Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Shades of Purple, Shades of Perfection

Something about this pairing struck me.

Complementary coloration, perhaps. The aubergine foliage of Happy Single Flame Dahlia, juxtaposed to the overt magentic tones of the lily illustrate just how vast is the spectrum of the color purple.

Or is it competition?

Or might it be the struggle for perfection: which of the two has won this elusive quest?

Some amongst us are obsessed with perfection. Yes, there are aesthetes who find and are deeply satisfied by the presence of beauty in art and nature. They find perfection in the stroke of a brush, or the petal of a flower.

But can these things be perfect? Whatever is meant by perfection in the case of a landscape or a painting?

Aristotle long ago (in Book Delta of Metaphysics) mused on perfection, and defined it as:

(a) that which is complete,
(b) that which is so good that nothing could be better, or,
(c) that which has attained its purpose.

But what is complete? If we refer to mortal things, then no mortal could logically be perfect in this first sense of the term until we die: for only then is our life complete. Perfection, then, is a judgment or assessment made by others. But by completeness, Aristotle meant that which contains all requisite parts, or, put differently, to that which is whole or undivided. On that view, we mortal beings are complete in a biological sense, but in a social sense we are not complete or perfect as automatons: we are, as Aristotle noted in The Politics, social animals, political ones even, who become complete by living amongst and with, in community if not always in communion with others. And so, we are perfect in this specific sense.

But what has attained its purpose? Is a flower perfect only after it has given its pollen to the bee or to the wind so that it may be reproduced? Or is a flower perfect only by virtue of being itself? The aesthete would favor the latter position, of course. For us mortal beings, perfection in this teleological sense is, as with the first sense, seemingly a judgment made by others--one made properly after we have passed. Yet that is but one side of the proverbial coin, no? Here, Aristotle might have answered the question  in his Ethics (gosh, human beings were so productive before the age of the television, the Wii, and sundry other electronic sources of entertainment).

Eudaimonia--commonly translated as happiness, but more appropriately construed as human welfare or human flourishing--is the highest good for humans, even if the specific content of our flourishing or living well is disputed. But is a "good" the same thing as "purpose" or "end" or telos? Technically no, but an argument can be made that defining what flourishing and living well means for us as individuals is our telos, our purpose. We each discover what this means--and in our various modes of individual flourishing, we contribute to human flourishing. And so we become perfect in this sense.

But what of perfection in the second sense? Innocuously, it might instigate us to hyperbole: "This is the most beautiful or perfect flower or landscape or vista," or "this dinner is perfect." How many of us have done that? This might be the aesthete's cold or virus.

More dangerously, though, this conception of perfection is the most problematic, for defining it as that which is so good that nothing could be better is the cell that introduces the malignant disease of perfectionism. And each of us knows perfectionists: those possessive of, and possessed by, an insatiable need to create that which is beyond reproach, or who berates the self for not being X enough (X may be variously defined as skinny, beautiful, smart, sexy, kind, caring, worthy, creative, happy, optimistic, and sundry other judgments).

We berate ourselves for our too lumpy mashed potatoes, or the smudge on our painting, or the dried leaves on our prized plant before visitors are about to descend on one's garden. We can't write because we deem our prose not eloquent enough. We proclaim ourselves stupid. Perfectionism is healthy in small doses, but a fetid sore when we exceed our daily recommended dosage.

Perfectionism, it seems to me, is the antithesis of perfection, for it might be yet another example of an ideology. Ideologies, Hannah Arendt wrote, are "isms which to the satisfaction of their adherents can explain everything and every occurrence by deducing it from a single premise." To modify this a bit, perfectionists can explain every failing by measuring it against a single, idealized image or premise. We think we are Chopin, yet our piano playing can never quite match Chopin's. Well, I ask: "why the hell should it? Are you Chopin? No. He died a long time ago."

We are who we are, and that is perhaps the most difficult and challenging realization many of us must make during our lives. We are not Martha Stewart, try as I might (er, confession anyone?), nor are we Chopin. We are not the hottie gymnast (uh, pluralize that) on the US men's gymnastics Olympic team--so no, our body doesn't look that great (perhaps it would if we devoted 3/4 of our waking days to training), and no, we can't sleep with them (damn subconscious!). We are who we are.

Sure, we will fail at things and screw up at others. But we will excel in others--and even that in which we excel will sometimes challenge us. Only through challenges will we flourish.

Perfection, like purple, comes in so many shades. The point is to realize it.

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