As a self-proclaimed perfectionist, I identify all too well with the struggle to discern which are truly the best ways to conduct oneself and live a good life. Us perfectionists do it for a valid reason – we know that the best things in life are the those which make us feel happy and fulfilled. So naturally we strive more and more to obtain those things and achieve so-called “perfection”, whatever that looks like for us.
But if you consider the depression epidemic that western society is currently faced with we are forced to question whether our approach to happiness really makes sense. The statistics speak for themselves – we are clearly facing massive rates of mental illness. But why is this happening? Do we not live amongst some of the most successful, conscious, people of our time, here in our cosy first world countries? Although there are a few possible explanations, I would like to highlight one in particular.
I believe that the concepts of perfection and goodness have been mistakenly conflated and obscured by society. This has lead to perpetuating beliefs that, firstly, the world in its current state is not perfect, and secondly, supposing that there is a God who is perfect, he must therefore be incapable of anything which is collectively believed by society to be “bad”.
This article will attempt to re-define goodness and perfection through a more holistic lens, by critiquing Plato’s philosophy and touching on some scientific and spiritual principles. It will argue that, contrary to implicit premises in Plato’s theory of Forms, all appearances of the unchanging and eternal forms are perfect – not only the forms themselves. In conclusion it will state that God exists, God is perfect, perfection is a concept which is unrelated to our perceptions of goodness, universal morality does not exist, and western society would benefit from practicing a better discourse.
In case that was a lot to digest, let’s start with some background:
The ancient Greek philosopher Plato believed that what is good can build the foundation of an ideal, or otherwise “perfect” society. This is ultimately based on his Theory of Forms, which posits that objects and phenomena in the real world resemble ideal, “perfect” forms which are non-physical and can only be understood philosophically. In other words, tangible objects in the physical world are merely imperfect appearances of those more ideal, metaphysical forms.
In the context of a society, this is actually very problematic as it relies on the premise that every person within that society agrees on what is of the highest good. If you read the news however, you know that this is seldom, if ever the case. Every day intelligent people fight, argue, debate, and even kill each other over their differing needs and beliefs. So in the real world goodness is actually something transient, relative, and subjective. How can you have a perfect society if the people within that society all have different beliefs about what is good?
This flaw can be highlighted by the following argument:
1. Perfection is a state of flawlessness
2. Flawlessness is a result of completeness
3. Completeness of a thing can only occur by virtue that all aspects of it have binary opposite aspects that also exist (i.e. darkness cannot exist without light)
4. If the good exists, then the bad exists (since they are binary opposites)
5. The good exists
.: 6. The bad exists (from 4 and 5)
.: 7. Completeness also constitutes the bad (from 3 and 6)
.: 8. Any perfect entity can, and must be both good and bad (from 1, 2, and 6)
Plato also believes that the forms do exist in some other dimension, but he does not specify where. He adds, in Parmenides, that things such as “hair, mud, and dirt” and other “natural effects” do not have forms but the reason why is never made clear. This raises even more questions around the meaning of perfection. Does Plato suppose that hair, mud, and dirt do not have forms because they are intrinsically ugly (bad)?
Well, if we are to entertain the idea that the forms are perfect in the sense that they are the most “good” representations of things in the real world then we must specify what it means for something to be good.
In Platos’ Charmides, temperance is almost defined as the good and perfection is mentioned but neither concepts are addressed to the point of an infallible and definitive conclusion. According to Socrates, Charmides “excel[s] others in all good qualities because he is beautiful, knowledgeable, and comes from a good family. Socrates believes that since Charmides is such an admirable person, who is temperate by nature, then he should be able to define temperance. It is firstly established through this discussion that temperance is a good quality to have, and that the life which is temperate is supposed to be good. Although they never reach a consensus on the nature of temperance, Charmides concludes that the more temperate he is, the happier he is – a “good” outcome. The problem still remains: what is universally good?
Traditionally, the word “perfect” has indeed been used to indicate the highest good of something. The problem with this however, is that “ideal highest good of something” depends on the subjective opinion of the person who is being asked. A painting made by a child may be perfect in the eyes of that child, but a skilled painter would be likely to find flaws, or imperfections in it. Likewise, the form of a perfect apple might very well exist, but if that is the case then the form of the perfectly rotten apple is equally as plausible. Taken one step further, we also know that a crisp and slightly bitter apple is good for eating fresh, while more ripe apples are good for making pie. So which kind of apple is of the highest good, in and of itself?
One of the latter examples dabbles into the metaphysics of identity over time, but I digress…
However one attempts to define the “good,” surely there will be someone who disagrees with them or some situation which demonstrates a different kind of goodness. Coffee, for example, may be considered good to most people, but not so good to others. Harvesting and processing it turns out to be good for our tastebuds but not so good for the environment. In Protagoras, Plato does acknowledge that goodness is a relational quality; something is “good” insofar as it is good for a particular thing. However, this now presents a contradiction: if perfection is the highest good, and goodness is relational, then perfection cannot be a universal concept (in other words, something that can be idealized by all people, in the same way, eternally).
But supposing God is a single entity which is eternal, infinite, and perfect, then perfection must be a universal concept (he created us all, didn’t he?).
Where is the mistake here?
The mistake is the initial conflation of relational perceptions of goodness with the universal concept of perfection. Perfection cannot be defined as the highest good in the sense that it represents what individuals tend to think is good, but rather, it is the concept of a universal goodness which consists of neutral phenomena that can be interpreted as either good or bad, depending on the individual’s perception. This would resolve the debate as to how God can be perfect and yet still create evil, or “bad”things.
It has a lot of other implications too, including the fact that the theory of Forms is moot.
As we may come to accept from Plato’s Euthyphro, what is good, or admirable must be good in and of itself. This is concluded as a result of the Euthyphro dilemma:
- Does God command something because it is good? or
- Is something good because God commands it?
If (1) were the case, then God would be making commands based on some even higher power that is the true authority of morality (which is not possible). If (2) were the case, then anything could be considered good (and that hardly seems logical in a practical sense).
Seeing perfection in absolutely everything can make things tricky if we are trying to figure out how to best live a happy life or whether or not someone should be punished for committing a crime. Here is the thing though: case (2) is logical – it just isn’t practical. And just because something isn’t practical, it doesn’t mean it is incorrect. We cannot just dispose of a truth as if it is irrelevant because it doesn’t make sense to us.
So supposing that there is a God who is perfect, whose nature is the standard of morality, then the essence of morality must in fact be present in whatever is commanded by God (this is also known as divine command theory). This does however present another complication: if it is the case, then there is no such thing as universal morality. Morality must then be another concept which is not necessarily indicative of goodness in terms of relational perceptions because what God commands is not always perceived to be good. For clarification:
1. God’s nature is the standard of morality
.: 2. Morality must be intrinsic in whatever is commanded by God (from 1)
3. What God commands is not always good in terms of relational perceptions
.: 4. Morality is a concept that is not necessarily related to goodness in terms of relational perceptions (from 2 and 3)
Prima facie this is absurd. But the fact remains that by believing otherwise one is again mistakenly conflating relative and transient perceptions of goodness with concepts that he or she, at the same time, believes to be universal – namely, perfection and morality.
If, however, perfection is the universal highest good, and if what is good is so by virtue that it is good in and of itself, then everything that exists must in fact be good and perfect. Likewise, whatever is commanded by God must in fact be good and perfect (whether or not we perceive it to be).
In the bible, when it was said that God saw “all was good,” maybe what that really meant was that everything was in harmony and order; for everything that exists, there exists its binary opposite which allows it to exist and that is all. Is this a revolutionary thought? Actually, no. Hegel (1770-1831) pointed out in his oh-so complex way that God simply is reality itself (Robert Wallace, author of Hegel’s Philosophy of Reality explains this very eloquently). Maybe all we can really do is manage this reality as best we possibly can.
So perhaps it isn’t possible to have a universal definition of morality. It seems that we can only ever have our man-made systems of ethics that are designed by groups of individuals whose majority agree on the same code of conduct. This is what we have been doing so far and it has been working for the most part, but there are always outliers and it just seems wrong in a lot of ways. Don’t we want a system that works for everyone, every time, perfectly?
Philosophers such as Kant, Nietzsche, and Hume have all argued that God does not exist whatsoever (thus resolving this “problem”) but for each argument there are equally valid counter arguments. In the quest to prove whether or not God exists and to identify universally virtuous ways to live, no one has been successful it seems. The really big ethical questions like “is abortion equivalent to murder?” and “is it okay to eat meat?” are still up for debate. And some situations are simply too complicated to support the assertion that certain behaviours are always wrong. So how do we all go about living our lives in the meantime if we want to live according to truth? What is the way of life that appreciates this deeper understanding of perfection?
I believe that to answer such questions we would do well to examine an alternative philosophical approach such as Taoism. Taoist philosophy posits that there is no right or wrong in the workings of the universe; there just is. Everything exists in the way it does for a reason – to maintain order. Taoism proposes that the world is constantly in a state of change where phenomena are too complex to ever share the same meaning. It is therefore a waste of energy to focus on worldly, or “good” pleasures. The Yin and Yang is a concept in Taoism that is used to symbolize how the good could not exist without the bad: both are necessary for completeness. In real life and society, this means that the things which are commonly considered to be wrong are also just as necessary as the virtuous things in order for the existence of virtually everything in the universe to be possible. Put another way: without the bad we would not be able to appreciate the good, nor would we even be here in the first place.
Mathematics and physics also demonstrate that perfection, being a byproduct of completeness, is the sum of everything: the number 0 is mathematically representative of completeness as it stands, numerically, for nothing but also the sum of everything. This is because the number zero is equivalent numerically to nothing, yet also equal to the sum of all integers (infinity to minus infinity). The equation below demonstrates this:
(1 + (-1)) + (2 + (-2)) + (3 + (-3)) +… = 0 + 0 + 0 + … = 0
This rationale also has deep implications if it is assumed that numbers represent everything that exists in the universe – which is the case in a plausible theory called the mathematical universe hypothesis, or “theory of everything”. Physicists are also on the brink of discovering something that is currently referred to “mirror matter,” or “anti-matter”: basically, the binary opposite of the matter that we know as its properties correspond inversely. Perhaps this suggests that for everything in the universe there is literally an opposite entity which is equally part of the “grand scheme.”
Modern society rarely if ever operates according to these principles however. In societies, even historically, this perfection problem is manifested as the belief that the human condition is not already perfect as it is. In Greek mythology for example, the Gods were sometimes regarded as imperfect because they had human attributes. Highly religious people fear the impending punishment for their human “sins,” often so much so that they go to great lengths in order to secure a place for themselves in their supposed heaven.
But this is contradictory. Because if one looks in the sacred texts of the same religions that are followed by these individuals, he or she will inevitably see a phrase similar to “God is in all of us” or “we were created in the image of God.” Supposing the bible is meant to be taken metaphorically, this seems to be suggesting that humankind is actually just as perfect as God is, since it seems unlikely that something with perfection in it is only partly perfect.
Given that we do live in societies, and we do need to navigate a plethora of ethical and social issues, is there any practical significance to all of this?
Absolutely. Since this rationale supports the idea that everything is good in and of itself, it also shows us that our modern approach to happiness is flawed. We are too focused on outcomes which we desire and believe to be good and thus it naturally follows that we think perfection is only good. But this is a major source of our depression because our entire beings know deep inside that it is a lie. We all have some sort of innate knowing that things are too complex for that. So we are literally living a lie if we are chasing happiness and refusing to accept that bad things are an inevitable part of life. This, coupled with the fact that we are striving so much for achievement and autonomy is our the source of our depression. Because the truth is that we are happy when we accept things as they are, not when we achieve a goal, or when things aren’t “bad.” Desire creates suffering. Mindfulness and acceptance creates peace. Collectively, research in psychology actually points to this fact.
Our health and relationships would improve immensely if we were to abandon ideas of universal truths and accept subjectivity; if we could speak in terms of what we like and don’t like in the moment, rather than generalizing phenomena into constructs of what we think is always “good” or “bad”. This would avoid the conflation of relative goodness with universal perfection which leads to the false belief of a universal morality and black and white thinking (which is often associated with depression). When we instead choose to speak in terms of what feels “good” or “bad”, right or wrong, true or untrue, for us, in the moment, then we can always be sure that we are speaking the truth. And when we practice this kind of dialogue as a society it allows us to better tailor the consequences of behaviour so that they are the most appropriate and helpful for each person involved in their unique situation. If that isn’t practical, I don’t know what is.
We must aim for fairness, not equality, of outcome. And in life we must pursue meaning, not happiness.
Definitions are certainly always subject to change. Currently we can see, for example, in a court of law, that what is justice is not always just by the popular definition. In some areas of the world, many acts considered wrongful are still punishable by death – this is an extremely controversial topic which certainly puts us in the position to debate over the definition of justice. There is only one thing that can ever truly be defined universally however – and that is the infinite existence of God itself, a metaphorical symbol for the laws and constitution of this perfect, dualistic universe.
In reality everything that we perceive to be bad is just as perfect as everything that we perceive to be good and it is equally a part of “God’s plan.” There is something valuable behind what we perceive to be bad, whether or not we realize it at the time. We are all perfect as we are and everything is perfect the way it is, even if the reality of it is not always appealing to us.
True perfection is a concept which does not attribute itself to the moral valence of “good” or “bad.”
Universal morality is an erroneous concept. We can only deal with individual case scenarios to the best of our ability and knowledge.
So by this new, universal definition of perfection as “that which simply is,” the perfect God can and must allow killing, lying, and stealing. He must also be the creator of that which we consider to be cowardly, dirty, and ugly to the highest degree. Of course this is not what most of us would like to believe; it is not comforting or instilling of happiness. Yet, if it is true, as Plato suggested, that philosophers who are interested in only the truth rather than in selfish rewards would make the perfect rulers, and if we are to live amongst a truly perfect society, then the more negative tendencies of the universe must be acknowledged as well.
How would we, as humankind, come to know that fire burned our skin if we did not at some point touch it? What if, in our journeys through life, we are touching fire every day through the repercussions of our unhealthy behaviours because it is the only way for us to truly discover what is right and wrong, for ourselves?
We can still choose to focus our mind and energy on the positive: even though our God is capable of terrible things, he also creates life, allows that which is honest and generous, and the existence of breathtakingly beautiful phenomena. We are here to experience that because the only alternative possibility is to experience nothing at all. The contrast provided by the existence of that which we perceive to be negative is what allows for the existence of that which we perceive to be positive.
We can and must look at our world through this more holistic lens. We may see things like injustice and evil in our world as it is today but we can choose to believe that perhaps God commands those things for a reason. And so the world does not always appear to be fair, yet it is this way in order to maintain balance: a life which humans could not otherwise experience if everything were only “good.”
This article ultimately suggests that this is it. There is no ideal metaphysical world that we should idolize and any attempt to do so is destructive. Human activities, bodies, and environments exist as products of incredibly complex interactions. Morality cannot be universal if no two experiences or phenomena can ever be identical. With everything constantly changing, the definition of the “good” is constantly changing as well. The definition of perfection being a universal “ideal” is therefore flawed, especially concerning God if he is assumed to be an immortal, infinite being.
Perfection is instead the meld of good and evil working together to align all that exists into a state of oneness and completeness. Perfection is what is.