In his 1957 book on the 1814/15 Congress of Vienna, A World Restored, Henry Kissinger wrote of how the early 19th-century Russian Tsar was a problem for his fellow Europeans.
That congress had, among other goals, a sorting out of Europe in the aftermath of the French Revolutionary wars, Napoleon’s defeat, and a potpourri of other events. To manage matters such as borders and rights, along with the parallel search for harmony, was no small task. Most countries sent their foreign ministers to the Congress; the exception was Russia, whose minister was overshadowed by the presence of Tsar Alexander I, and who possessed a mind that Kissinger described as one which took an “increasingly mystical turn” during the conference.
This was a problem, as mystics are not often given to compromise: “The statesmen must strive to reduce the prophet’s vision to precise measures,” wrote Kissinger, “while the prophet will judge the temporal structure by transcendental standards.”
The reality of European power politics provided continual disappointment for the Tsar who wanted European political elites to act according to ethical and Christian principles instead of national interest, an impossible end.
Kissinger points out Alexander aimed at an “unattainable perfection,” a state not given to mere mortals. It’s an accusation we might consider today in light of events that provoke perfectionist hopes, sometimes even legitimate ones, and then disappointment when such precision is beyond our reach.
Take any cause and ask whether its most fervent supporters are reasonable. If the answer is “no,” they may have the mindset of the mystic—fine for poets, saints in a monastery and those who can create their own reality on a canvas—not so fine for people in families, neighbourhoods and nations where a peaceful existence requires an acceptance of others’ needs and desires, and thus limits on one’s own.
The Gulf oil spill is a good reminder of how imperfection reigns. British Petroleum has just been given an object lesson in the impossibility of putting things swiftly aright when the humpty dumpty of an offshore oil rig is broken. It’s a risk to drill a well 5,000 feet down in the middle of the ocean, a risk that turned out badly.
Such limits on our ability to create a perfect world apply not only to technology but also to those who think we can live without oil, gas or coal. Sure, in a perfect world, but not in the present one. The brick wall of present reality is that all the windmills and other renewable energy cannot yet heat homes in Saskatoon, South Dakota and St. Petersburg and everywhere else in the northern half of the planet when the outside thermometer hits -40.
Consider a more obvious perfectionist and mystical mindset—fundamentalist Muslims of the sort who think a new world can be created through destruction of the old. That approach, terrorism, is an oft-used “remedy” from revolutionaries who would rather raze whatever exists than compromise in the face of opposition. To say that is problematic for the rest of us is an understatement.
Or consider the attempt by governments to re-stimulate economies by jacking up public spending and debt. New debt is a way to delay choices, to try and push reality onto future citizens in the pursuit of the myth of present harmonious perfection, i.e., to try and stop Greek civil servants from rioting over otherwise deeper cuts in perks and pay.
Even the determined eventually face their own immoveable realities and precisely because the world is not built just for one. It might be the reality of credit drying up. It might be an entire generation of Iranians who have lived under the reality of an Islamic theocracy and for which they (and many of their formerly revolutionary parents) now have fierce antagonism. It might be the reality that Canada’s remote oil sands are preferable to the risk, and now the reality, of poisoning the entire Gulf Coast.
It would be a mistake to think all desirable ideals are unattainable. Slavery was mostly wiped out by fierce, fanatical, and quite proper opposition. The modern environmental movement has had some useful successes because people of passion thought change was possible.
But causes devoted to literally ripping chains off slaves and incremental steps that clean up rivers are different in kind from unattainable ideals—a pureness of political motive (Alexander I), a worldwide Caliphate (the bin Ladens of the world), or a world where tough choices don’t apply (we can live in northern climates without harming the environment).
Revolutionary perfectionism was desirable to help end the slave trade. But on most matters most days, anything other than a reasoned, measured approach will mistakenly seek what Kissinger described as the root of Tsar Alexander’s frustration: the pursuit of “immediate perfection.”