In an earlier post, I discuss Montaigne’s idea that morality is essentially comparative in nature. There is no perfect, only better. Our moral law demands that we be better than we are — not because as it happens we fail to meet the standard, but because “better than we are” is the standard. If we were ever to reach the state which we now imagine to be perfection (though we can hardly pretend that we even imagine it clearly or distinctly; it’s an inherently unclear concept), we would invent new, higher standards for ourselves and set to work pursuing those.
But doesn’t “higher” mean “closer to the top” — to perfection? Can one moral law be considered “higher” than another in the absence of any transcendent standard of perfection by which to judge them?
Yes, it can — in much the same way that one integer can be judged higher than another without any clear concept of numerical infinity (to which neither integer can really be considered “closer” anyway). Things are judged “higher” in altitude not because they are closer to some hypothetical heaven of heavens, but because they are farther from the ground — so many meters above sea level. Things are judged “older” because they began farther from the present, not closer to the beginning of time. The same goes for morality and everything else. No standard of perfection is really necessary; once you have the concepts of zero and one, everything else falls into place.
(This is Locke’s theory of degrees of perfection, which contradicts Aquinas’s. Locke was right, and Aquinas was wrong. See my discussion of Aquinas’s “fourth way” here.)
For all scalar attributes — those which admit of degrees — comparison is primary. The idea of good is derived from the idea of better, not vice versa.
When I was a teenager I used to tinker with artificial languages of my own construction — a “secret vice” which I picked up from Tolkien and which was reinforced by my involvement with the Esperanto movement. I remember one such language in which all adjectives were derived from verbs, and most of those verbs were transitive. Thus, there was no word for “tall,” only for “be-taller-than.” The nearest equivalent in this language to the sentence John is tall would be literally translated as “John is noticeably taller than the average man” (not as wordy as it sounds, because this language had monosyllabic prefixes meaning “to a noticeable degree” and “the average”). That language had the right idea, and it’s a pity that Aquinas never spoke it.
Also relevant is Spinoza’s definition of joy as “a man’s passage from a lesser to a greater perfection” — not the static eudaimonia of Aristotle, but a dynamic betterdaimonia. (I don’t have the Greek to coin a less barbarous term, and anyway no one would have understood it if I had.)
The Mormons define heaven as “eternal progression” — a paradox, because if you continue progressing forever, it means you can never reach your goal. “Ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.” It sounds like a definition of futility, not happiness. But maybe that’s the wrong way to look at it. Maybe goal is a completely wrongheaded idea when applied to life itself. What life needs in order to be meaningful is not so much a goal as a direction — and you can have a direction to run in without needing to have a finish line.
That’s not really satisfying, though. The paradox still rankles. A quest with no possible end still seems futile and meaningless by definition. But a quest with as end is equally problematic: once you reach the finish line — then what?