Notes on “perfectionism”; tempora cum causis (16)

Garden fresco in the Villa of Livia. Image: Wikimedia.

In the Brutus (71), Cicero, tracing the trajectory of Latin literature, writes: nihil est enim simul et inuentum et perfectum,Nothing is fully developed at the moment of its invention.” The Latin verb perficio, from which the English word “perfect” derives, means “to bring to completion” or “to finish.” In a different work, On the Nature of the Gods (2.35), Cicero, speaking from a Stoic perspective, describes this process of completion or finishing in terms of a natural growth which irresistibly strives beyond its current state. Here comes the Latin and the Loeb translation: 

neque enim dici potest in ulla rerum institutione non esse aliquid extremum atque perfectum. ut enim in uite ut in pecude nisi quae uis obstitit uidemus naturam suo quodam itinere ad ultimum peruenire, atque ut pictura et fabrica ceteraeque artes habent quendam absoluti operis effectum, sic in omni natura ac multo etiam magis necesse est absolui aliquid ac perfici. etenim ceteris naturis multa externa quo minus perficiantur possunt obsistere, uniuersam autem naturam nulla res potest impedire, propterea quod omnis naturas ipsa cohibet et continet.

Again, it is undeniable that every organic whole must have an ultimate ideal of perfection. As in vines or in cattle we see that, unless obstructed by some force, nature progresses on a certain path of her own to her goal of full development, and as in painting, architecture and the other arts and crafts there is an ideal of perfect workmanship, even so and far more in the world of nature as a whole there must be a process towards completeness and perfection. The various limited modes of being may encounter many external obstacles to hinder their perfect realization, but there can be nothing that can frustrate nature as a whole, since she embraces and contains within herself all modes of being.

Each of these discussions of “perfection” in Cicero suggests that the thing which is “perfect” is one which has been worked beyond an initial beginning of some kind — the event horizon of “invention” (inuentum), or the young tendril of vine — and imagines the possibility that such a start could be brought forward to its logical conclusion, its completion. Essentially, “perfection”, in these terms, requires a distance between the beginning and the end; an end cannot coexist with its beginning. It requires growth. Yet the fine line between the simplicity of completion, and the politics of “perfection” is blurred by Cicero too. The natural world may follow its own script, leading to the growth of plants and animals, but Cicero includes human artefacts in the same category: painting, architecture, “technology” (ceterae artes…). The idea that the perfect thing is the completed thing is a problem. Because, well. When is anything finished? There is a difference between completion (the point of fullness beyond which further growth is impossible), and a stop (a breaking off point). But what is it?

The English term “perfectionism” — i.e. the refusal to accept any standard short of “perfection” — did not arise until the 1930s (according to the OED), yet there is a shadow of this idea even in Cicero. In certain circumstances, Cicero writes, obstacles may arise which stand in the way of even nature’s “perfect” course. The anxiety of not meeting completion is there. Such anxiety enters at the moment when the concept of an “end” is complexified by judgement. A critical eye complicates the notion of completion, questioning the possibility of wholeness. The social phenomenon of perfectionism inserts a difficulty into the concept of the “perfect” as the completed thing, because perfectionism refuses to see completion.

As an antidote to a social disease which invalidates moments of closure (i.e. what even an “end” might mean for us), we might reconsider what it means to “begin” something. In How Societies Remember (1989), Paul Connerton figures the “beginning” as something more complex than a single moment of inception (p6):

“All beginnings contain an element of recollection. This is particularly so when a social group makes a concerted effort to begin with a wholly new start. There is a measure of complete arbitrariness in the very nature of any such attempted beginning. The beginning has nothing whatsoever to hold on to; it is as if it came out of nowhere…But the absolutely new is inconceivable. It is not just that it is very difficult to begin with a wholly new start, that too many old loyalties and habits inhibit the substitution of a novel enterprise for a new and established one.”

The beginning does not come out of nowhere. To some extent, a “fresh start” is impossible. All beginnings grow from old soil (to extend the horticultural metaphor). If the beginning is a blurred line, so too can the end be — that horizon line of “perfection.” If completion is not a full stop but a lingering note, then perfectionism may lose some of its power. There are, too, lots of moments of fullness along the way towards that blurry wholeness. The full embrace of perfectionism also means accepting the argument of teleology — that what comes next is inherently superior to what preceded it, that human culture is marching towards a pin point of perfection. Teleological thinking blinds us to points of significance outside a narrative of progress. Rejecting such thinking allows us to consider what it is, exactly, that we’re progressing towards.