the Irish Famine