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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 have no disagreement with that statement, but I’m unclear how it refutes my statement.
Funny you should mention this. I didn’t at first understand the stylized “tree of life” that appears in Semitic archaeology. It didn’t look like a tree to me. Then I read it was a stylized date palm. Palm, not my idea of a “normal tree”. Oh, now that makes sense!
Visualizing the perfect form of “tree” that unites the beauty of palms, conifers, and the many varieties of broadleaved trees we in the middle latitudes grow up around seems tough to me, though. Plus, many people (or at least wilderness photographers) think that the twisted, stunted trees are the most beautiful (judging by what they take pictures of), even though they differ most from the “typical” (ideal?) form.
Not at all. There are infinite varieties of trees – a perfect cyprus? Oak? And what defines perfection? Height? Breadth? Color? Smell? The list is endless.
What we can measure for ourselves is the degree of usefulness, or attractiveness. Both are pretty subjective measurements, subject in many cases to what we know about how to take advantage of a tree. Which makes good veneer or plywood? Which tree is best for marriage proposals to Mary? Or perhaps Ann?
One of things that makes me most uncomfortable with this line of thinking is that if it applies to trees, then it applies to people.
And I do not believe, for one second, that there is such a thing as a perfect person or a perfect life. Indeed, to allow the possibility of a perfect person is to say that ALL OTHER people are imperfect.
The Torah tells us that EACH PERSON has a soul on loan from G-d. So we each can touch the infinite. Each of us can be great, in one way or another. But the ways in which we can be great span the cosmos: in fatherhood or leadership or cookies or readying the dead for burial. None of these is on a number line that goes from Zero to Perfect. They are each actions that result from choices, and they are not directly comparable.
A part of me fears that thinking that there is a perfect way to be is a major step toward totalitarianism. It certainly is in Plato’s Republic.
Actually, it looks like you are arguing for a pantheistic G-d.
Some Jews believe that God is perfect. Like everyone else they have been Platonized. But they also believe that the human mind is not powerful enough to comprehend or understand God’s perfection.
Using Plato’s language, they may believe that there is the perfect Good outside the cave which makes all of reality possible, but they don’t believe that any living human being might actually be able to get out of the cave to see it.
Casey et al,
Alice needs to to know where she is going. She needs to be able to say I am going to New York to Humpty. How do I get from Baltimore to New York? There will be several different possible routes, some of which will be better considering the time of day, the weather conditions, or the kind of transportation you prefer. To get directions, Alice needs a goal but the goal — in this case New York City is certainly not perfect and none of the possible routes to get to New York are not perfect. One may be better than another when judged by some criteria but not better when judged by other criteria.
You claim that without perfection there can be no process. Plato demonstrates that with perfection there can be no process (only the appearance of process). For Plato the perfect cube or the perfect horse were the REAL things.
Aristotle and IWe chose process over perfection. For Aristotle that perfect cube was a concept, all be it a useful concept. It was, however, merely a concept and not a reality.
Yes every process needs some sort of goal, but that goal need not be perfect. The goal guides the process but again it need not be perfect or even thought to be perfect although it is generally thought to be better than an alternative goal or why would you choose it.
You seem to agree with Iwe that there need not be one single scale to apply to goals like having a good day. But you also believe that there are ways of combining scales so that they can be translated into one scale. That is where we disagree. You can do it in economics but only by reducing everything to price and that is to treat only one aspect of the problem. Are children really actually measured as “lost opportunity” costs.
Yes we know what a perfect cube is, but “is” in what sense. A perfect cube like a Platonic form is perfect because it is a purely mathematical concept and thus, by definition, perfect. There are no actual (in space and time) perfect cubes.
I think that is IWe’s point.
Eh, I’m not so sure. I think that was Aristotle’s point. These ideals of perfection are useful the way theoretical Math is useful for understanding more practical things. I don’t think anyone here disagrees.
But, iWe’s point seems to be not only are the ideals of perfection wrong — they’re dangerous.
I find this so interesting and have been meaning to bring it up with iWe for a long time, so here goes.
Do you think, iWe, this emphasis on human agency in the world, helps to explain the progressivism of secular Jews? Among Christians, the imperfectibility of man and the world is a given — at least among orthodox/conservative/traditional Christians. The idea that process (Catholics love processions!) is important comports very well with our beliefs — we are a pilgrim Church. But we believe we’re moving toward something perfect (Heaven — the Kingdom) even if its dimensions aren’t knowable.
And I would argue, progressive Christians are more progressive than they are Christian. They have faith in progress toward perfection, if only the “right” people are running the show. It’s not God’s will. It’s theirs.
I think this is true of secular Jews as well, but they make no pretense toward belief in God.
I think it helps support utopianism of all kinds, including Marx and Freud. Secular Jews are not just progressive: they are highly effective at it.
I have no problem with this characterization of Christianity.
I think this is true of all progressives.
I think this is right.
But I also think I might have missed the question?
Because you had written:
A single perfect thing which has shadowed castoffs that are everything else, suggests that G-d is in everything. That is pantheism.
What about us malcontents?
Most people are malcontents. When things are too good, we invent ways to make ourselves miserable.
I need to keep up on things. I thought malware was something different.
I have enjoyed this thread. I even agree with some of it.
Well, I was cornering.
It seems the difference between your theology and the secular progressive worldview isn’t the emphasis on human agency, it’s that you emphasize it while rejecting the Greek concept of perfection (it’s completely understandable that you would reject Hellenization). To this Christian, these seem dangerously close to the same thing. The progressive just cuts God (Whom we believe to be Perfection) out of the picture.
We agree completely on the concept of the “indwelling” of the Holy Spirit and our free will to participate in God’s creative enterprise (although what that is from moment to moment isn’t entirely clear). We also agree on the marriage analogy for our relationship with God. Our disagreement is best expressed by St. Augustine:
“Our heart is restless until it rests in Thee…” — oh, Perfection.
Notice, Augustine uses singular “heart.” He’s speaking of human nature. It rings true to me. That constant yearning for something better propels us forward. And we’ll never be completely satisfied in this world.
No two people agree on what is “better” in every case. But I agree that human nature always craves more.
To me: Just as perfection means stasis, the end of craving (attaining “complete satisfaction”) comes only with death. Every living person should always aspire for more than they are/do/create/love.
I should note that my emphasis on human responsibility for the world often makes people uncomfortable. It is much easier to assign blame than to get to work.
That’s not what makes people uncomfortable. It’s the elevation of the will to power over the pursuit of perfection. It’s the reimagining of the horrors of the last century as byproducts of the pursuit of human perfection rather than this will to power.
But reality is that this obsession with action and process is the problem. I want a process that works for me. I want to act for me.
If there is no perfect there is no better or best or worst. There is only action. Action for me.
Casey, do you genuinely believe that a journey must always be in an absolute direction? When something gets warmer, it is not going towards a state called absolute heat.
Well there is absolute cold and absolute hot so in that sense yes but heat probably wouldn’t be a good example.
Cooking might be. I’m sure there is a perfect heat for cooking spaghetti.
But I like the golf example. On every hole the perfect score is one stroke. We’d all like a hole in one. So you take your shot and it’s not close. Failure? No, you just try to get as close to perfect as possible. 3 strokes, 5 strokes, 7. You do your best to be perfect even if your best is very far from perfect.
Now take perfect away. 5 strokes, 10, 20… whatever, doesn’t matter. As long as everyone had fun. I don’t even like to aim at the hole. I try to kill birds, ha ha.
The game just dissolves away into activity that is fun for me.