Good enough for greatness

My old teacher John Lachs delivered this year’s inaugural Berry Lecture at Vanderbilt last night. “Why is Good Enough not Good Enough for Us?” It was just as I’ve come to expect of his talks through the years, thoughtful and elegant and crisply performed. It spurned Platonism, the impossible and stultifying “pursuit of perfection” which he said

 is not the search for something definite and well-known. The limits of human capacity and the vagueness of the ideal make attainment of perfection impossible, yet its lure ruins our satisfaction with what is clearly excellent and therefore good enough.

This isn’t the “good enough” of Lake Wobegon, where things could always be worse, but the genuine good of areth [aretê] that ought to be enough to fill our hearts and entice our eagerness for the morrow. But most of us fall prey to perfectionism at one time or another, and cheat ourselves of the life satisfactions we’ve earned.

After the talk I asked Lachs if he’d seen Moneyball. He hasn’t. But consider the case of poor Billy Beane, Oakland Athletics General Manager. Incapable of relishing his small-market team’s record-setting win streak or his own unorthodox contributions to that achievement, he’s a “perfect” illustration of  Lachs’s thesis. The A’s didn’t win the Big One at season’s end, so the perfectionist GM considered himself and his team a failure. He couldn’t give himself a moment’s pause to mark and remember their remarkable success.

In A&P yesterday afternoon we heard from Daniel about another sort of perfectionist, Friedrich Nietzsche, the Uber-prophet who came too soon. Forever too soon, for the humans he thought “all too human.” Fritz was not much of a team player, but  there are legions of Nietzscheans among us still. I considered myself one, back in my early days of grad school before discovering Willy James’s less antipathetic humanism.

I do like Nietzsche’s impulse, manifest in his “gift” of eternal recurrence, to find our permanent life in nature good enough and affirm its perpetual return. But the discipline of sublimated  self-overcoming he preached and roughly practiced is too stern and self-denying for my taste. The so called will to power, the “striving to transcend and perfect oneself,” is an example of what Lachs called

our Faustian tendency to want to have and do everything… our compulsion to pursue unreachable ideals [in] the eternal dissatisfaction that permeates Western industrial society.

Reach for the stars, by all means, but as Casey Kasem used to say as he counted down to #1, keep your feet on the ground.The “good enough” perspective “substitutes joy in the immediacies of life for all-encompassing guilt.” Of course we should all be doing what we can to ameliorate the suffering and sadness that afflict so many, and not only those in our own back yard.  The Peter Singers of the world may ask too much of us, but those to whom much is given have much to give back. We need to have an answer. And yet…

This world as we know it really is more than good enough. It might even be great, like those post-lecture beers at Blackstone’s. Just wish I’d remembered to phone home. But nobody’s perfect.

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5 Responses to “Good enough for greatness”

  1. Joan Says:

    I attended that lecture last night, and felt it contained an intriguing contradiction. The first half discussed the pursuit of perfection as futile and self-defeating, as perfection is and always will be unattainable. That sounded like standard religious fare to me, the kind used to keep sinners striving and tithing.
    The second half proposed that efforts to ease suffering should be voluntary, not mandatory. That is in direct opposition to religious teachings (and a standard tenet of Atheist Ayn’s objectivism).

    I think the lecture/paper could have easily been split in two; I would’ve enjoyed hearing both of these topics discussed in much more detail.
    However, I’m glad I had the chance to attend, and I’m really looking forward to next week!

  2. Phil Oliver Says:

    I know some in attendance heard it that way, and I might have too, if I didn’t already know Lachs and his long devotion to the convergent value of immediacy, liberty, and pluralism. As I heard it, he was not defending futility or resignation, nor was he taking any deliberate stance on religious themes. And he’s no Randian, unless you mean James. I thought Lachs was just making the fundamentally humane point that we shouldn’t allow our conscientious regard for the suffering of our peers to disable our own flourishing. Of course we should work to ameliorate, to heal the world. Of course we should be disturbed by others’ pain. Of course we should all do what we can. But, we’ve each got one precious life to live. We should enjoy it while we can.

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