We read in Matthew 5:48 (and only there) our Lord’s words about “perfection”: “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” But is this a call to aspire to (let alone to attain) the actual perfection of God? Surely not.The parallel passage in Luke is, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful,” and St. Jerome, who knew a thing or two about Scripture, insisted that “perfectio vera in coelestibus”: true perfection is only to be found in heaven.
I’d add: beware of anybody seeking perfection here on earth.
Here’s the problem with perfectionism writ small: I once went to pick up my older son when he was in kindergarten in Manhattan. (He’s now 25 and just promoted to captain in the U.S. Army.) I was informed by a student teacher at P.S. 87 that there’d been a fight in his class and Bobby was involved.
“Who started it?” I asked, my younger son on my shoulders, drumming a tune on my skull.
The young woman frowned.
“I don’t see how that matters,” she said.
I smiled, wishing I had more charity.
“But of course it matters,” I said.
“Why?” she barked. “So we can lay blame?”
“That’s part of it, innocence being different from guilt, just as there’s a difference between attack and defense. Or do you want the kids to be little Gandhis?”
Of course she did.
“Don’t you?” she asked.
“No. I want my sons to be a little Galahads.”
Now Galahad has the reputation of being a practically perfect person, thus calamity follows him everywhere. Certainly his and his fellows’ passion to find the Holy Grail, which Galahad finally did find, was hell for poor King Arthur.
“Alas!” Thomas Bulfinch has the king lament after Sir Gawain has the whole Round Table fired up to find the Grail, “you have nigh slain me with the vow and promise that ye have made, for ye have bereft me of the fairest fellowship that ever was seen together in any realm of the world . . .”
Arthur slumps into his throne, as a hermit appears in the hall, a young man in tow. It’s Galahad, son of Lancelot, grandson of Pelles (the Fisher King) and – as is Arthur himself – a descendant of Joseph of Arimathea. The lad settles into the Siege Perilous, proof to the other knights that this is a pure-hearted man worthy of the sacred cup, for to sit in this siége – French for “seat” – was death to one not worthy of the holy relic. One adventure follows the next: fair maidens and devil horses; bloody battles and, yes, sinful couplings for all – except Galahad, who is all holy business. Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may die. Certes, as they would have said: Depend on it.
The Golden Tree and the Achievement of the Grail (Edwin Austin Abbey, c. 1900)
But this is a fairytale, right? Bulfinch! There was no Grail, no such knights, no such quest! In their time, this race of brutish men cared more for gluttony and rapine than for honor or faith.
Of Galahad, Tennyson wrote that his “tough lance thrusteth sure;” that his prowess was “as the strength of ten.” Why? His heart was “pure.” And that may be the true fancy at the center of the romance: not that the combustible energies of chivalrous men may seek to do good, but that they succeed only through purity.
The truth is: to be a good man – to be God’s man – doesn’t require perfection.
Indeed, a chivalrous man acknowledges his fallen nature. He cannot believe in his own or others’ perfectibility. It’s from the canard of essential human goodness that much of the cad’s insincerity finds its justification. A man can hardly aspire to godliness if he’s convinced that his every thought and action flow from a wellspring of natural righteousness.
Once perfectionism led to totalitarianism; these days it leads to egalitarianism; each perfectionist, Babel-like, following his or her own perfect path.
But however much a chivalrous man may wish for and work for principles of legal, political, or social equity, he must be free of egalitarian illusions. We have come to the point, blessedly, where the tradition of chivalrous decorum has broken free of its sometimes belligerent connection to birth or economic status and has become more democratic – in that a man’s “station” neither guarantees nor prohibits him from being chivalrous – while at the same time the “gentlemanly class” remains steadfastly elitist, because it embraces high standards; high but not beyond grasping.
Is it depressing to say that a few, from the many, should be good but not too good? I think not and wonder how often good men have failed to be better because they’ve despaired about their imperfection.
As often, I suppose, as bad men who’ve sought perfection have achieved evil.
Galahad would have known this. Chivalry isn’t the calling of saints. It’s the characteristic of “manly” men whom the contemporary chattering classes – especially “gender feminists” – abhor, which is silly, since their very liberty depends upon such men.
In his magisterial book, Alien Powers: The Pure Theory of Ideology, Kenneth Minogue summarizes the ideological elite’s point of view:
The great discovery of ideology has been that modern European civilization, beneath its cleverly contrived appearances, is the most systematically oppressive despotism the world has ever known. All history, indeed, is a record of oppression, but it is only in modern time that oppression has begun to hide itself behind a façade of freedom.
Thus the ideologist believes that traditions such as chivalry exemplify the mystifications of oppression.
In fact, perfectionism is the handmaiden of ideology, and I say the hell with it.