What does perfect mean?

Perfect…we use this word incredibly often, yet do we really know what it means? Of course, in modern parlance it means “flawless,” reference to any dictionary will prove this. More importantly, when one says that something is perfect, it is precisely “flawless” which he means. Other definitions do not matter, for this is the one which has primary place in the mind.

Considering this, it is no small wonder that students of ancient Latin and Greek have difficulty learning the perfect tense. To them, being told that the perfect tense indicates past action brought to completion makes no sense. Many just tell themselves that “perfect” is equivalent to “past” in Latin grammar.

A simple reference to the etymological section of the dictionary definition for “perfect” will reveal its arrival in English from the Latin perficio through Anglo-French. A further reference to An Elementary Latin Dictionary reveals that explains this word as a compound of per and facio, meaning, “finish, complete, bring to completion.” An examination of Aristotle’s original Greek text reveals that his Latin translators use perficio to translate τελέω, and reference to Liddell’s Greek dictionary supplies similar meanings of “complete, fulfill, accomplish, fulfill” for this word.

In the very words of the Philosopher, one can find confirmation of these definitions. In Metaphysics V, Aristotle gives three meanings to perfection: first, something outside of which a single part cannot be found; second, something whose ability and goodness admits of no further improvement in its class; third, something which has attained its goal (Aristotle, Metaphysics 5.16.1021b12-25).  Thomas continues in the tradition of the third meaning, stating, “Every single thing is said to be perfect inasmuch as it attains its proper end”(Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologia, II-IIa, Q. 184, A. 1, co.).

From these considerations, it is not difficult to conclude why the modern definition of perfect implies flawlessness; the thing which has attained completion would be assumed to have nothing wrong within it, thus being flawless.  One can only attribute contemporary failure to appreciate the full nuance of this word to a lack of appreciation for Latin and Greek

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One Response to What does perfect mean?

  1. Pingback: SCIENCE IS DEPRESSING | Motley Musings

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