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Perfection and Its Discontents
Greeks promoted the notion of “perfection” – that there was such a thing as a perfect ratio, or a perfect body. And this word and concept has similarly entered our modern world: perfection has become the standard against whom everyone or everything is measured. Sadly, it is also part of our religious thinking as well: the concept that some people are “almost” perfect, for example.
The problem with the notion of perfection is that it is not only hard to achieve, but that it is, itself, a lie.
Take, for example, a simple physical object – a little cube. It might look like a perfect cube, but if you look closely enough, you will find that it is full of imperfections and impurities. The dimensions themselves can only be measured within certain tolerances, limited by instruments. There is nothing in this world that is “perfectly” any dimension at all, given that even a measurement is true only for a specific temperature and atmospheric pressure and composition of the ambient air… the list is endless.
People are attracted to the very idea of timeless perfection, which is one reason why diamonds are prized. Layer after layer of ordered carbon atoms, in existence since they were squeezed by enormous volcanic pressures seem like the antidote to a world of biological frailty and endless change. But while diamonds are closer to perfect, one of the ways in which they are proven to be natural is because they have certain kinds of impurities! Which means that they are not perfect at all.
The other thing about the idea of perfection is that it is inherently static. If a flawless diamond were to somehow be found to exist, it would be an unchanging and unchanged thing. A diamond is dead. So, too, a perfect Greek ratio, or what Greeks might call a perfect statue, all have this in common: they are much like a dead rock, and very unlike a living person.
Even our theoretical diamond can only be perfect in itself. Once it is exposed to people, or water vapor or even just air, then it will be affected and tainted by that exposure, even if only at the surface. Like a perfect military battle plan, all bets are off once contact is made.
We see this most clearly of all in the realm of human interaction. At every moment, the self-conscious person is making choices from a menu of potential actions. Each action will come with a host of potential outcomes, and the process and product are inherently messy and unpredictable. So decision-making is itself highly dynamic, with no options that can be said to be remotely perfect. Our decisions are always between things that we judge to have lesser or greater degrees of goods or evils, and those metrics are themselves necessarily highly subjective. Everyone assigns different values to goods – which is why even highly compatible married couples have much to discuss when living a life together. Even if everyone means to be a good person, we always have to accommodate our different tolerances for risk, for planning, for justifying one good work instead of another.
This makes a mockery of the notion that it is possible to live a perfect life.
Assume that the above is true. What then? Why is it wrong to have an ideal for perfection, to strive for something even when we know it is out of reach?
The answer is that if we believe in perfection, then we have confused the product with the process.
Life is a process. It is the way in which we make decisions and seek to improve ourselves and the world around us. That process inherently requires compromises and concessions, weighing certain goods above others, and above all, making decisions that choose one path that makes all the other paths impossible.
Think of it like marriage. There is no perfect marriage, just as there are no perfect couples. Nevertheless, any marriage requires commitment to one person, “forsaking all others.” The process is never simple but the result of a beautiful marriage can be absolutely incredible. It is, however, never perfect.
We live in a dangerous world. The world is clearly not perfect. Every suggestion that the world is, indeed, perfect, runs counter to all of human experience. We have death and illness and evil. Our world is populated by dangerous animals, and even the most friendly natural environments contain numerous risks to human health and life. The most dangerous of all, of course, are people themselves. People are extremely powerful, capable of creation – and destruction.
It is important to acknowledge that perfection should not even be a goal, because once we can eliminate perfection as a target, then we open the door to a whole new world of opportunities.
For example, people are often indecisive because they are trying to find the “right” answer to a question. This indecision can tie us in knots and even, in extreme (but far too common) cases, lead to a life that is hardly lived at all for fear of making the wrong decision. But if we acknowledge that decisions are inherently about life’s journey and not its destination (which will ultimately be physical death anyway) then it becomes much easier to keep taking steps forward.
We are not a state of being. We are what we do.
What does the Torah offer us about perfection? The word that most closely approximates “perfect” is “tam”, which is used to describe Noah (Gen. 6:9), and the injunction to Abraham to “walk before me and be tam.” (Gen. 17:1) It is the same word used to describe animals that are ready for sacrifice. So it can be translated as “wholehearted” or “without blemish.” But one thing is clear about the way tam is used in the Torah: it never refers to the end result. The story of Noah starts with the description of being tam, and Abraham was nowhere near the end of his story when he was enjoined to become tam. Animals that are fit to be sacrificed, of course, reach their fulfillment in the sacrifice itself – they are clearly not “perfect” beforehand because they have not reached their apotheosis.
The Beis Hamikdash (Temple) itself shows this. The building was improved from time to time (sometimes in very grand fashion), and the priestly services were themselves never static. Sacrifices were always a process, marking days and weeks and festivals, as well as individual offerings reflecting the lives of the Jewish people.
This speaks directly to our purpose. G-d created an imperfect world. Our task is to improve it. That is, and will remain, a process and not a product.
It behooves us to at least give honorable mention to a part of human endeavor that is, in itself, perfect in the Greek sense. Mathematics are attractive because they can be entirely consistent and complete, involving nothing messy like fudge factors and real-world conditions that often mask the difference between an accurate theory and one that, like Newtonian Mechanics, is useful but ultimately untrue.
It is, of course, mathematicians and its more numerate scientific descendants such as physicists who are considered the purest of truth seekers, the high priests of nature. On the other hand, it is engineers who dig deeply into all the muck of the real world in order to make things that actually work. Engineering is not just messy, but it also invariably prefers utilitarian knowledge (what works) to perfect theories that may be unmoored from reality. Yet modern progress owes far more to engineers and builders than it does to those who crave aesthetically perfect mathematical formulas. Engineers and builders, like people in a marriage or even a friendship, recognize that the processes themselves, whether they are perfect or not (or even whether or not they are true!), can lead to beautiful – albeit clearly imperfect – results.Published in Culture, Religion & Philosophy
I’m thinking bumper sticker. Or maybe tattoo? On my right arm, so I remember it every time I write? Anyway, yes.
BTW—have you and your family recovered from the Riots? That was a scary few days there. I hope not only that things have settled down, but that you’re feeling safe. Or, safe-ish.
I favor the idea of becoming “complete” more than becoming “perfect”. We are not autonomous creatures. We need others.
We have problems because to competing ideas are there, “Haste makes waste.” and “He who hesitates is lost.” Somehow we must balance things. One person by themselves is in my opinion balanced impaired. Or to use another word incomplete.
I have spent years perfecting this body of mine. Do you know how hard it is to achieve a perfect sphere?
If you apply this reasoning to any of the virtues, they are all lies. When we say things, they are not exactly true. When we divide things they are not exactly even. Language is an art. Words have some play in them. We fudge things for simplicity sake. We make round globes instead of shaping them probably. We think in analogies and metaphors instead of numbers and measurements.
I think I agree. Which is why the Torah is my guide, and not the Greeks.
Doesn’t Hebrew use words a little differently than English? The words seem to have looser/wider meanings. Is that true?
Life is. There are no pratice rounds. I try to do the best I can. Not perfect by any means.
Well, that depends. If one is cognizant of one’s previous incarnations, one might consider them practice for this one. Of course, one may also be learning totally different lessons this time.
Mathematicians also think in analogies more than in specific numbers. Or at least a great many of them do.
“The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth” is an extended meditation on analogical reasoning.
You make them sound human. Is there any proof?
No. None at all.
Only evidence ;-)
Biblical Hebrew has very few words overall, and so they are used in different ways. But we learn that the relations are themselves instructive. “Adam” is the name of the first man. It is also the core word for “adamah” – land. And the word “Edom” (same letters) means “red”. So the word is itself a representation of the elemental, the connection between land and mankind made explicit.
Murder rate is all-time high. We are seeing very high rates of crime (a murder a night!), as police are doing what is only rational: avoiding arresting anyone like Freddie Grey.
This can become good. It forces the community to be more proactive and protect ourselves, as long as the government does not stop us from doing so.
You and yours are still in my prayers. May you live in safety.
Is that book of yours fully out and available yet?
Don’t bet on it. It is still at the bookmakers.
I have a copy in my hands. The rest are on the boat from Israel. I am told it is a matter of days….
When is it available? I want a copy—probably several.
Is there any chance there will be an e-book?
Is there a link where we could find it?
There will. But it really will not be easy to read that way. My writing is such that a few pages at a time will work best.
There will be, soon! The web page is in development now. It will also be on Amazon.
The pre-page (without downloadable excerpts) is at:
Keep us up-to-date when that boat (and e-book) arrives.
Will do, for sure!
From one engineer to another….yes
Anyone still reading… there is room at my Shabbos table this Friday night…. let me know within the next day, please!
Thank you for your lovely invitation. I will not yet be in travel mode.