Falling short of ideals is common. There is a widespread sense that ideals are anyway nothing we can actually achieve, that they're for envisioning only: they give our strivings a direction, but it's not expected they'll ever be arrived at. The phrase 'an unreachable ideal' seems redundant and tautological — as if ideals were unreachable by definition already.

And yet does this not sound a little like a pretext to you? Doesn't it amount to half giving up on your ideals even at the outset? Why is it that we suppose it excusable to not attain what we agree would be a worthy goal?

There is no such thing as an imperfection without a corresponding conception of perfection: a norm failing which means to be less than perfect. To rank a meal as unsatisfactory, for example, you must be able to recognize the taste of a perfectly satisfactory one; to judge something as deficient piece of music you need an idea of what a flawless composition sounds like; observing a weakness of character requires you to know how an excellent person ought to behave, and to see where you're still short of reaching the goal of living your live well you have to reflect and find out what it would mean to reach that goal.

Once you do have a conception of the ideal, you may have to learn to live with instances of imperfection around you. You will encounter food and drink that comes not even near your idea of a perfect meal (and much more often than you'll have something you'd award that title to); you will hear music that is not in every respect as flawless as you'd like it — and that is only natural, since there are so many influences capable of spoiling perfection here that it must be very rare indeed. At least that's so for things like meals and music: they are the products of practices which in their very setup include a myriad of details that can only be controlled by the most sophisticated masters all at once. (And even they may not be always capable of getting simply everything completely right.) Yet that is only so because outside influences are in play. A single missing spice that wasn't within reach of the chef might spoil what otherwise had been a perfect dish; a sudden siren of an ambulance nearby may break into the quietest passage of a hitherto perfect chamber concert and kill the atmosphere. And as I said, there's nothing we can ever do: we simply must accept that these perfections are as rare and fragile as they are.

It's not like that with matters of character, and of living well. If you find yourself falling short of acting as you know you should, the proper attitude is not to sigh and resign yourself to the idea that you're not perfect — not at all. How you behave is fully under your control. (At least in the long run: even if you cannot change each of your reactions at once, you can always change your dispositions over time. It just requires will, and discipline, and no external circumstance short of your own end can prevent your eventual success.)

Why then, again, is it supposed to be fine not to strive for ideals, at least in that respect? Is it because we have lost sight of clear priorities, because we have unlearned that things like meals and music are no paradigms of what to value, and what to strive for? It's true enough, when we start looking closer, we may find that excellence of character is even harder to achieve than that of cookery, and that accomplishing perfection in the way we're living is an even steeper task than gaining it in making music. (And note that no-one said that most of those who try will meet that goal within the short amount of time we typically have.) But that will not invalidate it as a goal, nor should it frighten us away.

An important thing to recognize here is that our conceptions of perfection are of different kinds for meals and music on the one hand and for excellence of character and a well-lived life on the other. While the former includes at least as one component a happy coincidence, a junction of favorable circumstances, the rare coming-together of all those elements that enable a subtle composition in which even the minutest detail fits with all the others, the latter doesn't hinge on external luck in the same way: still, there are a great many details that you have to get right, and all must come together; but none of them is put beyond your reach, none of them is of a kind that you eventually can't control. If that is true, then it is not a question of possibility or impossibility whether ideals of that second sort are reachable — it's a question of your choosing. Take care.
Copyright © 2007-2012 by Leif Frenzel. All rights reserved.