Wanted: perfection. Perhaps today in an even more deepened and obsessive way than ever. But are we on a wild goose chase? In this unstoppable search for it, do we even know if perfection exists?
Spoiler alert: it does exist. Seems like a controversial kick-off to this article? No point in rushing into judgment, there is no need for immediate mental disapproval. As with everything in life, context matters. It exists, but not in the way you are thinking of, not tangible and palpable in that universal form as we try to incorporate it as the ultimate goal of our existence, not in the way we categorize it as an enabler of a happier and fuller life, not as the light at the end of the tunnel, the solution to all evils, as if perfection were a salvation and an immutable state of eternal permanence. Perfection exists, but not as a universal and permanent concept, rather as an attribute of a situation, object, detail, moment, rather as an idea and ambition; maybe even fiction?
To attest to its indisputable and full existence, as something that prances around full of itself, we would need its essence to be defined consensually, and perfection has different meanings for different people, cultures, societies, so it is never full, always changeable and ephemeral. Take History as an example, which approached perfection and endowed it with different explanations depending on the social conditions from time to time: the oldest definition of the term dates from Aristotle, which, in his Metaphysics (Book V - Delta) essay, distinguishes three nuances in its meaning - perfection is something that is complete, something that is so good that nothing else can be better and something that has fulfilled its purpose. The triad points two levels perfectly - one relating to something that is perfect in itself and the other that perfectly serves an objective (duality also expressed by Thomas Aquinas). Over time, the concept has been gaining layers according to the ethics and morals of the era, connecting with nature, religion, God, man, art…, basically, according to current thinking and the opinion makers of the time. Without having to go much into the history of the world, it is not new that people over the centuries have redefined priorities and, with them, the concept of perfection, adapting their definition to their beliefs and conditions. Therefore, perfection is not an absolute term, it is a relative term. António de Castro Caeiro, Professor of Philosophy at NOVA FCSH and IFILNOVA, explains it better than us: “Perfect! That's what we say in different situations to describe what happens to us in relation to a number of things, people, days, works, deeds, circumstances and situations. ”, he starts by telling Vogue. “There are as many ‘perfections’ as there are things, objects, people, experiences. There is something that makes us say or think ‘perfect!’. We don't need to tell someone else. It happens even when we are alone with us. What strikes us as perfect exceeds what is normal, usual. On the contrary, it is exceptional, extraordinary. If we want to explain this ‘something’, we’re talking about beauty, which is also different, depending on the things we say are beautiful. [...] Perfection corresponds to the superlative degree with which a 'being' presents itself, to the maximum degree of development of whatever it is or, as Philosophy says, of its being. It is not enough to be perfect, it has to appear being perfect. So, in everyday language, there is the expression that can be said of anything that exists, of any ‘being’, anything that we see or know that exists. X, Y and Z are perfect if, in addition to existing, they are there, survive, reveal themselves in a superlative, maximum degree of being. This means that we look at reality and all the things that happen as if we were juries in a beauty contest. We are all, without exception, juries in a contest of perfection in which all people, all things, are exposed to our critical eye, prepared to see imperfections, degrees of imperfections at every moment, ready to cancel, delete and exclude from the contest whatever. And not without exempting ourselves from the appreciation of oneself, either because we do not want to or don't know or cannot assess ourselves without a conflict of interests.” And he continues, looking at the role of perfection in everyday life: “Perfection and imperfection are the limits of our life. We want to live with what is top and do not attach anything to what does not meet the requirements to qualify. Or else we recognize that we have lives below what we expected them to be. We didn't come to have what we wanted to have and, worse yet, we didn't come to be who we wanted to be. Perhaps, thus, perfection in life is a notion with which we were born or which has been inculcated over time. Perfection is a possibility. The possibility is more than the reality. Of course, reality is what you are and what you have. But the human being is not satisfied with what he has or what he is. We want to have more, we are driven by a sense of improvement that we want to put into practice and we are frustrated or sad if we do not meet our full potential or make dreams come true.”
Is perfection then - assuming it as a possibility - an idea, a concept, that helps man to improve himself when he dreams of beauty and perfection? And is it a goal that makes us constantly try to improve, though an utopian one? And thus, the search for perfection is a task equal to Sisyphus' one (who carried a stone up the mountain only to see it roll back to the base when it was almost reaching the summit), never rewarding, frustrating and, on top of that, distinct from person to person? Is imperfection, therefore, reality and perfection is fiction? Imperfection is reality because nature is imperfect, man is imperfect; and perfection is fiction because it is a human construction, with all the conditions that man, as a social being, represents. “What doesn't find time to be is absolutely perfect. What 'is' all the time is so perfect that it remains. What exists for some time is something in between absolute imperfection and perfection. Human life has its days numbered. It is not perfect itself. To be human is to be exposed, to be vulnerable, to have the days numbered. How can a being, by definition ephemeral, be perfect? On the other hand, we witness perfection, even if it is relative, instantaneous, whatever it is. ”, explained António de Castro Caeiro. Which does not mean that perfection does not exist: “To exist is said in many ways. If, as Kant says, the impossible is what does not exist in any time and what is necessary is what exists all the time or what cannot be thought of without existing, then existence is what has existed for some time”, the Philosophy professor tells us. It exists when it corresponds to these constraints, framed in a specific temporal and spatial context.
This is a good starting point to move on to the existence of perfection: it can exist as a characteristic, but always subordinated to the perspective of an individual and the details of a particular situation or object - perfection works if the parameters are rigidly defined. If you have a project in your hands and idealized the result in a certain way and that result corresponded to that ideal, at that moment, that result was perfect - because it couldn't be better than that, it is complete. But in another context or perspective, the same paradigm might not be interpreted in the same way. In physics, for example, rigid bodies are described as perfect when they are not deformed, when some kind of force is applied to them, but a perfect plastic body is one that is deformed infinitely through a constant weight corresponding to the limit of that same plastic body. ; and as the body type changes, for this scientific aspect, its notion of perfection also changes, because perfection implies the fulfillment of a purpose - and whenever the purpose changes, its notion also changes. Does perfection only make sense, or rather, does it only exist from a restricted perspective, then? No. It also exists as an idea, in the imagination, although it may even be unattainable. “Human beings have never been dominated by the dictatorship of what is real and objective”, explains Caeiro. “He doesn't allow himself to be happy with what he has, he wants more, because he doesn't only see the part that appears to him from the objects, he sees the inside of the objects, the back side, the bottom and the top even if they don't appear. […] It is in the relationship with us, with others, with everything that exists that we outline the idea of perfection, we plan to be better, so we get literate, enroll in gyms, go to the doctor when we don't need to improve performances, we meet people and we want to live with those we love, do what we like, more and better, as if we were 'addicted' to a logic of adding to everything we like to do. Perfection is the exponential escalation of frequency, quantity, quality in view of the totality. [...] We can already have everything and want more. But we will never be everything. If we are what we are, we always want to continue to be more and more, because staying as we are, stagnates, deteriorates, makes us frustrated. [...] The idea of perfection is so perfect that it makes reality perfect.”
Perfection exists, then, as an unattainable and personal concept, as an idea: we always strive to reach a state of perfection (considering ambition and not obsession here) unscathed, never really getting there, because there is always space, theoretically speaking, for improve, and in doing so, the previous state is destroyed, meaning that it was not perfect - or rather, it was during the period and while it fulfilled the maximum exponent of its purpose. Ironically, perfection is, then, a deeply imperfect concept. Not only because of the above - because it is not consensual from individual to individual and because it is not permanent, restricting itself to ideal contexts - but also because it implies reaching a state of fullness, where there is nothing more to learn, interrupting the process of evolution and throwing away the continuous attempt to obtain more knowledge. It is synonymous with stagnation. And stagnation is an imperfect attribute, namely in the human being, who is constantly changing, even if it is because he is an observer of the world around him and allows himself to be influenced by it, finding himself in a permanent evolution, purposely or inadvertently. His existence is imperfect because he is constantly (trying to) overcome himself - and that is (im) perfect: “We find ourselves unfinished, imperfect, not only because we wanted to live forever but because we always wanted to be young”, says the philosophy professor, adding that “we are a particle of the perfect, as the old stoics said. The perfect thing is communion with everyone we love, with all things, with everything that exists, with the world, with the universe. We want to be all things and exist with everyone we love and love more and more in a world at the twilight of life. Life is but one day, as long as it is eternal.”
We repeat: perfection exists. Correction: perfections exist, as a product of different minds, times, geographies, multiplying in the same number of purposes and ideals that we challenge for ourselves and that we try continually, often, frustratingly, to achieve. But its existence does not imply its conquest in an absolute, only relative way. Because no matter how much we try to cancel imperfection after imperfection, it does not necessarily mean that the state of perfection is reached: "By recognizing your imperfection you can try to erase it. Erasing imperfection is not necessarily being perfect, in the same way as correcting imperfections. of the face or body with surgical interventions will not make someone Helen of Troy or Achilles. We can move on two fronts, suppressing imperfections and try to improve ourselves. [...] Perfection is a euphemism for eternity. Live forever, as if we continually live the happiest days of our lives, with the most loved people in the moments when we realize it, full of hope and joy, without ever ending up as a perfect party, because it was perfect or because we think that it was perfect ”, says Caeiro. And if we lived forever, would it be interesting that this eternity would always be perfect? Would it be interesting that it served to achieve 'perfection'? Universal and ultimate and ideal state of our existence, remaining unscathed forever and ever, would it even be desirable to have it? Failing to discover new stages of knowledge, absorbing experiences and letting oneself be changed by them, living in constant learning and evolution, is that even something relevant to a happy life?
“The path towards perfection, although guided by perfection, is understood to be done between the beginning and the end, as if it were a race that we do as marathon runners or sprinters. The metaphor is very old and poses an initial problem. The track is made as the path proceeds. It is not ready. There are several possible paths, several speeds, there are no opponents because just as no one can truly die for us or pay our promises, neither can we live our lives. And we are at the same time the other competitors, judges, competition directors and spectators. To err is human is usually understood as ‘failing’, ‘not getting it right’, it’s human. But the initial meaning is not necessarily negative. To err in Latin means to wander, to drift, without a route or route. But Plutarco says: ‘Navigating is necessary. Living is not necessary ’. The urge for freedom is a compulsion, but to live to be free, to free yourself from constraints and to free yourself is a non-negotiable condition of human existence. Yogis say that the human being lives to be free from himself, to be free when he lives that liberation, the deconditioning of the law of death and the opening to eternity. Witnessing the miracle of life and the mystery of death is not for spectators. It's for actors. Not for extras, but for the protagonists of your own life. And when we reach dead ends, we lose opportunities, we see imperfections, the room for maneuver comes from perfection even when we have an idea of it. In its form, without knowing what it corresponds to, comes an order or an invitation: to start again. To be helpful, to be helpful, to be competent, to be a friend, to be a good daughter, mother, granddaughter and grandmother, to be a good professional, to present yourself perfectly and to be perfect, everything vanishes. It is the idea of creating, making, producing, of being, that 'ignites' the urge to travel. Those who do not leave and those who never left never return. 'Walker, there is no way. You walk on your way ', said António Machado ”, concludes António de Castro Caeiro.
I suggest we stop falling into the cliché of asking if perfection exists. The question should rather be: is perfection interesting? Perhaps the interesting thing is the path that leads to it. And that, with all its imperfections, is perfect.
Originally published on Vogue Portugal's The Beauty of Imperfection issue, from november 2020.