Is the Perfect the Enemy of the Good?

The French philosopher Voltaire famously quipped “Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien” which means “the perfect is the enemy of the good.”

It would seem that the great American author John Steinbeck agrees. He wrote: “And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.” Confucius is attributed with something similar: “Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.” And Shakespeare wrote in King Lear: “Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well.” George Orwell more recently wrote: “The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection.”

Be Perfect As Your Heavenly Father is Perfect

The greatest human being to ever live is a Divine Person named Jesus called Christ. He said, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Mt. 5:48).” So, is the perfect the enemy of the good? Or is perfection the goal?

Interestingly, this passage follows directly after the Christian call to love one’s enemies. All cultures say that we must love our neighbor, even as ourself. The Golden Rule is shared by most every culture. However, the call to love even your enemy is impossible. That is, it is impossible without the Divine, who is perfect.

Can, then, the call to perfection be reconciled with the seemingly ubiquitous notion that the perfect is the enemy of the good? Absolutely! The key is in the view of perfection which Jesus gives us.

Christ does not ask us to be perfect on our own accord. He asks us to be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect. It is precisely by participation with the Divine that we can hope to be perfect. And apart from Him we have no hope. Rooted in the humility of knowing that we are not God, we can begin to grow in self-knowledge. This self-knowledge then leads to personal improvement, if we cooperate with grace.

Let me put it this way.

You and I are not perfect. If you have any sense of self, you know this is true. In your mind, using your power of abstraction, try to hold in your mind not something that is good or better, but the absolute best. This sheer perfection, the best, is God for whatever quality we are speaking of. This is too simplistic because God is personal, but this might help you contextualize.

So, if God is the absolute best in the virtue in which you are trying to improve, then He is also the goal. And not only that, if He is the Creator and sustainer of all things, then He is the One who moves an act to its completion. To be perfect is to be with He who is perfect, every step of the way. This means that the important thing is not our perfection at any moment, but our striving. By aiming correctly at the goal, and cooperating with the perfect good, then we are on the right track. I would argue that this means more to people, innately, than even achieving a goal. We are more compelled by a hero suffering willingly to overcome an obstacle than we are to even see the hero win.

What is Meant By “The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good”?

The enemy of the Good is not the perfect. For the Perfect One is the Good itself.

What is the enemy of the good is perfectionism.

Perfectionism is a form of pelagianism, an ancient heresy in which one is to pull themselves up by their spiritual bootstraps and will to be better. Simply by trying harder, the perfectionist believes that they can attain perfection.

Certainly, the perfect ideal must always be taken into account, because it gives us our goal, our terminus, our design. If we do not measure up to this perfection, then we have a few courses of action. We can discern that the path that we are pursuing is not the right one. We can continue to “try, try again.” We can despair. We can resolutely continue to strive. With all the many courses of action, how can we know what to do?

We can be sure that we are on the right course only if we are sure of what we are aiming at. In the absence of a target, an arrow flying through the air would only be a hazard. If we are certain that our target is worthwhile, then despair is not an option and quitting is not an option. If the target is worthwhile, then continued striving is the proper course.

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