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The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good

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So, let me speak up for the people who are so desperate to perfect the world.

In their defense, they’re dealing with a lot more than just a sloppy term paper or a holiday project gone bad, or even the building of a bridge or a building. 

On a social level, the history of the world is about as depressing as it’s possible to get, except that real progress occurs every once in a while.  We did manage to develop indoor plumbing and anitbiotics and Sachertorte and a whole list of things that have made life objectively better for a great many of us.  We’ve even managed to invent social structures–liberal democracy, the free market system–that work better for more people than anything that’s come before it.

Even with all that, though, we haven’t eliminated war and probably never will, no have we managed to train ourselves out of the worst of our natures.  Some wars are defensive and some aggressive wars are fought for good reason, but it’s astounding how many wars amount to a vastly escalated version of a fight with a schoolyard bully.

And for all our civilization, there are still places in the world where people are routinely enslaved and tortured and starved to death, just because somebody wants to.

On an individual level, we aren’t much better.  Not only do we rape and steal and kill with no end in sight, but even the best of us are sometimes beset by disease, disability, accident and–finally–death.

I don’t think it’s all that odd that a culture that has ceased to have confidence in a religious denouement to the human story–that is unable to accept ideas of an afterlife of one sort or another, or a vast cosmic plan that fits all the pain and suffering into a meaningful structure beyond itself–would go looking for a way to eliminate all the pain here on earth.

And surely there’s nothing ignoble about wanting to eliminate the pain.  A lot of human progress consists of exactly that–of inventing antibiotics to make disease less lethal to human beings; of inventing surgery for the same reason; of inventing labor saving devices so that more of us have the leisure to think and read and play really loud music while attempting to jetski while stoned.

The most important question in history is, I think, this:  is it possible to perfect the human being, to eliminate once and for all all those causes of pain and misery?  Or is the human story a tragedy no matter what we do to alleviate it, so that we have to find a way to live with it and within it.

By now, most of you know that I’m for the second answer, but I don’t think that the original impetus–to alleviate pain and suffering and death as much as possible–is in any way evil.  The problem is not the goal, but the assumptions made in pursuit of the goal. 

The English Enlightenment was interested in alleviating pain and suffering just as much as the French Enlightenment was, it just made different assumptions about the nature of human beings and human life.

And, like I said, got it right.

I wonder sometimes if the escalating violence of things like the French Revolution, including all the revolutions that followed the same model, isn’t actually a form of panic–if most people, unlike me, do not feel comfortable with accepting a flawed and imperfect life as the only one out there.

I’m blithering. 

But I’m tired.

Written by janeh

October 27th, 2009 at 10:58 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good'

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  1. I’ve always associated “The perfect is the enemy of good enough” with engineering. The point being that if you have a product that will do its job, you’ll never get it into production if you try for perfection. Consider automobiles, the first ones didn’t have self starters, automatic transmissions or air conditioning. But they worked and did the job!

    Can we perfect human nature? I doubt it, we will always have 2 men wanting the same woman or vice versa and we will always have two people wanting the same piece of property. But we have evolved rules good enough to allow millions of people to live close together in a large city. That’s good enough.


    27 Oct 09 at 1:07 pm

  2. In the process of child rearing, the ideal of the “perfect” parent(s) raising the “perfect” child is not possible to achieve. And can drive children as well as their parents crazy. Granted, there are many, many parents who do not even try, within the scope of their own capabilities, to do their absolute best for their children. But the mother doing housework in high heels (Donna Reid and Barbara Billingsly) from the ’50s seems to have evolved into Supermom who can seamlessly balance work responsibilites and child rearing and come out a winner. Ha! It was hard when I did it and I haven’t observed that it’s any easier now. Mistakes? Yes, indeed. Are my children perfect in every way? Hardly. And all of us are still trying.


    27 Oct 09 at 2:10 pm

  3. “A form of panic” let’s the revolutionaries off the hook far, far, too easily.

    Every now and then The People really do rise up, and you get a jacquerie. Whole families are wiped out down to babes in arms for being part of the ruling class. Haiti’s gone through a couple of them. France, Russia and India have had their moments. But it’s not Revolution the way a philosophe or a marxist would understand it. It’s payback. The people involved are starving and dressed in rags, and Jacques’ notion of a better more just world amounts to getting rid of his landlord and the inconvenient rent payments–and for good measure anyone else he owes money to. (Mind you, that IS a better world, for Jacques.)

    What happens during a full scale classic utopian Revolution is something quite different. Well-fed, well-educated people get together, hold meetings, take minutes and decide in cold blood that the betterment of mankind requires strapping three year old girls to boards so that they may be more conveniently guillotined. Or that the coming golden age will come the faster if all the troublemakers are loaded on a ship–and the ship sunk. If food is levied from a certain province–but no food distributed there. Or if all the people with glasses are shot for being intellectuals and so parasites. I could, of course, go on.

    If this were “panic” it ought to happen when the Revolution was obviously failing: Paris in 1799, Russia under Brezhnev–or Gorbachev–Cambodia after the Viets intervened. Perhaps China, Cuba and North Korea today. I can find a few hostages killed as a revolution is suppressed–the Commune is an example–but it’s not true as a rule. Lenin and Trotsky killed enough people in all conscience, but the Ukraine Famine, the Purges, the Show Trials right down to the order to kill 15,000 Polish prisoners of war for being officers all took place when the Soviet Union was at peace and Stalin secure in his power. Mao’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution are likewise peacetime activities, and so on through Cambodia and Ethiopia. Famine and massacre aren’t the sign of a failed revolution, but of one which no longer has a check on its ambition. When the Revolution fails, the revolutionaries are killed, exiled or become corrupt, and life is much easier.

    There ought somewhere to be a statue of one Gallifet, General de Division during the Second Empire and the Third Republic–not for his courage on the battlefield, though he was a very brave man, but for his role in suppressing the Commune. Gallifet made a point of shooting the graybeards among the communards. They were old enough to remember how 1848 turned out, he said, and should have known better.

    Maybe those idiot English poets drooling over Marat didn’t know any better–though Burke did. France was the first of the “modern” revolutions, after all. But we’ve had two centuries of history and a dozen or more of them by now. It’s time to stop making excuses for the perpetrators of massacres.

    They will make excuses enough of their own.


    27 Oct 09 at 4:43 pm

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