This year, we begin by casting a retrospective eye across the history of human civilisation. We argue that it is the drive for human perfection that animates and motivates the most successful societies. (These societies go on to radically reshape the world and wield cultural soft power alongside hard power that stems from, well, the sustaining of STEM through the organic influx of global talent attracted to such societies.)
Yet the opposing philosophy has always trended alongside the historical quest for human perfection: many throughout history have valorised the merits of slowing down, returning to a more primordial state, or simply accepting imperfections and satisficing at the threshold of what is acceptable, rather than what is ideal.
We believe it is worth discussing the merits of the quest for human perfection. After all, it is this quest – subconscious or otherwise – that underlies so much of what we try to accomplish for our students and clients.
It is also worth stating what the quest for perfection entails – and what it does not.
Perfection is not a singular state of ultimate knowledge that can be achieved at a stroke; human technological progress and rapid changes to the economic superstructure means that what we conceive of as perfect is always moving ahead beyond the horizon.
Rather, the quest for human perfection is a drive to keep moving forward, to adapt to new technology and scientific knowledge, and to become a more-perfect human being. It is an endless task. To continuously improve one’s brain and learn more about the world and about one’s self. To improve one’s environment and surroundings. To dream.
Perfection as an Asian Value
The Chinese have always dreamt of human perfection. Confucianism, for example, can be viewed through the lens of an attempt to systematically define clear rules and ethics for the perfection of the self and of society.
Of far more interest is the imperial examination system in ancient China which was a beacon of meritocracy in a world that was, at the time, ruled by hereditary elites. The term “scholar-gentry” remains unique in all of human history and is a testament to the ingenuity and progressiveness of Chinese society during the golden era of the Tang dynasty. At base, we might interpret this as a vision of human perfection: a perfect society governed by those who had pushed themselves beyond their normal intellectual capabilities, who in turn represented and reified in the flesh the quest for human perfection as a legitimate aim and teleological goal of human development.
True meritocracy is hard to sustain; by the Ming dynasty, the system had begun to break down.
Yet the genetic and biological effects of that golden age persist. The imperial examination system could be said to provide genetic selection pressure that privileged those who held human perfection in the highest esteem over those who did not; in turn, the sustained effects of such selection pressures over more than a millennium arguably continue to manifest themselves in anecdotally high levels of intelligence and a robust working memory, including the capacity to recall facts.
Indeed, the very nature of the Chinese writing system itself arguably exerted selective pressure for raw intelligence. Only those with the capacity to memorise hundreds of thousands of separate non-phonetic logograms and their abstracted meanings (logograms which were in themselves governed by abstract internal relationships and narratives) could be said to even be fundamentally literate. In short, the intrinsic nature of Chinese writing itself arguably was designed to select for (or at least create and sustain an external human and cultural environment favouring) human beings who would push themselves to develop a variety of cognitive skills beyond what might be considered normal or natural.
Perfection as a Search for the Divine
In Western societies, a parallel development took place – the conception of man as a reflection of the divine led to the constant search to improve humankind and society and therefore partake of that divinity. In the UK, self-improvement was a quintessentially Victorian virtue and led to the development of industry and the subsequent colonisation of half the world. The quest to understand the world and improve the fundamental living conditions of humanity through labour-substituting innovation created modern science, the steam engine and capitalism.
The brain is the most fundamental site of the quest for human perfection. The brain represents our basic capacity to understand the world, to enjoy its experiences, to develop one’s identity and to improve one’s surroundings and environment.
It has been argued that language structures the brain. The famous philosopher Wittgenstein argued that “the limits of my language are the limits of my world.” We understand what we can think; beyond that, we are rendered speechless. Everything is literally and figuratively unintelligible to us. Complex language skills enable complex thought, which in turn allows us to cope with and flourish in a complex world. English, the international language of business, science, and technology, is constantly borrowing words from other languages and creating neologisms; this reflects its continuing and undying ability to literally redefine itself at the intersection of globalisation and technological development.
Intelligence has never been at a greater premium, especially for the next generation of human beings.
The quest for perfection is not singular or joyless. It can be filled with passion, as the energetic yet mathematically and geometrically flawless paintings of Jackson Pollock are. It can fill us with wonder, as one still feels wonder at Bach’s perfectly balanced cantata several centuries after its composition. It is diverse, as multifaceted as a bookshelf or a gallery full of perfect works of art. The one thing that it never is: settling and apologising for something mediocre.
This year, we hope to fill our students with an appreciation for the unlimited human potential that they can achieve. To inspire them to continue to strive for human perfection in everything they do. After all, perfection is not a destination but a journey to a future that could be – transcendental.