Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien. Voltaire Dictionnaire Philosophique(1764) (The best is enemy of the good)
This has long been one of my favourite quotations. Some translations prefer to substitute the word ‘perfect’ for the word ‘best’. It works well in both versions, so let us use ‘perfect’ for now.
Years ago, I first saw the observation in a paper going round the Foreign & Commonwealth Office. It used the epigram as a riposte to the British Ambassador to a Gulf state who wanted the very best. He had claimed that unless his official car was a Rolls-Royce he would get no respect from the locals. Request denied. Perfection is not always plain sense.
It gets worse the more you think about it. As perfection is unattainable, for obvious reasons that we will come back to later, it is not necessarily always benign as a concept or objective. Denying this plain fact leads to all sorts of trouble.
I’m not for one moment ignoring the obvious need for high standards and the discipline required to meet them. This is particularly true of life-or-death arenas: air traffic control, for example, or paramedics’ response to heart failure or strokes. High standards have their place and are usually appropriate as well as demanding. That is because they are built on hard reality and its challenges, notably the health and safety of our fellow human beings.
No, perfectionism is altogether different from high standards. It is an absolutist creed based on the supposition that the perfect is achievable, let alone desirable. It’s an attitude which in the normal course of everyday life is irritating and exhausting, but ultimately tolerable. We find ways to get round it, so let’s leave that individual level of the syndrome aside. It is the comparatively harmless end of the spectrum.
Be perfect, or else
Perfectionism is at its worst when it affects people badly on a national or international scale. At this level perfectionism is like some kind of gold standard sought, ultimately in vain, by strong-minded individuals who believe that they can attain it, even if others cannot, and have few qualms about how this could be achieved.
The most obvious examples are all revolutionaries, with a heavy dose of millenarianism, who successfully obtain power. And what a gallery they make: Savonarola, Müntzer, Robespierre, Lenin, Pol Pot, to name but a few fanatics. Louis de Saint-Juste, that other monster of the French Revolution, spoke for all of them when he declared that “in every Revolution a dictator is needed to save the state by force, or censors to save it by virtue.”
For that statement to have any validity at all, it must be right to assume that absolute ‘virtue’ is not debatable, but a given. You have to go for it. All that is required to achieve it is the exercise of Will.
Purity and the Will
Now Will is something which state criminals have in abundance. They see Will as self-evidently good. It clarifies: shows what has to be done. Its first mission, as it were, is to cleanse. Given the opportunity, these absolutists, implacable and self-righteous, opt for purity. If that involves emptying a city by force, then so be it. They see the process as inevitable. Carried out thoroughly enough, it will succeed and all shall be clean; ready for the perfect. It is possible; it is desirable; how should it not be achieved?
The human factor
The only obstacle in the way is imperfection: irrational, obstinate and obstructive, most obviously and detestably displayed by ordinary people. They do not and cannot exercise this Will. So it will have to be exercised on their behalf.
It is human failing, therefore, like some kind of Original Sin, which threatens to undermine the realisation of the perfect state or society. In the mind of the totalitarian, this virus-like infestation mutates quickly and damagingly into disloyalty. The people are not only afflicted with false consciousness and non-co-operation, but also with disobedience. This being so, the people must be ‘corrected’.
The problem is, of course, the fact that human beings generally hold on tenaciously to their awkward humanity. They will not be ‘corrected.’ The point is most clearly made in David Karp’s satirical novel One (1953) which, more thoroughly than George Orwell’s better-known 1984, explores the extent to which the individual as an archetype can withstand a totalitarianism which claims to be benign and for the good of all.
Heresy and salvation
One imagines a present day conformist society, referred to only as the State, which believes itself to be perfect. Anyone who challenges this doctrine must by definition be a heretic. The novel charts the way in which the hero, a contrarian professor suspected of individualist thinking amounting to heresy, is subjected to medical and judicial procedures of increasing severity until he is ‘perfected’ as a re-educated – in the sense of redeemed – obedient member of society. The experiment fails, however, derailed by what the baffled State almost despairingly condemns as “the vanity, the ego, the drive to be and to retain the individual” (p218).
The idea of heresy is apt. The great religions of the Book mull over this continually: why is humankind and human existence so imperfect? Why does the Deity – that ultimate form of Perfection – have to remind us of this again and again? What’s the matter with us? Why are we so prone to be against perfection?
It’s because we have to be. If perfection is a sign of unreason at best and insanity at worst, then we need to cherish our human failings. They save us from the madness and death that the very worst perfectionists insist is both essential and feasible in a good cause.
We generally muddle along, in our untidy lives, always hoping that we can get to enjoy the good enough. We sussed out perfectionism long ago. We know the best has the capacity to hurt, on many levels of our existence. Let the best come about if it has to, but save us from it. And let us have the good instead.