Reviewed by Richard Tutin
There is a song that came out some years ago where the singer complains about how hard it is to be humble when they are perfect in every way. While this smacks of self-centred boasting, the desire to be perfect has been ingrained into the human psyche since the beginning of time. Perfection may be the aim but, as history shows, its achievement is often illusory.
My interest was then piqued when the title of this book by Michael Schur came into view. Had someone finally written something that would lead the reader towards achieving that which humanity has been trying to do for centuries? It was with this in mind that brought me into contact with Schur’s thesis that perhaps perfection might just be achievable.
While Schur would like to lead us on this quest for perfection, he is mindful that it needs to be grounded in some sort of basis from which to both begin and operate. He therefore takes us on a tour of philosophical wisdom starting with ancient luminaries such as Aristotle and continuing through the centuries introducing us to the thoughts of various philosophers such as Immanuel Kant, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill and Peter Singer. Intertwined in this philosophical smorgasbord, Schur addresses everyday questions such as should I punch a friend in the face for no reason or should I lie and tell my friend I like her ugly shirt. These and other questions of everyday life lie at the heart of Schur’s desire to make us think about our thoughts and actions in the light of the various philosophies that have been developed and often refined over the centuries.
Reading the works of some of the writers Schur refers to is not easy. Philosophers do not write easy to read prose. Why, for example, does one need to explain a concept in a few sixteen-word sentences when one or two seventy-five-word sentences will do? Schur tries to cut through this thick density of thought by explaining the main thoughts of the various thinkers in much more digestible language. His success with this aim allows us to grasp their concepts more easily while grappling with the questions that form the book’s chapters. The invitation is there though to pursue the works of the different writers if we so choose.
The question that kept nagging me as I moved through the book was does everything Schur offer actually lead one towards the attainment of perfection. Life is a very complicated process. While we might actually achieve a more perfect understanding of one part of our lives something then happens that reminds us that in other areas we are far from being the perfect beings we thought we were.
Schur does though encourage us to be more ethical in our approach to things. Being more ethical allows us to grow in our understanding of ourselves and other people while fostering much better ways of responding to different situations when they arise. Should his title have been more along the lines of how to be a more ethical person? While I believe it should, I also recognise that more people would be drawn into the title of how to be perfect rather than how to be more ethical. All in all, it is a good starting point for anyone who wishes to pursue ethics and philosophy.
Michael Schur is a television writer and producer who has worked on shows like The Office, Master of None, The Comeback, and Hacks. He created or co-created Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn 99, The Good Place and Rutherford Falls.
How To Be Perfect – The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question