As a self-proclaimed perfectionist, I identify all too well with the struggle to discern what are truly the best ways to conduct myself and live my life. Us perfectionists do it for a valid reason – we know that the best things in life are the things that 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 modern depression epidemic 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 faced with 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 alternate explanations, I would like to discuss one in particular right now.
I want to introduce a philosophical argument 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 completely good and incapable of anything which is 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 integrating 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 just the forms themselves.
In case that made no sense here’s some background:
The ancient Greek philosopher Plato believed that what is good can build the foundation of an ideal, or otherwise “perfect” society, thus conflating goodness with perfection. This is ultimately based on his Theory of Forms, which posits that objects and phenomena in the real world resemble an ideal, “perfect” form which is non-physical and can only be understood philosophically. In other words, tangible objects in the physical world are merely imperfect appearances of that more ideal, metaphysical form.
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, 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 what is considered good is actually transient, relative, and subjective. How can you have a perfect society if people have different ideas about what is good?
This flaw can be highlighted by the following argument:
|1. Perfection is a state of flawlessness
2. Flawlessness is the result of completeness (as a state of being composed of all attributes necessary for the flawless existence of that thing)
3. Completeness of a thing can only exist by virtue that all aspects of it have binary opposite aspects that 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 as to what perfection is. 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 to be good.
The word “perfect” has indeed been used traditionally to indicate the highest good of something. However, that “ideal highest good of something” depends on the subjective opinion of the person who is being asked. For example, 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 would be equally imaginable.
The latter example 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. Chocolate, for example may be considered good to most people, but not so good to others. In Protagoras, Plato does acknowledge that what is good is a relational quality; something is “good” insofar as it is good for a particular thing. However, this now presents a contradiction: if God is good, and if “goodness” is a relational quality, that would mean that God cannot in fact be idealized by all people in the same way eternally and that what he commands is good only if he perceives it to be. The consequence is that God must be either imperfect, or perfection must be something relative, transient and consisting of both good and bad phenomenon.
With this all in mind, we can see that there is something missing from Plato’s dialogues. Comments about perfection can be seen throughout, especially in connection with the divine, but the idea of perfection is never addressed directly until the Theory of Forms. Even then, it does so insofar as it assumes that different appearances are not perfect themselves but are instead imperfect imitations of the more ideal, perfect forms. However, supposing that there is a god who is eternal and infinite, and supposing he is also perfect, then perfection must be defined as something that can be idealized by all people in the same way eternally (he created us all, didn’t he?). This would resolve the debate as to how God can be perfect and yet still create evil, or “bad” things.
In Plato’s Charmides, temperance is almost defined as the good and perfection is mentioned but neither concepts are addressed entirely. 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 the 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 the “good” itself? And who is it good for?
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:
|1. Does God command something because it is good?
2. Is something good because God commands it?
If (1) were the case, then God would be making commands based on some other higher power that is the true authority of morality (which is not possible). If (2) were the case, then anything could be considered good. At this point, one must infer that whether or not something is good is not even relevant to perfection because if a perfect God’s essential properties, or his nature, is the standard of morality, then the essence of morality must in fact be present in whatever is commanded by God. However, if that is the case, then morality is a concept that is not necessarily good because what God has commanded is not always 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”
.: 4. Morality is a concept that is not necessarily intrinsically good (from 2 and 3)
To look at this argument from another perspective, one can imagine that humankind has all along been wrongly assuming that God is a moral, or entirely good entity when he is actually not. Here is where we encounter the question: “if God is good, why does he let bad things happen?” Well, since “good” and “perfect” appear to mean the same things, and since we now see that perfection is essentially the unity of all good and bad phenomena, perhaps there should be another word to describe God’s nature, instead of “moral”.
In the bible, when God saw that “all was good”, maybe what he really meant was that everything was balanced and in order. For everything that exists, there exists its binary opposite. Otherwise, it wouldn’t exist. Is that a revolutionary thought? 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). Other philosophers such as Kant, Nietzsche, and Hume have all argued that God does not exist but for each argument there are equally valid counter arguments.
In order to address this problem, society would do well to look to 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, namely to maintain order. Taoism proposes that the world is constantly in a state of change where phenomena is too complex to ever share the same meaning. Therefore it is 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 for the existence of virtually everything in the universe. Put another way, without the bad we would not be able to appreciate the good.
Mathematics and physics also demonstrate that perfection, as a state 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). This is demonstrated by the equation below:
|(1 + (-1)) + (2 + (-2)) + (3 + (-3)) +… = 0 + 0 + 0 + … = 0|
This rationale 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”. Physics is also on the brink of discovery of 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”.
In society this problem is manifested as the belief that the human condition is not already perfect as it is. In Greek mythology, the Gods were sometimes regarded as imperfect because they had human attributes. Highly religious people fear the impending punishment for their human “sins”, so much so that they often go to great lengths and commit radical acts of devotion in order to secure a place for themselves in their supposed heaven. This is also contradictory however, because if one looks in the sacred texts of many religions, 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” somewhere. 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.
What is the practical significance of this? It shows us that our modern approach to happiness is wrong. We are too focused on outcomes which we desire and thus it naturally follows that we think perfection is only good. But in reality all “bad” things are just as perfect as the “good” things and are equally a part of “God’s plan”. This means that we are all perfect as we are and everything is perfect the way it is, even if the reality is not always appealing to us, i.e. perfect without the moral valence of “good” or “bad.”
We are happy when we accept things as they are, not when we achieve a goal. Desire creates suffering. Mindfulness creates peace.
An alternate way of thinking about what we like and what we don’t is by referring to it as either positive or negative energy. As modern-new-age-hipster-ish as that sounds, maybe it has some merit? After all, it would avoid the conflation of conceptual perfection and goodness which leads to the false belief of a universal morality. We instead choose to speak in terms of what feels “good” or “bad” for us. Otherwise, we can simply say that, yes, there is good and bad, but perfection is the unity of good and bad.
Definitions are certainly always subject to change. 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 – that is the finite existence of God itself, a metaphorical symbol for the laws and constitution of this perfect, dualistic universe.
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 is cowardly, dirty, and ugly to the highest degree. Of course this is not what anyone 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, if we are to live amongst a truly perfect society, then this more negative end of the spectrum must be faced.
We can still choose to focus our mind and energy on the positive side of the spectrum: even though a God such as this 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 alternate possibility is to experience nothing at all. We can and must look at our world through this more holistic lens. When may see things like injustice, evil, etc. 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 is not always fair, yet it is this way in order to maintain balance: a state of life which humans would not otherwise feel if everything were only “good.”
This essay ultimately suggests that this is it – there is no ideal metaphysical world that we should idolize. Human activities, bodies, and our 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 the “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.