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Passmore on the Perfectibility of Man

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Source: John Passmore, (3rd ed.) (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).


When, in everyday life, men are accounted perfect, this is most commonly in relation to their performance of a task or in a role. In such contexts, “perfect” acts as a superlative. A forger can be good, very good, excellent, or perfect at imitating signatures; an accountant can be good, very good, excellent, or perfect at drawing up balance-sheets. A perfect secretary, a perfect forger, a perfect accountant, all attain to the highest possible standards in the tasks they undertake. But this by no means implies that they are perfect in the performance of other tasks, in other roles. The perfect forger does not necessarily keep perfect accounts, nor is the perfect accountant always a perfect secretary. Even more obviously, he need not be a perfect man.

Indeed, it is a serious question whether perfection in this sense—let us call it “technical perfection”—has any intelligible application to man as such. That it has, Martin Foss, for one, denies. “Society,” he writes, “simplifies and abbreviates its members to executors of their social purposes, their social professions. . . . If they are adequate to their purpose in the social scheme, they are called perfect. So we have perfect typists, perfect lawyers, perfect accountants. But are there also ‘perfect men’? I do not think so.”1* This is a pleasantly rapid way of rejecting the perfectibility of man. Being human is not a profession, nor does it by itself fulfil a social purpose. If, then, there is no other kind of perfection, or none applicable to human beings, except technical perfection, it is natural to conclude that man as such—as distinct from a secretary qua secretary or an accountant qua accountant—cannot, by the very nature of the case, attain to perfection.

This deduction admits of a number of replies. The nineteenth-century philosophical anarchist William Godwin, at least in his later writings, argues that if each man is perfectible in a task, then it follows that man as such is perfectible. “Putting idiots and extraordinary cases out of the question, every human creature,” so Godwin maintains, “is endowed with talents, which, if rightly directed, would shew him to be apt, adroit, intelligent and acute, in the walk for which his organization especially fitted him.” Each individual man, that is, has a set of talents which enable him to be trained to perform a particular task. And this makes it possible, Godwin continues, for each man to produce “something as perfect in its kind, as that which is effected under another form by the more brilliant and illustrious of his species.” Each and every man, that is, can be so trained as to be technically perfect in some particular respect. And since man as such is a mere abstraction, since mankind is made up of individual men, to demonstrate that each and every man is perfectible is to demonstrate that man is perfectible.2

At first sight, however, there are two powerful arguments against deducing the perfectibility of man from the capacity of each man to perfect himself in some particular task. A man, we pointed out, can perfect himself in one role while being imperfect in another. He may be a perfect accountant but a dreadful public-speaker. There is an enormous gap, too, between his being a perfect accountant and his being a perfect man. It is one thing to say, then, that each and every man can perfect himself at something, quite another to say that he can perfect himself in every task he is called upon, as a human being, to perform. Secondly, a man can perfect himself not only as a secretary or an accountant but as a forger, a blackmailer, a torturer, an informer. “All men are perfectible; for even the worst of men can perfect himself as a procurer.” Something seems to have gone wrong with that argument. When moralists, theologians, philosophers, dispute about whether man is “perfectible,” they take it for granted that the perfection in question does not include perfection in vice. To be perfectible in a task, it again follows, is not the same thing as being perfectible as a man.

Plato’s republic is designed to meet both these objections. Plato allots to each man one task and one task only, that task in which his talents and skills enable him to perfect himself. “Each individual should pursue that work in this city,” writes Plato of his ideal republic, “for which his nature was naturally most fitted, each one man doing one work.”3 So whereas in our society a man may be a perfect accountant but a failure as a father, in Plato’s republic such a man will not be permitted to act as a father: that will be somebody else’s task, somebody whose talents and skills enable him to perfect himself in the task of rearing children.

As for the second objection, Plato’s republic is an ideal society. An ideal State will not contain forgers, blackmailers, or procurers. So although in our everyday imperfect States there are men whose talents and skills are wholly devoted to perfecting themselves in these deplorable occupations, in an ideal State each citizen will be allocated to a morally respectable task, chosen to accord with his talents. Perhaps, then, we need do no more than slightly modify Godwin’s view: man is perfectible if and only if each man has talents and skills which would fit him for the performance of the task which would be allocated to him in an ideal society.

Obviously, however, to talk thus of an “ideal” society—a perfect society, that is—is to make use of another, and different, sense of perfection, not technical perfection. A perfect society cannot be defined as one which performs its social task perfectly: it sets social tasks, it does not have a social task. More concretely, in Plato’s republic social tasks are set by a particular class of men—the “philosopher-kings” who act as its governors. No doubt, they are expert as rulers. But if they were only expert in a technical sense—good at keeping the society in order—it would be unsafe to rely upon them not to encourage such occupations as blackmailing, informing, torturing. Technically expert rulers, indeed, commonly provide more than enough employment for such skilled professions. The expertness of Plato’s rulers is a by-product of, not the sole evidence for, their perfection. They are not perfect because they rule perfectly, they rule perfectly because they are perfect, as a consequence of their having seen “the form of the good.” So, in the end, the whole structure of Plato’s republic rests on there being a variety of perfection over and above technical perfection—a perfection which consists in, or arises out of, man’s relationship to the ideal.

Even in the case of the ordinary citizen, indeed, technical perfection is not, for Plato, enough. There is, he no doubt says, an “image” of justice—of moral perfection—in “the principle that he whom nature intended for a shoemaker should attend to shoemaking and nothing else.” But it is only an image. True justice “does not concern a man’s management of his own external affairs, but his internal management of his soul, his truest self and his truest possessions.”4 In other words, technical perfection does not automatically carry human perfection with it; if men ought to seek technical perfection, this is only as an outward expression of their moral perfection, their willingness to submit their passions to rational control.

A not dissimilar analysis of the relation between technical and human perfection is sometimes to be met with in Christian thought, especially, although not solely, in the Reforming tradition. “No one,” Luther writes, “is without some commission and calling”—a set of tasks it is his responsibility to perform.5 In most cases, this commission and calling is made clear to a man by the station into which he is born. “This means,” Luther tells us, “that a servant, maid, son, daughter, man, woman, lord, subject, or whoever else may belong to a station ordained by God, as long as he fills his station, is as beautiful and glorious in the sight of God as a bride adorned for her marriage.”6 Men serve God best, Luther argues, by remaining in their vocation, however “mean and simple” it may be—although he does, somewhat inconsistently, allow that if a boy has special abilities it is the duty both of parents and of the State to make it possible for him to perfect those abilities by education.

At once, however, that difficulty arises which we have already met, although in a somewhat different context. Human beings may be born into stations which only a God considerably more broad-minded than the God of Christianity would find “beautiful and glorious.” Luther himself gives a list of “sinful” callings: “robbery, usury, public women, and as they are at present, the pope, cardinals, bishops, priests, monks and nuns.”7 This list is no doubt somewhat controversial; not everybody would wish to include popes along with prostitutes. But the principle is what is important. Luther has to grant that the calling into which human beings are born—as a woman may be born, let us say, a temple-prostitute—is not necessarily the one, the perfect performance of which will make them “beautiful and glorious in the sight of God.”

Furthermore, although he is so emphatic that men should work diligently at their calling—and Calvin emphasizes this even more strongly—Luther does not maintain, just as Plato did not maintain, that they will reach perfection as men in this way. Indeed, Luther vehemently rejects the view that, in their earthly life, men can achieve perfection. He draws, too, an important distinction between technical and vocational perfection. The Christian, according to Luther, must use his vocation primarily as a way of serving his fellow-men; technical expertness is desirable only as a means to that end.* So although technical perfection plays a part in Lutheran moral theology, it is only a small part; Luther would certainly not identify the perfectibility of man with his ability to perfect himself in any secular task or set of tasks.

A man’s performance in his vocation, indeed, is to Luther important only because it demonstrates his obedience to God, and to God’s plan for man—just as it is important to Plato because it demonstrates his willingness to submit himself to the rule of the philosopher-kings. This attitude is even more clearly expressed in the moral theology of Karl Barth. “Faithfulness in vocation,” he writes, “means positively that in my vocation as it is I seek, either well or badly, to do satisfactory work to the best of my ability, skill and conscience, . . . giving myself to my own particular concern, remembering always that it is no accident but part of the plan and providence of God that it is my concern, and that God summons me to do justice to it.”8 In other words, technical perfection—in so far as perfection rather than conscientious application is what is called for—matters to Barth only as a special case of obedientiary perfection, absolute obedience to the will of God. This is man’s real task, the task all men have to undertake: the practice of a calling does no more than exemplify it.

Obedientiary perfection, however, still has its problems: what guarantee is there that submission to God’s will cannot lead men into imperfection? God, to judge from the Old Testament, makes strange demands upon men, bids them to act in ways which scarcely accord with our everyday ideas about moral perfection. Can the temple-prostitute really be confident that it is not God’s will that she should continue in that station in life? But this, it might be said, is at worst the problem of determining in what God’s will consists. There can be no denying that to do what God wills, once that will has been determined, is the path to perfection. But why should this not be denied? Some theologians, like the thirteenth-century Duns Scotus, have been prepared to reply that it is self-contradictory to suppose that God would ever will men to do anything except what is good. Nothing is meant by “good,” on their view, except “action in accordance with God’s will”; the supposition cannot intelligibly be entertained, therefore, that it might be good to disobey God.* But most theologians have been unhappy with the suggestion that “to do what God wills is good” means no more than “to do what God wills is to do what God wills.” They have suggested, rather, that God is perfect, and must be obeyed just for that reason. But obviously, God’s perfection is not obedientiary perfection; God obeys nobody, not even himself. So, if this view is to be maintained, perfection has to be defined, when it applies to God, as something other than obedientiary perfection. And the perfection of men’s conduct when they obey God will then lie not in their obedience as such but in the fact that their conduct reflects the perfection of God.

Summing up, to identify the perfectibility of man with his capacity to perfect himself technically in a task is to encounter insuperable difficulties—unless perfectibility is wholly divorced from moral perfection. It is only if the task can be thought of as one set by a perfect Being or in a perfect society that there is any plausibility in supposing that a man can perfect himself as a human being merely by perfecting his ability in a task. Two consequences then follow. The first is that the perfection of such a Being or such a society does not itself consist in its perfect performance of a task. The second is that a man’s perfecting himself in the performance of a task is not in itself sufficient to ensure his perfecting himself as a man: it is important only in so far as it bears witness to his perfection in some other, more fundamental respect, in obedience, in submission, in rational control.

Closely related to technical perfection, however, is a more philosophically complex concept of perfection—teleological perfection—which has often been invoked as the test of human perfectibility. This is the perfection which consists in a thing’s reaching its “natural end.” Its great exponent is Aristotle. Every form of activity, Aristotle argues, is directed towards an end. The art of sculpting, for example, has as its end the depiction of the human figure, the art of medicine has as its end health. It is impossible to suppose, Aristotle goes on to contend, that although sculptors and doctors each seek the end natural to the forms of activity they undertake, man as such has no end which he naturally seeks. The only question, for Aristotle, is in what that natural end consists. He identifies it with eudaimonia—“happiness” or “well-being.” Man is perfectible, then, if and only if he is capable of attaining to well-being.9

The soundness of Aristotle’s argument is more than questionable. Tasks are not set by Nature but by men, within particular forms of social organization: it would not be in the least surprising if man as such, unlike the sculptor or the carpenter, had no task to perform, no end to pursue. This, indeed, is precisely what we should expect. Tasks, forms of activity, differentiate men, diversify their responsibilities; there are sculptors, and sculptors who produce figures in marble rather than abstract arrangements of junk-metal as their “natural end,” only in societies which call upon men to undertake, and encourage them to perfect themselves, in such activities.* No doubt there are natural differences between human beings; men cannot give birth to babies nor can women fertilize a womb. But even the “functions” of men and women, beyond this elementary point, are fixed by men, not by Nature. It is not Nature who decides whether women shall work in industry, in agriculture, or in the home, or what they shall take as their objective in those pursuits. The so-called “natural ends,” indeed, should more accurately be described as “conventional” ends.

The distinction between technical and teleological perfection might at first sight appear to be a distinction without a difference. Technical perfection, it can plausibly be argued, is simply perfection in the methods necessary and sufficient to produce a particular end. A man is technically perfect in a task if and only if he is capable of attaining the objective to which that task is conventionally directed, i.e. its teleological perfection. But this is not quite the situation.

In some instances, no doubt, the two modes of perfection are but opposite sides of the same penny. We should not reckon a forger “technically perfect” unless he can actually produce a perfect imitation of a signature, the “conventional end” of forgery. But we might describe a sculptor as “technically perfect”—capable, that is, of perfectly performing such tasks as the carving of marble in the likeness of a human figure—and yet deny the perfection of the works he produces. He lacks, we say, “inspiration” or “genius.” And on the other side, an artist might produce the works of art towards which his activity is directed without having perfected himself technically: technically rough, they yet delight the eye. A doctor might succeed in keeping his patients healthy only because they have an excellent constitution and are fortunate in the kind of work they undertake. Health can be a “natural gift,” as distinct from the product of the doctor’s skill, even when that skill is directed towards maintaining health. To sum up, whereas technical perfection entirely depends, as Kant argued, on talent and skill,10 men can achieve teleological perfection—the end towards which their efforts are directed—as a gift, or by luck, rather than as a result of effort.

This is a fact of great consequence for Christian theories of perfection. Aquinas took over the Aristotelian analysis of perfection and developed it systematically. Everything whatever, he says, moves by its own nature towards a particular condition, the condition in which it can rest. That condition is the thing’s “perfection.” The perfection of man as such, according to Aquinas, lies in the vision of God—or, more precisely, of the Divine Essence.11 But at the same time Aquinas argues that men can achieve that end only by the grace of God, not by the mere exercise of talents and skills. The vision of God is at once man’s natural end and a supernatural gift, just as it is the sculptor’s natural end to produce great works of art, and yet to do so requires a kind of inspiration which is something over and above the talents and skills he directs towards that end.* So technical perfection is not the same thing as teleological perfection, however closely the two are sometimes related to one another. A man can be technically perfect without attaining to teleological perfection; he can perform perfectly his religious and moral duties, so far as that involves the skilled use of his abilities, he can make himself expert in ritual and in Christian knowledge, without being vouchsafed the vision of God; and he can attain to that perfection without being technically perfect.

The presumption, as we saw, which lies beneath the concept of teleological perfection is that every kind of thing, including man, has a natural end in which alone it can find perfect satisfaction. There is another way of putting this metaphysical assumption. Everything, it may be suggested, contains unrealized potentialities; “becoming perfect” consists in actualizing the potentialities. A thing’s “natural end” is to actualize, to realize, its potentialities. So in his Critique of Judgement Kant suggests that what he had previously called “practical perfection”—task-perfection—is more accurately described as “utility.” To perfect oneself technically is to make oneself useful but not necessarily to perfect oneself. A thing perfects itself, he now says, only when it attains an end inherent in the thing itself, what it has it in itself to be, not merely an end which someone has chosen to set up as its objective.12

This explains some at first sight very odd philosophical remarks about perfection, as when Aquinas writes that “everything is perfect so far as it is actual” or Spinoza that “by perfection . . . I shall understand . . . reality.”13 The language, and the metaphysical presumptions, are Aristotelian. For Aristotle, what actually is must be better than what merely can be. To cite his examples, it is better actually to see than merely to possess the power of seeing, a building is better than the mere capacity to build.14 In each case the merely potential, according to Aristotle, is incomplete, formless, imperfect. The actual is “perfect,” then, in so far as it is the realization of, or the giving form to, a potentiality.

But there is something more than a little strange in thus identifying perfection with the realization of potentialities. Suppose a man is potentially a liar. When he actualizes that potentiality, has he thereby perfected himself? At this point, it is important to recall that the general concept of perfection does not have written into it any suggestion of moral excellence. A man can be a perfect scoundrel or a perfect idiot just as he can be a perfect saint; he can commit a perfect crime, be a perfect forger, or have a “perfectly rotten time of it.” But, as we have already pointed out, when we speak of “perfectibility,” as distinct from perfection simpliciter, the situation is different; to assert that man is perfectible is to assert that he can become, in some sense taken to be absolute, a better person. To the extent to which an analysis of perfection is directed towards helping us to answer the question whether human beings are, or are not, perfectible, it must not allow the response: “they are perfectible all right: there are plenty of men who are potential villains and who actualize that potentiality perfectly.”

If perfection is to imply becoming better, and yet is still to be defined in terms of the actualization of potentialities, it must be supported by a very special theory of evil. Of any actual person—let us say, a repulsive bigot—it has to be said that “in so far as he is actual he is perfect.” But what of his bigotry? This, it is then necessary to argue, is not actual. As Augustine puts the point: “Evil has no positive nature; what we call evil is merely the lack of something that is good.”15 Similarly, Descartes takes it to be self-evident that blindness and error are not “real”; they are, he says, simply the lack or absence of a power which we possess by nature.16 And Leibniz, so Bertrand Russell has suggested, makes his moral philosophy plausible only by moving backwards and forwards between a moral definition of perfection, for which evil is positive, and a teleological definition for which it is negative.17

On this view, then, the bigot does not actualize a human potentiality, he does not “realize his nature,” by his bigotry. Rather, he fails to realize his nature, since he is deprived of some good which is potential in it. All potentialities, then, are for good. It is more than a little surprising how often perfectibilists have taken this for granted; the “release of potentialities” is calmly identified with the release of potentialities for good. In everyday life, of course, it is not in the least degree paradoxical to say of some particularly nasty child: “he is a potential criminal” or, even more specifically, a “potential murderer.” Nor would it seem absurd, though the point might be disputed, to suggest that all men are potentially criminals. But if Augustine and Descartes and Leibniz are correct, all such judgements are mistaken: criminality is not a potentiality, capable of being actualized, but only a defect, the imperfect actualization of a potentiality. There are, indeed, a great many episodes in the history of perfectibilism which can only be understood by remembering that evil is assumed not to be “actual,” and potentialities all to be for good.

So far, we have distinguished three different modes of human perfection: technical perfection, which consists in performing, with the maximum efficiency, a specialized task; obedientiary perfection, which consists in obeying the commands of a superior authority, God or a member of the élite; teleological perfection, which consists in attaining to that end in which it is one’s nature to find final satisfaction. Abstractly separable, they may, in the writings of a particular perfectibilist—or anti-perfectibilist—be variously conjoined and variously disjoined. All three rely, in some degree, on the concept of a function, an allotted task, an end to be pursued, whether set by other men, by society, by God, or by Nature.

Indeed, the Greek word teleios, commonly translated as “perfect,” is etymologically related to telos (end)—the relationship between perfection and the achievement of an end is, as it were, written into it. The English word “perfect,” however, ultimately derives, by way of Middle English, from the Latin word perficere, the roots of which, in turn, are facere, “to make,” and a prefix per suggesting “thoroughly.” The perfect, that is, is etymologically definable as the “thoroughly made,” the “completed.” Between the definition of perfection in terms of ends and the definition of it in terms of the “thoroughly made” or the “complete” there are, of course, close links. If a thing is badly made or incomplete, it may, in consequence, be unable to fulfil its function. A pair of secateurs may be useless because a screw has been put in crookedly or a spring is missing; a doctor may be unable to cure his patients because his sight is poor.

It is not necessarily the case, all the same, either that what fulfils its function must be well-made and complete or that what is well-made and complete must fulfil its function. We can say of a house: “The workmanship is poor, and we have never bothered to have the terrace completed, but it suits our purposes admirably.” Or alternatively: “The workmanship is excellent, and the house is now complete, but as a place to live in, it is dreadful.” In such judgements, we make use of criteria of good workmanship and of completeness which are independent of our criteria for suitability to an end. We can judge an Etruscan artifact, a bronze statue, to be well-made, complete, and so far perfect, without believing that it ever fulfilled its intended function, whether as a fertility god or as a funereal consolation to the dead.

The perfect, it might therefore be suggested, is best defined in Newman’s manner as “that which has no flaw in it, that which is complete, that which is consistent, that which is sound.”18 Perfection is thus cut loose from any connexion with an end; one can simply look at a person and describe him as perfect by seeing him to be free of flaws. “Perfect,” in this sense, is an adjective applying to objects, to persons, to States, not (necessarily) to the performance of tasks or to the ends towards which those performances are directed. By what criterion, however, are we to determine whether a characteristic counts as a flaw? The idea of a flaw, as it is normally employed, is a relative one, not absolute. So the English, but not the Greeks, consider it a flaw in food that it is lukewarm; the English, but not the Japanese, consider it a flaw in a garden that it lacks flowers; the English, but not all African tribes, consider it a flaw in a woman’s beauty that she has pendulous ears. Not everyone would admit, even, that it is necessarily a flaw in a thing that it is unfinished, incomplete. “In everything, no matter what it may be,” writes Yoshida Kenkō in his thirteenth-century Essays in Idleness, “uniformity is undesirable. Leaving something incomplete makes it interesting, and gives one the feeling that there is room for growth. Some one once told me, ‘Even when building the Imperial Palace, they always leave one place unfinished.’”19

In Christian theology, however, it is ordinarily supposed that there are absolute flaws—moral and metaphysical. An important form of absolute moral flaw is sin. About the nature of sin there are no doubt disputes, disputes about whether, for example, the mere experiencing of an illicit sexual impulse constitutes a sin, or only the “entertaining” of the impulse. When one Christian moral theologian asserts, and another denies, that men can ever, in this life, be free of sin, they may be disagreeing about the nature of sin rather than about man’s moral capacities. But they would agree, at least, on one point: unless man can be sinless he cannot be perfect. So, in practice, disputes within Christianity about the perfectibility of man very often turn out to be disputes about the possibility of sinlessness. Let us call that sort of perfection which consists in freedom from moral flaw—including sin—immaculate perfection.

The idea of a “metaphysical” flaw is even more complex. Consider, for example, the following passage from Descartes, in which he sets out to show that a corporeal body cannot be perfect:

When you talk of a corporeal being of the highest perfection, if you take the term “of the highest perfection” absolutely, meaning that the corporeal thing is one in which all perfections are found, you utter a contradiction. For its very bodily nature involves many imperfections, as that a body is divisible into parts, that each of its parts is not the other, and other similar defects. For it is self-evident that it is a greater perfection not to be divided than to be divided, etc.20

Descartes here takes it for granted that what in an immediately preceding passage he calls “simplicity and unity” are perfections, and that divisibility is an imperfection. Similarly, metaphysicians often presume that it is an imperfection in a thing for it to be in any way dependent for its existence on anything else, to be complex, to be finite, to pass away. The possession of such characteristics is taken to demonstrate that the thing is not really complete. When it has a cause, or when it has distinguishable parts one of which might be taken away from it, something essential for its existence lies outside it. An article on perfection in the Dictionnaire des Sciences Philosophiques21 will further illustrate the point:

Do you want to discover absolute perfection? Leave to one side the imagination with its laborious combinations, lift yourself above man and the world; or rather, without leaving yourself, examine what reason reveals to you about each of your perceptions. Your consciousness tells you that your existence is a fugitive and borrowed one; at once, reason reveals to you a being absolute and eternal. Your consciousness teaches you that as a cause you are only a limited cause, i.e. effect and cause at once; reason elevates you to the first and omnipotent cause who has produced you and has produced everything else. It is just the same with infinite intelligence, infinite beauty, infinite justice. . . . Add to all this, not thousands of attributes (that would not be enough), not even thousands of infinite attributes, but—and this enfeebles the Reason compelled to confess it—an infinity of infinite attributes and that is the being to whom nothing is lacking, that is an absolutely perfect being.

The ideal of perfection, thus understood—metaphysical perfection or, as Kant calls it, “theoretic” perfection—removes it, we should at first be inclined to conclude, far beyond human reach. For how can a man set out to become less finite than he is, or more of a first cause, or less of a temporal being? What hope has he of becoming “a being to whom nothing is lacking”? But human ambition is boundless. And so, under the influence of this metaphysical ideal of perfection, men have set out to become more like a first cause, in the sense of not allowing themselves to be affected or influenced by anything which happens to them; they have sought to become less finite and less temporal by freeing themselves from all concern with the changing and by uniting themselves with God; they have tried to persuade themselves that they “lack nothing” by rejecting as worthless all that this world contains. The achievement of perfection has thus been identified with the development of a capacity for standing aside from life, rising above it to union with a Being, or a Universe, supposed to be infinite and eternal. For only such a life, it has been supposed, can be metaphysically flawless, metaphysically immaculate.

The difficulty that to define perfection in such exalted terms removes it far beyond human aspirations has, however, often been recognized by less mystically-minded, more practical, moralists. When absolute perfection is defined in a manner which makes it no longer meaningful to suppose that any finite being could be absolutely perfect, it is commonly supplemented by a doctrine of “relative perfection,” perfection relative to a humanly-attainable moral ideal, human as distinct from metaphysical perfection. The problem, then, is to determine what constitutes this ideal of perfect humanity.

Sometimes the ideal is made concrete as a person. Human perfection is taken to consist in imitating the example set by that person—exemplary perfection. For the Stoics, Socrates served as such an ideal; Christians have naturally turned to Jesus, considered as a human figure. The great problem, it has sometimes been supposed, is to choose between these two exemplary ideals: Joseph Priestley, for example, wrote a book called Socrates and Jesus Compared.22 Kant, however, objects to any definition of perfection by reference to examples. “Nor could anything be more fatal to morality,” he writes, “than that we should wish to derive it from examples. . . . Even the Holy One of the Gospels must first be compared with our ideal of moral perfection before we can recognize Him as such.”23 Why should this be so? Why should we not say, simply, that to be perfect is to be like such and such an exemplar, Jesus or Socrates?

The point Kant is making—it derives in the long run from Plato’s Euthyphro—is that perfection cannot mean “being like such-and-such a person.” For when we say: “Socrates is a perfect man” or “Jesus is perfect,” this is not the empty tautology, “Socrates is Socrates-like,” “Jesus is Jesus-like.” We adjudge Jesus and Socrates perfect by comparing them with our ideal of moral perfection; in calling them perfect we mean that they perfectly exemplify that ideal. But if we are in possession of such an ideal, then it is only sensible to judge our own conduct, too, by direct reference to it. Contemplating the life of a particular person, no doubt, may help us to conceive our moral ideal more concretely, more vividly. In the end, however, it is by reference to the ideal that we must determine our own, or anybody else’s, degree of perfection. “Examples,” so Kant elsewhere argues, “serve for our encouragement and emulation. They should not be used as patterns.”24 To regard them as an inspiration, only, will serve to prevent us from thinking that we are obliged to imitate some personal peculiarity of the persons we take to be ideal—Jesus’ habit of speaking in parables, for example, or Socrates’ habit of falling into trances.

But the problem Kant has here raised breaks out again at the level of ideals. We have still to decide between conflicting ideals of moral perfection, between, for example, the Buddhist ideal of disengagement and the humanistic ideal of involvement. How are we then to proceed? There is no higher ideal of moral perfection by reference to which men can decide whether their ideals of moral perfection are in fact perfect. Spinoza has argued, indeed, that the appeal to ideals is always arbitrary: we arbitrarily set up ideals—the perfect house, the perfect man—and then speak of things as perfect or imperfect in relation to these arbitrary notions of ours.25 Approached in this way, the question whether man is perfectible has, as it stands, no answer. “Perfectible,” we must ask, “in relation to whose ideal of perfection?”

Neither Plato nor Kant, however, would admit that ideals are arbitrary. For Plato, at least as he is commonly interpreted, ideals have an independent reality. Indeed, only the ideal is fully real. The triangle you or I might draw on a piece of paper is, in virtue of its imperfection, not a fully real triangle; the real triangle is the ideal triangle, the form of triangularity. Kant is not prepared, as he himself puts it, “to soar so high.” Ideals, he grants, do not have objective reality. But they nevertheless have, he says, “practical power.” They provide us with what he calls an “archetype,” they “form the basis of the possible perfection of certain actions.” “Although we cannot concede to these ideals objective reality (existence),” he writes, “they are not therefore to be regarded as figments of the brain; they supply reason with a standard which is indispensable to it, providing it . . . with a concept of that which is entirely complete in its kind, and thereby enabling it to estimate and to measure the degree and the defects of the incomplete.”26

But Spinoza’s objection is not easily set aside; the content of such standards has still to be decided. To take an example from physical culture advertisements: must the “ideal specimen of a man” have bulging muscles? If perfection is defined teleologically, the mode of answering that question is clear. The perfect specimen must have bulging muscles if, and only if, bulging muscles are essential to the body’s performance of its “true functions” or the pursuit of its “natural end.” No doubt, this answer only postpones the day of reckoning: for it has still to be determined in what the natural end of the human body consists. But at least it pretends to provide us with an objective test by which the content of perfection can be determined. If, in contrast, the “ideal” is divorced from the concept of a function—as it is, for example, in the persistent Greek presumption that to have “an ideal shape” a thing must be spherical—then we seem to be left with no objective method by which to determine what can properly be incorporated in the ideal, whether, for example, the spherical is in fact the ideal form or, as some Japanese aestheticians argue, a form to be avoided.

Often enough, as we shall see, moralists change their minds about the perfectibility of man only because the ideal changes. Much will depend, for example, on whether the ideal man is defined as one who loves nothing but God for its own sake or as one who cares, above all, for the greatest happiness of the greatest number. It is not surprising that the ideal of perfection is so often made to rest on metaphysical rather than on merely moral grounds; to identify perfection with moral perfection leaves wide open the question how it is to be determined in what moral perfection consists. There is some solace—if perhaps, in the end, little intellectual satisfaction—in the view that Nature or God has settled that question for us, once and for all.

In the light of his general theory we should certainly have expected Plato, above all men, to argue that there is an ideal of humanity which men should try to copy in their pursuit of perfection, and that they are perfectible in so far as they can succeed in this task. But a momentous passage in Plato’s Theaetetus—a passage which was to be much quoted in the centuries which followed—sets up God, not an ideal humanity, as the pattern on which man must model himself. “In the divine,” Plato there writes, “there is no shadow of unrighteousness.”27 A man perfects himself morally—which, to Plato, is identical with perfecting himself as a man—by imitating the divine righteousness. To ask whether man is perfectible, then, is to ask how far man can be “like God.” Aquinas carried this doctrine further by arguing that the perfection of all things consists in their being “like God.”28 Less metaphysically minded Christian philosophers have been content to define human perfection, and human perfection alone, in terms of likeness to God—deiform perfection. God, it is supposed, is at once a person and the ideal of moral perfection: a self-authenticating ideal in virtue of his supremacy. So there is no longer any problem in determining what man, or what ideal of man, is to be taken as the ideal. Man’s ideal form is God. Exactly how God can be imitated, however, is another question and one which, to put it mildly, theologians have not found it easy to resolve.

If, in the Theaetetus, Plato identifies moral perfection with being “like God,” a rather different ideal of perfection is suggested in his other dialogues, which identify it with harmony and order. This links it on the one side with immaculate perfection—freedom from flaw is defined as freedom from disorder—and on the other side with teleological perfection. Consider a “perfect clock.” Then clearly this must keep time perfectly, thus fulfilling its function. The teleological perfection of a clock is perfect timekeeping. To keep time perfectly its parts must be technically perfect. It must lack no parts and no part must be flawed, i.e. it must be immaculately perfect. But we could also define its perfection in still another way—by saying that the clock is a harmonious orderly arrangement of parts. Similarly, if we think of the soul as having parts—as Plato does in the Republic—then the perfection of the soul can be taken to consist in each of these parts harmoniously contributing to the perfection of the soul as a whole, playing its particular role in an ordered system. The nineteenth-century metaphysician Sir William Hamilton therefore defined perfection as “the full and harmonious development of all our faculties, corporeal and mental, intellectual and moral” and this came to be, for a time, the standard dictionary definition.29

It is in these terms that Plato defines the perfection of that ideal State, by reference to whose perfection the perfection of its individual citizens is to be determined. The ideal State is harmonious, orderly, stable, unified; the ideal citizen, by performing the tasks allotted to him, contributes to the total social harmony. Let us call this kind of perfection—the perfection of a system—aesthetic perfection. For it is often employed in the criticism of works of art, at its worst by critics like the German art historian Winckelmann for whom “perfection . . . was stately and harmonious form, almost anonymous in its regularity, unmarred by individual traits, frigid, devoid of emotions and showing no explicitly sexual characteristics.”30 I have already drawn attention to the links between aesthetic perfection, technical perfection, teleological perfection and immaculate perfection—aesthetic perfection involves the perfect performance of tasks in a flawless whole. It is no less closely related to metaphysical perfection: aesthetically perfect societies and aesthetically perfect works of art are often described in language which reminds us of the metaphysically perfect—as unified, immutable, self-sufficient.

Once more, however, these various ideals of perfection, closely associated though they may be in many perfectibilist theories, are separable—not only theoretically, but in practice. That is why it has been necessary to distinguish them and give them different names. No doubt, as Hume points out, we particularly admire an object which is at the same time elegant and capable of performing its function efficiently. But, as he also goes on to suggest, some degree of aesthetic imperfection may be necessary if a thing is adequately to perform the task for which it was designed.31 It was a leading tenet of the “functional” school of architects and designers that elegance and suitability for function must inevitably go together. But a chair which can be viewed with admiration as a harmonious shape is not necessarily the most comfortable of seats. More relevantly to our purposes, a society which values, above all else, unity, harmony, stability, may preserve an outward appearance of order only at the cost of suppressing human freedom and creative experiment. It may be by no means flawless, if we regard deception as a flaw; by no means perform its function, if we believe it to be part of the function of a society to foster enterprise. Plato’s own republic is, indeed, a case in point.

Let us pause now to draw together the threads. When we describe a man as “technically perfect,” we said, this is in relation to his efficiency in the performance of a task. But he cannot be technically perfect as a man; technical perfection applies only to a man’s performance in a specialised role. This is so, at least, unless we suppose either that men have a task set for them by a supreme legislator, that of obeying his commands (obedientiary perfection), or alternatively that there is a task inherent in their very nature, their perfection consisting in the achievement of an “end” which is “natural” to them (teleological perfection). By somewhat devious metaphysical routes, the theory of “natural ends” leads to the identification of the perfect with the actual; for a man to be perfect is for him to realize what he has it in him to become. This carries with it the conclusion that a good deal of what we ordinarily count as actual is not “really” actual: sin and evil are defined as negation or privation, as a “lack” rather than as an accomplishment. By means of such arguments, teleological perfection is identified with the actualization of potentialities.

A somewhat different approach to perfection defines it as the “complete” or “well made.” Perfection is then negatively defined (immaculate perfection) as the absence of flaw or imperfection—an imperfection sometimes identified with sin, sometimes with such metaphysical properties as complexity or self-sufficiency. Since in what is “complete” or “well made,” or “immaculate,” the parts fit together harmoniously, like the dove-tailed joints of a good piece of joinery, perfection is also defined as the harmonious working together of component parts (aesthetic perfection). Harmony and order are identified with perfection, conflict and disorder with imperfection. Finally, perfection may be defined in terms of conformity to a model, whether a model person (exemplary perfection), an ideal of moral perfection, or God (deiform perfection). God, in such instances, is usually taken to be both a person and an ideal—at once Plato’s “God” and Plato’s “form of the good.”

It will by now be clear that the question “Are men perfectible?” does not admit of any easy straightforward answer. The reply, often merely obstructive, is for once justified: “It all depends on what you mean . . .” To assert that man is perfectible may mean either:

  • (1) there is some task in which each and every man can perfect himself technically;
  • (2) he is capable of wholly subordinating himself to God’s will;
  • (3) he can attain to his natural end;
  • (4) he can be entirely free of any moral defect;
  • (5) he can make of himself a being who is metaphysically perfect;
  • (6) he can make of himself a being who is harmonious and orderly;
  • (7) he can live in the manner of an ideally perfect human being;
  • (8) he can become godlike.

Distinctions ought not to be made without necessity: the justification, if there is one, for distinguishing one from another these different ways of understanding perfectibility must be found in the story which follows. Two other possible sources of ambiguity should also be resolved. Christianity has sought to persuade men that they have two lives to live, one on this earth, the other in some infinitely more delightful, or inconceivably more horrendous, extra-terrestrial abode. When Christian theologians have denied, as they ordinarily have denied, that man is perfectible, what they have rejected as impossible is terrestrial, not celestial, perfectibility. The “perfectibility of man,” in fact, normally means his perfectibility on earth. Heavenly perfection enters our story only in so far as it has been invoked as an ideal standard, in relation to which every human achievement must be adjudged imperfect.

A second ambiguity. The question: “Is man perfectible?” can be interpreted either as asking whether any man is perfectible or as asking whether all men are perfectible. Greek perfectibilists, and such Christians as have been perfectibilists, ordinarily ascribe perfectibility only to a very few men, endowed with exceptional talents or granted an extraordinary degree of divine grace. Not a few moralists, however, have been dissatisfied with such relatively modest aspirations. Each and every human being—assuming only that he is normally constituted—is capable, so Godwin argued, of being perfected. The doctrine that man is perfectible has, in consequence, two forms. Particularist perfectibilism ascribes terrestrial perfectibility only to an élite; universalist perfectibilism ascribes it to all men. The context will usually make it clear which variety of perfectibilism is in dispute.

[1. ]Martin Foss: The Idea of Perfection in the Western World (Princeton, 1946; paperback ed., Lincoln, Neb., 1964), p. 9.

[* ]Numbered footnotes refer quotations to their source or indicate the origin of a piece of information. They can safely be ignored except by those who wish to question the accuracy, or explore the context, of a quotation. Footnotes which are ancillary to the understanding of the text, or pursue a by-path, will be found, as here, on the page to which they refer. [In this edition, numbered notes have been moved to the page of citation.]

[2. ]William Godwin: Thoughts on Man (London, 1831), pp. 36–37. For Godwin’s earlier views see chs. 9, 10 below.

[3. ]Plato: Republic, Bk. IV. 433, as trans. A. D. Lindsay, Everyman’s Library (London, 1935; repr. 1948), p. 120.

[4. ]Ibid., Bk. IV. 443, trans. Lindsay, p. 133.

[5. ]The Precious and Sacred Writings of Martin Luther, ed. J. N. Lenker (Minneapolis, 1903), Vol. X: Church Postil Gospels: Advent, Christmas and Epiphany Sermons, p. 243, as quoted in D. R. Heiges: The Christian’s Calling (Philadelphia, 1958), p. 50.

[6. ]Luther’s Works, American ed., Vol. XIII (St. Louis, 1956), p. 368, quoted in Heiges, op. cit., p. 57.

[7. ]Luther’s Table Talk, trans. William Hazlitt (Philadelphia, 1873), p. 447, as quoted in Heiges, op. cit., p. 58.

[* ]The idea of a “calling,” in its purest form, is crystallized in the Indian caste system. “And do thy duty, even if it be humble, rather than another’s, even if it be great. To die in one’s duty is life: to live in another’s is death.” So says the Gītā (2,33). Gandhi tried to introduce into the caste system the Lutheran conception of vocation as “service,” rather than as the performance of tasks. He largely failed. See, on this theme, V. S. Naipaul: An Area of Darkness (London, 1964), Pt. I, ch. 2. Compare what is said below (pp. 455–56) about “aristocratic pride,” nowhere better exemplified than in the caste system.

[8. ]Karl Barth: Church Dogmatics, Vol. III: The Doctrine of Creation, Pt. 4, ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance (Edinburgh, 1961), ch. XII, §56.2: Vocation, p. 642. This whole section on Vocation is highly relevant.

[* ]Even Duns Scotus made one exception. “God is to be loved” and “God must be hated or dishonoured” are, he tells us, obligations from which even God cannot grant us a dispensation. Thus he hoped to forestall the obvious objection: if “That is good” simply means “That is what God wills,” the question still remains why men should pay any attention to what God wills. William of Ockham found himself in difficulties on the same point. The articles by Allan B. Wolter on Duns Scotus and by Ernest A. Moody on William of Ockham in Paul Edwards (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 8 vols (New York, 1967), admirably sum up the points at issue. For a fuller discussion of the philosophical problems involved see J. A. Passmore: Ralph Cudworth (Cambridge, 1951), ch. iv.

[9. ]Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics, 1, 7. For further details see ch. 3 below.

[* ]I am not suggesting, of course, that at some point “society” says to itself: “Let there be sculptors and let them work in junk-metal.” Men set themselves tasks. New types of tasks—or new views about the “natural” end of a task—commonly originate in this way. Some sculptor decides that he will no longer work in marble, or no longer seek to construct man-like figures. Once this novel point of view has been generally accepted, sculptors are trained in a different way, different demands are made upon them. The crucial point is that it is men who decide, whether about themselves or about other people, that there shall be, for example, computer-programmers and what shall count as the “natural end” of computer-programming, i.e. the end towards which it is directed. Aristotle’s view is plausible only in a relatively simple society in which men and women have fixed and stable responsibilities. In such a society new types of tasks, or new views about the natural objective of a form of activity, do not arise or arise very seldom. In more rapidly changing societies, the theory of a “natural end” is often invoked as a polemical weapon by conservatives; so conservative art critics say “that is not sculpture” of some piece of work which is not the sort of thing sculptors have normally been accustomed to produce.

[10. ]Immanuel Kant: Critique of Practical Reason, Pt. I, Bk. I, ch. I, §8, in the trans. by T. K. Abbott, 6th ed. (London, 1909; photo. repr. 1948), pp. 129–30. Kant uses the expression “practical perfection” for my “technical perfection.”

[11. ]Thomas Aquinas: Summa theologica, Pt. II, i, q. 3, a. 8, as trans. by Fathers of the English Dominican Province (London, 1920).

[* ]It does not follow, of course, that without some degree of technical skill the sculptor can achieve his end. In reaction against the view that the artist perfects himself by perfecting his skills, critics are sometimes led to argue that skill is inessential, that the artist can reach his objective only by completely rejecting the concept of technical perfection. This attitude, very common over the last half-century in Western Europe, is not peculiar to it. So in seventeenth-century China Shih-t’ao, arguing against the current emphasis on technique, was led to conclude that “the perfect man has no method” or rather “it is not that he has no method, but rather the best of methods, which is the method of no-method.” The flexibility Shih-t’ao is advocating is, no doubt, far from the extremes of Western Romanticism. But his emphasis on genius and on a “mysterious depth which is unfathomable” is very characteristic of those critics and artists who turn against the ideal of “technical” perfection as means to achieving the painter’s end. Shih-t’ao’s essay is translated in Lin Yutang: The Chinese Theory of Art (New York, 1967). The quotations are from p. 142 and p. 152.

[12. ]Kant: The Critique of Judgement, Pt. I: Critique of Aesthetic Judgement, Section 1, Bk. 1, §15; in the trans. by J. C. Meredith (Oxford, 1911), pp. 69–71.

[13. ]Aquinas: Summa theologica, Pt. I, q. 5, a. 1; Spinoza: Ethics, Pt. IV, Preface, in the trans. by A. Boyle, Everyman’s Library (London, 1910; repr. 1948), p. 144.

[14. ]Metaphysics, 1049b–1051a.

[15. ]The City of God, Bk. XI, chap. 9, abridged from the trans. by G. G. Walsh et al., ed. V. J. Bourke, Image Books (New York, 1958), p. 217. On the issue as a whole, with special reference to Augustine, see John Hick: Evil and the God of Love (London, 1966), especially pt. II.

[16. ]“Objections III with replies,” Obj. XII, in Philosophical Works of Descartes, trans. E. S. Haldane and G. R. T. Ross, 2 vols (Cambridge, 1911–12; corr. repr. 1931–34), Vol. II, pp. 74–75.

[17. ]A Critical Exposition of the Philosophy of Leibniz, 2nd ed. (London, 1937; repr. 1949), pp. 199–201.

[18. ]J. H. Newman: “A Short Road to Perfection” in Meditations and Devotions (London, 1894), pt. II, p. 382.

[19. ]Yoshida Kenkō: Essays in Idleness, as trans. in Anthology of Japanese Literature, introd. and comp. by Donald Keene, rev. and enl. ed. (Harmondsworth, 1968), p. 229.

[20. ]“Reply to Objections II,” in Philosophical Works, trans. Haldane and Ross, Vol. II, p. 37.

[21. ]Dictionnaire des sciences philosophiques, ed. A. Franck, 6 vols (Paris, 1844–52). The article is by D. Henne. It is difficult for a translation quite to capture the rhetorical exuberance of the original.

[22. ]London, 1803. Franklin advised Americans to imitate both.

[23. ]Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals, Section II, as trans. T. K. Abbott in Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason and Other Works, p. 25.

[24. ]Kant: Lectures on Ethics: “Ethics: Example and Pattern in Religion”; in the reconstruction by Paul Mentzer, trans. Louis Infield (London, 1930; Torchbook ed., New York, 1963), p. 110.

[25. ]Spinoza: Ethics, Pt. IV, Preface; ed. cit., pp. 141–42.

[26. ]Kant: Critique of Pure Reason, Pt. I: “Transcendental Doctrine of Elements,” Second Division, Bk. II, ch. III, Section 1: “The Ideal in General,” as trans. N. Kemp Smith (London, 1929; corr. repr. 1950), p. 486.

[27. ]Theaetetus, 176 b–c, as trans. in F. M. Cornford: Plato’s Theory of Knowledge (London, 1935), p. 87.

[28. ]Summa contra gentiles, III. 19.

[29. ]Lectures on Metaphysics, ed. H. L. Mansel and J. Veitch, 6th ed., 2 vols (Edinburgh, 1877), Lecture II, Vol. 1, p. 20.

[30. ]Luigi Barzini: The Italians (London, 1964), p. 33.

[31. ]Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (London, 1751), Section V, Pt. I, 172, in Enquiries Concerning the Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals, ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge, 2nd ed. (Oxford, 1902; repr. 1951), pp. 212–13.

Last modified April 10, 2014