Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Almost Perfect

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I once corresponded for a period of three years with a very elderly and very dotrinaire Humanist who was convinced, no matter what evidence I showed him, that the Renaissance followed the Reformation–that the Renaissance was made possible only once “the people” had “broken the back of the Catholic Church.”

He died without ever accepting the reality that the Reformation spelled the end of the Renaissance in every place in Europe except  England–which is an interesting circumstance of its own.

In the end, the Reformation spelled the end of the Renaissancce in England, too, as Cromwell and the Puritans shut down theaters and tried to impose, by law, the kind of plain living and high thinking New England mothers hoped to instill by hectoring.

But there was one thing the Renaissance and the Reformation had in common, and that both had in common with the Middle Ages–and that was the emphasis on the perfectability of man.

Humankind.  Whatever.  I am aware of the fact that changes in English usage are such that it is no longer possible to use “man” as a universal and have it sound right, or even be understood correctly, but my head keeps channeling actual quotations from much earlier periods.

Whatever.  The idea that it is possible to perfect the human being, and that this is a goal towards which both society at large and each individual human should be dedicated, is at its foundations a  Christian one.

Granted that Christianity never expected this perfecting would be completed on earth, there is, from the earliest writings of the Church, a constant and unfaltering emphasis on the project.

Each man is born, the early Church said, and Augustine said more loudly and at greater length, to work out his salvation in fear and trembling.  It was as an aid to this that Confession became a regular and frequent part of the life of the Christian, because Confession was a way to examine the conscience, to make oneself accountable for one’s faults and to commit oneself to correcting them.

And Confession in the Middle Ages was not a matter of walking into a dark little box and coming out with the obligation to say five Hail Marys, ten Our Fathers and a perfect Act of Contrition.  Penitents were instead required to do things like kneel at the door of the church every day for three months, begging their bread, in penance for the sin of pride, or going on foot to the Holy Land, begging all the way again, for such crimes as murder and sacrilege.

What’s interesting to me, of course, was that people did these things, in spite of the fact that the civil authorities did not back them up. 

Of course, the mere acts of human beings could not remove the stain of sin from the soul–and although Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross saved the soul from eternal damnation, which its sins deserved, it didn’t remove the stain either. 

In order to be perfected, man must not only be saved, but must atone for his sins at a lesser level as well, must scrub out that stain, must be made clean.

And that was what pergatory was–and is–for.  Christ removes the eternal punishment due to sin, but the temporal punishment remains.

Think of it like this.  If you murder your wife and are convicted of it and go to prison, you may find religion in prison, join a church, be baptized, and be saved.  You will then n ot need to fear going to Hell when you die.  You will, however, still have to serve out your sentence.   The debt you owe to society–the debt you owe “in time” (temporally)–does not disappear.

I hear a number of people argue, in arguments against religion, that Christian thinking on sin and salvation is fundamentally immoral, because all Hitler would have had to do was confess his sins at the end of his life and be truly sorry for them, and he’d go straight to Heaven no matter how many people he’d murdered and tortured.

In Catholicism, however, this is not the case.  Hitler could indeed confess and e forgiven his sins, but he’d still have to spend a really, really, really long time in Purgatory working off the temporal punishment due to them. 

If you use the standard Catholic image for this, Hitler couldn’t enter Heaven until h is soul had been cleaned of the stain of his sins, and those stains were going to take a lot of time and elbow grease before they came out.

I don’t mean to beat you all over the head with the doctrine of Purgatory, only to point out that the Enlightenment didn’t invent the idea of the perfectablity of man–it just moved the time frame.

And it’s not such an odd thing that it did.  Look at it any way you want to, and humankind looks in need of some perfecting, sooner rather than later.  On the biological level we have disease, disability and death.  On the interpersonal level we have pride, greed, violence and that unbelievably resistant narcissism which seems to be the common theme of all human beings everywhere at every time in history.   On the social level, we have war, tyranny and corruption.

Once people stopped believing automatically in a world beyond this one where wrong were righted, it was almost inevitable that men and women would try to find a way to perfect themselves and their fellow men right here, in the here and now.  The only other choice was to accept evil as inevitable and the essential tragedy of the human story as unrelievable.

The remarkable thing about the Enlightenment is not the bloody Romanticism of the French Revolution, but the measured common sense of the Enlish variety.

Then ask yourself something else.

The Brits were the only ones in Europe–or anywhere else–on the right side of the single most important question in the history of civilization.

So what is it exactly they’re always apologizing for these days, and always to the people who got it wrong?

Written by janeh

October 26th, 2009 at 9:30 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'Almost Perfect'

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  1. “Perfect is the worst enemy of ‘good enough’.”

    I don’t know who said that, but it serves quite well as a guideline for actually getting something done in life. Those who want perfection in themselves, their relationships, their relationship to God (if they have one) and most egregiously, in the people around them, tend to freeze in place, perfection not being achieveable, this side of Heaven.

    Oddly, the place where perfectability comes to the forefront in modern western society is in advertising. “Buy this toothpaste and your smile will be perfect.” “Buy this (insert product here) and your life will be as perfect as the people in the ad.” Homes with every item in place, cars that are always clean, children who are, even at their worst moments, neat, tidy, and humorous. If you want to see the way people *really* live, watch America’s Funniest Home Videos and look at the background in just about every shot.

    Humans can always be better. They can never be perfect. I always wondered why striving to be better isn’t enough. Why seek the extreme of perfection? Way to set yourself up for failure.

    As for the British, who really understands them? I mean, Benny Hill? Made by the same country as Fawlty Towers. On what planet does that make sense?


    26 Oct 09 at 11:53 am

  2. OK, what was the “single most important question in the history of civilization”? I can think of lots of important ones, but *the* most important one? I doubt you’re thinking of ‘Is there a God?’

    Striving to be better instead of the best you can be means settling for second-best, and never knowing if you could have been or done better. If a job’s worth doing at all, it’s worth doing well, and so on and so forth.

    There’s a lot to be said for aiming for perfection, but it’s an idea that needs associated checks and balances. Acceptance that it can’t be achieved in this world, and we’re all faulty in some way works, as does the ability to forgive oneself and others for screwing up combined with a procedure to learn from experience and to avoid repeating the most obviously damaging mistakes associated with the last attempt on perfectionism. I don’t know that the British are that hard to understand, although I’ve never watched Benny Hill. I liked Faulty Towers, if that counts, and Yes Minister/Prime Minister, and the Frost series and the Dalziel series and even Rosemary and Thyme and Midsommer, and also Only Fools and Horses (took me ages to connect Del Boy with Frost) and Rumpole…is it too obvious that our local library has a lot of DVDs of old British TV shows? To be fair, they have American ones too, but I haven’t been watching as many of them.


    26 Oct 09 at 7:17 pm

  3. The problem with expectations of perfection is that not only is it impossible to agree on what constitutes perfection – something that will vary from culture to culture, and from time to time – but also, even if it could be defined, in real practical terms it would be virtually impossible for any individual to achieve anything approaching such a thing in more than one or two fields of human endeavour.

    Yet this does not mean that we should stop setting our personal achievement targets high enough to keep them just out of grasp, if not fingertip reach. If I were to be forced to name one thing that has changed over my lifetime that has done the most damage to humankind, at least in the English-speaking west, it would probably the modern, say post-WWII, tendency to discourage self-help and competition among the young, and to reward mediocrity.


    26 Oct 09 at 8:30 pm

  4. I had perfection once. I was married, happily at the time. We had plenty of money. All the bills were paid. That day, the entire house was cleaned, all the laundry folded and put away, the dishes done, no projects outstanding, the pets were healthy, I hadn’t had children yet (have you noticed how much farther away perfection becomes when you have kids?) and nothing else in my personal universe needed to be cleaned, fixed, mowed, painted, mended or gotten rid of.

    That lasted about 4.2 seconds. Then I got bored and did something. Perfection collapsed into the normal state of life, and it became interesting again. I think of perfection as the quantum state before the Big Bang. Everything after that is chaos, with small pockets of order. Mostly, that’s all anyone can expect. There’s nothing wrong with trying to increase the order in one’s immediate surroundings, but nobody really wants to go back to the stasis before the Big Bang.


    27 Oct 09 at 1:22 am

  5. In political terms, I think that perfection is not a good idea and in fact, is an extremely dangerous one if people really think it can be achieved in this life and are willing to do anything to get it.

    And I can see that perfection would be stasis, although I hadn’t thought of it that way, possibly because I don’t think it’s really achievable. I don’t think I’ve ever managed it, not even for 4.2 seconds, and one of my besetting faults is not quite finishing things on time – or at all – because I think I could do a better (but not perfect) job on them if only I spent more time at them.

    But I still think that aiming for the ideal, the perfect job of work, is useful and important, even if that attempt has to be surrounded by all the warnings and caveats I’ve added.


    27 Oct 09 at 5:32 am

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