“Have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it” Salvador Dali
I paint landscapes at the Fine Arts Academy. Last week I asked my master to set up a still life with apples. Back to lesson number one. Everyone in the atelier came to ask what I was doing and why was I returning to such a “basic” task. I gave them the short answer: “Oh, I’m just playing with colour”. The longer answer is that I had been reading The Mediocre Man, by José Ingenieros.
José Ingenieros was a doctor, journalist and philosopher born on April 24, 1877, in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He died a young man in 1925. His work has not been widely translated but was an icon in Latin American philosophy.
In El Hombre Mediocre Ingenieros advocates for moral idealism.
He defines idealists are as young, rebellious, passionate and unwilling to settle for mediocrity. Idealists are insatiable dreamers, curious, easily touched by enthusiasm and noble. They have great visions of improving the world. They focus on putting their dreams into practice and are against any form of mediocrity in the sense that they question dogmas. Their essence is a longing for the possibility of improvement by focusing on the significance of everyday experience.
Ingenieros’ philosophy falls under what many call “Perfectionist theories”, those that advocate the improvement of one’s self. Idealists believe that the world can be better and that the purpose of life is to constantly strive for improvement of not only themselves but the circumstances around them. In a way, he claims that by perfecting oneself, we are inspiring others to do the same and therefore, collectively improving our surroundings.
Ingenieros was a great admirer of Waldo Emerson, who also thought that the main vice is conformity and encouraged people to rebel against dogmas and think by themselves.
A lot has been written about how perfectionists end up in a burn-out or depression. I agree with this. However, there is a need to reclaim the value of excellence. Trying to “do your best” and aspiring to improve will not make you sick or depressed. It will make you live a fuller life.
Both Emerson and Ingenieros agree that the remedy against mediocrity is the belief in the potential for improvement using imagination and originality. For them, mediocrity is related to routine. People who are afraid of changes and rely on dogmas to tell them how to live tend to be mediocre. Idealists who go for excellence without fear, are curious, and dare to experiment and make mistakes, understand that this is the essence of improving yourself.
For Ingenieros, idealist people live a good life. Emerson sums up idealism in more concrete words: “To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded”.
Perfection is not attainable, but I am convinced that the world would be better -and each of us happier- if we kept our young, rebellious unwillingness to settle for mediocrity alive.
This is why painting apples gave me so much pleasure. They are not perfect but they are more beautiful than last year’s. Next week two more colleagues at the atelier will also be painting apples; they don’t know that they owe this to José Ingenieros.
What little and big things do you want to improve for yourself? Why not aspire to inspire those around you? Think about people you admire: have they settled for mediocrity?