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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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The concept of perfectibility is parasitic upon the
concept of perfection: to be perfectible is to be capable
of being perfected. Perfection itself is a multi-faceted
concept. The transcendental metaphysician identifies
perfection with the possession of such characteristics
as timelessness, immutability, self-sufficiency. To ask
whether man is perfectible, from the standpoint of
transcendental metaphysics, is to ask whether he can
enter into union with the eternal, can rise above
change, or can achieve self-sufficiency, at least in his
relation with the world around him. From a functional
standpoint, in contrast, perfection is identified with the
fulfilling of a set task. A perfect man will be one who
exercises his function perfectly, it being presumed that
men have a function which is set for them whether
by the State or by God. Man, that is, is regarded as
a superior form of tool. The teleologist thinks of man,
rather, as a being whose own inherent nature it is to
achieve an ultimate end, e.g., happiness or union with
the eternal, the only end in which he can find absolute
satisfaction. To be perfect, from a teleological stand-
point, is to have achieved such an end, to be fully
happy or fully united with the eternal.

The aesthetic definition of perfection looks towards
internal structure; the perfect is the orderly, the sys-
tematic, the harmonious. Man is perfectible, therefore,
in so far as he can conquer every kind of disorder or
conflict in his soul. This is linked with the concept of
immaculate perfection, for which to be perfect is to
be “free from flaw”—a flaw often defined, in theolog-
ical terms, as “sin.” Finally, perfection may be identi-
fied with moral perfection, itself diversely defined,
whether as perfection in conduct or as perfection in
motive. So it is sometimes argued that a man is morally
perfect if he always acts in such a way as to produce
the greatest happiness for the greatest number, some-
times that he is morally perfect only if he acts from
a particular motive, e.g., the love of God. These various
types of perfection shade into one another and are
often conjoined in a single theory. But to understand
the history of perfectibilism they must nonetheless be
carefully distinguished.

Perfectibility in Pre-Socratic Thought. For the
archaic Greeks, neither man nor god was perfect,
metaphysically or morally. On the moral side, Homer
and Hesiod were quite willing to ascribe to the gods
such acts as stealing, deception, and adultery. As for
metaphysical perfection, the gods were certainly both
immortal and powerful. But they were not eternal.
They were born, if for the most part by somewhat
unorthodox methods; they can suffer injury; they are


not omnipotent; not even Zeus is entirely self-sufficient.
There is not the slightest suggestion that they are
immutable, let alone that they possess that infinity of
infinite attributes which Christian theologians were to
ascribe to the divine. Nor should men try to be perfect,
except in relation to a particular skill. To seek self-
sufficiency, or perfect happiness, was to display “spir-
itual pride,” hybris, and this was certain to attract the
unfavorable attention of the gods.

By the sixth century, however, there was a growing
dissatisfaction with the Olympian religion. At the same
time new ideas were emerging about the infinite, the
everlasting, the unchanging, which were profoundly
to influence theology, and, through theology, the con-
cept of human perfection. God had first to be per-
fected, before perfectibility could be ascribed to men.
Anaximander's Boundless is not merely immortal, like
the gods, but without a beginning. It is infinite and
omnipotent. Whether Anaximander himself called the
Boundless “divine” is a matter of dispute, but Aristotle,
reporting his views, does so, and reflects the way in
which Anaximander-type concepts were incorporated
into Greek theology (Physica 203b 10-15).

In the satirical poetry of Xenophanes, the impact
of the new cosmologies upon Olympian religious ideas
is made explicit. Anthropomorphism is abandoned;
God, as Xenophanes describes him, is in no respect
similar to human beings (Kirk and Raven, frag. 173).
It is “not fitting” to think of him as committing adul-
tery, for example, not only because it is morally in-
appropriate to ascribe such qualities to him, but also
because it would imply a degree of restlessness which
is metaphysically inappropriate to a divine being.

Aristotle wrote of Xenophanes as the teacher of
Parmenides and the founder, therefore, of the Eleatic
School of Philosophy. That view is now generally
rejected. But we can think of Parmenides, all the same,
as carrying further Xenophanes' “metaphysical per-
fecting” of God. Xenophanes' God acts and thinks in
ways quite unlike human action and human thought,
but he still acts and thinks. Parmenides' “Being,” in
contrast, does not act: it simply is. Simple, eternal,
immutable, devoid of all properties which involve
negation or defect, it represents the ideal of meta-
physical perfection in its completest form.

Such a “Being” is, on the face of it, completely
different from the God of religion, a God to whom
men can pray. But the two were nonetheless gradually
identified. Or, at least, the properties which Par-
menides had ascribed to “Being” were ascribed to the
divine. And although the theory of God as “Being”
seems to set up an absolute gap between such a “Being”
and ordinary human beings, it was at the same time
argued that man could, and ought to, perfect himself
by imitating, or uniting himself with, or contemplating,
precisely such an Absolute Being. Men were to perfect
themselves, that is, by casting off their relationships to
the ordinary world, so far as that is humanly possible.
Thus it was that Greek thought, and after it, certain
forms of Christian theology came closer to the Buddhist
conception of perfection, although not, usually, in such
a degree as to suggest that the human being ought
wholly to extinguish himself in the One.

Developments within religion itself facilitated this
transition. The cult of Dionysius and the mystery rites,
especially at Eleusis, had already suggested a closer
relationship between God and man than the Olympian
religion allowed. In the fifth century, Empedocles
expounded a religious system of a novel kind, prophetic
of what was to come. (How widespread religious ideas
of this type were is a matter of dispute; there may
have been an “Orphic religion” which they in some
degree represent, but the point is hotly disputed.) Man,
Empedocles suggests, is a demigod who, at the begin-
ning of human history, committed a dreadful crime
for which, ever since, men have had to pay the penalty.
His proper home is amongst the gods, but as a result
of his crime he is banished to the earth. There he lives
in cycle after cycle of reincarnation until, by the exer-
cise of purifying virtues, he finally returns to the earth
in one of the higher forms of humanity, as prophet,
poet, doctor, or statesman. Then at last he can achieve
the state of godlike perfection. So Empedocles is pre-
pared to write of himself that he is “an immortal god,
mortal no more.”

Pythagoras agreed with Empedocles that men could
achieve godlike perfection by way of purifying them-
selves. But to purify themselves, he thought, men must
first learn to philosophize; they can reach perfection
only by contemplation, the contemplation of an or-
derly, harmonious universe. This conception of the
perfect life, which identifies it with the life of contem-
plation, was to dominate Western thought for over two
thousand years. It is significant that it also plays so
large a part in the religions of the East; its roots lie
deep in the human mind.

Plato and Aristotle. As an application of his general
metaphysics, one would expect Plato to argue that no
human being can ever hope to perfect himself, that
nothing except “the Form of humanity” can ever ex-
hibit humanity in its perfection. He avoids this conclu-
sion by drawing a sharp distinction between soul and
body (Phaedo 79A-D). The soul, he says, is by nature
“like the Forms.” Normally, this fact is concealed
because the soul “is dragged down by the body” into
imperfection. To perfect himself man must first subdue
the body. Then, by the exercise of reason, he can lift
himself to a point at which he can have knowledge


of the Forms, and finally, so it is suggested in the
Republic, of “the Form of the Good.” Not everybody
can reach this level; only those whose souls are domi-
nated by reason and who have undergone a prolonged
education. Perfection, that is, is for an elite; although
the ordinary man can achieve “civic goodness,” only
the fit few can hope to reach the heights of philo-
sophical perfection.

In Plato's later dialogues the theological emphasis
is more pronounced. A much-quoted passage in the
Theaetetus (176C) defines God as “perfect right-
eousness” and suggests that man can perfect himself
only by imitating God. Plato's disciples identified the
“God” of the Theatetus with “the Form of the Good”
of the Republic; and that in turn with the “One” of
the Parmenides and the “Beauty” of the Symposium.
So Plato was represented as teaching that man is to
perfect himself by subduing the body, and becoming
like God by seeing God as he “really is.”

It was not too difficult to run together his teachings,
thus understood, with Aristotle's, especially as they are
propounded in the tenth book of Aristotle's Nico-
machean Ethics.
Aristotle, no doubt, explicitly rejects
Plato's theory of forms. For a man to be perfect, on
Aristotle's view, is for him to fulfill his natural function,
to achieve “the good for man.” But at the same time
Aristotle's final conclusion is that man is at his best
when he imitates God. Since God is entirely devoted
to eternal self-contemplation, man perfects himself
through the contemplation of God, or, at least, of
“heavenly things.”

Epicureans and Stoics. Aristotle identifies the con-
templative life with happiness in its best and most
complete form. Epicurus agrees with Aristotle that
perfection lies in the achievement of happiness. But
speculative activity, he argues, is necessary to happi-
ness only in so far as it helps men to free themselves
from their superstitious fears, their belief in gods who
might at any time arbitrarily interfere in their lives,
or punish them after death. Once the nonexistence of
such gods has been demonstrated, further speculation
is useless. Perfection lies not in contemplating the
divine, but in the achievement of complete peace of
mind by withdrawing from society to live a quiet life
with like-minded friends.

It might be objected that men cannot hope to
achieve complete happiness, thus understood. As
human beings they are subject to the disturbing influ-
ence of pain. But the term of pain, Epicurus argues,
is relatively brief. It is anxiety, not pain, which destroys
men's happiness; they will find pain easy enough to
bear if they achieve freedom from anxiety (Kuriai

The Epicurean ideal is entirely secular; it came into
favor again in the seventeenth century, with the rise
of secularism. Stoicism, in contrast, is essentially reli-
gious. Man is perfectible, for the Stoics, in virtue of
the fact that he is rational and so far godlike. In the
gods, as Seneca puts the point, reason is already per-
fected; in man it is capable of being perfected (Epistu-
lae morales,
92). “Becoming like God,” however, is for
Stoicism a very complex concept. God is identified with
the Universe. The perfected man, then, submits to the
Universe; this is equivalent to obeying God, living
according to Nature, being fully rational, becoming
godlike. To adopt as one's ruling principle any of these
criteria of perfection will be to undertake precisely
the same course of action.

The real problem for the Stoics is to explain why
man is not, as “a particle of God,” automatically per-
fect. The Stoic solution is that men sometimes fail “to
see things as they are.” To become perfect, they must
become indifferent to those things—everything, that
is, but virtue—which do not deserve to be taken
seriously. And they cannot do this while they think
of such objects of desire, not as they are, but as their
imagination gilds them. Men are tempted into avarice,
for example, only because they fail to see money as
dirty coin. This is a point on which Marcus Aurelius
particularly insists (Meditationes, 11.16); interestingly
enough, it is also to be met with in the Buddhist scrip-
tures (Conze [1959], p. 104).

The perfected Sage will be attached to nothing but
virtue, and for that very reason he has complete peace
of mind. For if a man sets his heart on any other object
of affection, it may at any time be taken away from
him, by forces completely outside his control. Virtue
alone lies completely under the control of the will.
Virtue is indivisible, as Plato had argued; it is impossi-
ble for a man to be temperate if he is unjust or
cowardly. There can, therefore, be no degrees of per-
fection; until a man possesses all the virtues, he is
simply vicious. Not surprisingly, the Stoics found it
hard to nominate examples of perfect men—true
Sages—but they usually included Socrates and their
founder, Zeno, in that category.

The Neo-Platonists. Philo is sometimes described, for
all that he was an Alexandrian Jew, as the first Christian
philosopher. He took the momentous step of identify-
ing the Jahweh of the Old Testament, an essentially
personal God, with the metaphysical God of the Greek
philosophers. In accordance with what he took to be
Plato's view, Philo argued that to achieve perfection
men must attain to a vision of God, and that to achieve
that vision they must shake off all concern with the
body. He differed from Plato, however, on two impor-
tant points: first, as a Jew, he insists on the importance
of faith, faith in Revelation, for all that he is forced


to interpret Revelation in an allegorical fashion in
order to reconcile it with Platonism, and, secondly, he
suggests that perfection is dependent on the exercise
of divine grace. The Platonic-Stoic assumption is that
man perfects himself by his own efforts; if he fails to
do so this is out of human weakness. But, for Philo,
faith is God's gift—his Revelation, after all, was only
bestowed on his Chosen People—even although God
grants it, Philo thought, only to those who are worthy
of it. Men must first despair of themselves before they
can achieve the vision of God (De somniis, I, X).

Philo's influence on such fellow-Alexandrians as
Clement and Origen was extensive. Plotinus, however,
does not seem to have read Philo, and he thinks of
himself, indeed, as simply restating Plato's views. Until
the eighteenth century, he was taken at his own word:
“Platonism” meant, in the centuries to come, what we
now call Neo-Platonism, the teachings of Plotinus, as
interpreted by his successors, especially his Christian

Men possess, according to Plotinus, not one but two
souls: the embodied soul and the “true” soul. Sin and
suffering belong only to the embodied soul; the “true”
soul is divine. Man perfects himself by “cutting away”
whatever holds him to the body, by the exercise first
of virtue and then of intense intellectual activity. Spir-
itual progress consists in climbing a ladder; at the top
of the ladder lies “union with the One.” Whether at
the point of union the individual soul completely dis-
appears into the One—as into Nirvana—remains ob-
scure, as it does in so many subsequent varieties of
mysticism and, indeed, even within Buddhism itself.

Augustinians and Pelagians. The New Testament
(Matthew 5:48) commands men to imitate God by
becoming perfect. Early Christian writings like the
Didache and such Christian fathers as Ignatius,
Irenaeus, and Clement, took it for granted that men
are capable of fulfilling this command. But even in the
New Testament there are passages (I John 1:8-10)
which suggest that men cannot, in this life, be perfect.
That view came to represent orthodox Christian
teaching, especially, although not exclusively, under
the influence of Augustine.

Christian perfection involves loving God with one's
whole heart and soul, and since the Fall, Augustine
argues, man is incapable of doing so. His will is cor-
rupted by original sin; he cannot succeed in casting
off all forms of self-love or wholly freeing himself from
the sensual attractions of the world. The Christian can
no doubt make some degree of progress towards per-
fection, but even then not entirely by his own efforts;
he is wholly dependent upon the grace of God, who
has already determined who shall be members of his
perfected elect. Augustine, that is, wholly rejects
Philo's view that grace is given only to those who have
already made themselves worthy of it, or the Platonic
doctrine that only by a prolonged period of education
can men be perfected. No doubt, God could give to
his elect such a degree of grace that they could perfect
themselves in this life, but he has not chosen to do
so: even the elect are to expect perfection only after

This interpretation of Christian doctrine did not go
unchallenged, most notably by the British monk
Pelagius and his followers. The Christian's duty,
Pelagius argued, is clear and unambiguous: God has
commanded him to be perfect and God would not
command him to do anything which lies beyond his
powers. As for the suggestion that man is helpless to
improve himself morally unless with special grace from
God, to take that view is to destroy all moral effort.
God helps those who help themselves. Nor are men
born corrupted. At birth they are neither virtuous nor
vicious; their moral character lies in their own hands,
in the free will with which God has endowed them
and which he will help them to direct towards the

Pelagianism was condemned by the Council of
Carthage in 417. Henceforth, it was official Roman
Catholic doctrine that men could not perfect them-
selves without special grace from God. But the precise
degree of perfection they could achieve with the help
of that grace was still disputed, as was the exact rela-
tion between grace and free will. Aquinas tried to settle
the question, without departing in any fundamental
way from Augustine's teachings. He distinguished be-
tween man as he was before the Fall and corrupted
man (Summa theologica II, i, 109, 3-4). Before the Fall,
he argues, man could exercise the ordinary virtues—
Plato's “civic goodness”—without divine grace. But
even then he needed special grace (“elevating grace”)
to perform truly moral actions, actions performed
entirely out of caritas, the love of God. After the Fall,
man's position was very different. Even to fulfil the
commands of the Law in a purely external way he
needed grace—“healing grace.” With the aid of grace,
man can so far perfect himself that he is free of all
those sins, “mortal” sins, which depend wholly on the
reason. He cannot, however, avoid all “venial” sins,
sins arising out of the flesh. So sinless, immaculate
perfection is unattainable by man, even with God's

As for absolute perfection, the perfection which
consists in the vision of God, that comes, Aquinas
argues, only in eternity. Scripture presents Aquinas
with some difficulties on this point. He finds himself
obliged to admit (ST, I, 12, 11) that Moses and Paul
had ecstatic experiences which took them out of the


body. But with these exceptions, Aquinas denies that
the vision of God—mystical perfection—lies within
man's reach in this life. What the mystic sees is not
God, but some natural object which symbolizes, or
stands for, God.

The battle between Augustinians and Pelagians has
continued throughout the history of the Christian
Church. The Reformers were convinced that Aquinas
had allowed too much to man. Man, Calvin argued,
is utterly corrupt, from head to toe (Christianae re-
ligionis institutio,
II, 1, 8). It is true that at the purely
civic level, he is not entirely devoid of a natural in-
clination to virtue. But at the spiritual level his cor-
ruption is absolute. There is no scriptural ground for
any distinction between “mortal” and “venial” sins;
all sins are equally mortal.

In the nineteenth century, Pelagianism won its
greatest triumphs, culminating in F. R. Tennant's The
Concept of Sin
(1912), as men became more and more
conscious of their own power to remake the world.
Tennant admits that perfection in the full aesthetic
sense of the term—harmonious goodness achieved
without effort—does not lie within man's reach. Men
cannot be like God, or even like Jesus. But they perfect
themselves by the exercise of their free will, insofar
as they employ faultlessly the natural talents which
they possess, in accordance with the ideals which they

The counter-reaction to nineteenth-century Pela-
gianism came after the 1914 war, in the writings of
Reinhold Niebuhr and Karl Barth. Man inevitably sins
out of pride, Niebuhr argues in The Nature and Destiny
of Man
(1941), because he cannot help trying to over-
come anxiety, an anxiety implicit in his ontological
situation, by remolding the world to a more secure
shape. He is proud of such achievements, pitiful though
they are. Karl Barth goes even further. Man, he agrees
with Niebuhr, sins out of hybris—the sin of sins consists
in man's belief that he can lift himself to the level of
the divine. But only by recognizing his own complete
worthlessness can he find salvation, entirely through
God's grace.

Christian Perfectibilists. If orthodox Christianity has
usually been antiperfectibilist, at least so far as the
present life is concerned, not all Christians have been
prepared to abandon perfectibilist hopes. Some of them
have been buoyed up by the story told in Matthew
(19:21) of the young man who is told that to be perfect
he should sell what he owns and give it to the poor.
Coupled with similar passages, this has been used to
justify, from the time of Ambrose on, the idea of
“counsels of perfection” which should govern the lives
of the spiritual elite—poverty, chastity, obedience.
From an early stage in the history of the Christian
Church—adapting Greek precepts and Jewish exam-
ples—ardent Christians, intent on perfection, have
separated themselves from the temptations of human
society, in hermitages or, later, in monasteries. By
subduing the flesh, they hoped to achieve a vision of
God. It was possible to restrain such asceticism within
the bounds of orthodoxy by maintaining that it was
only a preparation for a future life, not an attempt
to attain to perfection in this life. But Luther was
certainly right in suggesting that hermits and monks
often sought a perfection which was absolute, as Luther
himself had done while still a monk—a perfection not
very different from the perfection of the Stoic sage.

Another type of perfectibilism, often closely associ-
ated with extremes of asceticism, is mysticism. It was
often defended against the charge of heresy by refer-
ence to the teachings of such Greek-inspired Church
fathers as Clement, and, even more, the writings of
Dionysius the Areopagite, sometimes known as “Saint
Denys.” Dionysius was a fifth-century Neo-Platonic
convert to Christianity, wrongly identified by tradition
with the Dionysius referred to by Paul (Acts, 17:34)
and the French martyr Denys. Thus recommended,
Dionysius' writings exerted a tremendous influence,
even on Aquinas, and are constantly invoked in reply
to charges of heresy levelled against fifteenth- and
sixteenth-century Christian mystics. Were it not for his
authority, indeed, it is very doubtful whether Christian
mystics could ever have claimed orthodoxy for such
views as that God can be reached only by passing
beyond all knowledge and all rational understanding
in order to achieve union with a Being whom it is
misleading to describe even as God.

Mystics like Meister Eckhart, even so, found them-
selves condemned for carrying too far the doctrine that
men can become at one with God. However, Eckhart's
German disciples, Heinrich Suso and Johannes Tauler,
escaped condemnation as did, in Spain, Teresa and John
of the Cross—indeed, in varying degrees, they won the
warm approval of the Church. Tauler draws a sharp
distinction between the ordinary Christian and the
“noble ones.” The “noble ones” are capable of reaching
a degree of “godlike freedom” in which they are
entirely free from sin. Similarly, John of the Cross
maintained that the soul could be freed by God's grace,
preceded by long periods of self-denial and suffering,
not only from actual sins but from every kind of
imperfection. Both Tauler and John conceded, how-
ever, that even the “noble soul” might suffer a relapse
into imperfection. As for the vision of God, or union
with God, these could not, they admitted, be complete
in this life, but they could certainly be attained mo-
mentarily and incompletely.

Within Protestantism, the Quakers asserted that men


could be perfected by Christ dwelling within them,
in such a way that their actions were Christ's actions.
But the most influential form of Protestant perfectibi-
lism is John Wesley's Methodism. Perfection is a theme
to which Wesley again and again returns in his writings.
In his Plain Account of Christian Perfection (1777) he
gives a general account of the history of his views on
perfection, and grants that he had sometimes expressed
himself too strongly. He had carried his perfectibilism
to its most extreme point in the preface to a volume
of hymns, published in 1741. The perfected Christian
is there depicted as a Stoic Sage. He wants for nothing;
he does not ask even for relief from pain; he never
doubts what to do and is never troubled by temptation.
Wesley's more characteristic view, however, is that
men can never wholly free themselves from ignorance,
or from temptation. But they can reach a point at
which they are sanctified throughout, free from all
actual sin except such as is based on ignorance. At first
Wesley thought that, once achieved, this perfection
could never be lost; his own experience in the
Methodist movement finally led him to abandon that

Perfectibilist Heresies. Running parallel to Chris-
tianity throughout its long history—whether it predates
Christianity is still disputed—is a heresy which has
assumed a great variety of forms, but displays certain
persistent features. It condemns the world and the flesh
in terms more intransigent than Christian orthodoxy
allows; it lays it down that a spiritual elite can reach
a condition in which they are entirely incapable of
sinning; it asserts that in order to achieve this state
they have need of a Revelation which is either addi-
tional to, or hidden within, the received Scriptures.
One reason why Christianity has, generally speaking,
been antiperfectibilist is that it has been forced to set
itself against the perfectibilism of such heretical oppo-
nents, whether the “Gnostics” or the Manichees, the
Albigensians or the Brotherhood of the Holy Spirit.

An ambiguity attaches to the statement: “I can sin
no more.” It can mean either “I am now so perfect
that it is impossible any longer for me to perform those
acts which are unlawful” or “I am now so perfect that
whatever I do no longer counts as sin.” Similarly, “I
have conquered the flesh” can mean either “I am no
longer in the slightest degree involved in carnal rela-
tionships” or “I am now able to engage in carnal
relationships without feeling any fleshly desire.” The
Christian critics of “Gnostic” heresies have always
alleged that the heretics interpret these statements, in
practice, in the second sense and that their antinomi-
anism is nothing more than an excuse for immorality.
In 1650 the English House of Commons found it nec-
essary to pass a bill laying down penalties for those
who argued that the spiritual elite could without sin
freely engage in “Whoredom, Adultery, Drunkenness
or the like open Wickedness” (Cohen [1957], p. 326).
Even the Quaker and Methodist movements knew men
and women who interpreted their beliefs in this way
(Hannah W. Smith, 1928). The quest for religious per-
fection has led men in some strange directions.

Perfectibilist Communities. It has led them, too, into
some strange communities. Plato argued that only in
a perfect State could men become perfect; Epicurus
bid his followers desert society to enter communities
of like-minded men; the monasteries were communities
of men bent on achieving perfection. In the nineteenth
century there were innumerable attempts to set up
ideal societies, often based on heretical versions of
Christianity. So John Humphrey Noyes, the founder
of the Oneida community, convinced himself from his
devoted reading of scripture that the teachings of the
Old Testament had been abrogated since the year A.D.
70. Perfection, now, had to be thought of not as obedi-
ence to law but as mystical perfection, destroying all
selfishness. The Oneida community was constructed to
achieve that end. Men were not allowed to become
attached either to property or to persons; they could
continue to cohabit, for example, only if they were
not seriously in love to a degree which made them
possessive. The Stoic ideal, once more, re-emerges: to
care for God and for humanity at large, but never to
be strongly attached to any particular person or thing.
Men should, in other words, seek to achieve a godlike

Secular Perfectibilism. Greek metaphysicians and
Christian theologians had agreed that if man is to be
perfected, this must be as a consequence of his rela-
tionship to the metaphysically perfect, his absolute love
for, or vision of, or union with, God or with the One.
Although, in general, philosophers of the Renaissance
accepted these Platonic principles, there was one im-
portant exception—Pietro Pomponazzi's De immor-
talitate animae
(1516). The intellect proper to man,
Pomponazzi argued, is the practical, or moral, intel-
lect, and this is the intellect men should try to perfect.
Perfect knowledge and perfect happiness are for God
alone, but all men can hope, and should attempt, to
achieve moral perfection, here and now, in their pres-
ent life. In the intensely religious atmosphere of the
sixteenth century, so modest a doctrine could not
flourish. But in 1601 Pierre Charron's De la sagesse
set out, in the same spirit, to tell men how to achieve
a perfection which was peculiarly moral, not based on
metaphysical or religious presuppositions.

Augustine, and Calvin after him, had been prepared
to admit that, from a merely external point of view,
actions performed out of such theologically deplorable


motives as pride and self-love were sometimes indis-
tinguishable from actions performed out of a pure love
of God. In his Essais de morale (1671-78, III, Second
traité, Ch. X), Pierre Nicole put this same point even
more forcibly. A society based entirely on self-love
might be externally identical, he argued, with a society
based entirely on the love of God, however differently
they would be judged by God.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries men
began to ask whether, if this were so, self-love and
pride could be as morally corrupt as Christian moralists
had made them out to be. No doubt, there was a bad
sort of self-love, a selfish form of pride, but a self-love
and a pride on which a humanly ideal society could
be constructed were not, on the face of it, to be con-
demned out of hand. So, whereas Pascal had firmly
laid it down (Pensées [1670], 617) that “God alone is
to be loved, self alone to be hated,” Bishop Butler,
a half century later, was prepared to maintain that
“self-love in its due degree is as just and morally good,
as any affection whatever” (Sermons [1726], Preface,
§34). Thus it was that, in spite of resistance from
faithful Augustinians, it gradually came to be assumed
that the question whether men are perfectible is iden-
tical with the question whether they can reach a con-
dition in which, from whatever motive, they always
do the morally right thing.

In classical perfectibilist theories, man is perfected
in a sudden breakthrough, a conversion of the soul,
even if only after a long period of spiritual preparation.
The Stoic Sage, as hostile critics remarked with scorn,
might go to bed on Sunday night wholly imperfect and
wake up perfect on Monday morning; no less suddenly
might a Christian mystic discover God at work in his
soul, or the soul of a Platonist be turned towards the
Form of the Good. But in the eighteenth century the
idea of an absolute, sudden, perfection is gradually
replaced by the idea of a gradual, endless perfecting.
To assert the perfectibility of man is now to maintain,
as Robert Owen put it in his Book of the New Moral
(1836, p. iv), that man is capable of “endless
progressive improvement, physical, intellectual, and
moral, and of happiness, without the possibility of
retrogression or of assignable limit.” The only question
was whether, and how, that “endless progressive im-
provement” could be brought about.

Perfection by Education. Pelagius thought that man
could perfect himself by the exercise of his own free
will; Augustine that only God could perfect him. But
the Enlightenment assumption is that men can be
perfected by other human beings, or by forms of social
action. The most obvious candidate for such a role as
perfecting agent, from Plato on, had been education.
But education, Plato had presumed, could bring only
a few men to perfection. What was novel and startling
was the suggestion that all men, given the appropriate
methods, could be educated to any desired level.

John Locke, in his Some Thoughts Concerning Edu-
(1693), entirely rejected the Augustinian concept
of original sin. Men, he admits, are born with an indi-
vidual temperament, and sometimes with a tempera-
ment which inclines them to evil. But from the moral
point of view, all the same, they are “white paper,
or wax, to be moulded and fashioned as one pleases”
(§216). Mystics had often suggested that men had first
to be purged—reduced to the state of a sheet of white
paper—before God could moralize them. Locke main-
tains that children are born in that condition, and ready
therefore to be moralized by education.

As for the manner of moralizing them, it consists
in establishing moral habits in the child, by getting
him to see that to act badly will bring him shame and
to act well will advance his reputation. Men are to
be moralized, that is, by developing in them those
motives to action which Pascal had regarded with
particular horror (Pensées, 142)—the desire to avoid
public reprobation and to win public esteem.

In his Observations on Man (1749), David Hartley
supplied a theoretical underpinning for Locke's habit-
forming education by developing an associationist psy-
chology and made more explicit its perfectibilist con-
sequences. Hartley set out to show that by appropriate
methods of environmental control—“adjusting their
associations”—all men, except a very few who suffer
from physiological defects, can be elevated to a condi-
tion of moral perfection. In essentials, the Hartley type
of perfectibilism has been continued into the twentieth
century in J. B. Watson's Behaviorism (1924) and in
B. F. Skinner's Utopia in the guise of a novel, Walden
(1948). Men, it is presumed, are completely mal-
leable. Subjected to the appropriate forms of control,
therefore, they can be perfected to an unlimited

Perfectibility by Government Action. There is an
obvious difficulty in the view that men can be perfected
by education. In Christian theology, the only perfect-
ing agent is God, and God is by definition perfect. But
the educator is not himself a perfect being; his own
education has been imperfect. Furthermore, whereas
God is presumed to be omnipotent, the educator has
only a limited degree of control over the child's envi-
ronment. Both Locke's Some Thoughts Concerning
and Rousseau's Émile (1762) describe a situ-
ation in which a solitary child is educated by a carefully
selected private tutor, in an artificially purified envi-
ronment. But obviously, if these conditions can be
fulfilled at all, it will only be in a very few cases. If
education is to be generally effective, many environ-


mental perfectibilists have therefore argued, society
must first be reformed through-and-through.

So, although in his De l'esprit (1758) Helvétius
emphasizes the perfecting power of “education,” he—
like James Mill after him—uses that word very broadly
to include any form of deliberate, or even accidental,
social influence. In particular, he emphasizes the
educative value of legislation. Good laws, he says, will
destroy enthusiasm and superstition; it is by laws, too,
that men are to be made virtuous—laws which will
be designed to ensure that it is in their own interest
to pursue the general interest. A problem still remains.
Legislators are no more likely than anyone else to
prefer the general interest to their own interest.
Helvétius put his faith, however, in benevolent despots,
of the type of Frederick and Catherine the Great. If
only as a result of the laws of chance, he was convinced,
such despots are bound to turn up at intervals.

In England, Jeremy Bentham systematized Hel-
vétius' theory of legislation. But Bentham also drew
attention to the limits of legislation, especially in his
Essay on the Influence of Time and Place in Matters
of Legislation
(Works [1843], Vol. I). Legislation can-
not, he thought, wholly destroy man's “mischievous
passions.” By its very nature, too, it employs penal-
ties—a form of pain, and therefore of evil—as its in-
strument. So it cannot of itself destroy all evils.

As J. S. Mill has pointed out in his Autobiography
(1873), these reservations served only to confirm
Bentham's disciples in their belief that he was a man
of exceptional moderation, no fanatic. Bentham's ex-
pressed conviction that legislation could lead men into
a Promised Land was far more influential than the
limitations on legislation to which he also drew atten-
tion. For all their disagreement with Bentham on cru-
cial points about the desirable range of legislation, the
degree to which it should be used to regulate economic
processes, the Fabian socialists can properly be re-
garded as Bentham's heirs.

Anarchist Perfectibilists. From the standpoint of
anarchism, the belief that State action of any kind can
ever perfect men is the mistake of mistakes. State
action, on the anarchist view, rests by its very nature
on force and fraud; State power inevitably corrupts
those who use it and wrings from those against whom
it is directed nothing more than a servile submissive-
ness, as remote as can be from true morality. Man,
the anarchists agree with Rousseau but in a more radi-
cal sense than Rousseau intended, is born free, but the
State puts him in chains; he is born good but degener-
ates at the hands of society. Only by striking off his
chains can man emerge as a fully moral being.

The most philosophical of anarchist writings is
William Godwin's Enquiry Concerning Political Justice
(1793); the youthful Shelley is Godwin's best known
and most devoted disciple. Godwin was a full-blown
perfectibilist. Men must, he says, gradually destroy the
institutions which corrupt them—government, private
property, marriage. This done, men will gradually
develop to a point at which they become godlike—not
only fearless, truthful, honest, intellectually advanced,
but even, Godwin dares to predict, immortal. The old
ambition to become godlike recurs, that is, but now
in a secularized, naturalistic form. Stoicism, too, found
in Godwin a new exponent. One of his best-known
novels, generally referred to as Caleb Williams, has
as its main title Things as They Are (1794). It is by
“seeing things as they are,” seeing through the pomp
and ceremony and superstition which surround Church
and State, property and marriage, that men, according
to Godwin, are to achieve moral perfection.

A peculiarity of Godwin's anarchism—in contrast
with such later anarchists as Prince Kropotkin—is his
extreme hostility to every form of cooperation. All
forms of cooperation, he argues, are in some degree
evil (Political Justice, Book VIII, Ch. VIII). Even or-
chestras and theatrical performances are forbidden in
Godwin's ideal community, because they involve the
musician's submitting himself to the judgment of a
conductor, the actor to what other men have written.

The great proponent of perfection by association was
Charles Fourier. He was certainly no anarchist, but
is scarcely assimilable to any major political tendency,
for all that he is often described as a “utopian socialist.”
In a series of works beginning with his Théorie des
quatres mouvements et des destinées générales
Fourier suggested a new form of social organiza-
tion—the phalanx—designed to satisfy man's nature
as it actually is, diversely passionate, as distinct from
that uniform “true nature” moralists and theologians
and metaphysicians try to impose upon him. For once,
that is, a perfectibilist does not try to turn human
beings either into gods or into mere instruments in the
hands of God, the State, or the educator.

The most influential of anarchists, P.-J. Proudhon
was, like Godwin, extremely suspicious of every form
of “association.” A just and free society, he argues, will
be entirely based on free contracts, which should apply
to every form of human relationships, not only to
commerce. Only thus, not by the exercise of State
power, and certainly not by setting up Fourier-type
associations, can man advance towards that “age of
universal fraternity” Proudhon sketches in his De la
(1858). Proudhon, it should be observed, was
vehemently opposed to the ideal of a static perfection
of the metaphysical type, as was Godwin before him.
Constant change, movement from one contract to an-
other, is for Proudhon the very essence of society, in


opposition to the Platonic worship of stability, of a
form of social organization in which every man has
a place and sticks to it.

Godwin rejected revolution; Proudhon thought it
possible, at least, that a contractual society might be
brought about without revolution, if only the bour-
geoisie could be brought to see that it is in their own
interests. Michael Bakunin, in contrast, is more like
the anarchist of fiction. Society must on his view be
utterly and violently destroyed; a more perfect society
can arise only out of the ashes of the old. He subscribes,
that is, to the myth of the fresh start: if only man was
given a fresh start, he would not go wrong as he did
before. Or if he does, then he must once more destroy
everything and start afresh. For man's nature is good;
if he is now corrupt, that is only because his social
organizations corrupt him.

Genetic Perfectibilism. Plato, in his Republic, advo-
cates State control over marriages, in order to ensure
that the right kinds of children are bred; he suggests,
indeed, that his ideal State might finally break down
just because mistakes are made in breeding. But mod-
ern eugenics dates from Francis Galton's Hereditary
(1869). Galton advocates the formation of a
superior race of men by controlled breeding, prohibit-
ing certain matches (negative eugenics) and encourag-
ing others (positive eugenics). In the mid-twentieth
century the emphasis has turned, rather, towards
modifying the genes themselves. In “Man's Place in
the Living Universe” (1956), H. J. Muller has suggested
that “by working in functional alliance with our genes,
we may attain to modes of thought and living that
today would seem inconceivably god-like” (Roslansky
[1966], p. 127n.). But other biologists, like P. B.
Medawar in The Future of Man (1960) have argued
that the attempt to limit genetic diversity would de-
stroy man, a conclusion which, so he explicitly draws
the moral, sets a limit to any “theoretical fancies we
may care to indulge in about the perfectibility of men”
(p. 53).

Perfection by Scientific Progress. It is one thing to
say that man can, in principle, be perfected by social
action; it is quite another thing to say that he will ever
in fact be so perfected. The idea of progress is an
attempt to bridge this gap; the course of history, it
is supposed, is such as to guarantee that man will
eventually be perfected. This is either because God
is on the side of perfection, and has a plan for man
which will not be satisfied until man is perfected, or
because there are natural laws inherent in history itself
which are bound to issue in man's perfection. The two
views may, of course, be combined: God, it may be
suggested, is the true agent behind history, but he
prefers to work through regularly-operating, empiri
cally-discernible, social laws—not in “mysterious ways”
but in ways which are patent once men have learnt to
read history aright.

The belief that progress is inevitable got under way
in the seventeenth century, developed rapidly in the
eighteenth century, and assumed its most characteristic
and most influential forms in the nineteenth century.
It was at first linked with the conviction that in the
seventeenth century there had been a breakthrough in
man's intellectual history, a breakthrough which would
guarantee man's scientific progress in the future, and,
with that progress, his moral and political perfection.

The title Descartes first proposed for his Discours
de la méthode
(1637) was le projet d'une science uni-
verselle qui puisse élever notre nature à son plus haut
degré de perfection
(“the plan of a universal science
which can raise our nature to its highest degree of
perfection”). He was convinced, that is, that his “new
method” would lift human nature to the highest possi-
ble degree of perfection. Bacon and Leibniz were no
less confident that they had discovered a new and
immensely fruitful method. Newton's scientific tri-
umphs seemed to demonstrate that this was no idle
dream, that man had in fact embarked, with the dis-
covery of the mathematico-empirical method, on a
limitless path of scientific discovery.

Progress in science is one thing, progress towards
total perfection quite another. In the first place, the
Newtonian method was not, on the face of it, directly
applicable to the solution of man's moral and political
problems. But the Enlightenment had no qualms on
that point. The subtitle of David Hume's Treatise of
Human Nature
(1739) describes it as “an attempt to
introduce the experimental method of reasoning into
moral subjects.” Indeed, it was a poor-spirited moral
and social theorist, from Hume through to Bentham,
who did not set out to be the Newton of the social
sciences. Social theorists admitted, no doubt, that the
methods which had to be applied to the solution of
moral and social problems were not precisely New-
tonian. But since the calculus of probability, as devel-
oped by Laplace and de Moivre, had proved to be
applicable to the decisions of gamblers, it seemed
reasonable to conclude that it was also applicable to
moral and political decisions, as Leibniz and Hartley
and Condorcet all maintained.

Even if mathematico-empirical science could solve
all men's problems, however, its solutions still had to
be generally communicated, before they could be
effective. That is one reason why so many eighteenth-
century philosophers interested themselves in the idea
of a perfect language. Leibniz had suggested that the
invention of such a language would break down the
only important barrier to the spread of Christianity


throughout the world; Condorcet applied Leibniz'
argument to the diffusion of scientific knowledge.

A presumption still remains. Granted that it is possi-
ble by mathematical means to determine what it is
best for men to do, and that it is possible, also, to
express the conclusions thus derived in a language so
clear that all men can understand them, they may still
prefer to do something else, preferring the satisfaction
of their own desires to the perfecting of mankind.
Enlightenment perfectibilists, with few exceptions, do
not take this possibility seriously. For they subscribe
to the Socratic principle—which Godwin works out
in detail—that if men go wrong, this is only out of
ignorance. Once reason determines what it is best for
men to do, the passions cannot but accede, and direct
men's actions correspondingly. Progress in knowledge,
that is, is automatically progress in virtue, provided
only that such knowledge can be made available to
all mankind. Ignorance and vested interests are the
great enemies. In the end, however, vested interests
are bound to be destroyed by science; the darkness of
obscurantism will be dispelled by the light of science,
however vigorously a reactionary Church and a reac-
tionary State may try to keep men in ignorance.

Perfection by Necessary Laws. Not all Enlighten-
ment philosophers, however, were prepared wholly to
rely on the automatic growth of science to guarantee
men's final perfection. There was always the risk, after
all, that science might be destroyed by a new wave
of barbarism. They sought to supplement their confi-
dence in science with arguments derived from other
sources, sometimes theological, sometimes historical.

Joseph Priestley, the most convinced of perfectibi-
lists, is a case in point. Himself a distinguished scientist,
he saw in the history of science the clearest demon-
stration that progress, now that the correct method had
been discovered, could be continuous to an unlimited
degree. He drew attention to such historical changes—
for the better, he was sure—as the rise of commerce
and the American Revolution, in order to support his
claim that human society is steadily advancing towards
perfection. But in the long run, it is his confidence in
a benevolent, providential God which sustains his
perfectibilist hopes. God has promised men that a time
will come when they shall beat their swords into
ploughshares. His infinite benevolence, too, can be
satisfied with nothing less than the secular perfection
of all men. Education, political revolution, the growth
of science, the spread of commerce, are, in Priestley's
eyes, the mechanisms through which God makes his
purposes effective.

In the twelfth century Joachim of Floris had already
deduced from his reading of Scripture that secular
society would eventually be perfected, as part of God's
plan for men. Joachim thought he could detect three
great stages in human history, the age of the Father,
the age of the Son, the age of the Holy Ghost—the
last still to come. The first two ages had been ages
of servility; the new age would be an age of freedom,
in which men would at last be perfected. Each stage
of history, he tries to show, contains within itself the
seeds of a new age; what, to the superficial glance,
looks like decline and destruction is in fact the birth-
pangs of a new age.

Joachim's “three-stage” interpretation of history, and
particularly his view that history would culminate in
an age of freedom, anticipated the Idealist perfect-
ibilism of the late eighteenth century and early nine-
teenth century. But it was there united with a devel-
opmental metaphysics, which Leibniz had sketched in
his De rerum originatione radicali (1697). Every created
thing, he suggests, must eventually realize the poten-
tialities it contains, and will thus perfect itself. Ultimate
perfection, that is, is metaphysically guaranteed. Kant's
Idee zu einer allgemeinen Geschichte in weltbürger-
licher Absicht
(1784) took over and developed this
metaphysics, drawing the conclusion that, in conse-
quence, man is bound eventually to live in a perfect
State in which, alone, his potentialities can be fully
realized. Kant's emphasis, it should be observed, is on
the perfection of mankind as a whole in a perfect State,
not on the perfection of individuals. Man's duty here
and now is to sacrifice himself to the construction of
such a State—to act as if it is realizable. But progress
towards a perfect State does not depend, simply, on
human aspirations. Man has, according to Kant, a
“radical evil” in his nature which makes it impossible
for him to act purely out of a sense of duty. His vices,
however, are themselves essential to progress; out of
his vices, his pride and ambition and competitiveness,
the State emerges. To that extent private vices are
(historically speaking) public benefits. In the end, how-
ever, to mold into shape the perfect State, there will
be need of a perfect legislator; Kant is more confident,
for this kind of reason, that it is man's duty to act as
the State will finally be perfected than that it will
ever in fact be perfected.

Kant was almost certainly provoked into writing his
Allgemeine Geschichte by the appearance of the first
volume of J. G. Herder's Ideen zur Philosophie der
Geschichte der Menschheit
(1784-91), which he re-
viewed with some asperity. Herder, who had been one
of Kant's pupils, replies to his criticisms in the later
volume of Ideen. Herder has no enthusiasm whatever
for the State, nor is he prepared to accept the view
that everything must be sacrificed to the perfection
of the generations to come. What is to be perfected,
according to Herder, is not the State but “humanity,”


understood as including every potentiality for good of
which men are capable. More immediately, however,
men should strive for, and can hope to achieve, that
kind and degree of perfection characteristic of their
times. Every period of human history, according to
Herder, has its peculiar potentialities and, in the end,
humanity will benefit from their realization. It is ridic-
ulous, for example, to condemn Shakespeare because
his tragedies are imperfect when judged by the stand-
ards of eighteenth-century classically minded critics;
he achieved perfections which the eighteenth century
could not achieve, by working within the limits of his
times. Thus Herder hoped to solve a problem which
had beset Enlightenment perfectibilists. Judging the
past by eighteenth-century standards they pronounced
it a record of crime and folly. But this way of looking
at the past left them, on the face of it, with little reason
for believing that such dreadful times would not come
again. For Herder, in contrast, every past age, even
when it is greatly inferior from certain points of view
to its predecessor, still had something new to contribute
to the history of humanity as a whole, to its ultimate
perfecting. If Roman culture is inferior to Greek cul-
ture, it at the same time brought to perfection aspects
of humanity which the Greeks could not, in their
historic situation, perfect—as did the Middle Ages, in
relation to Rome.

Herder's Ideen, in seeking to understand the devel-
opment of human society, placed considerable empha-
sis on geographical and even on anatomical factors—
the separation of societies by mountains, man's upright
posture. To such Idealists as Fichte this was an unfor-
givable concession to materialism. The history of soci-
ety, as Fichte sketches it, is the history of the Spirit
in its progress towards a condition of perfect love,
perfect freedom, complete human unity. Material fac-
tors are irrelevant; it is the nature of the human spirit
which determines what it must become. The old ideal
of “union with the One” reasserts itself, but “the One”
is now a form of human society, wholly unified, which
is at the same time identical with Spirit in its most
perfect form.

Hegel took over from Fichte that interpretation of
history which sees it as moving through spiritual stages,
logically related one to another. But the task of philos-
ophy, on his view, is to understand the past, not to
predict the future. It is enough for Hegel that the State
has realized its potentialities in Prussia, and the intel-
lect in his own philosophy. That this is not the end
of history, he freely admits, but what form Spirit will
take next it is impossible to tell. There is no way of
determining, for example, what will replace philosophy
now that it is perfected. (Some of Hegel's successors
were to argue that it would be replaced by the history
of philosophy; others, like Marx, that political economy
would take its place.)

Hegel's left-wing successors, with Marx the most
influential of them, seek to reject whatever is theolog-
ical in Hegel's thinking. In an important sense, it is
their object to reinstate the humanistic ideals of the
Enlightenment, while preserving Hegel's view that
history necessarily moves in a particular direction. So
they convert Hegelianism into a theory about the
development of civilization, under the influence of
social, especially economic, forces. They reject, too,
the view that human society has perfected itself in the
Prussian State, or could perfect itself in any State. The
human spirit cannot come to perfection, on their view,
while it is still restrained by laws imposed on it by
the State; it is still not free. Marx remained enough
of an Hegelian not to want to draw up a detailed
blueprint for the future; it was enough for him that
social development must issue in a communist society,
a Joachimite kingdom of perfect freedom, in which
men would work out of joy, not out of compulsion.
Less cautious Marxists, like Trotsky in his Literatura
i revoliutsiia
(1923), did not hesitate, in contrast, to
predict the emergence of a form of society in which
all men will achieve, as a bare minimum, the intellec-
tual and moral level of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a

Evolutionary Perfectibilism. Engels welcomed
Darwin's Origin of Species (1859) because it helped,
he thought, to destroy theology. But the doctrine of
natural selection, of itself, does nothing to encourage
the view that man can, or will, be perfected. Should
his environment alter, man might simply die out. Nev-
ertheless, William Wallace, the co-discoverer of natural
selection, indulged in a glowing vision of a perfected
future, in which men would come into possession of
powers they can as yet only dimly foresee. Herbert
Spencer, an evolutionist before Darwin, converted
“natural selection” into “the survival of the fittest” and
applied it to man's life in society. Man, he argued, has
not yet adapted himself to the social condition, which,
unlike his pre-social environment, requires him to
sacrifice his own interests to the common welfare.
Inevitably, as a result of the ordinary processes of
evolution, he will in the end do so; evolution must issue,
so he thought when he wrote his First Principles (1862),
in “the establishment of the greatest perfection and
the most complete happiness” (Ch. XVI). He was
enabled the more readily to come to this conclusion
because, unlike Darwin, he continued to believe in the
inheritance of acquired characteristics.

In later life, under the influence of the doctrine that
“the universe is running down,” Spencer was to modify
his optimism. The passage quoted above, significantly


enough, disappears from later editions of First Princi-
In, for example, the revised edition of Social
(1892), he is content to conclude that the evils
to which men are subject must gradually be diminished,
not that they will ever disappear. More metaphysically
minded “emergent” evolutionists like Henri Bergson
had no such second thoughts. The universe, Bergson
went so far as to argue in his Les Deux Sources de
la morale et de la religion
(1932), is a machine for
making gods. Men must help in the task, however, by
turning back from the life they now live, which is
leading to an evolutionary dead end, towards a simpler
life from which they can fan out once more in a new
godlike direction. So the old ascetic-mystical ideal
reasserts itself within an evolutionary framework.

Although T. H. Huxley vigorously opposed the view
that evolution by itself would necessarily perfect
man—man, he argued, in his lecture on “Evolution and
Ethics” (1893) can progress only by struggling against
the amoral tendencies of evolution—the more optimis-
tic interpretation continues to have its supporters.
T. H. Huxley's grandson, Julian Huxley, suggests in his
Evolution in Action (1953) that man has at his disposal
a new evolutionary force, education. His future
progress is no longer determined by natural selection;
with the help of education man can deliberately impose
on the Universe the best and most enduring of his moral
standards. Indeed, he will finally, Huxley agrees with
Wallace before him, develop powers he does not now
commonly—unless he be an Eastern mystic—possess.
Evolution thus drives man towards becoming what is,
by present standards, a superman, a being infinitely
more perfect than man as we have so far known him.

Eugen Dühring, under the conjoint influence of
Darwin and Marx, had already suggested in his Der
Werth des Lebens
(1865) that it is man's destiny to
become a superman. The idea of a superman is more
commonly associated with the name of Nietzsche. But
while Nietzsche was prepared to say that the Universe
“calls for” the Superman, he was not prepared to con-
clude that, if thus called, he would necessarily come.
Indeed, in Der Wille zur Macht (1901) Nietzsche ex-
plicitly rejects the view that the “Superman” is bound
to come into being as a result of the inevitable proces-
ses of evolution. If the Superman emerges, it will be
because men, through their suffering and striving, have
brought him into being. The belief in inevitable
progress, Nietzsche suggests, is simply the old doctrine
of Providence disguised in scientific clothes.

Hegel presented his philosophy of development,
certainly, as if it were “the truth of theology,” and
the nineteenth century witnessed innumerable attempts
to bring religion and science together in a grand
evolutionary system. The fundamental mistake of tra
ditional Christianity, Ernest Renan argues in his
L'Avenir de la science (written 1848; published 1890)
lay in its drawing too absolute a distinction between
the sacred and the profane, the natural and the super-
natural. As a consequence, Christianity identified per-
fection with a narrowly conceived ideal of supernatural
perfection. For Renan, in contrast, perfection is the
realization of all men's powers in an aesthetically
unified whole. Man will achieve such perfection,
Renan argues, only when he becomes part of a God
whom he helps by his own efforts to bring into being.
“Union with God,” then, consists in becoming part of
a divine being whose nature incorporates man's own
strivings towards perfection.

At a more popular level, Henry Drummond in The
Ascent of Man
(1894) sought to demonstrate that
God—the Christian God, in Drummond's case—
worked through evolution to perfect man. In the twen-
tieth century Teilhard de Chardin developed an elab-
orate Christian-evolutionary metaphysics—summed
up in Le Phénomène humain (1955)—according to
which man is able to perfect himself by cooperating
with the natural world in its progress towards a perfect,
coherent, love-infused society. But even that is not the
final end. Man, according to Teilhard, will eventually
be gathered up into the body of Christ; only in direct
union with God will he attain his final perfection.
Christian-mystical and evolutionary perfectibilism are
thus amalgamated by Teilhard in a single system.

Perfectibilism Today. No variety of perfectibilism
is yet quite dead, as the popularity of Teilhard's con-
glomerate sufficiently illustrates. Mysticism flourishes
in a variety of forms, traditional and contemporary.
There are still those who believe that social forces are
at work in history which are bound, ultimately, to bring
man to perfection, and still those who put their faith
in education, or genetics, or social change, or psycho-
logical adjustment, or the fulfilment of prophecies. But
that absolute confidence that man is on the way to
perfection which permeates Winwood Reade's The
Martyrdom of Man
(1872) or H. G. Wells' The Outline
of History
(1919) is now but rarely paralleled. Men
have come to fear, indeed, precisely those social
tendencies which the Enlightenment greeted with such

This is the principal theme of such “dystopias”—the
very word is new—as E. I. Zamiatin's My (English
translation We)—written in 1920 in the Soviet Union
but first published abroad in 1924, Aldous Huxley's
Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell's 1984
(1949). They depict a society in which technical per-
fection has been carried to its highest pitch, mathe-
matics has been universally applied to the conduct of
human life, an ideal language has made it impossible


any longer for men to talk nonsense—nonsense as
defined by the governing powers; happiness lies ready
at hand, in the form of drugs; the rulers are an intellec-
tual elite. And the effect is not the flowering, but the
death, of freedom and justice. Skinner's Walden II will
serve to remind us that the malleability of man is not
in all quarters contemplated with despair rather than
hope, but in 1984 it is the arch-villain who affirms the
malleability of man as his fundamental creed.

The explanation of this change of tone is in large
part socio-historical, rather than theoretical. The
nearer men approach to a technologically perfect soci-
ety, the less easy it is for them to believe that such
a society promises men freedom and justice. The his-
tory of the Soviet Union has done much to destroy
the naive belief that a despotism can be benevolent,
or that once gained, power will ever be willingly
surrendered. Even more devastatingly, the rise of
Nazism in Germany has demonstrated that a country
famous for its poets, its philosophers, its composers,
its sicentists, can yet degenerate into unprecedented
depths of brutality and irresponsibility. Fichte and
Winwood Reade looked forward gladly to a time when
all men would think and feel alike, for they were
convinced that what they would all think would be
the truth and what they would all feel would be the
noblest of sentiments; unanimity, nowadays, is some-
thing we have come to dread. The classical ideals of
stability, order, uniformity were precisely the ideals
invoked in Nazi Germany.

In general, the pessimistic view of human nature and
human potentialities to which Augustine gave expres-
sion has in the twentieth century been revived not
only by theologians but by Freudian psychologists and
by comparative biologists. That man has, at least, a
“radical evil” in his nature which society can in part
control but can never hope wholly to destroy—and
perhaps even, could not destroy without destroying
civilization in the process—is now widely maintained.
As for confidence in the future, the gloomiest of pre-
dictions about the inevitability of nuclear warfare,
overpopulation, pollution, are today as commonplace
as, forty years ago, was the hopefulness of Wells' Out-
line of History.

On the other hand, however, a curious variety of
perfectibilist mysticism, often psychoanalytically
tinged, has attracted some forceful adherents. One finds
it, for example, in Erich Fromm's Beyond the Chains
of Illusion
(1962) or, very differently, in Norman
Brown's Life against Death (1959), and in many philo-
sophically oriented novels. Man is to perfect himself,
to be once more united with “his own nature” and
with nature at large, in perfect freedom.

More modestly, it can still be argued that man is
perfectible, if all this means is that there is nothing
in his nature to prevent him from becoming, with the
help of others, a better person than he now is. That
is the faith in which teachers, and parents, work. How-
ever often disappointed, it is a faith they cannot afford
to abandon. It can survive the destruction of the belief
that man is bound someday to live like a god in a
perfect world.


Almost any book on the history of political, social, meta-
physical, or religious ideas contains relevant material. This
bibliography contains only a small selection of the secondary
material, concentrating, for the most part, on recent work
which contains further bibliographies. For the theme as a
whole see John Passmore, The Perfectibility of Man (London,
1970; New York, 1971). On the general concept of perfec-
tion see M. Foss, The Idea of Perfection in the Western
(Princeton, 1964).

On the Greeks: A. H. Armstrong, ed., The Cambridge
History of Later Greek and Early Mediaeval Philosophy

(Cambridge, 1967); F. M. Cornford, Plato and Parmenides
(London, 1939; reprint 1950); E. R. Dodds, The Greeks and
the Irrational
(Berkeley, 1951); idem, Pagan and Christian
in an Age of Anxiety
(Cambridge, 1965); W. K. C. Guthrie,
A History of Greek Philosophy, 3 vols. (Cambridge,
1962-70); G. S. Kirk and J. E. Raven, The Presocratic Philos-
(Cambridge, 1957).

On Christianity and perfection, useful general works
include: R. N. Flew, The Idea of Perfection in Christian
(Oxford, 1934; reprint 1968); R. Garrigou-
Lagrange, Perfection chrétienne et contemplation selon saint
Thomas d'Aquin et saint Jean de la Croix
1923); James Hastings, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion and
Vol. 9 (Edinburgh, 1917): articles on “Original Sin,”
“Pelagianism,” “Perfection”; K. E. Kirk, The Vision of God,
2nd ed. (London, 1932; reprint New York, 1966); R. A. Knox,
Enthusiasm (Oxford, 1950; corr. reprint 1951); B. B.
Warfield, Perfectionism, 2 vols. (London, 1931-32).

On more specialized topics, see for example: N. Cohn,
The Pursuit of the Millennium (London, 1957); Hannah
Whitall Smith, Religious Fanaticism, ed. R. Strachey
(London, 1928); N. P. Williams, The Ideas of the Fall and
of Original Sin
(London, 1927); Robert McL. Wilson, The
Gnostic Problem
(London, 1958); H. A. Wolfson, Philo:
Foundations of Religious Philosophy in Judaism, Christianity
and Islam,
2 vols. (Cambridge, Mass., 1947; 1962); R. C.
Zaehner, Mysticism, Sacred and Profane (Oxford, 1957).

On non-Christian perfectibilism see: E. Conze, ed.,
Buddhist Scriptures (Harmondsworth, 1959); M. Smith, ed.,
Readings from the Mystics of Islam (London, 1950); R. C.
Zaehner, ed., Hindu Scriptures (London, 1966).

For Enlightenment perfectibilism see: J. B. Bury, The Idea
of Progress
(London, 1924; later reprints); Ernst Cassirer,
Die Philosophie der Aufklärung (Tübingen, 1932), trans. as
The Philosophy of the Enlightenment (Princeton, 1951);
R. S. Crane, The Idea of the Humanities, 2 vols. (Chicago


1967); Peter Gay, The Enlightenment (New York, 1966);
idem, The Party of Humanity (Princeton, 1959; London,
1964); Arthur O. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being
(Cambridge, Mass., 1936); idem, Reflections on Human
(Baltimore, 1961); J. A. Passmore, “The Malleability
of Man in Eighteenth-Century Thought,” Aspects of the
Eighteenth Century,
ed. Earl R. Wasserman (Baltimore,
1965); B. R. Pollin, Education and Enlightenment in the
Works of William Godwin
(New York, 1962); Joseph
Priestley, Priestley's Writings on Philosophy, Science and
ed. J. A. Passmore (New York, 1965).

Post-Enlightenment perfectibilism: Ernst Benz, Schöp-
fungsglaube und Endzeiterwartung
(Munich, 1965), trans. as
Evolution and Christian Hope (New York, 1966); C. P.
Blacker, Eugenics: Galton and After (London, 1952); A.
Bose, A History of Anarchism (Calcutta, 1967); D. G.
Charlton, Secular Religions in France, 1815-1870 (London,
1963); Theodore Denno, The Communist Millennium (The
Hague, 1964); Élie Halévy, La Formation du radicalisme
3 vols. (Paris, 1901-04), trans. as The Growth
of Philosophic Radicalism,
new ed. corr. (London, 1952);
Julian Huxley, Man in the Modern World (London, 1947);
James Joll, The Anarchists (London, 1964); F. E. Manuel,
The Prophets of Paris (Cambridge, Mass., 1962); idem,
Shapes of Philosophical History (Stanford, 1965); J. D.
Roslansky, ed., Genetics and the Future of Man, Nobel
Conference Discussion, 1965 (Amsterdam, 1966).

For twentieth-century antiperfectibilist writings, see:
T. S. Molnar, Utopia: The Perennial Heresy (New York, 1967);
Chad Walsh, From Utopia to Nightmare (London, 1962).


[See also Anarchism; Buddhism; Death and Immortality;
Education; Enlightenment; Evolutionism; Gnosticism; God;
Happiness; Platonism; Progress; Sin; Stoicism; Utopia.]