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Herb Rothschild Jr.: Pondering perfection

When reviews begin, “This flawed but engaging film” or “This isn’t a perfect novel, but,” I can’t understand what the reviewers are talking about. Do there exist for them perfect films or novels by which they measure each new effort? If so, I’d like to know which they are so I can decide whether they’re using the right yardstick. Or do they hold in their minds a Platonic Idea of a film or novel which they decide real productions more or less approximate?

The likely truth is that the reviewers have nothing in mind when they deploy these ready-to-hand phrases except to lend magisterial weight to their judgments. Can you imagine Frank Capra beginning “It’s a Wonderful Life” by saying, “Now I’m going to make a flawless film”? Can you imagine Dostoyevsky beginning “The Brothers Karamazov” by saying, “Now I’m going to write a perfect novel”? They may have felt, when they finished, that they had failed to fully realize their original conception — great artists usually have that experience; it’s one of the reasons they keep at it — but what counts is their particular project.

When it comes to the human — individuals, societies, works of our minds and hands — is the very concept of perfection helpful?

Let’s start by considering the relation between excellence and perfection. I hope none of us denies that excellence exists. There are amateur performances and professional performances, shoddy craftsmanship and skilled craftsmanship, pedestrian thinking and brilliant thinking.

Not only does excellence exist, we can achieve more agreement about who or what displays it than you might think. Like many college composition teachers, I often asked freshmen at the start of a term to read sample papers and rank them as A, C, or F in quality. It’s impressive how much consensus there was. The students may not have been able to articulate the reasons for their rankings, but they could discern broad differences in quality of thought, organization and diction.

Yet, can one speak of excellence if one has no idea of perfection? Isn’t excellence an approximation of the ideal? There are many thinkers, beginning with Plato, who have held that view. Nonetheless, I believe it’s misguided and, when it comes to human life and work, quite dangerous.

There’s a saying I like: “Perfection is the enemy of the good.” I’ve heard it in the context of legislative work. There, it most obviously means that if you insist on getting into a bill every provision you want and refuse to settle for less, you usually end up with nothing. But the meaning expands when one considers that most of the human affairs that lawmakers must address are so complex and subject to change over time that the belief in perfect legislation is a will-o’-the-wisp.

The main challenge the great political thinker Isaiah Berlin accepted was posed by 20th century ideologues who insisted they understood what perfection in human affairs is. Their efforts to actualize their ideals took a terrible human toll. They still do — think ISIS or American “exceptionalism.” Berlin argued brilliantly for a pluralism of understandings of the good life and the just society. Thus, he espoused humility and tolerance, its attendant virtue.

When the totalitarian impulse tempts me to harsh judgments, I remind myself that all of us are trying to make something worthwhile of our lives. There are varieties and degrees of excellence and of failure as well, but it’s irrelevant to remark that no one is perfect.

Herb Rothschild's column appears in the Tidings every Saturday.