March 30, 2015

The Specter of Perfection

"We have discovered happiness, say the last men, and blink thereby." — Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

For the last 500ish years, we have been in what historians have dubbed “Modernity,” as opposed to the Middle Ages or Antiquity. And one of the single most powerful driving forces behind the events of History in our current period (although some speculate that we have now moved into Post-Modernity) has been the idea of Progress—that the past was flawed and that we are moving forward, linearly, toward something better.

It’s been said that this began with Machiavelli’s proclamation that, "I love my fatherland more than my soul," changing the point of life from eternal salvation to earthly security and comfort. This change in perspective was then furthered by scientists like Bacon and Descartes who advised forgetting about Meta-physical speculation—and all thoughts of Teleology or higher purpose—to focus solely on empirical, sensuous causation, in order to use Science and Technology to “ease Man’s estate” and make the world more hospitable for Humans.

But this conception of Time and History was given its first fully modern articulation in Rousseau’s Second Discourse on Inequality, the sequel to his game-changing First Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, that I recently wrote about. Although not nearly as well received by the masses as his first, it introduced into public consciousness a concept that from then on shaped all subsequent discourse about the “purpose” of Humanity and our place within Nature. It also helped to re-imbue life on earth with meaning that had seemingly been sapped by the “value-free” Science of Bacon and Descartes.

The new goal of humanity was to immanetize the eschaton, or to put it more intelligibly: the Perfectibility of Humanity. 

Unlike the other animals, Rousseau argues, Humans seem to be free to change their circumstances through Will: While “Nature commands every animal and the beast obeys, Man feels the same impetus but realizes that he is free to acquiesce or resist.” Through our uniquely "creative" powers, we can overcome Nature. However, as Rousseau indicates in his First Discourse, this is not necessarily a good thing, as C.S. Lewis would later show in The Abolition of Man, or Aldous Huxley in Brave New World.

But this idea of Perfectibility was/is highly seductive, inspiring Kant’s dream of Perpetual Peace, Hegel’s dialectic of History, Marx’s prophecy of Communist utopia, the Third Reich's Final Solution, Social Darwinist’s notion of the White Man’s Burden, Socialists/Progressives’ attempts at social engineering and eugenics, the Cult Studs’ emphasis on Class, Race and Sex, and today, the Transhumanists’ Singularity.

While there is much conflict between these different modes of thought, they are all united by the idea that the past was flawed, the future will necessarily be “better,” and that Human Nature is something that can and must be overcome. History moves in only one direction forward—or more metaphorically appropriate: up. And from this privileged vantage point, we look down upon the benighted past, which obviously has nothing of value to teach us because formerly, all the world was mad.

Most recently, this fairy tale was told by Neil deGrasse Tyson in his Cosmos reboot, whose cartoonish (literally and figuratively) portrayal of History so perfectly portrays this ideology that it practically becomes parody. The past was ruled by superstition, enforced ignorance and authoritarianism. The future, however, will be one of Reason, Science and Egalitarianism. One, therefore, is either a Conservative who wants to uphold these specious, oppressive modes of relation, or a Progressive who believes we can move beyond them.

However, I believe this to be a false dichotomy. If one actually looks at the events of History, one sees not ineluctable forward movement, but a serious of peaks and crescendos, rotations and permutations—some rationally explicable others seemingly fated. While the materialistic knowledge of Science is certainly progressing and expanding, Human life remains as fractious and anxiety-ridden as ever. And as Tocqueville predicted in his still unsurpassed examination of American life, Democracy in America, exacerbation of this may even be an unavoidable side effect of our "Progress."

For an outstanding exploration of Tocqueville’s exploration of the problem of Progress and Technology, I would highly recommend the essay Tocqueville On Technology by Benjamin Storey in the Fall 2013 edition of The New Atlantis magazine.

Today, while we certainly have plenty of political problems on our plate to deal with, at the root of everything lies a Metaphysical issue that until resolved will continue to undermine all our apparent Progress: Is earthly perfection truly possible? (And no, this is not necessarily an argument for religion).


  1. In the realization that all forms contained within this infinity are finite, that no matter how progressed and organized, all forms will always return to chaos to await reorganization; in the realization that humanity and civilization are not outside these rules it seems to me that a mission to obtain the unattainable perfection would not only be a grand way to spend our time here in eturnity as humans but also that offers an unending puzzle, something that can not be under valued when attempting to swim up the waterfall of forever.

  2. Could not agree more with your beautiful sentiment. What I'm worried about, with this current conception of Progress/Perfection that dominates discourse today, is the concentration on material progress only. The Natural Sciences are undoubtedly progressing and building up stores of knowledge of better ways to use (and abuse) Nature for human benefit. But this has not been accompanied by similar advancements in Philosophy, Ontology or Metaphysics.

    This is partly because of the purposeful ignoring by the Natural Sciences--as advised Mach, Bacon and Descartes--of anything which cannot be perceived by the senses. But, I believe, it is also because there is nothing new in principle to discover about humans. Human Nature has not changed. As desperately as we've wished it to or attempted to transform it, it remains obstinate. I think it is time we accept that, and realize the inherent messiness that is Humanity. I think we'd have much better luck in approaching perfection that way.