Follow us on

Ethics Explainer: Perfection

by The Ethics Centre
25 June 2018
BIG THINKERS;
EXPLAINER;
RELIGION
Is perfection possible? We’re taking a gander through the lens of Platonism, Hinduism, Christianity, and Sufism to see what they have to say.
 
We take perfection to mean flawlessness. But it seems we can’t agree on what the fundamental human flaw is. Is it our attachment to things like happiness, status, or security – things that are about as solid as a tissue? Our propensity for evil? Or is it our body and its insatiable appetite for satisfaction?
 
Four different philosophical traditions have answered this in their own ways and tell us how we can achieve perfection.

Platonism

Plato’s idea of perfection is articulated in his Theory of Forms. The Forms represent the abstract, ideal moulds of all things and concepts in existence, separate from the physical things themselves.
 
Take ‘red’ for example. Each of us will have a different understanding of what this means – the red of a red lipstick, the red of a red brick house, the red of a red cricket ball... But all of these are particular manifestations of red. Which is the perfect one? For Platonists, the perfect, ideal, universal ‘red’ exists outside of space and time and is only discoverable through lots and lots of philosophical reflection.
 
Plato wrote:

He will do this [perceive the Forms] most perfectly who approaches the object with thought alone, without associating any sight with his thoughts, or dragging in any sense perception with his reasoning, but who, using pure thought alone, tries to track down each reality pure and by itself, freeing himself as far as possible from eyes, ears, and in a word, from the whole body, because the body confuses the soul and does not allow it to acquire truth and wisdom whenever it is associated with it.

In Platonist thought, the body is a distraction from the abstract thought necessary for philosophical speculation. Its fundamental flaw? Its carnal desires that shackle the soul. 
 
Perfection for the individual, to sum up, is the arrival back to the soul’s state of pure contemplation of the Forms. This out of body state of contemplation is far from the idea of the perfect face and physique we often think about today.

Hinduism

In Hinduism’s Advaita school of philosophy, perfection means the full comprehension and annihilation into Oneness. It’s when you realise your soul (or your atman) is the same as everyone else’s and that all of you are part of the one, unchanging, metaphysical reality (the Brahman). In this state of realisation, the always changing, material world of maya reveals itself to be an illusion and anything attached to this world, including your actions, are illusions as well. (There are parallels with this and the idea of Plato’s Cave, which is narratively conceived of in The Matrix.)
 
To attain this status of perfection, an individual must surrender to their caste role and perform that duty to excellence. No matter what they did, they would understand their actions had no effect on the Brahman. To believe so was a trick of the ego. They would focus on renouncing all earthly desires and striving to become completely detached from the world through the specific rituals of their caste role.  
 
Krishna said:

A man obtains perfection by being devoted to his own proper action. Hear then how one who is intent on his own action finds perfection. By worshipping him [Brahman], from whom all beings arise and by whom all this is pervaded, through his own proper action, a man attains perfection … He whose intelligence is unattached everywhere, whose self is conquered, who is free from desire, he obtains, through renunciation, the supreme perfection of actionlessness. Learn from me, briefly, O Arjuna, how he who has attained perfection, also attains to Brahman, the highest state of wisdom.

 
By “actionlessness”, Krishna means the supreme effort of surrendering everything, including your own actions, so they become “non-action”. If everything is an illusion in the face of Brahman, we mean everything.

Christianity

A sainted bishop named Gregory of Nyssa classified perfection as being and acting just like God’s human form, Christ – that is, completely free of evil.

Nyssa said:

This, therefore, is perfection in the Christian life in my judgement, namely, the participation of one’s soul and speech and activities in all of the names by which Christ is signified, so that the perfect holiness, according to the eulogy of Paul, is taken upon oneself in “the whole body and soul and spirit”, continuously safeguarded against being mixed with evil. Perfection lies in the total transformation of the individual. He/she must live, act, and essentially, be all that Christ was, meaning that, as Christ was God manifest in human form, completely free from evil, so too the Christian individual must sever all evil from his/her being.

 
While the Socratic ideal of perfection requires pure "abstract" thought, and the Hindu ideal requires sublimating individualism into Oneness, the Christian ideal requires cultivating the characteristics of Christ and expelling all that is unlike him from yourself.

Sufism

The Sufi scholar Ibn ‘Arabi had a concept of perfection that echoes the three discussed above. For him, perfection is the individual’s complete knowledge of the abstract and the material, leading to a prophetic (or Christ like) character.

Let’s break that down. He says:
 

The image of perfection is complete only with knowledge of both the ephemeral and the eternal, the rank of knowledge being perfected only by both aspects. Similarly, the various other grades of existence are perfected, since being is divided into eternal and non-eternal or ephemeral. Eternal Being is God’s being for Himself, while non-eternal being is the being of God in the forms of the latent Cosmos.

 
The beginning of the passage states that perfection requires knowledge of the eternal and the material. The eternal is God in Himself, and the non-eternal is the Cosmos, including humanity, who in striving for the perfection of the eternal, expresses it.
 
But Ibn ‘Arabi stresses neither of these knowledges negate the other. In fact, by learning only of the eternal, or only of the material, both would be incomplete. They are simply different manifestations of the same Being. Perfection, then, is not about negation – but continual striving to transformation. Onwards and upwards!


Follow us on twitter @ethics_centre