Friday, July 6, 2007

The Perfect Human

Has anyone reading this blog ever read the book Sophie's World, by Jostein Gaarder? If not, it's not too late to pick the book up and read along with me. I'm only on page 88. It would make great discussion material, as long as you're not extremely educated in philosophy, because if you were, you might find discussion with a novice very boring. It would be like me - who majored in math in college - trying to discuss basic arithmetic with someone. Although, to me all math is interesting, even basic addition, so I wouldn't have a problem with it.

I've just come to some paragraphs about Plato's world of ideas. I'm sure I could get more information on it by reading a more detailed book, but that would defeat the purpose of reading an introductory level book. I have never had a course in philosophy, so please forgive my ignorance. Anyway, back to the world of ideas. The author uses a great metaphor for this - cookie molds! The cookie mold is perfect, the cookie is not. There is one cookie mold, but possibly hundreds of imperfect cookies made with the mold. The mold would exist in the world of ideas, since it is perfect. This subject had me thinking about what a perfect human would be like. We can not imagine it here in the world of the senses, but can come close. Sure, there would be two arms and two legs, a head, lungs, eyes, ears, mouth, etc., but what personality traits do you think should belong to the perfect human? What behavior traits? What does your reason tell you about a perfect human?

There are no right or wrong answers. I'm just trying to get your thoughts on what a perfect human might be like.

21 comments:

Chris said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sophia said...

Very well put! Which rule do you think is the most commonly broken?

Leighton Cooke said...

My philosopher friends tell me that Plato is part of the problem, not the solution. I have this idea that the "cookie mold" is the dynamic creative process that produces emergent properties.

Chris said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Zareba said...

Hi Sophia: The perfect human being is the part of us that crosses through the mist, then back again to continue to learn and grow.Considered in this light, we are all perfect and we are all flawed.

...Z

Vincent said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Vincent said...

Hi Sophie, I would be delighted to discuss bits of the book with you as I do have it on my shelves. However I tend to have critical views about these old philosophers, including Plato.

As for Plato's idea of perfection, I feel it has infected Christianity and the whole of Western thought so profoundly that our need is not to understand his ideas but to free ourselves from their distorting influence.

The cookie mold is a great metaphor but let us not assume there is any metaphysical reality corresponding to it: i.e. perfection in an ideal realm which we are trying to rejoin in this "imperfect world".

Yes, we can imagine it. But that is all. So my answer to your question would be as follows.

I don't want to imagine a perfect human being. I want to help mankind to rid itself from this idea, in order to embrace the reality of creation as it is. Real, not ideal. To love not because someone or something is perfect, but because I am part of this creation, not separate.

I don't want to imagine the personality traits of "the perfect human". We have been blighted with such stuff already. For then we would judge everyone according to how closely they approached this ideal. Think how grim this would be. All but a tiny elite would be no-hopers.


Reflecting further, I see that this kind of judging is deeply embedded into our civilisation - to its detriment. Both of my headmasters were like this. They wanted every pupil to emulate their ideal, and betrayed obvious favouritism on those who were closest to it.

rudi said...

Vincent said...

"As for Plato's idea of perfection, I feel it has infected Christianity and the whole of Western thought ... I don't want to imagine a perfect human being."

Plato merely pointed out that behind every phenomenon there is an idea, a concept: e.g. there are many different cats, but what they have in common is their 'cat-ness'; there are many different ways to build a house, but they have one thing in common, namely their 'house-ness'. In no way does this imply that one cat is more perfect than another, or that all houses should look the same. Plato simply observed that it was useful to point out the commonality in things that exist in more than one form, i.e. the 'unity in diversity'.

"... our need is not to understand his ideas but to free ourselves from their distorting influence"

I fail to see how we can know that Plato's ideas had a distorting influence unless we understand them in the first place. How did you come to such a conclusion without understanding them? Maybe the distortions you see in the world have a different cause altogether; or they have come from a distortion of Plato's ideas; or, of course, Plato's ideas have really been destructive, just as you say. Be this as it may, recommending to dismiss someone's ideas without understanding them strikes me as odd.

"I want to help mankind to rid itself from this idea, in order to embrace the reality of creation as it is. Real, not ideal. To love not because someone or something is perfect, but because I am part of this creation, not separate".

Why do you want to get rid of the idea that all human beings have something in common, their 'human-ness' (or 'humanity')? If anything, acknowledging and accepting this unity behind the diversity of all human beings should have a unifying effect and foster love, not vice versa. In Christian teaching this translates as 'love you neighbour as yourself', and even 'love your enemy'.

"I don't want to imagine the personality traits of "the perfect human". We have been blighted with such stuff already".

Plato's idea of 'human-ness' has nothing to do with personality or character traits - on the contrary: it is that which makes every human human IRRESPECTIVE of his / her personality or character. 'Human-ness' is that which even Adolf Hitler and Mother Teresa have in common.

"For then we would judge everyone according to how closely they approached this ideal. Think how grim this would be. All but a tiny elite would be no-hopers".

No, on the contrary. Then every human being would be accepted IRRESPECTIVE of their personality / character traits. All human beings would perfectly match this ideal, by virtue of being human. Unconditional love would be the norm.

"Reflecting further, I see that this kind of judging is deeply embedded into our civilisation - to its detriment. Both of my headmasters were like this. They wanted every pupil to emulate their ideal, and betrayed obvious favouritism on those who were closest to it."

If this is what your headmasters did in the name of Plato, they can't have understood the first thing about him. Maybe they subscribed to your own philosophy that there was "no need to understand his ideas" :-) - with the difference that they accepted his ideas without understanding them (and distorted them in the process), and you dismiss them without understanding them (perhaps because you only know them in the distorted form presented to you as a child).

Vincent said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Vincent said...

Rudi thanks so much for taking the much trouble to challenge my remarks. I won't necessarily duel with you on every point you make, preferring to explain in more detail the points I made in the first place.

When I say that our need is not to understand his ideas, I mean that they have been dominant in European civilisation for a pretty long time. So even if we have not read any Plato we are exposed to him, in Christianity and our culture. It may be that he has been understood over all these centuries, but I don't think anything can be improved now by studying his original texts. It is his influence that I question, not his intentions.

I give my headmasters as an example because they were amongst the most educated class of Englishmen. If they got Plato wrong, when they could read him in the Greek, what hope can I have?

To understand that all human beings have their humanness in common, I do not need to read Plato.

Sophia asked a question: what are our individual ideas of the perfect human being? She was inspired to ask this after reading about Plato's ideas in Sophie's World. So it does seem as if Plato makes people think that the aim of human life is to reach parity with a perfect model stored in a different realm.

Sophia said...

Hi Leighton,

I do not know much about the theory of emergence, so perhaps I am not following along very well in reading your comment. But what type of properties do you think have emerged because of the cookie mold idea?

Sophia said...

Hi Chris,

I think one of the attributes of a near-perfect human, at least, is someone who can learn from mistakes!

Chris said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
rudi said...

Vincent said...

"When I say that our need is not to understand his ideas, I mean that they have been dominant in European civilisation for a pretty long time. So even if we have not read any Plato we are exposed to him, in Christianity and our culture".

But if his ideas have been misunderstood (as you concede they may have been), then we haven't been exposed to his ideas, but somebody's interpretation of his ideas - big difference. Are you really arguing that whenever somebody's ideas have been misunderstood, we should not only "free ourselves from any resulting distorting influences" (obviously a good thing), but also always from the underlying philosophy (before it was distorted), regardless of its true merits?

I can't think of a single great thinker whose ideas have not been distorted, thoroughly misunderstood and misapplied at some point in history. If this was reason enough to get rid of them, there wouldn't be any philosophy left.

"It may be that he has been [mis]understood over all these centuries, but I don't think anything can be improved now by studying his original texts".

If he has been misunderstood, then taking a fresh look at his ideas may lead to a correct understanding - not only is this, by definition, an 'improvement' in itself, but this may actually be a more effective way to free ourselves from the negative consequences of distorted Platonism than ignoring Plato altogether.

"I give my headmasters as an example because they were amongst the most educated class of Englishmen. If they got Plato wrong, when they could read him in the Greek, what hope can I have?"

Every hope. Firstly, because if you can see distortions they have been unable to see, you are already one step ahead of them. Secondly, Socrates / Plato often said that anybody with common sense ("even an uneducated slave", i.e. the least educated class in ancient Greece) could understand their ideas, whereas the educated classes often over-complicated and, in the process, distorted them.

"To understand that all human beings have their humanness in common, I do not need to read Plato".

This was obviously only Plato's opening argument. He then went on to inquire into the true nature of 'human-ness', and showed how such insights could bring inner freedom and happiness. A mere abstract or conceptual understanding of 'human-ness' obviously won't do this.

"Sophia asked a question: what are our individual ideas of the perfect human being? She was inspired to ask this after reading about Plato's ideas in Sophie's World. So it does seem as if Plato makes people think that the aim of human life is to reach parity with a perfect model stored in a different realm".

Sure, but why hold Plato responsible for something he didn't say? The first subtle distortion happened in Sophie's World (with the unfortunate metaphor of perfect molds creating less than perfect cookies), then another one in Sophia's world :-) (her being drawn to this particular metaphor above some of the other explanations given in the book).

Getting rid of Plato without understanding him is throwing out the baby (Plato's ideas) with the bath water (the distortions of Plato's ideas).

Vincent said...

I'd agree that Plato's writings are key texts in the history of European ideas, to help both Europeans and non-Europeans understand a culture which has been quite dominant in the world. But I feel they should be taught critically; not with the veneration that your comments imply.

Interesting as Plato is, the obvious thing is that he is quite out of date. The problem of humanness which exercised him has been solved in a different way, though many of us remain under his spell and cannot see it.

Let me quote a minute from Sophie's World:

"Why are horses the same, Sophie? . . . There is something that all horses have in common . . . The "form" of the horse is eternal and immutable. . . Plato's point was that Democritus' atoms never fashioned themselves into an 'eledile' or a 'crocophant'."

And if Plato lived today he would never have posited a realm of perfect ideas. He would have known about DNA.

Sophia said...

Zareba, that's a very good way of explaining it. We are in two states at once! It's simultaneous perfection and imperfection. Maybe separately, we are imperfect, but together as a whole we are perfection.

Sophia said...

Hi Vincent, I do not know enough yet about the classical philosophers to be critical of them, or to really have an opinion of them either way. Perhaps over time as I have learned more about them and other philosophers, I will have thoughts developed enough to compare them to. One thing I feel certain of, is right or wrong they explored some territory that was was never quite mapped!

I do think it can be quite damaging when someone judges someone else based on their idea of what a perfect human should be, but I think if we have our own idea of our perfect selves, we can have something to strive for... a goal of sorts, in order to improve ourselves. If I didn't have an idea of what a perfect Sophia could be like, I wouldn't be going about trying to become a better person. I can accept my flaws, like the extra weight I've put on, or the scars on my skin, or the freckles here and there, but do I want to accept that I am lazy, and that I sometimes procrastinate too much? My idea of a perfect Sophia says that she isn't so lazy. So, maybe the idea of perfection can at times be harmful, but is it too much to say that it can also at times be helpful?

Sophia said...

Hi Rudi,

I really like how you've gone beyond my simple idea of human perfection in terms of physical and personality traits. You've linked Plato's world of ideas with Unity, and what we have in common. Great thinking! I'm glad you've commented on this issue, or I never would have been inspired to go beyond my simple-minded ways.

Sophia said...

Vincent, I do agree that I was at first driven to think of Plato's world of ideas in very simple terms, namely that there is a perfect human with perfect physical and personality traits. I don't think this is Plato's fault, mostly mine and maybe perhaps the author's at not quite going deeply enough into the subject. I haven't read very much of the book yet, though, so it is possible he has gone on to explain it further.

Sophia said...

Hi Chris,

Maybe perfection or near-perfection is in the eye of the beholder!

Simon Peter said...

I think we are all missing one important thing. We are already the perfect, And the qualities within us are already perfect. The Eskimos can see many different shades of white, and they have many different words in their language for snow. They have become attuned to their surroundings and notice more things than a person who has never seen snow. We are already perfect but we are so perfectly accustomed to it. The paradox of perfection.