The Idea of Perfection

Perfection certainly doesn’t exist in the seen world. I conclude it must lie in the beholder’s eye*. To see only perfection is surely a knack worth having.

How we use words is our own business, for such is language; and how they help us understand one another is a great wonder. For some, perfection is meeting our expectation 100%, that is to say, 0 flies in the ointment, 0 spanners in the works. For others, perfection is an abstract quality dwelling in Heaven, as proposed by Plato. His seductive philosophy still traps the unwary, well into its third millennium.

For simpler folk, which is most of us most of the time, perfection is the image of something desired. When we get it we’ll be “completely satisfied”, for which we may find a check-box on one of those questionnaires: “Please take a minute to tell us about your experience”.  Am I right in saying that satisfying desires of the “end user” is the engine which turns the wheels of commerce? When I was at school learning geography, this wasn’t touched on. Industry was to supply necessities. Cutlery came from Sheffield, needles from Redditch, and so forth. Now it’s to bribe us into losing our best years so we can one day “live the dream”.

There was a time before all this, when we were hunter-gatherers. There was much leisure, and what came to hand each day was sufficient: failing which, we perished sooner than expected. In folk-memory, preserved in myth, this was Eden before the Fall. Is there any going back? Only through some form of sacrifice, as advised by priests, advertisers and employers who flourish while we do their bidding.

Thus are born winners and losers in this world which has a niche for everyone, while goading us to ambition, a form of perfectionism which cannot cease from struggle till the goal is reached. The perfectionist is sometimes reviled, as in this excerpt from the OED:

a person who is only satisfied with the highest standards; a person who demands or seeks to achieve perfection or excellence in some field. Now the usual sense.
1909 G. Sterling in A. Bierce In Midst of Life (1927) Introd. p. xiii Bierce was a ‘perfectionist’, a quality that in his case led to an intolerance involving merciless cruelty.
1930 W. P. Cresson Francis Dana xx. 308 Born a perfectionist, his earliest experiences were of the shortcomings of the Great.
1951 ‘J. Tey’ Daughter of Time ii. 28 A worrier: perhaps a perfectionist. A man…anxious over details.
1978 Vogue 1 Mar. 114/1 Bette Davis’s misfortune is to be a perfectionist in an industry run by opportunists.
1990 Sunday Mail (Brisbane) 1 July 15/2 A perfectionist who can spend 10 minutes arranging the cream crackers for a plate of cheese.

Perfectionism, I confess, is the bane of my own life.

There is, and has always been, another kind of perfection. It cannot be represented because, in a given moment, it resides in the eye of the beholder. It asks for no belief, only preparation and strenuous practice, as in the life of one dedicated to poverty, chastity and obedience. We think of the religious life as giving up riches, sex and freedom, but that is a remnant from historical tradition. The essential practice is loving what is; which in these days of poisoned news and  politics, is something I thirst for. I’ve tasted its sweetness, I know where the honey comes from. I catch it often in moments, and sometimes manage to express it enough to share what it means, as perhaps in a piece from 2010 called “Pebble Way“.

* This post also from 2010 proposes that perfection is in the beholder’s eye.


7 thoughts on “The Idea of Perfection

  1. I must be among the ‘unwary’ trapped by ‘Plato’s seductive philosophy.’ I think that perfection, completeness, or perfect unity are not to be perceived in this physical world but in the infinite, eternal world imperceptible to our five senses which are designed to transmit data from the outer to the inner, from the material to the mental world which transcends matter.

    I would argue along with Blake that the perfect would not be found in nature, but may be found through nature if one has received the ability to see the reality obscured by appearances.


  2. Thanks Ellie, you’ve reminded me not to cast aspersions in such careless abandon.

    Your last sentence persuades me we’re on common ground, and only our expression is different. “The ability to see the reality obscured by appearances” matches well with my first paragraph, which claims that perfection “lies in the beholder’s eye”.

    And when you speak of nature, in your own view and Blake’s, I wonder if this include human beings and their deeds. Difficult as it may be, I cannot exclude them from the project of “loving what is”.


  3. I can speak only metaphorically because Truth will not allow itself to be bound in proper language.

    If God is perfect, complete and unified, and man is made in the image and likeness of God, man is capable of being as God is. On the contrary, we can see nature not as an image of God but as a reflection of God or as Blake might say: in the Vegetable Glass.

    If we get to the beach very early there is too little light to see any birds waiting for day. As light increases we see birds but not their colors. More light reveals the familiar images of the birds and their reflected images in the wet sand. When the sun emerges over the horizon another image of the birds emerges: shadows. These are all true and valid images but they come to us in different ways and tell us different things.

    Blake imagined that as spiritual beings, our light would be radiated from within; no external source would be required. In Eternity nature too would shine with its own light as part of the glory of the Totality.

    Once we know in our souls that darkness cannot impinge upon the light, we see things differently.

    Vision of Last Judgment, (E 555)
    “There Exist
    in that Eternal World the Permanent Realities of Every Thing
    which we see are reflected in this Vegetable Glass of Nature”

    Ian, I would be glad to send you a pdf of the complete text of Blake’s works if you would would like to have it. Larry downloaded it years ago when it was available on the internet. Larry did most of his Blake work when only hardcopy was available to him. Without eE (electronic Erdman) I would be helpless.



  4. I appreciate your offer, and will send email.

    In return I’d like to offer you a quote which your talk of light brings to mind, from Willis Barnstone, a Jew who was sent to George School, the Quaker boarding school in Bucks County. In his memoir We Jews and Blacks, he writes:

    “The other element I cannot know is that elusive illumination that Quaker thinkers talk about. The flooding of light inside all of us that shows all, changes all, and gives us words (though maybe inexact and distant ones) to describe the experience. In fact, the Quakers say that the words, which are at best metaphors, may not work at all, since in the end, light is light and words are words.

    “So while light may give words, light is not words. In that critical connection and separation, I think, is all the creation and despair of knowledge.”


  5. As I was saying, I had some thoughts….

    This talk of perfection made me think of some things I’ve said before about mental health. We have this conception of perfect mental health, although most likely no one has formulated this explicitly. But it is an ideal we implictly aspire to. The thing is, though, there really is no such thing as a person with perfect mental health. It’s like the idea of the perfectly normal person. They would be, paradoxically, a strange anomaly. Nothing could be more ABnormal.

    So, we all deviate to some degree and in various fashions from this ideal of perfect mental health. It’s like you have a bull’s eye, and then most people are kind of clustered in a RANGE around this bulleye. There really only becomes an issue that needs to be addressed, and diagnosed, and hung with a label, when you’re dealing with the outliers, the ones that fall beyond that range, the ones that have deviations so severe that it affects their ability to function, or at the very least, their ability to live a “full life”, whatever that may be (probably another bullseye bof perfection that you never quite hit.)

    It seems to me like this is something that people tend to lose sight of. They seemed to think that if they deviate in ANY noticeable way to ANY noticeable degree, then they have to be fixed and they have to think of themselves of having this or “suffering” from that and so on and on and on. And yeah, you do have people on the other hand that have problems that they AREN’T addressing and aren’t dealing with and may be in denial about. But just as often it seems like there are people that think they’re hobbling along broken through life just because they’re not absolutely perfect. Well, who really is?


  6. I’ve been thinking about this kind of thing too, in a slightly different way.

    There are people who “have issues”, or in your words “an issue that needs to be addressed, and diagnosed, and hung with a label”. And I was thinking the other day that I don’t have issues any more. I don’t think I’m one of those with “problems that they AREN’T addressing and aren’t dealing with and may be in denial about”.

    I am who I am, getting closer to the bedrock of all I can be. On the one hand, I’m no longer someone lost, lacking in awareness, perpetrator of my own misfortunes. On the other hand, I’m stuck with a set of deficits, perhaps behaviours I never learned but which would have benefited me had I learned them reasonably early in life.

    So I have a choice: to deal with those deficits as best I can, in a programme of “self-help”; or to augment my known strengths.

    My deficits prevent me from being a “well-rounded person”. That is the negative view. The positive view is to reflect that my deficits have nudged me in the direction of focusing on my known strengths, and augmenting them.

    At my time of life (for I’m speaking personally) I go for the positive view. I don’t know what it is like for someone else, at a different time of life.


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