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Jung on Perfection and Completeness
” … just as lead, which theoretically could become gold, never did so in practice, so the sober-minded man of our own day looks round in vain for the possibility of final perfection. Therefore, on an objective view of the facts, which alone is worthy of the name of science, he sees himself obliged to lower his pretensions a little, and instead of striving after the ideal of perfection to content himself with the more accessible goal of approximate completeness.”
“For, just as completeness is always imperfect, so perfection is always incomplete, and therefore represents a final state which is hopelessly sterile. “Ex perfecto nihil fit,” say the old Masters, whereas the imperfectum carries within it the seeds of its own improvement. Perfectionism always ends in a blind alley, …”
“Natural as it is to seek perfection in one way or another, the archetype fulfills itself in completeness, and this is a teleiosis of quite another kind. Where the archetype predominates, completeness is forced upon us against all our conscious strivings, in accordance with the archaic nature of the archetype. The individual may strive after perfection …but must suffer from the opposite of his intentions for the sake of his completeness.”
“Perfect.” I encounter this word so often these days– as the response from a call-center employee when I reply with the correct answer, as the reaction when I place a telephone order with a sales clerk, even in the newspaper, e.g. in an article on identity as a work in progress, in which a teenager wanted to wear a lot of makeup in order to be “perfect.” Jung would not be amused. In this essay, I will review Jung’s statements about perfection, the dangers in perfectionism, and what Jung saw as a more realistic goal for human beings.
Jung’s Statements about Perfection
“…just as lead, which theoretically could become gold, never did so in practice, so the sober-minded man of our own day looks round in vain for the possibility of final perfection.”
Jung recognized that only fantasists or dreamers believe that it is possible for us to achieve the “perfect.”
“Even the idea of perfection does not posit perfection.”
While we may entertain a perfect mental image or ideal, we cannot realize it in actual, physical reality.
“… perfection is always incomplete, and therefore represents a final state which is hopelessly sterile. “Ex perfecto nihil fit,” say the old Masters, whereas the imperfectum carries within it the seeds of its own improvement.”
The Latin means “Nothing comes out of perfection.” In other words perfection is sterile; it admits no possibility of growth or improvement, and Jung’s whole psychology was about growth and development.
Jung recognized that our striving for perfection “… is not only legitimate but is inborn in man as a peculiarity which provides civilization with one of its strongest roots.” So much of what humans have achieved over 6,000 years has been sourced from this powerful “passion.” But Jung was aware that, however much we might “strive after perfection,” we “must suffer from the opposite of [our] intentions for the sake of [our] completeness.”
In this passage in volume 9ii of his Collected Works, Jung quotes Roman 7:21: “Be you therefore perfect–teleioi–as also your heavenly Father is perfect.” Jung knew his Greek, and therefore understood that Paul’s choice of teleioi did not mean “perfect”–it has been consistently mistranslated by orthodox clerics so as to foster guilt in people, and thus make them easier to control. In the 29 New Testament verses that are relevant here, we are urged to “be perfect,” “be made perfect,” “aim for perfection,” “attain perfection,” “present everyone perfect,” “make perfect those who draw near to worship,” “be righteous men made perfect,” and “be a perfect man.” The original Greek, however, had something quite different in mind.
The five Greek words that are usually translated as “perfect” are teleio ‘olokleros, katartizo, epiteleo, and pleroo. [This wretched Word Press does not allow me to transliterate the Greek letters-sigh!]. Telei0 means “to complete, fulfill, finish, or bring an end to.” ‘olokleros is an adjective meaning “entire, complete, in all its parts,” compounded of two words meaning “whole” (‘olos) and “allotment” (kleris). Katartizo means “to furnish completely, to readjust, or put in order again.” Epiteleo is a compound verb based on teleo, meaning “to complete, finish or accomplish.” And pleroo means “to make complete or full; to fulfill.” Note that perfection is not a meaning for any of these words.
When Paul urged the people of Corinth to “aim for perfection,” the verb he used (katartizo) meant “to work to become complete, healed, mended or restored.” Likewise, with James, John and the author of Hebrews. They exhort us to become whole, integrated, healed, fully accomplished in the development of our divine gifts. The goal of life, in other words, is to reach our appointed end, much as an acorn realizes its destiny in growing into a glorious oak tree.
So what happened? How did the original meaning get lost? Students of this issue target the patriarchal bias of “spirit-based” religion, which focuses on the disembodied spirit, and plays down the soul and the physical plane. The spirit world is ungrounded, out of touch with physical life. As the product of mentation, the spirit lives in abstractions, focused on ideals. In the rarefied world of spirit, perfection is one attribute of the Divine, one of the Platonic ideals.
In the several centuries after Jesus’ death, as the New Testament canon was developed, neo-Platonic influences crept into Christianity, showing up most clearly in the interpretation of the five terms noted above. Rather than the original focus on wholeness or completion, realizing one’s innate human powers, the focus shifted to the unrealizable ideal of perfectability.
Jung recognized the patriarchal basis of this shift when he noted that, according to the Church fathers
“The inferiority of women was a settled fact. Woman was regarded as less perfect than man, as Eve’s weakness for the blandishments of the serpent amply proved. Perfection is a masculine desideratum, while woman inclines by nature to completeness.”
and Jung urged his readers to “bear in mind that there is a considerable difference between perfection and completeness.” We may focus on perfection, follow our culture’s current seeming infatuation with “perfect,” but we must remember that, as Jung says, “things are constantly going wrong with man,” so we will always fall short.
The Dangers in a Focus on Perfection
There are multiple dangers in a focus on perfection. First is what it can lead to. Because the quest for perfection is a hopeless endeavor, it can become an addiction. Trying to be perfect is a foolproof strategy to foster guilt, shame, self-hatred and a sense of personal inadequacy. In our patriarchal culture, the notion of perfection as the goal or standard served church leaders well, in terms of keeping control over people, because it encourages feelings of powerlessness and despair. It also breeds fear and anxiety, because of the evaluation and judgment that perfectionism implies.
A second danger is that striving for perfection can block play. Although the puritanical elements in the Christian hierarchy will never admit it, we human beings are meant to be playful. This is what Jesus meant when he spoke of the need to become like children. When we have a child-like (not childish!) engagement with the world, we can relax, play, and respond to reality with awe and wonder. We become creative. Perfectionism kills creativity.
Perfectionism can warp our imagination. One of our most important human abilities is imagination. Western culture, of course, denigrates this gift (think how many times you have heard, or been told, “Oh, that’s just your imagination!”). But our ability to make images, to identify with others, to see ourselves in situations different from the physical reality immediately before us, to cast ourselves into the future and create powerful, attractive visions of what might be—this human power is central to our creativity and to making a better world.
A fourth reason to avoid perfectionism is that it blunts compassion. It does this indirectly, by first inducing sadomasochism, a self-hatred that then turns outward to become callousness toward others. “Compassion” literally means “a suffering with.” Perfectionism fosters the tendency to avoid all forms of suffering, making it impossible for us to engage with or get into our own suffering. Perfectionism likes to live in the spirit world, the world of the head, the realm of cold logic and neat theory. There is nothing theoretical about compassion and suffering (as the Greek word for compassion–splagknizomai–lit. “to turn one’s bowels over”—attests). In its very nature compassion is not about perfection. It pulls us into our physicality, to be aware of our own imperfection. When we focus on being perfect, we cannot be compassionate, and, given the riven state of our current reality, we certainly need more compassion.
As part of our human “shadow,” perfectionism also leads to all sorts of ego issues, because it splits off the shadow. Either it fosters egotism (thinking we are better than others) or it turns into the flip side of egotism, i.e. feelings of inferiority and inadequacy. But the reality is that we all are in the cosmic soup together, all of us struggling with our shadow side, all of us basically equal as we try to play the game of life as best we can. Perfectionism hinders our recognizing our basic equality.
As human beings, each of us is blessed with many gifts. We are:
- unique in our set of gifts and talents (no one else has the exact combination we have)
- unique in our purpose and mission in life
- precious in the special role and function we are here to perform
- guided in the lessons we are here to learn
- equipped with the full range of abilities and resources to achieve the goals we took upon ourselves before we incarnated
- and meant to realize our being in all its fullness.
“There is a part of every living thing that wants to become itself.” This is what teleios means: not that we should seek to be perfect, but that we should strive to attain shalom, or fulfillment, to reach the goal or completion of the unique life journey we chose to undertake. We consciously allow ourselves “to be less in order to be more—less nearly perfect, but more nearly whole.”
Perfectionism also blocks change. As paradoxical as it may seem, we transform our weaknesses only when we fully and joyfully accept them in ourselves. The more we live in denial or try to escape from imperfection, the more we stay stuck with it, and wind up in a blind alley. Jung points us to a more realistic goal.
A More Realistic Goal
Scientist that he was, Jung took “an objective view of the facts,” i.e. that since human beings can never attain perfection, and trying to do so leads to a host of problems, it is far better that a person
“… lower his pretensions a little, and instead of striving after the ideal of perfection to content himself with the more accessible goal of approximate completeness. The progress thereby made possible does not lead to an exalted state of spiritualization, but rather to a wise self-limitation and modesty, thus balancing the disadvantages of the lesser good with the advantage of the lesser evil.”
By “progress” Jung is referring to what he hoped would be the end result of his clients’ analyses: “an integration or completeness of the individual, who in this way approaches wholeness but not perfection,…”. It is part of our human nature “to seek perfection in one way or another, [but] the archetype fulfills itself in completeness,…”.
With all the tensions, strife and unrest in our world these days, we don’t need yet another thing that may provoke addiction, feelings of inadequacy, shadow projection, egotism, or stasis. Let’s consign “perfect” to the dictionary.
Anderson, Sherry & Patricia Hopkins (1991), The Feminine Face of God: The Unfolding of the Sacred in Women. New York: Bantam.
Brussat, Frederic & Mary Ann (1996), Spiritual Literacy: Reading the Sacred in Everyday Life. New York: Scribner.
Edinger, Edward (1985), Anatomy of the Psyche. Chicago & LaSalle IL: Open Court Press.
Fox, Matthew (1983), Original Blessing. Santa Fe: Bear & Co.
Hammer, Paul (1976), The Gift of Shalom. Philadelphia: United Church Press.
Jung, C.G. (1959), “Aion,” Collected Works, 9ii. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1969), “Psychology and Religion: West and East,” CW 11. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1963), “Mysterium Coniunctionis,” CW 14. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Lammers, Ann Conrad (1994), In God’s Shadow: The Collaboration of Victor White and C.G. Jung. New York: Paulist Press.
Moore, Thomas (1992), Care of the Soul. New York: HarperCollins.
Weil, Elizabeth (2019), “All my selves are my favorite,” The New York Times Magazine (November 17, 2019), 84-90
Woodman, Marion (1982), The Addiction to Perfection. Toronto: Inner City Books.
 Collected Works 14 ¶616. Hereafter Collected Works will be abbreviated CW.
 CW 11 ¶620. The Latin phrase Jung cites means “Nothing comes out of perfection.”
 CW 9ii ¶123.
 Weil (2019), 88.
 CW 14 ¶616.
 CW 9ii ¶123.
 CW 14 ¶616.
 CW 11 ¶144.
 Ibid. ¶620.
 CW 9ii ¶123.
 Matt. 5:48; Matt. 19:21; Luke 13:32; John 17:23; Acts 3:16; I Cor. 2:6; 2 Cor. 12:9; 2 Cor. 13:9; 2 Cor. 13:11; Gal. 3:3; Eph. 4:13; Phil. 3:12; Phil. 3:15; Col. 1:28; Col. 4:12; Heb. 2:10; Heb. 5:9; Heb. 6:1; Heb. 7:19; Heb. 9:9; Heb. 10:1; Heb. 11:40; Heb. 12:23; Heb. 13:21; James 1:4; James 2:22; James 3:2; I Pet. 5:10; I John 4:17.
 Matt. 5:48; Matt. 19:21.
 Heb. 11:40.
 2 Cor. 13:11.
 Gal. 3:3.
 Col. 1:28.
 Heb. 10:1.
 Heb. 12:23.
 James 3:2.
 Liddell & Scott (1978), 797.
 Ibid., 552.
 Ibid., 414.
 Ibid., 304.
 Ibid., 647.
 2 Cor. 13:11.
 Liddell & Scott (1978), 414.
 Cf. Woodman (1982), 15-16, 55-57; Moore (1992), 232, 247-252; Fox (1983), 62; Anderson & Hopkins (1991), 193, on the differences between a spirit-based religion and a soul-based spirituality.
 CW 11 ¶620.
 CW 9ii ¶123.
 CW 11 ¶620.
 Luke 18:17.
 Liddell & Scott (1978), 740.
 Lammers (1994), 303.
 Ellen Bass, in Brussat & Brussat (1996), 434.
 This Hebrew word has no exact equivalent in English. Our concepts of wholeness, peace and well-being convey only part of its richness. For an excellent in-depth discussion of shalom, see Hammer (1976).
 Edinger (1985), 161.
 Brussat & Brussat (1996), 409.
 CW 14 ¶616.
 CW 9ii ¶123.