Ancient Greek philosophers, such as Plato and Aristotle, spoke of human life as a quest for the Good. Plato understood the Good as a transcendent ideal beyond the world of perception and experience, whereas Aristotle saw the Good as a way of life amid the world of people and nature. Therefore, does the Good exist purely as perfection or does it always exist with flaws and limitations?
One day — after an exhilarating Grandpa Adventure Day of swimming, wrestling, laughing and eating with Lianna, my 5-year old granddaughter, I effervesced: “What a happy day, Li! Don’t you think you have the best grandpa in the whole world?” Li thought for a moment, looked up at me quizzically and said: “Well, I don’t know all the grandpas in the world, but you are a pretty good grandpa!” I vacillated between disappointment and amazement, then finally clarity: “Yup, Li, you are so right — and pretty good is good enough!”
“Pretty good is good enough.” It sums up the central strand of fallibilism, the philosophy that deflates certainty and perfection in favor of a more modest attitude of humility and skepticism. It acknowledges limits to human understanding and spurns absolutism. Instead it honors the mystery of the Good at the heart of the universe, and our need to strive toward it without ever quite reaching it.
As Socrates put it: “I only know that I do not know.” Awareness of our ignorance is a step toward wisdom. What makes fallibilism such a liberatory philosophy is that it frees us from the crushing burden of perfectionism, the haunting feeling that you could always have done better if only … .
Does this encourage mediocrity? The ancient Greeks strove for “excellence” (arête) in all things. The Olympics were an opportunity to achieve excellence in athletics. The drama contest winners like Aeschylus and Sophocles demonstrated excellence in drama. But excellence did not purport to be perfection because future contests always pushed it a step further. “Perfection” by definition can be no better, so it is a type of stagnation.
Also, though life has various contests and competitions, should life itself be a contest? Nietzsche thought this was the foundation of Greek culture because even the intellectuals were constantly trying to win debates. But does constant competition undermine compassion and cooperation — the very virtues necessary for a “good-enough life?”
Today infallibilism and absolutism are growing in our society. More and more people seem certain that they possess absolute truth. Hence cooperation, dialogue and compromise seem impossible. But on the other hand, if we could just recognize our fallibility, that we might not be 100 percent right, then dialogue becomes possible.
We can actually learn from people with whom we disagree. It is called Democracy.
Vincent Kavaloski, Ph.D., lived for 37 years in these Uplands in an intentional, eco-community devoted to peace and harmony with people and the land. He is currently concluding a long academic calling at Edgewood College and looking forward to being a freelance philosopher. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Mary Friedel-Hunt’s “Living Well, Dying Well” column will return next month.