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Patrick Grant

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Patrick Grant

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"…aspirations to perfection awaken us to our actual imperfection." It is in the space between these aspirations and our inability to achieve them that Grant reflects upon imperfection. Grant argues that an awareness of imperfection, defined as both suffering and the need for justice, drives us to an unrelenting search for perfection, freedom, and self-determination. The twenty-one brief chapters of Imperfection develop this governing idea as it relates to the present situation of the God debate, modern ethnic conflicts, and the pursuit of freedom in relation to the uncertainties of personal identity and the quest for self-determination.Known for his exploration of the relationship between Buddhism and violent ethnic conflict in modern Sri Lanka, as well as his contribution to the study of Northern Ireland and the complex relationships among religion, literature, and ethnicity, Grant provides the reader with an analysis of the widespread rise of religious extremism across the globe. Referencing Plato, Van Gogh, Jesus, and the Buddha, he enlightens the reader with both succinct and original insights into human society. Imperfection is the result of an important Canadian public intellectual at work.

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AU Press

PART I Imperfection

1 Plato and the Limits of Idealism

It makes good sense to start with Plato (428–348 BCE), the first Western philosopher whose writings survive in more than fragmentary form, and at the heart of whose thinking is a preoccupation with the fact that ideas are real and perfect in a way that material things are not. In short, Plato is the first Idealist, and his thinking is usually described in a manner that focuses on this point. Yet Plato’s Dialogues are bewilderingly complex and all-but-endlessly engaging, not least because his idealism led him simultaneously to discover the pervasiveness and significance of human imperfection, and that suffering and injustice are problems that the salve of reason does not entirely cure. Plato’s most enduring achievement remains in how he wrestles with this set of issues, but to provide some further sense of how he discovered them in the first place, let us turn briefly to his predecessors in ancient Greece during the sixth and fifth centuries BCE.
Like all geniuses, Plato chose the right time to be born — a time, that is, when his extraordinary talents were fitted to produce a new understanding of ideas explored, but not consolidated, by a wide range of earlier thinkers. These early philosophers had struggled to understand the world as Homer described it in the fabulous, brightly contoured narratives of his great epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey. That is, the philosophers wanted to learn about the principles by which Homer’s gods kept order in the cosmos, given that the gods behaved erratically and were often at odds with one another. Likewise, the philosophers wanted to know what principles could best regulate human behaviour, which was itself as changeable as the cosmos and the gods and, as Homer shows, is frequently influenced by both.
Thales, Anaximander, Anaximines, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Empedocles, Democritus, and the Pythagoreans offered explanations focused on the cosmic aspects of the question, speculating about laws and principles that provide stability in a constantly shifting material world. Plato’s great teacher, Socrates, began also by seeking to understand change in nature, but, like his main antagonists, the Sophists, he decided to switch his attention to the changeableness of human behaviour. That is, Socrates wanted to know what principles should guide us so that we might better bring to order our frequent unruliness and moral confusion.
Instructed by his predecessors, Plato sought to investigate both of these large issues and to understand the ordered dance of the heavenly bodies as well as the moral behaviour of human beings. Moreover, he thought that the answer to the first question (prompted by the cosmological theorists) would be the same kind of answer as would explain the second (prompted by Socrates). What holds for the universe at large holds for ourselves within the universe, and also for the good society should we be able to construct it. In short, Plato believed in the inherent rationality of the cosmos, and in our minds being so ordered as to mirror and understand its workings. For this reason, he is usually described as an idealist. That is, he is convinced that ideas are real because they don’t change, and he believed that reason gives reliable access to the unchanging laws that govern the universe, including the moral behaviour of human beings.
In short, Plato happened along when the time was ripe for gathering and sorting the rich harvest of poetry, philosophy, and ethical and political theory that had been produced so abundantly by the remarkable phase of Greek culture directly preceding him. He would make a banquet out of this abundance, transforming, rearranging, and re-presenting it by way of his own personal alchemy, leaving us with his great collection, the Dialogues. Yet he does not provide us with a clearly worked-out system, and his dialogues are more like a smorgasbord than a formal banquet. Everything is there, but it can be confusing to know where to begin, and, when you have had enough, how exactly to describe what you have taken in. Although the idealizing thrust of Plato’s main arguments remains clear, he is everywhere aware also of the resistance offered to his theories by the sheer, confusing weight of experience. Why, for instance, do people so often act in ways that flagrantly contradict what their reason clearly tells them is best to do?
When Plato wrote, the laws of logic had not been formulated, and Socrates (Plato’s spokesman, more or less, throughout the Dialogues) frequently argues by way of dubious analogies, fanciful correspondences, and tendentious assertions — “Plato’s ravings,” as David Hume said, in mild exasperation. Indeed, a first-time reader is likely to feel more than a little perplexed by the often peculiar, dilatory arguments offered by Socrates and by the galaxy of characters who debate with him. It all has a strangely dazing effect, as if one were entering into a mental state uncertainly poised between sleeping and waking. Philosophy, we feel, is struggling to come into its own domain, and an open, flexible, and even confusing exchange of ideas is necessary for this to happen. But Plato had also arrived at the highly significant understanding that you can’t conduct a philosophical discussion with just anybody. Socrates, after all, had been put to death by authorities who thought that his teachings threatened their traditional values. They were unwilling to examine the issues with him philosophically, and Socrates’s death confirms how customary practice and reasoned argument can be at odds. Independent thinking, it seems, is a skill that has to be cultivated by a patient process of education which entails a new way of understanding, a willingness to examine ideas on their own merit, without regard for received religious and moral traditions. The disposition required to argue well is therefore as important as the ideas themselves and underpins the very enterprise of philosophy, contending as it does with cultural prejudice, un-self-critical thinking, and plain irrationality. We can see something of how this is so in Plato’s most famous dialogue, the Republic.
In the Republic, Plato sets out to describe the ideal state, but in many respects what he comes up with will strike us as a good deal less than ideal. Non-Greeks can be enslaved; war is accepted as a permanent condition; there is a eugenic program to ensure the propagation of an elite caste; order is maintained according to oppressively hierarchical principles. Yet, as the dialogue proceeds, we can see that Plato himself comes increasingly to realize that his own theories are removing him too far from the world of actual experience. At one point, Socrates is asked outright whether or not the ideal republic is “a practical possibility” (231), and this is what he says:
Then we were looking for an ideal when we tried to define justice and injustice, and to describe what the perfectly just or perfectly unjust man would be like if he ever existed. By looking at these perfect patterns and the measure of happiness or unhappiness they would enjoy, we force ourselves to admit that the nearer we approximate to them the more nearly we share their lot. That was our purpose, rather than to show that they could be realized in practice, was it not? (232)
Socrates admits that he is in pursuit of an “ideal” and wants to describe “perfect patterns.” But he also suggests that there might not be a “perfectly just” man (“if he ever existed” suggests that the ideal might not be attainable). Nonetheless, the effort to “approximate” the ideal is the important thing, rather than showing that the ideal “could be realized in practice.”
This is not the only place where Socrates makes a concession, acknowledging that experience resists the “perfect patterns” prescribed by reason. A further example occurs in the mythopoetic passage with which the Republic ends. This is a story told by Er, “son of Armenius, a native of Pamphylia” (394). By giving the last word to a non-Greek, Plato indicates that the discourse has now left the realm of philosophy (Greeks can do philosophy; outsiders can’t). Er is said to have died in battle but was revived and was able to tell “what he had seen in the other world” (394). Mainly, he assures us that we will be judged according to how well or badly we have lived, and his account of the afterlife incorporates a grand cosmic myth, the main purpose of which is to confirm that, outside the boundaries of our limited experience, justice will be done in a manner that confirms the rational structure of the cosmos itself. Because Socrates has not been able to demonstrate that a rationally ordered, perfect society could in fact exist on earth, Plato gives us this concluding myth, urging us to hope that everything will in the end work out for the best. Argument alone cannot bring us all the way to this conclusion, and so philosophy at last yields to poetry.
All of which helps to explain why poetry gives Plato, the philosopher, so much trouble. At the start of the Republic he denounces Homer’s representations of the gods, pointing out that these supposedly superior divine powers often behave disgracefully and unjustly. He worries also about the corruptive effect of poetry and mythology on children, and he evicts poets from the ideal state, except for those who might offer acceptable hymns of praise. In the second half of the dialogue he attacks poetry again, this time as a poor imitator of reality and as a dangerous inflamer of unruly emotion at the expense of reason.
And yet, although he censors the poets, Plato himself cannot shake poetry off, and throughout the Republic his own most compelling passages are themselves often poetic, as in the complex, interwoven allegories of the sun, line, and cave with which, at the very heart of the dialogue, he attempts to describe the (indescribable) Absolute Good. Then, at last, as we see, he gives us the myth of Er, inviting us to aspire to a perfect justice, an outcome pleasing to reason even if beyond the horizons of our damaged history.
Throughout the Republic, then, Plato struggles to discover and acknowledge the limitations of reason, even as he does his utmost to promote reason’s cause. In this context, Thrasymachus is a centrally important character, even though he leaves the conversation early. Plato introduces Thrasymachus after some brief, opening exchanges between Socrates, the old man Cephalus, and his son Polymarchus. Socrates has an easy time, and these characters are readily manipulated. We might even feel some relief when Thrasymachus, a trained Sophist, declares that he is having no more of Socrates’s sleights of hand. Thrasymachus breaks in rudely and attacks Socrates for being a sham (64). He then offers his own view of justice, which he defines as “what is in the interest of the stronger party.” There is no appeal to ideals here, just an assertion, a full-frontal embrace of “tyranny,” which Thrasymachus defines as “wholesale plunder, sacred or profane, private or public” (73).
The exchange with the angry, forceful Thrasymachus continues at some length, and when Socrates at last begins to gain an advantage, Thrasymachus responds by bluntly refusing to accept the conclusions. And here Socrates encounters one important limitation of philosophy’s power to persuade: you cannot reason with people who are convinced that reasoning itself is futile, because, when all the talk is done, might is still right. Terrorists, psychopathic sadists, tyrants, and louts everywhere at some point simply cancel the philosopher’s guiding principle: let’s talk about it. Thrasymachus is their exemplar, and if philosophical discussion is to continue, he must leave, as he does.
Then a remarkable thing happens. Two other characters, Glaucon and Adeimantus, take up where Thrasymachus left off. Glaucon provides a summary of Thrasymachus’s main argument, offering to continue with it even though assuring Socrates, “I don’t believe all this myself” (89). Although Thrasymachus leaves the discussion (later, it is indicated that he continues to hang around, observing), the force of his objections remains. Throughout the Republic, discussions about tyranny and the rule of force keep bringing us back to the “Thrasymachus factor,” and Thrasymachus remains as a sort of philosophical Cyclops, a menacing reminder that reason itself can be used to argue for the futility of reason. One name for this position is nihilism, which, in the end, Socrates realizes he can’t defeat. And so Plato concludes with a myth about perfect justice, hoping to keep alive, at least, our aspiration to the ideal.
But why do Glaucon and Adeimantus insist on putting a case in which they say they don’t believe? As we see, it isn’t possible to enter into dialogue with just anyone, and the argument with Thrasymachus breaks down because he won’t seriously consider positions other than those he already holds. When pressed, he resorts to a disagreeable attitude in order to short-circuit further discussion. But when Glaucon and Adeimantus continue to make Thrasymachus’s case, they bring a different attitude to bear, sharing with Socrates a willingness to discover where the argument leads. The ability to carry on a discussion in such a spirit is the central skill on which philosophy itself depends, and in a remarkable letter, Plato explains how this is so.
The study of virtue and vice, Plato says in Letter 7, “must be carried on by constant practice throughout a long period.” Then, after a suitable amount of “benevolent disputation by the use of question and answer without jealousy, at last in a flash understanding of each blazes up, and the mind, as it exerts all its power to the limit of human capacity, is flooded with light.” Although insight might occur in a flash, it is engendered patiently by people who have learned how to argue with a respect for evidence and for alternative, soundly reasoned positions. Admittedly, within the Dialogues, Socrates himself is not always decorous or respectful, as when he bamboozles a variety of dupes who have the temerity to take him on. But the historical Socrates died for the right to go on asking uncomfortable questions and to go on encouraging young people in the art of disputation. Plato knew the value of what Socrates taught and died for, and he knew that a sure sign of tyranny is the refusal of the right to answer back, to say anything more, to voice dissent, to keep open the discussion.
In the Republic, Thrasymachus assumes various guises, as he does throughout human history, but his final argument is always the same: he will stop your mouth by force. Although Socrates can’t altogether get the better of Thrasymachus, neither does he fail to confront him. The twists and turns of Socrates’s arguments, ruses, flights of fancy, strained analogies, doubtful and peculiar deductions serve at least to keep the key questions alive, and also, by implication, they are ranged against the silencing of dissent. In comparison, Plato’s more explicit thinking about a perfect, transcendent world of Forms and an unrealizable (and unlivable) ideal state, remains, as it should, open for discussion. But the more interesting dimension of the Republic remains in how Plato presents the conflict between the ideals to which he invites us to aspire as a matter of personal responsibility and the daunting realization of the intractability of injustice to which the idealism itself awakens us.

2 The Van Gogh Letters The Art of the Unfinished

The idea of beauty has drawn the attention of philosophers from ancient times. Plato, whose Republic we have been considering in the previous chapter, has a good deal to say about the formal perfection of the ideally beautiful. But another, un-Platonic, aspect of beauty is emphasized, for instance, by the seventeenth-century philosopher Francis Bacon, when he says, “There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.” That is, the most beautiful things have some degree of asymmetry or imperfection which, somehow, makes beauty itself more poignant and affecting.
To consider this point further, let us turn to a painter who was preoccupied with unconventional kinds of beauty and who has left a larger collection of personal reflections on this topic than has any other major graphic artist. In his voluminous letters, Vincent Van Gogh repeatedly distinguishes between real beauty and the merely decorative and conventionally harmonious. In so doing, he explores the subtle interconnection between beauty and imperfection, and for Van Gogh, this exploration established a further connection between painting and morality. Not surprisingly in this light, there are close ties between the reception of Van Gogh’s paintings and the story of how he lived his own difficult — in the end, tragic — life.
Try visiting the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam any day, any time, any season, and you find it full of people — a perpetual spate, all ages, nationalities, conditions. You might feel, even, that you are somehow among pilgrims — the museum become, as it were, a secular shrine. This is because, by and large, visitors are drawn not just by the paintings but also by the man who painted them. Ask a random sample about their reasons for coming and most will tell you something about Vincent’s life. Homage to the man and admiration of his art are all but inseparable here. The museum shop, which offers fine reproductions and high-quality books, also sells box-loads of Vincent-themed mementos worthy of Lourdes.
Vincent himself would have been of two minds about all this. On the one hand, he insisted that in literature and painting the main thing is to find the artist, and he cites Zola with approval: “In the painting (the work of art), I look for, I love the man — the artist” (515). Certainly, in his own paintings he meets us everywhere with a discomposing personal directness, making an intimate claim on us, at times not entirely comfortable. And so he would have liked the fact that a sea of people from acr...

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