Catalog Your Account Email Sign Up

Arnold Berleant, In Praise of Imperfection


Castine Unitarian Church
27 December 1998

I. Introduction

Now that Christmas is over, many of us are looking forward to New Year’s.  This is a holiday of a different sort–the change of the year, with its celebrations, possibly some overindulgence, perhaps regrets over the past and resolutions for the future.  It’s a good occasion for reflection.

Of course the date we call New Year’s Day is arbitrary and depends on the calendar we choose to use.  In the West we follow the Gregorian calendar, which begins the new year on January 1st.   The Chinese, however, celebrate the New Year between January 21 and February 19, while the Jewish New Year is celebrated in September.[1]  Astronomically, the turn of the year is the winter solstice, which falls on December 21st or 22nd, which many people are coming to observe.

The turn of the millennium will offer an even greater scope for reflection than the new year, and we can expect that it will produce all kinds of assessments and predictions, from the fatuous to the genuinely pensive.  But just as celebrating the beginning of the year on January 1st is an accident of the calendar we have chosen to use, so too is the calculation of the year.  The birth of Jesus, which Christians just celebrated, has been used in the West to determine the start of the era.  Yet scholars generally agree now that Jesus was actually born between 4 and 8 years before his birth was commonly thought to have occurred.  For the Chinese, the coming new year will be 4697, while the Jewish year that began in September is 5760.  This means that the forthcoming millennium is just as arbitrary as the beginning of the year.

Still, whenever we happen to celebrate the new year, it offers us a special opportunity for reflection, and while that occasion this year may not be as dramatic as it will be the next time around, it is nonetheless an opportunity to reassess our personal as well as our public lives.  I’d like to do a bit of this with your help this morning, and whether it is foolish or thoughtful I’ll leave for you to decide.

When we reflect at the New Year about where we are in our lives, we’re likely to think about what we’ve striven for, where we stand in relation to our goals, what we wish for now, and where we are going.  As I get older I recognize how these goals have changed at different times of my life, and I am sure it is the same with all of you, at whatever stage of the cycle of life you are.

I think such revision is actually a good thing, a very good thing, for it allows us to adjust our goals and expectations to where we find ourselves.  This means, however, that these goals must be flexible, not rigid and permanent, and that they must be adapted to ourselves, to our present needs, to the level of self-understanding we have attained, and to the situation in which we find ourselves at this time.  Like the decision about a calendar, we choose the goals we want to strive for.

It is about such goals that I want to speak this morning, not so much, however, about the goals, themselves, as about the kind of goals we adopt.  Let me begin with a few remarks about something that resembles goals but is unlike them in one crucial respect:  They are not chosen.  I am referring to our drives.

II. Drives and Goals

As human beings we are biological organisms and social animals equally and at the same time.  It’s not that easy to identify our biological drives, since we live in a social setting, and every society has its own language, history, customs, and values.  Still, it is probable that all humans have certain drives in common:  for food, for protection, for comfort, for companionship and community, for affection and erotic satisfaction, for self-respect, and for the expression and fulfillment of our individual abilities and interests.

While we all possess such drives, how we seek to satisfy them is not the same.  For we humans are curious creatures.  Although all living things exhibit purposive behavior, as in the search for food, for mates, and the like, we seem to be alone in making plans, unlike the instinctive behavior of other creatures.  Our plans, moreover, are not only driven by our needs and shaped by our society, but at times they are also guided rationally.  We are able to make deliberate choices, choices guided by the circumstances in which we find ourselves.  Much about these choices depends on the society we live in:  on its resources, on its kind of technology, and on the forms and channels it offers us to try and satisfy those drives.  That is why there are such differences among people, as individuals and as groups, on the kinds of social institutions we construct, such as marriage, child-rearing practices, and economic structures.   We decide, individually and socially, usually by habit and custom but rarely through deliberation, on the form these drives may assume:  what marriage practices are acceptable, how we arrange our family relationships, what sorts of sexual behavior is permitted, what kinds of obligations and constraints apply in our business dealings, and all sorts of other such things.  These decisions, conscious or unconscious, rest on what we consider to be worthwhile, important, and desirable–on what we think is worth striving for, that is, on our goals.

People have been reflecting on these questions of values and goals for all of recorded history and undoubtedly for long before scribes set down ideas on these matters in sacred books such as the Bible, the Koran, and the Vedas.  Philosophers in classical Greece and thereafter have continued such reflections.  So, we in the West are given various goals to strive for, ranging from blessedness, release from earthly bonds, and holiness, to honor, health, prosperity, status, and power.   Many of these boil down to happiness, as Aristotle observed long ago.  But he also pointed out that resting these values on happiness does not settle the question but rather opens it up, and the question of what happiness is still preoccupies moral thinkers today.

Along with many other things, we absorb our goals, along with our other values and beliefs, from the society in which we live.  And not only our goals but the kind of goals we strive for.  But I am interested here not so much in our specific goals as in our beliefs about the nature of our goals.  In fact, I want to talk just now not about particular goals but about the character of some of our goals, something we overlay our goals with, in particular, an achievement that is perfect.  Perfection.

III.  Perfection

It is often the case that, whatever we choose to strive for, we want it to be complete, the best, the ultimate–in other words, perfect.  We find ourselves yearning for perfect happiness, for perfect health, a perfect marriage, perfect children, for total, that is, perfect order, perhaps for ultimate status and power (which in my day used to be exemplified by becoming President of the United States but today confers the power, if not the status), even for perfect weather!

What, then, is it for something to be perfect?   One dictionary tells us what I suspect we generally think it means:

  1. Lacking nothing essential to the whole; complete of its nature or kind.
  2. Being without defect or blemish.
  3. Pure; undiluted; unmixed.[2]

Let’s think of some examples.  Take beauty.  What might we think of if we think of perfect beauty?  In the West, it’s common to consider Greek sculpture as an ideal.  In fact, during the height of the classical period, which is called the Golden Age (450-400 B.C.E.), Polykleitos developed a rational standard for the ideal figure.  The Parthenon, which I saw recently for the first time, and the great sculptures from the Acropolis, both supposedly done by Phidias, exemplify that ideal.[3]  Many of us possess a more general ideal of human beauty, nourished by romantic poetry and fiction, and especially by the movies.  Who exemplifies that ideal?  Perhaps the young Grace Kelly, Catherine Deneuve, Gregory Peck, or Gary Cooper?  Or as my artist friend Bill Pardue reminds me, that brief moment from “Casablanca” where Humphrey Bogart says goodbye to Ingrid Bergman before she boards the waiting plane.  “The camera focuses on the stricken face of Bergman, and if ever a moment should be frozen in time, it is that extraordinarily beautiful face at that moment.”

We can extend this to any work of art.  It’s often said that a great work of art must be perfect, that to make any change, even the most insignificant, would be to render it defective.  For a masterpiece must be “complete,” “without defect or blemish,” as the definition has it.

To switch our examples, let’s turn to morality.  Here we are concerned with the standard of goodness.  What would ideal goodness be?  Some would say acting selflessly, without regard for the consequences to oneself.  Others might say that ideal goodness consists in living a saintly life, or in having no motives but obedience to the moral law, as Kant urged.  Moralists have often berated us mere mortals for our egoism by discovering a glint of personal satisfaction hidden far beneath the surface of every selfless act and ascribing such ineradicable egoism to a flaw inherent in human nature.  Yet even if we can never hope to fulfill such a moral ideal, we are nonetheless enjoined to strive to attain it.

Finally, there’s the standard of truth.  Here the ideal is often taken to be perfect truth, unalterable, eternal, flawless, again “without defect or blemish.”  The fact that scientific truth is provisional and constantly changing is taken by some to mean that it’s essentially flawed.  In contrast with the supposed inadequacy of scientific truths, many cite moral truths.  They claim that moral truths meet the standards of that ideal, and they supposedly derive their force from the idea that they never change but are solid rocks in a sea of immorality.


IV. A Critique of Perfection

Powerful as this ideal of perfection is in our society, I want to offer a critique of it.  Instead of praising perfection as a noble if unattainable goal, I want to suggest that it is actually both unreal and ultimately destructive.   I’d like to make a case, instead, “In Praise of Imperfection,” as my title reads.

A comprehensive account of how the ideal of perfection began is something that I can’t undertake here.  Let me just suggest that it is part of a theological and philosophical tradition whose Middle Eastern origins reach back some thirty-two hundred years when the Hebrew Bible was beginning to be written down, and more directly to the classical Greek philosophers and theologians more than twenty-five hundred years ago, in whom our familiar Western civilization had its formative origins.  From these came the principal source of the ideal of perfection in the concept of a God, a being who, along with being omnipotent and omniscient is also perfect.  This divine ideal has since been taken as the standard toward which we mortals must strive.

Yet it would be well to consider not only how the ideal of perfection originated but how it has functioned.  And along with this, how appropriate it is for us humans as we live our lives.  I want to suggest that whether or not we think of perfection as a divine ideal, it does not serve us very well as a human standard.  In fact, as a human ideal it may have destructive consequences.  Indeed, one might even say that despite what some moralists teach us, it is hubris, overweening pride, for humans to try and emulate God.

Let me return to some of the examples of perfection I mentioned earlier.  Take Greek sculpture.  It’s helpful to recall how sculptures were executed during the Golden age of Greek art.  Sculptors would have different athletes model for different parts of the figure, one for the head, another for the torso, another for the legs and arms, and so on for specific details, in order to arrive at one “perfect” figure.  Even the classical Greeks couldn’t find a single living ideal figure!

Moreover, perfection also includes the notion of permanence.  That’s part of our inheritance from the classical Greeks. Plato’s unchanging Forms are the models against which we must measure the imperfect, time-affected things of experience.  Yet we live in a world that is constantly changing, in our own day faster than ever.  So, if perfection requires permanence, then everything we encounter and everything we do must inevitably fail.  When we think of the movie idols of our younger days, we may be struck by their human frailty–Grace Kelly deteriorating and dying young in a troubled marriage, an ageing Catherine Deneuve, Gary Cooper dying of cancer in the seventies, Ingrid Bergman whose beauty was lost to the point that she could take the role of an old, wrinkled hag.   Not only are our idols imperfect because they can never maintain their extraordinary beauty; we no longer seem to have actors of such beauty as those I’ve mentioned.  Films don’t deal with that kind of mythological being any more.  Although we have a number of pretty people, the focus now is on talent and on that very human imperfection I am speaking of.  Meryl Streep is a good example. (Pardue) Many artists, in fact, think that it is our individual imperfections that make us unique and intriguing.  Perfection can be admired, but it does not excite the imagination.  The differences and irregularities do.  Perhaps we need those small irregularities on the perfect surface so that we can recognize our common human qualities.

Indeed, to think of great art as flawless is a rather romantic notion.   Even artists from the Romantic period belie its accuracy.   The great British painter Turner, for example, couldn’t leave his canvases alone, and was often seen at his openings touching up his supposedly finished paintings with a critical brushstroke here and there.  And as a musician infatuated with the music of Chopin, I’ve long been struck, when a passage is repeated exactly, by slight variations in the notes of the same chord.  Such examples could be multiplied endlessly.

Morality, too, suffers from the same misplaced ideal of perfection.  To condemn a generous act, even one that exhibits great devotion or self-sacrifice, because down deep the person performing that action has a feeling of satisfaction or a sense of gratification in performing it, is to condemn a person for being human.  How can one do anything without being somehow involved in it and how can one not have some response to whatever one does?  What is important for moral judgment is not that we receive a sense of satisfaction from a generous act, which everyone must feel, but rather whether we perform that act in order to receive personal gratification and credit or do it out of concern for others.

Similarly with truth.   Although scientific knowledge is provisional, we nonetheless work in buildings, cross bridges, drive our cars and fly in airplanes, all of which are designed and built on that provisional knowledge, and we confidently entrust our lives to them.  And despite the inherent limitation of science, it does not prevent us from running after medical help from that flawed source when we are ill.

Perfection, moreover, can work in destructive ways.  It is gross self-indulgence to think that one’s childhood must be perfect to be of any value, and that our parents’ mistakes are the cause of all our problems as adults.  It is equally mistaken to be disappointed if our marriage isn’t absolutely perfect or if our best friend turns out to have some damning flaw.  This doesn’t mean that great damage cannot be done to children, that marriages cannot be unfulfilling or destructive, or that friends cannot turn out to be false.  But it also recognizes that an imperfect childhood may still have been happy, that a marriage that isn’t made in heaven can still be rich and exciting, and that a friend who isn’t ideal can still offer warm support.  Letting go of the ideal of perfection suggests that one would and can be happier and healthier by not imposing that divine ideal on human beings as parents, spouses, and friends.

Other instances of the unfortunate effects of the ideal of perfection come to mind, such as the belief that for a job we are doing or something we are making to be worth anything at all it must be done absolutely perfectly and that anything less than that is worthless.  But now I need your help.  Can you think if any instances in your own experience in which the ideal of perfection has had an unfortunate influence on your thoughts, actions, or decisions?

*       *       *       *       *

The unhappy consequences of the ideal of perfection are many:  the sense of frustration and inadequacy in any task we undertake, perhaps the feeling that our efforts are all worthless, even emotional depression.  For whatever we undertake, the ideal of perfection consigns us to failure before we even begin.  But what, then, should we strive for?  If perfection is a divine, not a human or a humane ideal, what sort of ideal would be appropriate here?  What are human-scale goals?

V. Humane Goals; Personal Achievement

Perfection is related to the belief that something is the best, and it implies that anything less has little worth.  Or it might mean that we must be the best, the highest, the richest, the most beautiful to have any personal worth.  Indeed, the prevalence of superlatives in popular culture seems to me to be related to this ideal of perfection.  The greatest praise we can give is to call something the best, ultimate, “world class,” to use that appallingly pretentious phrase.  If something is superlative, then it is perfect of its kind.  Yet something can be good without comparing it to anything else, such as a gratuitous act of generosity or kindness.  Such an act can be eminently worthwhile in itself, and it doesn’t make it better to place it above anything else.  Moreover, valuable things can be worthwhile without being perfect, and there are many different qualities, many different excellences.

It would, in fact, be a useful exercise to try to eliminate superlatives from our vocabulary and replace them with comparatives or simply with the basic form of the adjective.[4]  Instead of ‘best,’ we might think of ‘better’– doing, acting, and being constantly better.  Instead of ‘highest,’ we might think of endeavoring always to improve on what we have done, to exceed ourselves.  Instead of all the ‘mosts’ that drive some of us — being the most influential, most powerful, most famous, most beautiful, richest; or having the best something-or-other, maybe even “the best of everything” — instead of all these ‘mosts’ and ‘bests,’ we might be content with ‘better,’ in the sense of a level that is improved, more satisfactory, fulfilling, or rewarding in ways that don’t put us into competition with others.  For in a world of “bests,” there is only one winner and everyone else is more or less a loser.  But in a world of “goods,” we can all be winners by excelling on our own ground.

These changes in our thinking suggest living as a productive activity, as an ongoing process of gain and achievement, and all this in relation to a particular person and situation.  The difference is all in the degree, whether of a work of art, of a person’s character, or of friendship.

I recently consulted that oracle of ethnic cuisine, the fortune cookie.  It read, “Generosity and perfection are your everlasting goals.”   Heady words for a philosopher to digest!  That fortune got me thinking.  It occurred to me that perfection is a word that has only a superlative form.  Nothing can be more perfect than another; nothing can be most perfect.  Perfect is perfect and can’t be any more so.  The word ‘generosity,’ on the other hand, seems at least on some occasions to have no comparative or superlative forms.  If a person performs an act of pure generosity, say, giving up one’s seat on a bus to an elderly person or helping a friend in trouble, it would be ungracious and ungrateful to criticize that person for not doing more.  Perhaps generosity is a more modest goal, a more human-sized goal.  To my mind it suggests a better ideal than perfection by which to live.  Other humane goals can be added to generosity:  kindness, benevolence, acting constructively, contributing to the well-being of one’s community, to name just a few.

Can a life be perfect?  Saints aside, for that is quite another question, we poor mortals would be better off striving for something on a more human scale.  Generosity involves our association with other people.  It involves us in a network of mutual supportiveness, which is part of how we can achieve fulfillment in human society.  For life involves other people.  Even the hermit or the recluse has come out of human society and is responding to it by rejecting it.

The characters in Sartre’s play, No Exit, who have been executed for committing some terrible crime, find themselves placed forever in an eighteenth-century drawing room.   Its comfort is deceptive, for they discover to their horror that they are in hell, subjected to a torment from which there is no escape.  In Sartre’s unforgettable line, “Hell is other people.”  For these characters create one another’s hell; they make it for themselves and are incapable of changing.  This hell is as complete and “perfect” a badness as there can be.

I’d like, however, to turn Sartre’s insight right side up and look at the more positive side of human relations.  Inverting his statement, we can say in contrast, “Heaven is other people,” but real people like ourselves, with our limitations, our incompleteness, and our shortcomings.  Perfection may be a god’s virtue, but as a goal for us humans it is a formula for failure, indeed a sort of vice.  And it may, indeed, land us in a hell that we have created ourselves.

The Japanese have an interesting word that is relevant to this discussion, “shibui.”  It refers to valuing the irregularities in a work of craft.  A potter, for example, who has succeeded in throwing a pot that is exquisite and flawlessly round will press an indentation on the side of the pot with his thumb, deliberately introducing an imperfection.  To take an example from another culture, one of the features we value most in handmade Persian rugs over machine-made imitations is their subtle irregularities, which offer endless interest and delight to the eye that discovers them, whereas the machine-made rug, with its perfect regularity, soon ceases to hold our attention.  The Austrian editor, poet, and critic Ernst Fischer once wrote, “As machines become more and more efficient and perfect, so it will become clear that imperfection is the greatness of man.”[5]  And as a friend of mine recently remarked, “What a relief to be deemed perfectly imperfect.”

Perhaps we would do well to drop the word ‘perfection’ entirely, and emulate Aristotle by speaking of excellence ( Gr. aret‘, virtue or functional excellence).  For Aristotle everything has its own excellence, proper to the kind of thing that it is and the kind of activity in which it engages.  This applies to humans as much as to anything else.

Now we are able to decide on the kind of goals we set for ourselves and what those goals should be.  Just as we once may have blindly accepted the ideal of perfection, so we can choose a different ideal, a human-sized one.  For we can not only choose our goals but also the scale of our ideals, whether they should emulate the heights of the Himalayas or of the Bigelow Range in Maine, whether the peak of Mount Everest or the comfortable rise of Wallamatogus Mountain right here in Penobscot.  For most of us, Everest is beyond our skills or even our desire to scale it.  But nearly all of us can enjoy the panoramic scene after an easy climb up Wallamatogus.  Unlike the divine, these goals are all finite.  It is as worthwhile to climb Wallamatogus as it is Everest, perhaps more so, since we don’t jeopardize our lives in the attempt, yet we achieve a lofty view all the same.

Like the choice of a calendar, we can decide on the framework of our days.  Let’s resolve to make conscious choices, and choices that are both considered and appropriate.  It is both our blessing and our fate to be able to decide.  And there is no better time for a human-made choice than at the beginning of a human-chosen year.

[1]  There are lunar calendars, such as the Roman, Chinese, and Jewish calendars.  When the Julian or Old Style calendar was in use, the new year began, at least in Britain, at first on December 25th and, after the 13th century, on March 25.  The Gregorian or New Style calendar established the beginning of the year on January 1, but this was widely adopted only in the 18th and 19th centuries.

[2]  The American Heritage Dictionary, Third Edition.

[3]  During the Golden Age, the height of the classical period (450B400 B.C.), Polykleitos arrived at a rational norm for the ideal figure. The magnificent sculptures from the acropolis and its Parthenon, thought to have been designed by Phidias, exemplify this ideal. Columbia Encyclopedia (MS Bookshelf).

[4]  perfection – only a superlative form.  However, there are degrees of imperfection.  Cf. Neoplatonism – emanations from the Good.

[5]  Ernst Fischer (1899B1972), The Necessity of Art, ch. 5 (1959; tr. 1963).