The Ideal of Perfection in Faith and Politics
The quest for the ideal is a human predisposition that shapes every social movement, political program, and religious communion. As we survey a world mired in war and social upheaval, we note seminal and competing conceptions of the ideal in human affairs. The socialist ideal of human perfectibility has failed everywhere it has been tried, and is currently failing wherever we look. The Islamic ideal of a humanity acceptable to Allah has resulted in oceans of bloodshed, insoluble antagonisms, and political dysfunction on a global scale. The Judeo-Christian ideal in its various forms, religious and secular, while quixotic in its progress, has enjoyed considerable success in providing for human happiness and prosperity.
Is there a single factor that distinguishes the philosophies that enable human flourishing from those that inevitably produce mass misery and political disarray? To simplify in the interests of clarity, we can say that acceptance of human limitation is key to the avoidance of totalitarianism. A consideration of the ideals that underlie Socialism and Islam, in comparison with those of the two Abrahamic faiths and Western classical Liberalism, which today goes by the name of Conservatism, may serve to make the case.
In Judaism, the ideal of perfection falls beyond the grasp of fallible man. The Jewish ideal is not so much represented as intimated by a series of commandments that are mainly negative in character, as if to recognize the impetuous tendency to transgression and the limits of human perfectibility. The ideal is embodied not in particular individuals (many of whom are deeply flawed) but diffused through a veritable cast of characters -- patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob), prophets (Elijah, Jeremiah, Isaiah), and leaders (Moses, Joshua, David). Further, unlike the principal faiths and collectivist movements, Judaism does not seek to proselytize but to witness and survive.
For Christians, the ideal of perfection exists in Heaven and is incarnated in Jesus, whose example can be approximated but never literally incorporated. The imitatio Christi can be practiced but never fully consummated. It is nonetheless a remedial and temperate discipline. As St. Augustine taught, the City of God and the City of Man are two distinct entities. Thomas à Kempis in The Imitation of Christ preached a retreat from the world into contemplation, and Saint Francis of Assisi devoted himself to poverty and good works, as recorded in The Little Flowers of Saint Francis. In this sense, humility -- though not always in evidence -- is inherent in the Christian approach to an ideal fulfillment. Furthermore, the idea of conquest and forcible constraint has been refined out of historical Christianity in the way it has never been banished, for example, from Islamic doctrine and usage.
Conservative political thought comes in many different shades but shares with Judaism and Christianity a default position regarding the application of the ideal in customary practice. In other words, what it regards as an ideal -- “piecemeal social engineering” in Karl Popper’s phrase from The Open Society and Its Enemies, or trial-and-error gradualism in improving society -- cannot by definition be imposed by force. Freedom of debate and assembly, equality before the law, and a democratic franchise based on popular representation are functions of an ideal that exists in the moral and political imagination, is carried by frail and errant human beings, and is always in process.
On the other hand, for communists and socialists, the ideal exists in the future and its material facsimile can eventually be wrested through violence and radical forms of legislation into an imminent present. In effect, Communism and its variants are predicated on the assumption that human nature can be modified, trained, and ultimately transformed; that is, it is based on a fantasy that cannot come to terms with the unbridgeable gap between the ideal and the real. Leftist politics valorizes an ideal -- equality of outcome regardless of input, redistribution of wealth, levelling of social and personal distinctions, communal ownership of resources, infallible guidance of a managerial elite -- that does not exist in the realm of human possibility, and the attempt to realize and impose it is always doomed to failure and the unleashing of monstrous perversions.
For Islam, by contrast, the ideal of human behavior and political organization is understood already to exist in the world -- it is Islam itself. It too must be imposed, leading equally with the Communist-Socialist axis to macabre deformations of social and political life. But the distinctions are critical. The Islamic ideal -- which no longer abides exclusively in the sphere of the divine, nor in a partly unattainable skein of rules and proscriptions, nor in the halting process of beneficial social development, nor in a future to be born by C-section -- came into the world, actually and concretely, with Muhammad, the “perfect man,” whom every genuine Muslim must seek to emulate, in effect to become. The Salafist return to origins in its quest to revive a pristine communion and consolidate it in the present is not merely a puritanical variant of Islam, as Muslim revisionists propose, but the very crux of Islamic perfectionism. The blueprint for the perfect life as it existed in the past needs only to be recognized. It is in effect already here and perennially achievable, needing only to be disclosed and ready to be followed at any time.
The bedrock ideals of Socialism and Islam are distorted and indeed grotesque programs for human development. The Leftist mentality is intrinsically self-contradictory. “Man is born free,” claimed Rousseau, the father of modern Socialism and Marx’s precursor, “and everywhere he is in chains” -- raising the insoluble paradox of how it is that men born free set about forging chains in which to imprison their fellows. The entire project sinks into nonsense at its very origins and can only be established by deception and violence. As the saying beloved by communists and socialists goes (ironically coined by a French royalist, Vendée leader François de Charette), you have to break eggs to make an omelette. The trouble is, the eggshells that shard the omelette render it inedible. As Milovan Djilas noted in The Unperfect Society, the end does not justify the means when the means violate the purpose of the end.
In the present era, Islam represents the immediate menace to our way of life as the West finds itself increasingly under the blade of the Islamic scimitar, from the “lone wolf” machete to the Iranian arc of fire. There is no doubt that we have a serious and perhaps intractable problem with Islam, and anyone who denies it is living in a fool’s paradise. As Winston Churchill wrote in The River War, the dilemma we confront is that Islam represents a “retrograde force” in the world, appealing to those darker aspects of human nature which Western jurisprudence, political thought, and liberal values have tended, albeit with partial success, to amend and reform.
Socialism lives in the present-future and Islam in the present-past. Enlightened Western thought lives in neither. It recognizes that man is a morally defective and politically flawed creature, for whom progress moves by fits and starts and is always subject to limitations of character and possibility. The classic Western ideal is asymptotic, always in flux, constitutively elusive, never completely realizable, in order to prevent tyrannical asphyxia and cultural ossification, as well as the insufferable conceit of self-declared benefactors. It is never fixed or dispositive, as in the Socialist and Islamic conceptions of human betterment. We might say that it is in the present but not of it, constantly moving toward another, better present at which it will never arrive. In other words, the past is to be remembered but not reproduced, while the future is not an ultimately realizable end-point -- the glaring error of lapsed conservative Francis Fukayama in The End of History and the Last Man. The temporal dimension in which the Judeo-Christian ideal resides is a succession of ever-changing presents, knowing that an eschatological terminal is not within the human ken.
The cadastral address of the Socialist ideal, as we’ve noted, is located in the indefinite future, but it squats in the here and now so that it seems substantial and refuses to be evicted. It merely creates tenement states, renting time until the day history is abolished and the devil’s pleasure palace is erected in perpetuam. The Islamic ideal resides permanently among us, fully formed, repressive and immutable, working in tandem with aspects of the Socialist model. Indeed, Socialism prepares the way for Islam, as in Sweden, Norway, France, the U.K., and increasingly in Germany and Canada -- before Islam in any of its national expressions is strong enough to turn and destroy it root and branch, as happened in Iran after Ayatollah Khomeini’s successful revolution. For, once dominant, Islam is by nature unable to coexist with any other social, political or religious organization.
The Socialist agenda and the Islamic worldview, forms of the topiary art applied to human beings, represent similar ideals of both minute and overarching social control which cannot be disarmed or interpreted out of existence. They must be resisted with every means at our disposal. If we continue to misconceive such totalitarian systems, whose present manifestations are respectively oriented toward a reified future and a reified past, they will inevitably undermine the proximate ideals of the essential Judeo-Christian West and its vulnerable Conservative heritage. The core Judeo-Christian principle of humility and uncertainty in facing both the divine and the future is now under greater threat than ever.