Thursday, December 8, 2011

On Human Perfectability (And Other Such Nonsense)

When I was a graduate student at the University of Leuven and had to decide on a period of philosophy in which to focus, there really was no question in my mind that it would be late antiquity. I had always found this period of history—which begins with the death of Alexander the Great and goes until the fall of the Roman Empire in the West—to be one of the most fascinating and underappreciated in European history.

But it was the intellectual thought of the period that really grabbed me. It was during late antiquity that all of the major schools of philosophy—Epicureans, Skeptics, Cynics, Stoics, Peripatetics, and the Neo-Platonists—were engaged in a mighty philosophical battle to determine whose philosophical system would come to dominate. Now, the approaches of all these schools differed dramatically, but they all shared one basic presupposition: that human perfectibility in this life was indeed a possibility.

For a young man in his 20s with more than his own share of emotional baggage, this idea naturally was quite appealing to me. All you had to do, it seemed, was have the right understanding of the nature of reality and live your life according to some well- defined principles and you were set. Happiness, self-realization, moral perfection, the good life—what ever you want to call it—could be yours for the taking. And once you attained this state of ultimate perfection, as exemplified by the great sages of all these traditions, you’d never again have to be bothered by anger, fear, despair, loneliness, anxiety, and the like. You’d essentially be impervious to the vicissitudes of chance and fortune.

It was a sweet dream, but, as I get older, I have begun to realize that this dream is actually more like a dangerous fantasy. And, unfortunately, it’s a fantasy that most Americans buy into to one degree or another. We think that, if we can just change our outlook on life, or get the right kind of job, or marry the right person, or have a bit more money, or find the right religion to belong to, our lives will suddenly become perfect. We would be walking around on a cloud of bliss, never again to know the tortuous pangs of unhappiness.

So, we spend our lives going from therapist to therapist, from medication to medication, from guru to guru, looking for the magic pill that will dispel the inner demons that plague us. But what we find, more often than not, is that we “flee into the desert” hoping to escape our problems, only to find that our problems follow us right into the desert (to paraphrase John Cassian). The desert, of course, is a metaphor for that secret cure that will end our unhappiness. In the early Christian Church, the desert represented escape from the wickedness and temptations of the city. But our own personal desert could be just about anything: it is basically the delusion that we have that everything in life will become just fine, if we can just change ourselves or our outlook on life just a little bit.

St. Augustine, the great Doctor of the Church, saw that this incessant question for perfection was a dangerous tendency that would actually rob one of the little happiness that was possible in this life. As a young man, he flittered from sect to sect trying to find the magic cure for his own misery. In the end, however, he discovered that the very quest for perfection was his greatest sin and that what he really needed to do was just accept his own fallen nature and muddle through life as best he could. The rest, Augustine came to believe, was in the hands of God.

I used to think that Augustine’s approach was insufferably cynical and pessimistic. But now I think that he actually was on to something. If we can just recognize that we’re not perfect and never will be, and try to accept who we actually are, with all our foibles, neuroses, petty character traits, and gross imperfections, we might actually find the modicum of contentment that may, in fact, be quite realizable in this life.

As the great philosopher, Clint Eastwood, once profoundly said…

So I say, start delighting in your own limitations. Your life may not be filled with apple pie and sunshine all the time (Whose life really is?). But you may just find that you are perfectly adequate for the ample challenges involved in living out your day-to-day existence.

And please don’t knock mere adequacy until you’ve given it a good try!

1 comment:

  1. I consider myself as perfect as I ever want to be, or need to be. Anyone who goes around looking to achieve perfection is a neurotic.