Cursum Perficio (“I finish the course”)

Perfection, as illusory as the topic may resound, is nonetheless the goal of untold characters. It isn’t for example the isolated stronghold of the fastidious obsessive who unabashedly arranges the things on his desk at the end of the day with the calibration of an engineer. Nor is it exclusively the domain of (apparently) less contrived male and female models with unblemished skin and satiny hair. By contrast the pursuit of perfection is alive among such conventional candidates as automobile enthusiasts who spend hours detailing their vehicles in preparation for an ephemeral but rewarding Saturday afternoon drive on dry pavement.

Given the certain philosophical debate whether a circle is more perfect than a square and that the answer is in any event virtually irrelevant it must be allowed that the pursuit of perfection is as much about the process as the plan; getting there is half the fun. There is so much latitude about what constitutes perfection that to adopt one model over another is not only impossible but also conceivably pointless. Nonetheless such approximations seldom diminish the search for what might be unobtainable though not otherwise unreasonable. Who after all can fault another for aiming for the highest standards? And what dissatisfaction is there in having tried to get there?

The only risk I can see in commitment to a supreme measure of quality is that its occupation may become insatiable. Where the parameters of perfection are so obviously lacking in definition, one has to wonder where it all ends? Herein lies the one very practical element of perfection; namely not only that its pursuit may prove to be unattainable but also that its utility is indefinable. There is the danger of becoming caught in a relentless running wheel with about as much hope of reaching the end.

People yet cling to the hope of impressing their notion of perfection on what they do or upon the things they own. Even though it is unimaginable that there will ever be anything approaching the sublime concept of perfection, the pursuit of unparalleled excellence is the motivation of many. And while the result may not be exactly awe-inspiring this isn’t to say that it is ridiculous. Just as we have developed such words as “patina” and “character” to accommodate the patent yet tolerable flaws of things and people, the products of age and experience, so too we can adopt a level of absolution for the short-comings of our subjective perfection without having to capitulate entirely to lower standards. It may simplify the argument for or against the pursuit of perfection to consider the matter in the context of alternatives; viz., the choice of the lesser of two evils, perfection or mediocrity. And I suppose that if taken to the extreme we confront the final question in life: Does anything really matter? But it flies in the face of nature to eliminate our sensibilities entirely. Like it or not, most of us have our standards and for some that standard is perfection.

It may help resolve the conundrum to examine the etymology of the term perfection. Its historical development gives us a significant clue to not only its meaning but also its vagary. Facere (to make or do) and Per (through) gives us “perficio” which is to say “to make it through to the end” or “to finish” whence the modern concept of completeness arises and thus its association with superlatives. Eventually the word was meant to imply sufficiency in the sense of attainment of purpose, itself a hint at the early philosophical concept of harmony and the later Christian doctrine of flawlessness. Whatever interpretation is preferred it remains that it is the striving for perfection that captures its root, including the constancy of such striving (“He who stops, regresses” – Augustine). Even apart from the religious spin, the aesthetic quality of perfection which characterized the Pythagoreans contained an underlying dogma of beauty which was not only apt (suitable) but without deviation. In the result we haven’t the need to contaminate our efforts by possible failure if we only seek to complete the course. It is but an inductive leap from this initial proposition to the further paradox that the greatest perfection is imperfection. This latter theory encompasses the element that incompleteness is by its nature stimulus for unending improvement as true perfection depends upon progress. How relieving! Each of us may in the result be far closer to perfection than we might previously have imagined!