We are told that perfectionism is a bad thing, that we ought to rid ourselves of it. I disagree. Yes, it can be a tyrant that destroys us, but it also expresses much that is best in us, and drives us to become better. Put simply, perfectionism is a double-edged sword. Rather than shy from its dangers we should develop skill in its use.
A double-edged sword can turn back on us. Like the most important things that matter, perfectionism is dangerous. However we live in an age which worships health and safety, where danger is increasingly anathema. Perfectionism is such a topic because of its dangers; it can be a source of procrastination, atrophy, motivational paralysis, as well as depression, anxiety, and even suicide. A balanced view is needed alongside practical wisdom. So how do we find our way with it?
To begin answering this question, consider the ancient Greek philosopher Plato's image of "the celestial chariot" from his dialogue The Republic. It is a chariot flying through the heavens. The charioteer is Reason. He steers two horses, Spiritedness and Desire. They need to be steered properly by Reason if the chariot is not to crash. And yet without them the chariot and charioteer go nowhere. On this model perfectionism is spiritedness, and things go awry through the unskillful use of this energy, through misapplication and misdirection. Such mistakes include seeking perfection in the wrong place, and demanding perfection rather than being moved by it.
The photo above is of Michelangelo's David. I was thinking about his life recently; it was far from perfect. His mother died when he was six. He lived in very unstable times and as an adult was forced to leave Florence - the place where he had built his reputation - by the puritanical monk Savanarola. He was depressive throughout his life. In matters of love he was unsuccessful at best, at worst used and abused. It is said that he lived in squalor. Michelangelo may have achieved near-perfection in his best art, but his personal life was a different matter. We seek perfection in the wrong place when we expect it of life itself. Life is imperfect. It always has been, and always will be. As with Michelangelo, the people we love will die; politicians and fanatics will damage our world; our career may become derailed after much hard work; we will undergo pain such as grief, illness, or depression; and at times we will be lonely or betrayed or hurt by those we love. Of course good things will also happen as the wheel of fortune turns its course. All mortals suffer the whims of chance, but rather than accepting reality while preferring that things go well, we deny reality and the nature of life, and demand that everything go well all the time. Or that certain things always go well. We demand perfection. The thought that I must do well, or others must treat me well, or life must go well…and all the time, is a secret cry in the heart of every person. This implicit, irrational demand for perfection lies at the root of so much of anger, resentment, depression, anxiety, tears, avoidance...of so much madness.
"I must do well, others must treat me well, and life must go well, all the time." Despite how smart we imagine ourselves to be - despite how smart we actually are - we all become distressed or behave badly based on these demands. Often we fail to see that this is what we are doing. The philosopher Susan Nieman wrote a wonderful little book called Why Grow Up? In it she describes how the child thinks the world is as it ought to be, and lives in a state of Pollyanna fantasy. The adolescent sees that the world is not that way, but they continue in their heart to demand perfection. So they are offended by the world's faults and react with cynicism, righteous anger, detachment, and so on. We all remain to some degree in childish fantasy or adolescent protest. The ideal of an adult is one who recognises that "I am imperfect, others are imperfect, and the world is imperfect, all the time." Unfortunately, none of us are fully grown-up. We become the wrong kind of perfectionist, and our lives are worse for it. But we can become ever more mature, and our lives will be the better for it.
So the first mistake we make is to seek perfection in the wrong place, for the world and all the people in it, including oneself, are imperfect. But while it may be folly to demand perfection, the answer to this should not be an adolescent rejection of it. To do so is to throw the baby out with the bath water, a mistake that is very common today. G.K. Chesterton said that civilisation hangs by a thread of fine distinctions. So too does one's peace. We need to think carefully. We should not lose sight of the fact that the misplaced demand for perfection is a corrupt counterfeit of something real and vitally important: true idealism, the lucid love of the absolute ideal which we are clearly or intuitively striving toward. The genuine ideal can guide us, giving us energy and direction as it has done for thinkers, artists and heroes for thousands of years. The proof of this is in the pudding – my example is Michelangelo. Thank goodness that Michelangelo never sought consultation with a modern hedonistic psychologist! In an age which rejects the ideal of perfection our galleries exhibit painted toilets, viewed by a public on antidepressants. There is of course a question left to be answered: If the demand for perfection is foolish because perfection does not exist in our material lives, then what is the meaning of the ideal of perfection? What place can it possibly have in our lives? Surely it is better to drop the idea altogether?
The philosopher Plato pointed out that we can have perfect ideas – say the concept of a true circle – but that such perfection never exists in our material world. Every material circle is imperfect, a mere approximation of the perfect geometric idea of a circle. If one is dedicated to the art of carving circles they may through effort create circles that are ever closer to the perfect form - the abstract definition or idea of a circle - however they will never achieve that perfection. It can be held only in their mind, as a guide. The thought of such circle-carving may sound inane until you consider the difference that our ability to shape matter, with increasing exactitude, according to the forms in our minds, has made to our modern world. As somebody who has worked on vintage motorcycles I notice the difference that even a few decades of such improvement has made. As a counsellor I have very high standards for how skilfully I want to help my clients, and over time as I push toward this ideal – which provides me with navigation and inspiration: I get better and better. Of course as I improve the gap seems to widen – as I slowly master my art I see more flaws and possibilities in my work – but this does not lead me to despair, for I also feel the increase. More than that, however, and this is my point: I am inspired, energised, and drawn by the the ideal through my love of it. Love is a different thing to a demand. Love directs my concern away from me - away from demanding my own perfection - to contemplating the perfect ideal and trying as best I can to get closer to it. I try to move toward it, or rather am drawn toward it in my practice, while knowing in my bones that I will always fall short. This is what Iris Murdoch called the "magnestism of the good" in her profound, short work of philosophy The Sovereignty of Good.
The love of perfection is a striving for a perfection which inspires love. Internal to this conception is the wisdom that one will ever reach their object in its absolute form. And yet the journey ever closer to the beloved gives life shape, meaning and purpose. Everything looks different. We are nourished and inspired by the perfect, ideal objects of our love. We become ever better than we were. Here we become the adult, who unlike a child sees the lack and flaw, without behaving like an adolescent who thereby rejects the ideal. David and the Pieta are imperfect: it is conceivable that a greater genius than Michelangelo could have done better: the marble rendered even more electric, the feeling that David might turn his gaze on you even more palpable. These artworks are wondrous because of the high degree that they approximate to that which Michelangelo strove, while also falling far short. For this reason they speak of something, opening our eyes to it without us being ever able fully to articulate it. We reach for words, and words are invited such as good, or true, perhaps with capital letters, but the language itself falls short. While also being necessary and important. These imperfect sculptures are moments of high art that have inspired us to better things for centuries.
This conception of perfection as something which gives direction and energy, and so purpose and meaning, to life, is at odds with recent ideology. It offends that lazy-minded relativism which has been popular for several decades, which insists that “it’s all the same” so “how can you judge?” That last question is usually rhetorical: it is not a real question, rather it is the dogmatic assertion: that you cannot judge. It is lazy because it stops too early and becomes dogmatism. (Our relativistic age is highly dogmatic.) Of course you can judge - we all do so all the time and for good reasons - and as we hone our capacities for such discrimination and discernment we become better at judging. We should lay aside such dogmatism and actually look at what is being done, and what the implications are. For example that that rhetorical question is itself a call to moral seriousness, albeit in a confused way: "You ought not to judge, because that is judgemental, and you ought not to be judgemental." It is a contradiction which implies that which it denies. It is worse than irrational, however, it is a form of nihilism, a denial of value for the sake of avoiding the effort of making "fine distinctions." It is an escapist philosophy. Iris Murdoch provides a powerful critique of this mistake in her book that I mentioned.
Life is striving, it is a honing of oneself and one’s talents in the direction of perfection, whatever the nature of our particular field of endeavour. Life is also a permanent falling short, so we cannot demand perfection, and if we do, well...that way lies madness. Our challenge is to accept imperfect reality, to learn to laugh at ourselves, or at least to walk lightly, and yet to strive, regardless, for what really matters: for the highest objects of love, for the highest ideal objects worthy of our love. We climb "the ladder of love" as the medievals called it, inspired by Plato's Symposium. In doing this our inner lives and way of being are shaped for the better. Drawn by a deep love of something wonderful, we create more wonder in the world.
Author: Matthew Bishop
Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good
Susan Nieman, Why Grow Up?