People & Philosophy
Although images of perfection in people's personal lives can cause unhappiness, images of perfect societies - utopian images—can cause monstrous evil. In fact, forcefully changing society to conform to societal images was the greatest cause of evil in the twentieth century.In the world of ideas, perfection is not always discussed, but it casts a long shadow, of an ideal of the way things ought to be. Where do people get the idea of perfection, of a world devoid of imperfection—the perfect world? Is such an idea taught? Or is it learned, a story handed down from generation to generation?
All western religions talk about a perfect world that will eventually take place, often with the coming of a messianic figure. Christianity has its Messiah; Judaism has its Moshiach. But in the interim we are here on earth, and have to fulfill our duties as good, decent and moral human beings. The mistake is to try to forcefully fashion a Utopian world by human ideas of perfection, which only leads to disaster and shared misery. History has borne this out, notably in the last 100 years.
Doing good individually and willingly is far removed from compelling others to do good by force. The latter is state totalitarianism; the former individual freedom. All human beings have the capacity to do evil; self-improvement, contained in the idea of perfection, reins in such tendencies. The idea of perfection is a necessary unattainable standard, an ideal if you will, to encourage us to take the small human steps to propel us to do the good deeds that societies need for their betterment. It's a steady progression of doing and understanding. Such deeds although often small, often unnoticed, are important.
In the religious tradition, perfection has a close relationship to understanding the ways of God. In other words, to achieve perfection means to find out more about God and the writings attributed to him. In Judaism, that is found in the Torah and the Talmud, which simply explains why observant Jews study these texts continuously and judiciously. Maimonides, a 12th century Jewish thinker, in his Guide for the Perplexed  says this clearly
You are no doubt aware that the Almighty, desiring to lead us to perfection and to improve our state of society, has revealed to us laws which are to regulate our actions. These laws, however, presuppose an advanced state of intellectual culture. We must first form a conception of the Existence of the Creator according to our capabilities; that is, we must have a knowledge of Metaphysics. But this discipline can only be approached after the study of Physics: for the science of Physics borders on Metaphysics, and must even precede it in the course of our studies, as is clear to all who are familiar with these questions.It's noteworthy that Maimonides says that in order to understand God's laws, we first must have knowledge of nature and the scientific laws that explain it. Thus, science is a necessary step to understanding Torah. It frees us from ignorance and opens our minds to understanding.
This thought is further developed in the writings of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook [1865-1935], a renown Jewish thinker and Torah scholar. He left many important writings on the moral and holy life. I have been delving into one, Abraham Issac Kook: The Lights of Penitence, Lights of Holiness, The Moral Principles, Essays, Letters, and Poems, a collection translated and edited by Ben Zion Bokser (1978), who writes in the "Introduction" to the essays:
The yearning to effect unity and perfection in the world is part of the divine strategy to emancipate man from ignorance and parochialism. . . . In the words of Rabbi Kook: "Whenever a person raises himself through good deeds, through a higher stirring of his yearning for godliness, for wisdom, justice, beauty and equality, he perfects thereby the spiritual disposition of all existence." (24)In other words, doing good does make the world a better place, in that all humanity benefits. Individual good deeds are not done in vain; this is indeed a comforting thought, as this sometimes seems the case. In difficult, trying times, as we are witnessing today, many people turn to religion for answers to humanly insoluble problems. Religion provides answers, some of them good, as the above insight shows. Religious thought, borne from thousands of years of human experience, tells us that we now live in an imperfect, fractured world, an obvious insight. It has always been the case, yet such insight when clearly developed connects us to other humans.
Science explains how the world operates, it has a mathematical language equipped with beauty and perfection. Science gives humans the intellectual knowledge to understand the universe. Repairing the world requires knowledge of both science and religion; both are necessary for our human understanding. The idea of perfection, however unattainable an ideal, is best pursued on the individual level using the language of both.