You Are Perfectible

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Deep down, a woman who falls in love with a wild man believes she can bring out his softer side.

I don’t know how true this is, but I’ve read enough literature to know a lot of novelists who think it’s true. After all this is the timeless theme of beauty and the beast.

At the core of this ideal is the belief that a human being is “perfectible”. In other words, people can be improved upon. Whatever we are, we can get better. Whatever flaws we may have, we can overcome them. We are beasts no more.

Origins

From a modern political perspective this positive outlook on mankind had its origins in the seventeenth century. Philosophers like John Locke and Rene Rousseau believed that humans were susceptible to improvement based on being educated and exposed to good government.

These ideas influenced the likes of Thomas Jefferson, who incorporated them into America’s most famous founding document, the 1776 Declaration of Independence.

For example the phrase, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” penned by Jefferson was lifted directly from Lock’s writings.

From the very start, the notion was born that we are works in progress. With exposure to secular democracy, each of us can become the best of which we are capable.

We Are Imperfectible

On the other hand; there is a strong belief that man is not capable of being perfected. In conservative political theorist Russell Kirk’s words, “man is imperfectible.”

In Kirk’s article on the Ten Principles Of Conservatism, the sixth principle talks about the imperfectibility of man. Man, according to Kirk, does not respond to attempts at making an utopian world and fitting him into it.

Man is far too restless for such experiments. Sooner or later he will break loose and reject systems that try to perfect him. And if he doesn’t, he will surely “expire from boredom.”

To Kirk, all that can be counted on are time honored traditions of culture and religion to guide men’s actions. Federal intrusions into one’s life in order to perfect him are perverse and are the opposite of freedom. Federal program enslave men. For this reason, after a while people will rebel and throw off wrongheaded idealistic programs that have no positive effect on man’s nature.

I Must Admit . . .

I can relate to restlessness and boredom. These are two qualities, among several others, that characterize my personality.

I agree with Kirk that artificial utopian schemes that require my submission do not bring out the best in me.

But that’s where Kirk and I end our agreement on things.

The greatest social experiment I have been involved in did nothing but fill me with gratitude as I matured. I grew up in post World War II southern California. Almost all of us were children of returning military personnel.

These veterans qualified for the GI Bill, which helped them purchase new tract homes and go to school. They were free to pursue their interests. These folks drank, smoked, danced, cussed, cried, laughed, opined, prayed and worked themselves to the bone. They were among the freest people the world had ever seen. Eventually they gave birth to a never been experienced middle class.

They also gave birth to a generation of children who received free, quality education from kindergarten to graduate school. Eventually these kids became the most affluent group the world had ever witnessed. A great new middle class had been born. What had only been a dream of idealists centuries before had become a tangible reality.

Kirk criticized the GI Bill as one of the federally imposed utopian plans that failed to perfect mankind. As one who lived it, after my parents started it, I couldn’t disagree more.

If I had to choose, I would stick with those liberal seventeenth century Enlightenment philosophers like Lock and Rousseau, rather than those relatively recent conservative cynics and “realists” such as Russell Kirk.

But, I do believe we need to dream anew. Borrowing from George Bernard Shaw, it’s time to have our souls stirred again.

“Make no small plans, for they have no power to stir the soul.”