In the run-up to the 2001 general election, a leading politician announced on the Today programme that his was not an ideological party. This was an Orwellian moment for an increasingly Orwellian world. Our politicians are not the mere managers that their poverty of imagination would pretend; in many areas, as Kevin Rushby shows clearly in this ambitious book, ideologies of perfection continue to guide behaviour.
Rushby begins his journey through the myth of perfection with the ancient Greeks. He discusses what he sees as the first attempt at a utopian community, founded by Pythagoras in the 6th century BC. In a typical example of the snippets that flavour his book, Rushby notes that Pythagoras was such a brilliant mathematician that his notion of the golden mean is still used by some plastic surgeons to calculate the "best" dimensions for features; the facets of perfection may change over centuries, but the parameters do not.
From this beginning the book enters its central argument. This is that the ideals of heavenly paradise that governed the world-views of Christians, Jews and Muslims in the 2000 years between Pythagoras and the discovery of the New World were adopted by the increasingly secular ideas which shaped the modern world. In essence, the emperor has new clothes; even the secular religion of shopping is codified in the terms of perfection which originated in Judaeo-Christian ideals of paradise.
The result of so much perfection-hunting, says Rushby, is a vortex of destructiveness. Rushby enters into the world both of the religious and secular ages. This requires a vast scope. There are not many concise books that start out in ancient Greece, move through Judaism, Christianity and Islam, dally with the age of discovery and the Enlightenment, before ending up in Auschwitz and the high streets of the 21st century. It is a bold schema, and to try to cram this all readably into 230-odd pages is even bolder.
There are some notable omissions, particularly the Spanish attempts to build utopias in Mexico and Paraguay, and Freudian views on utopianism. Nevertheless, this is an exceptionally lucid, stimulating and thought-provoking book. Why, after almost 3000 years of the quest for divine paradise, and for the perfectibility of this world, do we stand on the brink of a war between civilisations and ecological meltdown?
Rushby perceptively notes the link between the ideal of perfection and the reality of violence. The perfection of the New World is accompanied by decimation of the Amerindians, that of Nazi Germany requires many others to be murdered, and Armageddon heralds the second coming. It is not, perhaps, so much perfection which is the dream, but the desire which accompanies it; and desire, as Adam and Eve showed in Eden, has always had the capacity to wrench humanity away from the most perfect of paradises.
Toby Green wrote 'Thomas More's Magician' (Phoenix)Reuse content