If you have not already done so, you may wish to read the
Introduction to Gnomica.
Thursday 6 September 2012
Read gnomica 1-100 here!
In nature, nothing is perfect and everything is perfect.
Trees can be contorted, bent in weird ways, and they’re still beautiful.
Alice Walker (9 Feb 1944 – )
I think I see what this winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (for The Color Purple  in 1983) is getting at here. At any rate, the comment starts me on a mental walkabout in antiquity – and I hope she comes along!
What is perfection – aside from being, as the saw goes, the enemy of the good?
Etymologically (<per-fect- completely done) it just means something or some state that could not in its essence be more what it is supposed to be than it already is. In a Platonic sense, each thing has its ἀρετή aretē, or that at which it is supposed to be the best, the most suited, its particular excellence. Thus Herodotus (mid-480s – 425 BCE), the ancient historian, at 3.88 of the Histories notes that Dareios won the kingdom of Persia thanks in part to the ἀρετή of his horse, which I take to mean the excellence of his horse in warfare; and in the account of Libya at 4.198 Herodotus even speaks of the excellence, the ἀρετή (= productiveness), of the land’s soil – the essence of a field, its raison d’être, being its capacity for growing plentiful crops.
Thus, when Alice Walker talks about perfection and imperfection in nature she takes, on my understanding, a very catholic view of what indeed perfection is. The example of the trees suggests to me that, yes, in the case of a bamboo (whose ἀρετή as it were is to be slim, straight and tall) not being contorted is a perfection, but in the case of the old oak being contorted is also a perfection, for that is in fact the ἀρετή of old oaks. Hence, both contortion and lack of contortion are aspects of perfection — with reference to each tree.
In short, ἀρετή never exists in a vacuum but is a malleable, plastic quality deeply linked to that thing whose ἀρετή is in question.
And similarly with reference to less physically tangible realities, notions like courage, piety, knowledge (itself a shape-shifting multiform), each have their particular ἀρετή that dictates the perfection or lack of perfection in each instance. What may superficially seem like a kind of contradiction in terminology as well as phenomenological realization – how can nature appear and be both perfect and imperfect? – in fact proves at a deeper ontological level to be completely sensible.
Precisely because that is the ἀρετή of the oak, the twisted and gnarled status of its branchings in fact is part and parcel of its perfection – just as on the terms of its own very different ἀρετή the slender straight-standing bamboo is its particular perfection.
Hence, both are beautiful, because perfect each in its own designated (DNA-driven, we moderns might well say) way!
Now, extrapolate … !