Perfectionism is a blunder. It assumes that perfection is attainable by us imperfect creatures. Even the perfectionist knows he isn’t perfect. That is part of the pathology. It is what leads the average perfectionist to have a poor opinion of himself (I speak from experience).
A few minutes ago I happened to stumble across a couple snips from dear St. Thomas which speak indirectly to this very problem (As an aside I wonder if Aquinas was a perfectionist because the quality of his work is so astonishingly high. But I digress).
I think the problem is at least analogously related to a difficulty some people have with theism. Their notion is along these lines: if God exists and created this world, then He would have created it perfectly. The world is not perfect (inject the critic’s particular areas of dissatisfaction with the world as it is, which may very well be perfectly reasonable), and therefore God could not have created it. Now, what could Aquinas say that might address the perfectionist and the critic of theism?
First there is this:
As God is perfect in His works, He bestowed perfection on all of them according to their capacity. (ST I q.91 a.1)
And then this:
All natural things were produced by the Divine art, and so may be called God’s works of art. Now every artist intends to give to his work the best disposition; not absolutely the best, but the best as regards the proposed end; and even if this entails some defect, the artist cares not: thus, for instance, when man makes himself a saw for the purpose of cutting, he makes it of iron, which is suitable for the object in view; and he does not prefer to make it of glass, though this be a more beautiful material, because this very beauty would be an obstacle to the end he has in view. Therefore God gave to each natural being the best disposition; not absolutely so, but in the view of its proper end. This is what the Philosopher says (Phys. ii, 7): “And because it is better so, not absolutely, but for each one’s substance.” (ST I q.91 a.3; emphasis added)
St. Thomas explains why we are not made perfect in an absolute sense, but perfect for our specific nature and our proper end. (which may imply defects for other purposes: his example is that a glass saw would be more beautiful but less useful than an iron one).
The upshot for this blog post is twofold. First, the perfectionist pursues something unnecessary. Perfection is not required, but rather suitability for a thing’s purpose. This may still demand high standards of quality of course, but that is different than the paralyzing, demoralizing, unrealistic pursuit of something that I do not even need. I am not perfect myself—not in any way you could name—but that is perfectly okay. God made me suitably for the end He intends for me (which, ultimately, is to spend eternity with Him!) What more could I ask or hope for?
The second observation has to do with our skeptic’s objection above. He makes nearly the same error as the perfectionist, but he aims his demands at God: a perfect world would be different from this one in (some particular) ways, and the lack of perfection of our world means either that God does not exist or that He does not love us. But there are all sorts of mistakes here. The most glaring may be to suppose that one is right in listing off the alleged defects of the world and blaming them on God. Let us assume that God does exist, and that He is infinitely wise and intelligent. Where the heck do we get off thinking that we can stand in judgment of the way that God made the world? Are we smarter than He? Wiser? Do we know more? Ha. Ha. And again, Ha. So in the first place we are in no position to judge God’s purposes, because He is infinite in perfection, wisdom, knowledge, intelligence, and love. We, needless to say, are not. Our finitude makes it frankly absurd for us to say (with a know-it-all harrumph) that the world would be better in some other way.
This is not to say that there are not trials associated with life in the real world. Of course there are. But the vast majority of our problems are the result of flawed exercises of an essential human quality: our free will. We sin, or others do, and we expect God to clean up the mess. We forget, though, that free will implies the freedom to do evil, and that justice demands we receive the penalties or rewards due to us for the way that we exercise our freedom. We forget that the freedom of others (and our own freedom) can very well result in suffering for innocents. But God has a plan, and His plans cannot be thwarted. He even turns human evildoing on its head so that it works out for the fulfillment of His purposes. And His purposes are good.