The core of Western political and philosophical thought since Socrates has been an attempt to answer this question through the application of reason. Socrates, Aristotle and Plato all believed that it was possible, by the use of reason, to discover what the perfect life or perfect society looked like. The idea of human and social perfection entailed a vision of harmonious values and actions, where conflict would only occur because of human fallibility. This view was also shared by Christianity. Thomas Aquinas integrated Aristotle’s view that there were fundamental, universal ethical principles common to all men, into a metaphysical vision, in which all moral and practical difficulties were soluble by reference to the will of God. Later, Enlightenment thinkers would stress the common humanity of all men and whether it would be the ethics of Kant, the utilitarianism of Bentham, the Leviathan of Hobbes, the liberalism of Mill, or the communism of Marx, all believed that given the right premises, the correct moral conclusions would inevitably follow.
There had, of course been intimations that all was not well with this view of universal human harmony. “Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?” Job had cried, pleading to God for answers as to why He had abandoned the righteous and was now favoring the wicked. Doubts about the logic of the perfect society also crept into the works of Montaigne, Machiavelli, Leibniz and Rousseau and seemed to lie at the heart of the tragedies of Sophocles, Euripides and Shakespeare. Finally, in 1953 Isaiah Berlin published a remarkable essay in which he claimed that Machiavelli’s originality lay in the fact that he had demonstrated the impossibility of even the idea of constructing a perfect society:
“For if his [Machiavelli’s] position is valid then it is impossible to construct even the notion of such a perfect society, for there exists at least two sets of virtues – let us call them the Christian and the pagan – which are not merely in practice, but in principle incompatible.”
Paraphrasing Machiavelli, Berlin says that:
“it is in fact impossible to combine Christian virtues, for example meekness or the search for spiritual salvation, with a satisfactory, stable, vigorous, strong society on earth. Consequently a man must choose. To choose to lead a Christian life is to condemn oneself to political impotence: to being used and crushed by powerful, ambitious, clever, unscrupulous men; if one wishes to build a glorious community like those of Athens or Rome at their best, then one must abandon Christian education and substitute one better suited to the purpose.”
Ignoring his obvious animosity towards Christianity, Machiavelli is arguing that there is no rational way to combine or compare the pagan, republican way of life with that of Christianity. For example, consider the drama of Sophocles and of Shakespeare. In what sense are the plays of Shakespeare better or worse than those of Sophocles? Just as it seems absurd to try to rank them on any single scale of excellence it is equally absurd to try and rank the way of life of a 16th century Florentine republican with a Christian emulating the code of behavior outlined in the Sermon on the Mount. Reason is impotent when it comes to fundamental values. The implications of this value pluralism for moral and political thought, is that the very idea of perfection is incoherent so there is no possibility of a perfect society or a perfect human life.
“Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.” Isaiah Berlin