Friday, June 4, 2010

"A chaos of conflicting ideals"

Michael Oakeshott, on why the pursuit of personal  perfection, although bound to fail, may be a virtue, but why that pursuit on behalf of society is folly:
The pursuit of perfection as the crow flies is an activity both impious and unavoidable in human life. It involves the penalties of impiety (the anger of the gods and social isolation), and its reward is not that of achievement but that of having made the attempt. It is an activity, therefore, suitable for individuals, but not for societies. For an individual who is impelled to engage in it, the reward may exceed both the penalty and the inevitable defeat. The penitent may hope, or even expect, to fall back, a wounded hero, into the arms of an understanding and forgiving society. And even the impenitent can be reconciled with himself in the powerful necessity of his impulse, though, like Prometheus, he must suffer for it. For a society, on the other hand, the penalty is a chaos of conflicting ideals, the disruption of a common life, and the reward is the renown which attaches to monumental folly. A mesure que l'humanité se pefecttonrte l'homme se degrade. Or, to interpret the myth in a more light-hearted fashion: human life is a gamble; but while the individual must be allowed to bet according to his inclination (on the favourite or on an outsider), society should always back the field.
Michael Oakeshott, "The tower of Babel," Rationalism in politics and other essays, Liberty Press.