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Are We Perfect? – Part One

Socrates spots Orpheus, who sits at the coast near Athens. He is looking out at a glorious sunset and has a palette of paint, brushes and a canvas in front of him. Socrates approaches him.

Socrates: Orpheus, my favorite of the artists these days! What a joy to find you here. What is it this time that you are trying to capture with your brush?

Orpheus: Socrates, my favorite critic; who always seems to tell me I am both useless and useful at the same time. [chuckles] Don’t you see what I am doing? The majesty of Apollo, riding his chariot into the sea, displays itself before our very eyes! I have seldom seen richness of color, sublimity of shapes in the clouds and starkness of contrast unfold in this manner! And as my memory is fleeting, for I am growing old, and I am far less skilled with words than you are, I do what was bestowed unto me: I try to capture the perfection of this sunset!

Socrates: It is magnificent indeed. But tell me, if you don’t mind doing so, what do you mean, precisely, when you say, “the perfection of the sunset”?

Orpheus: Today, I may be favored enough to satisfy you with my answer: The beauty of this sunset is so complete that I would not add anything to it, and therefore, it is perfect.

Socrates: Yes, you have not done so badly this time. Like we discussed before, and your excellent memory serves you well, a perfect thing is that to which one would not wish anything to be added to (nor taken from), as it is whole in itself, lacking nothing. But could you not think of something that would make this supposedly perfect thing better? How about a stronger red or orange around the edges of the clouds? Would that not make your sunset more beautiful, showing that it was not perfect in the first place?

Orpheus: Socrates, you again are in danger of invoking my anger, for you want to rob me of the joy of capturing this instantiation of perfection by declaring it imperfect. Maybe you are right, it could be even more beautiful, but still, this sunset is perfect to me, just like a woman with flawless skin and golden hair, glowing in the light of moon!

Socrates: This woman you are talking about – for I am sure you have a woman you yourself painted in mind – did she not have a bit of wrinkly skin somewhere? Was there not a bit of brown in her golden hair that spoiled the image of perfection? Was there not a strain of hair in the wrong place? Did she not maybe have curiously large toes, or something else that bothered you?

Orpheus: You are spoiling all the joy I thought I ever experienced, Socrates, for you sadly are right. But what if the literal image of Aphrodite would grace this earth? I would surely be right in saying that would be someone perfect to paint!

Socrates: A good question, but let me ask you this in return, Orpheus: Have you ever seen a woman that did not have some little imperfection about herself, be it in her appearance or her character, if you really attempted to look for it?

Orpheus: If I answer honestly, I have not, sadly. There has not been a woman that wasn’t tainted by some small imperfection. Even if what I said came true and Aphrodite’s lovely figure would find embodiment in a young woman, I would, by experience, surely find strangeness of thought or ugliness of temperament in some of her ways.

Socrates: Then you have spoken honestly.

Orpheus: But surely there can be perfection in an action, like a blow from Achilles sword? For his strike never failed to end an enemy’s life.

Socrates: It seems like it has not failed to do so, but answer me this: Can something that is alike cause something that is unlike itself?

Orpheus: What do you mean?

Socrates: For instance, answer me this: Can something cold cause something to be heated? Like cold water from the river, can it cook meat?

Orpheus: Of course not – but what are you getting at?

Socrates: And can something weak make something strong? Like an untutored and physically weak person, can he help someone else become strong?

Orpheus: Again, that is impossible.

Socrates: Thirdly, can that which is bad cause a good thing?

Orpheus: You begin to insult me, Socrates, for obviously the answer is no.

Socrates: Then, from what was said, can something perfect come from something imperfect?

Orpheus: It cannot. How does that relate to my question regarding Achilles’ skill with the sword?

Socrates: You will see in time, and be patient, for we haven’t finished yet. Was there not imperfection in Achilles’ failure to listen to his mother? Did this not bring him to ruin, and isn’t the fact that he was brought to ruin ultimately testimony to his imperfection?

Orpheus: Yes, I perhaps agree. [hesitantly, with an uncertain expression on his face]

Socrates: Additionally, you yourself agreed that nothing perfect could be caused by something imperfect. Answer me, how could one blow of Achilles’ sword have been perfect if he himself surely wasn’t?

Orpheus: You force me to agree with you, Socrates, however, it feels like my words have been twisted in my mouth. Also, you have saddened me now, and my heart is heavy, for we have discovered that there is no perfect thing in this world, be it human appearance or character; and even the children of the Gods are imperfect. Could perfection then be anything but a mere imagination?

Socrates: Don’t be so quick with your judgement, Orpheus.

Orpheus: How could I not? [now shaking visibly] For why should I continue being a painter, if all I will ever produce will have no chance of being perfect, for nothing I will ever see or discover can be perfect? I have lost all hope to do any good whatsoever! For is it not the case that that which is not perfect cannot be good?!

Socrates: Again, my dear Orpheus, don’t be hasty. Start to think for yourself instead of letting me guide you around like a donkey who has a carrot dangle in front of his nose.

Orpheus looks at him, bewildered, and succumbs to silence. At this point, we leave the scene.

To be continued.



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