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The Possible Dream (Part 1)

A rational, this-worldly concept of perfection in metaphysics, epistemology, ethics and politics.

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When philosopher Harry Binswanger launched the Objectivist Forum in 1980, Ayn Rand expressed her approval of the project in a short article she wrote for the first issue. She also agreed to serve as the bimonthly journal’s philosophical consultant. Here is his recollection of her involvement with “The Possible Dream”:

My agreement with Ayn Rand concerning The Objectivist Forum was that before publishing an issue, I would give her advance copies of anything I was writing for that issue. That made sense because I was the editor-publisher of the journal to which she was giving her mailing list and her personal endorsement. This arrangement continued until her death — i.e., for the first two years of TOF.

I wrote “The Possible Dream” while living for the summer of 1980 in Los Angeles. Ayn Rand, of course, was back in New York City, so, in accordance with our agreement, I mailed her my draft of “The Possible Dream” and then talked to her about it over the phone. She explained to me, very gently, why what I had drafted wouldn’t do. She thought it would have to be rewritten from scratch. Some of it she thought was off, philosophically, and some of it she thought was getting too much into issues outside philosophy (for instance, I had a section on the need for personal growth).

I found a different article for that issue and put “The Possible Dream” project on hold. When I returned to the article a few months later, I had come to understand her perspective on the subject of perfection. That made it pretty easy for me to write more solid prose in addition to getting the logic right.

The main work was to create a new outline. Once I had that, I was able to rewrite the draft to be something that pleased both of us.

And that’s the story of where that article came from. I didn’t at all know at the time that “The Possible Dream” would become the most popular article in the eight-year history of the Forum.

The editors of New Ideal are pleased to republish “The Possible Dream” here in full, with Dr. Binswanger’s kind permission and his minor edits. The article will appear in two parts, as it did originally in the Forum’s February and April 1981 issues. Note: Parts of this excellent essay assume an awareness of Objectivism and especially Atlas Shrugged.


Raphael’s painting “The School of Athens” portrays the great thinkers of Ancient Greece. Appropriately, the central figures dominating the scene are Plato and Aristotle. They are shown walking toward the viewer, engaged in earnest discussion. Raphael was able to convey the essential difference between these philosophic titans by means of the gestures they make: Plato crooks a finger toward the heavens, but Aristotle’s hand is stretched out, palm down, as if to bless the earth.

Whether or not Raphael understood it consciously, that is the root of the opposition between the two men and between the two world-views they represent: the mysticism of some “higher” dimension versus the commitment to life on this earth.

Since Copernicus and Galileo, it has become clear that Plato’s upthrust finger points only at the cold emptiness of outer space. Now that men have walked on the moon and laid bare the structure of the atom, mysticism has lost its credibility in the physical realm. But mysticism still haunts the realm of values. That realm has been fenced off as a special epistemological preserve which reason may not enter. Mysticism has distorted the very concepts used to make value-judgments. Many people who reject the metaphysics of the supernatural are yet victimized by the residual mysticism that infects their evaluative concepts. One concept particularly in need of philosophical disinfection is “perfection.”

We hear from all sides that perfection is an “impossible dream,” an ideal which always exceeds our grasp, and by doing so lures us on to ever greater achievements. In sanctimonious terms, Bertrand Russell pleads, “Let us admit that . . . the ideals to which we do and must adhere are not realized in the realm of matter. Let us preserve our respect for truth, for beauty, for the ideal of perfection which life does not permit us to attain.’’ 1 Religionists and atheists, liberals and conservatives, whim-worshippers and duty-worshippers — they all agree that “Nothing is perfect in this world.”

It is all perfect nonsense.

And it is dangerous nonsense. The idea that perfection is unattainable amounts to an assault on all values, on values as such. “Perfection,” as the mystics use that term, makes self-esteem impossible.

What is “perfection” supposed to mean? The Random House College Dictionary gives as one of its definitions of “perfect”: “excellent or complete beyond practical or theoretical improvement.”2 This definition represents pure mysticism: if only the unimprovable is perfect, then perfection would require omniscience — i.e., the beatific state of already knowing everything about everything, with no further improvements left to be discovered. What earthly purpose could justify using such an other-worldly standard of perfection?

The mystical version of perfection means that improvement retroactively debases that which was improved. This idea takes progress, which is actually the path from achievement to achievement, and converts it into a treadmill on which man moves from flaw to flaw, in a hopeless quest for the perfection that lies at infinity.

The dictionary is not to blame. It has reported accurately the legacy of mysticism that has become embedded in the term’s usage. Mysticism is so engrained in the concept that for many people the actual meaning of “perfect” is: supernaturally good. “Transcendence” is listed as a synonym for “perfection” in a standard thesaurus.3 On this view, to be is to be imperfect.

The philosopher who is primarily responsible for the mystical version of “perfection” is Plato. The essence of Plato’s philosophy is the positing of another, non-perceivable reality, a realm of static perfection, the world of ‘‘Forms.’’

“Platonic Forms are conceived as timeless and non-spatial objects, immutable entities set over against the changing world of sensible [i.e., sensorily perceivable] things. . . . Each [Form] is a perfect original, of which sensible things are imperfect copies.”4

Plato insisted that the perfection of an ideal, a Form, has nothing at all to do with the possibility of its attainment in this world. In the Republic, Plato asks us to imagine a painting of “the ideally beautiful man.” The perfection of his beauty, Plato holds, would not be diminished even if one were “not able to prove that it is actually possible for such a man to exist.”5 But if the painting depicts something that is contradictory to man’s nature, how can it be a representation of an ideal man? What is non-human human beauty?

Plato downgraded this world, but did not strip it of all value. That step awaited the advent of Christianity. In Christian doctrine, perfection was conceived as that which pertained to a higher reality of infinite goodness; man and this world were condemned as intrinsically evil. Accordingly, to say any man or human phenomenon can be perfect is to blaspheme God.

Historian W. T. Jones observes, “The orthodox determination to exalt God led inevitably to the conclusion that man is worthless, for to allow any value or significance to humanity was to derogate by just that amount from the majesty, perfection, and supreme value of God.”6

The practical result? “Since the perfection of the Deity gave the Christian an absolutely exalted ideal to aim at, the Christian always felt a sense of failure: No matter how good he was, he was not as good as he ought to be.”7

This is a correct description of the doctrine’s effect, but it is radically understated. To see the full effect on man’s self-estimate of Christianity’s impossible standards, one should consult the kind of pronouncements that came from the Church when it held absolute power and was free to bare its soul. Here, for instance, is a brief excerpt from On the Contempt of This World, written in the year 1198 A.D. by Pope Innocent III:

Man has been conceived in the desire of the flesh, in the heat of sensual lust, in the foul stench of wantonness. . . . he is destined to become the fuel of the everlasting, eternally painfull hellfire; the food of voracious, consuming worms. . . . reflecting upon the heavenly bodies he will become aware of his utter baseness. . . . Why are you proud, O mud? Wherefore art thou exalted? What are you, O ash, that you should boast?8

That naked hatred for man is the spiritual ancestor and undiluted version of today’s hayseed homily, “Nobody’s perfect in this world.”

After this sort of history, one may well question the basic validity of the term “perfection.” But the mystical-supernatural associations are not inextricably tied to the term (as they are to “saint,” for example). Is there any rational need for such a concept? Yes, provided one recognizes that “perfection” is a normative, not a metaphysical, concept.

Metaphysically, a thing is neither perfect nor imperfect — it simply is whatever it is. Apart from the goals, purposes, and values of a living being, there is no basis to rank things as “better” or “worse,” much less as “perfect” or “imperfect.” “Perfection” assumes an answer to the questions “Perfect—for what? By what standard?”

The actual meaning of “perfection” is: flawlessly complete satisfaction of a standard of value.

In its rational meaning, the concept of perfection denotes not the unimprovable but the best possible in a given context. If one has achieved a goal to the fullest extent possible in a given context, then the achievement is perfect, in the rational sense of that term. Subsequent improvements based on a wider range of knowledge or higher level of ability will not invalidate that achievement or subtract from its value: it remains perfect by the standards of the earlier context. Just as new knowledge cannot invalidate old knowledge, new achievements do not invalidate the old. Just as, in epistemology, certainty is contextual, so in the realm of values, perfection is contextual. Man can judge and act only within the context of the knowledge that is available to him. No standard can demand the impossible of reality or of man.

Further, one may distinguish between one’s personal standards of perfection and the standards defining the best possible to man as such. This is not subjectivism: one’s standard of perfectly achieving a given goal must be consistent with the facts of one’s own particular abilities, interests, knowledge, and hierarchy of values. For instance, the standard of perfect writing for a student in a fourth-grade English class is obviously not the same as that for a professional author. The contextual nature of such standards does not make perfection any the less objective or praiseworthy.

The one area in which the same standard of perfection applies to all men is morality.

In regard to moral values, the “imperfect” is not that which falls slightly short of the ideal, but that which betrays it altogether by instituting an immoral premise. It would be grossly misleading, for instance, to describe a man who tells the truth most of the time, but lies occasionally, as “imperfectly honest.” Such a man is simply dishonest.

In this sense, “moral perfection” is a redundancy. Moral principles do not admit of compromise. Either what is right is one’s supreme guide, or it is not. There is no such thing as an “almost supreme” principle — this phrase merely indicates that some other factor is supreme, and the principle enters, if at all, only as a secondary, dispensable consideration.

The term “perfection” as applied to morality serves the same purpose as the term “laissez-faire” when applied to capitalism. There is no other version of capitalism; if it is not laissez-faire capitalism, it is not capitalism. Likewise, if a choice is not morally perfect, it is not moral. But both terms are valuable for precisely their stress on the need for consistency. “Laissez-faire capitalism” means: the principle of capitalism (individual rights) carried through without exception to every political issue. “Moral perfection” means the principle of morality (the commitment to reason) carried through without exception to every choice one confronts. Since the need for this type of consistency is not self-evident, since it is only implicit in the nature of morality, the idea of’ “moral perfection” is profoundly valuable.

The concept of ‘‘perfection’’ is based on the need for precision and consistency in a value context. Eliminating this concept would act as an invitation for every form of the approximate, the uncompleted, the sloppy, and the subjective. This would be dangerous in any culture, but in an age like ours, when the educational system actively encourages sloppiness of thought and expression, when Pragmatist trial-and-error groping is considered “scientific” but adherence to principles is called “dogmatic,” when people do not pursue excellence but are “into” things (“I’m into acting”), the concept must not be abandoned to the mystics.

Rational perfection is determined by reference to a rational standard of value. The mystical idea of an unattainable perfection means that fantasy supplies the standard by which facts are to be held accountable. It means that the arbitrary contents of consciousness are that to which reality should (but stubbornly does not) yield. The philosophical term for this inversion is the primacy of consciousness.9

But “the primacy of consciousness” is almost too dignified a term here. To capture the perverse silliness of the use of impossible standards, imagine a man who designs an airplane, finds that it cannot get off the ground, and responds by blaming gravity for being too strong. In an ideal world, he muses, his airplane would fly — but the actual world is imperfect.

There is no difference in basic principle between such a man and those who hold equally impossible standards regarding man’s mind — such as the idea that to be perfect, one would have to be able to solve any problem immediately, never make an error of knowledge, never experience an out-of-context emotion, never feel fear or doubt, and always know just what to do in every situation. In all these cases, one is demanding the impossible of man. The fault lies not in man, but in the demand.

It would be a grave error to conclude from this that one has to settle for a second-best goal or lower one’s standards. That attitude represents a failure fully to reject the wrong standard — i.e., fully to accept reality. It means that one still regards the impossible as desirable, though not practical. The truth is that the impossible is, if anything, beneath the possible. It is not just that one should not “dream the impossible dream”: if it is truly impossible, it is not a dream but a nightmare.

The truly good is not a scaled-down, budget version of the fantasy good. One does not reach the truth by starting with fantasy, then making adjustments as a concession to “realism.” A rational man starts from reality — from what exists (actually and potentially) — and never casts a longing glance at the unreal.

(Read the conclusion here)

This article originally appeared in the Objectivist Forum, a bimonthly journal of ideas edited and published by Harry Binswanger, between February and April 1981. Copyright © 1981 by TOF Publications, Inc.; republished by permission.

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Footnotes

  1. “A Free Man’s Worship,” in “Why I am Not a Christian,” and Other Essays, ed. by Paul Edwards (George Allen & Unwin: 1957), p. 109.
  2. The Random House College Dictionary, revised edition (Random House: 1980).
  3. The New Roget’s Thesaurus, ed. by Norman Lewis (Garden City Books: 1961).
  4. David Gallop, “Notes” in his translation of Plato’s Phaedo (Oxford University Press: 1974), p. 94.
  5. Republic, Book V, 472D, trans. by Paul Shorey in The Collected Dialogues of Plato, ed. by E. Hamilton and H. Cairns (Pantheon: 1961).
  6. A History of Western Philosophy, Vol. II (Harcourt, Brace & World: 1969), second edition, p. 67.
  7. Ibid., p. 70.
  8. Two Views of Man, ed. by Bernard Murchland (Ungar: 1966), pp. 4–5.
  9. Ayn Rand, “The Metaphysical Versus the Man-Made,” The Ayn Rand Letter, Vol. 2, No. 12.
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Harry Binswanger

Harry Binswanger, PhD in philosophy and formerly an associate of Ayn Rand, is the author of How We Know: Epistemology on an Objectivist Foundation. He is a member of the board of directors of the Ayn Rand Institute.

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