Human Perfection: Is It Possible?
Is human perfection possible? By way of possible answers, here are my
nominations for the greatest human achievements in poetry, literature, art,
music, philosophy, science and sports. I started thinking about this page as I
considered two very different examples of human genius: Ronnie O'Sullivan, a
professional snooker player, and William Butler Yeats, the great Irish poet.
by Michael R. Burch
These are my personal nominations for what might be called "the search for
human perfection" or perhaps "brilliance" or "genius." I have been criticized
for using such terms, although I don't use them frequently or lightly. But do
think that—in some cases—they do apply.
My Personal Top Ten Human Achievements
Ronnie O'Sullivan's fourteen perfect snooker breaks and 948 century breaks
Poetry: "The Wild Swans at Coole" by William Butler Yeats
Literature: The major plays of William Shakespeare
Music: "Flower Duet" by Anna Netrebko and Elina Garanca
Art: The major works of Michelangelo
Philosophy: The invaluable skepticism of Socrates
Architecture: The Pyramids of Giza and Stonehenge (tie)
Science: Albert Einstein's Theory of Relativity (both General and Special)
Technology: The Operating System, man's most complex product to date
Exploration/Discovery: Neil Armstrong's "giant leap for mankind" when he walked
on the moon
Honorable Mention: the inventions and/or developments of fire, tools, weapons,
clothes, language, writing, poetry, music, art, dance, mathematics, medicine,
houses, boats, the wheel, wagons and chariots, domesticated animals, irrigation
and agriculture; the first towns and cities; cartography and navigation; the
printing press; telescopes; vaccines; railways and trains; the transcontinental
railroad; the telegraph; the telephone; automobiles; airplanes; submarines;
Darwin's theory of evolution; the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA; quantum
mechanics; radio; television; radar; splitting the atom; atomic energy; the
atomic bomb; the computer; the Internet; social media; the smart phone; apps;
mapping the human genome; rockets and space flight; the Magna Carta; the
Declaration of Independence; modern democracy; human rights movements; the
League of Nations; the United Nations; the fall of the Berlin Wall
Ronnie O'Sullivan's fourteen perfect snooker breaks and 948 century breaks. Anyone who has played
pool on a six-foot bar table with "generous" pockets knows it's still very
difficult to run nine balls in numeric order. If we graduate to a nine-foot
Brunswick Gold Crown table with tighter pockets, making nine balls gets a lot
harder and even the top pros have been known to miss what seem like "easy"
shots. To move up to a twelve-foot English snooker table with ultra-tight
pockets is like moving from the Earth to Jupiter with its massive gravity. Not
only are the long shots much longer and more difficult, but many of the shots
are impossible to reach and require an extra-long bridge. Even
the best professional pool players would struggle on a twelve-foot snooker table. So to watch
Ronnie O'Sullivan achieve perfection fourteen times, by scoring 147 points,
almost defies comprehension. And he does it by flying around the table, potting
red balls almost faster than the seven can be re-spotted. If you want to see
human perfection, hie thee to YouTube and do a search for: Ronnie O'Sullivan
147. Then prepare to be amazed.
Other sports achievements for the ages include Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing
Norgay scaling Mt. Everest for the first time in 1953, Gertrude Ederle swimming
the English Channel and beating the men's record by over two hours, Michael
Phelps winning 28 Olympic medals for swimming (23 of them gold), Nadia Comaneci
scoring ten after ten at the 1976 Olympics, Rod Laver winning two tennis grand
slams, Martina Navratilova's 20 Wimbledon titles, Rafael Nadal on clay, Pele leading Brazil to three
FIFA world cups while scoring 1,283 career goals with 92 hat tricks, Pele's
female counterpart Marta, the goal-scoring magic of Lionel Messi and Diego
Maradona, Jesse Owens destroying Hitler's myth of the "Aryan superman" by
setting three world records in 70 minutes at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Usain
Bolt outracing the wind, Javier Sotomayer clearing eight feet in the high jump,
Wayne Gretzky rewriting the hockey record books with four seasons with 200 or
more points, Jack Nicklaus winning 18 major golf championships, Muhammad Ali
winning the world heavyweight boxing championship three times including wins
over Joe Frazier and the "unbeatables" Sonny Liston and George Foreman, Julio
César Chávez claiming six boxing titles in three weight divisions while winning
87 straight matches, Wilt Chamberlain scoring 100 points in a basketball game
and averaging 50 points for an entire NBA season, Bill Walton going 21 for 22 in
the 1973 NCAA championship basketball game with his only "miss" being a
disallowed dunk, Pistol Pete Maravich averaging 44.2 points for his college
career (it has been estimated that he would have scored 57 ppg with the
three-point shot), the 1972 Miami Dolphins producing the NFL's only undefeated
season with its "no name" defense, Peyton Manning having 11 seasons with 4,000
or more yards passing, Willie Mosconi running 526 balls at straight pool without
a miss (that's 35 freakin' tables!), Ted Williams getting on base nearly every
other at-bat for his entire career (.482 OBP), Babe Ruth out-homering all AL
teams twice while also being the best World Series pitcher of all time, and
Johnny Vander Meer achieving double perfection by throwing no-hitters in
"The Wild Swans at Coole" by William Butler Yeats seems like a perfect
poem to me. It has become fashionable for
people to say, "I don't like poetry." And yet the people expressing their
disdain for poetry probably love rhyming poems set to music, which we call
"popular songs." Examples of such poems include "Blowin' in the Wind," "Let It
Be," "When Doves Cry," "Billie Jean," "Like a Virgin," "Candle in the Wind,"
"Born to Run," and nearly all pop, rock, country, blues, hip hip and rap hits.
And the best poets were better lyricists than the best songwriters. The great poets include Homer, Sappho of Lesbos, Pindar, Dante, Virgil, Ovid,
Martial, Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, John Milton, John Donne, William
Blake, Robert Burns, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, William Wordsworth, Percy
Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, A. E. Housman, Basho,
Li Po, Rainer Maria Rilke, Victor Hugo, Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine,
Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Valery, Alexander Pushkin, Anna Akhmatova, Marina
Tsvetaeva, Federico Garcia Lorca, Fernando Pessoa, T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens,
Hart Crane, Robert Frost and Pablo Neruda.
Other perfect or near-perfect poems include epigrams by Sappho, haiku by Basho,
"Elegy Written in a Country Courtyard" by Thomas Gray, "The Snow Man" and
"Sunday Morning" by Wallace Stevens, "Go Lovely Rose" by Edmund Waller, "To
Earthward" by Robert Frost, "The Convergence of the Twain" and "The Darkling
Thrush" by Thomas Hardy, "Requiescat" by Oscar Wilde, "A Noiseless Patient
Spider" by Walt Whitman, "Dulce et Decorum est" by Wilfred Owen, "The
Highwayman" by Alfred Noyes, and "Voyages" by Hart Crane, among others.
I must admit that I used to say that I didn't like opera, the way some people
say they don't like poetry. But when confronted with
truly great opera performances, I was happy to admit that I had been wrong. Today we
not only have "pure" or traditional opera, but also operatic performances like those of Aretha
Franklin, Josh Groban, Hayley Westenra and Jackie Evancho. One of my all-time
favorite operatic performances is "Time to Say Goodbye" by Andrea Bocelli and
Sarah Brightman. Another is "Music of the Night" by Michael Crawford. For "pure
opera" it's hard to top "Nessun Dorma" as performed by the Three Tenors: Luciano
Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo and José Carreras. Other magnificent opera singers
include Maria Callas, Enrico Caruso, Franco Corelli, Montserrat Caballé, Natalie
Dessay, Renée Fleming, Mario Lanza, Leontyne Price, Joan Sutherland and Richard
If you still don't think you like opera, perhaps try checking out "Flower Duet"
by Anna Netrebko and Elina Garanca on YouTube.
Speaking of rhyming poems set to music and opera, "Bohemian Rhapsody" by Freddie
Mercury and Queen may be the ultimate "fusion" of poetry, rock and
opera. Other contenders include "Hair," "Jesus Christ Superstar," "The Rocky
Horror Picture Show" and three offerings by the Who: "Tommy," "Quadrophenia" and
"Love Reign O'er Me."
As for the great composers, I have always been partial to the "Hallelujah
Chorus" from "Handel's Messiah" by George Handel. And of course there's "The
Queen of the Night's Aria" from "The Magic Flute" by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
(The song was first performed by Mozart's sister-in-law.) A list of the great
composers would have to include Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Schubert, Chopin,
Verdi, Brahms, Handel, Debussy, Puccini, Listz, Haydn, Mahler, Monteverdi,
Tchaikovsky, Vivaldi, Stravinsky and Wagner. The fact that we don't have to know
their first names is a tribute to their talent and resulting fame.
"O Come, O Come Emmanuel" by Enya gets my vote as the best female vocal
performance of all time. Other contenders include "Spanish Harlem" by Aretha Franklin,
"At Last" by Etta James, "Summertime" by Ella Fitzgerald and Janis Joplin, "All
By Myself" by Celine Dion, "Nothing Compares 2 U" by Sinead O'Connor, "Trouble
of the World" by Mahalia Jackson, "Un-Break My Heart" by Toni Braxton and "I
Will Always Love You" and "I Have Nothing" by Whitney Houston.
"Without You" by Harry Nilsson gets my vote for the most beautiful and moving
vocal performance by a male singer. Other contenders include "All By Myself" by Eric
Carmen, "Unchained Melody" by Bobby Hatfield of the Righteous Brothers, "A
Change is Gonna Come" by Sam Cooke, "Blue Moon" and "Fever" by Elvis Presley,
"When Doves Cry" by Prince and "Bridge Over Troubled Water" by Art Garfunkel of
Simon and Garfunkel.
There have been many great artists, but it's hard to think of anyone greater
that Michelangelo. His masterworks include the
paintings of the Sistine Chapel ceiling and the sculptures "David," "Bacchus,"
"Moses," "Madonna of Bruges" and "Pietŕ." Other visual artists
of note include Cezanne, Monet, Caravaggio, van Gogh, Rembrandt, da Vinci,
Renoir, Rubens, Manet, Dali, Degas, Picasso, Warhol, Raphael, and my personal favorites
the romantics William Blake and Dante Gabriel
Albert Einstein with his still-hard-to-comprehend Theory of Relativity tops my
list for the greatest human intellectual achievement. Well, actually he tops it
twice because there were two theories of relativity (the general theory and the
special theory). Other contenders include Isaac Newton (who invented calculus in
his spare time!), Charles Darwin, Marie Curie (the only scientist to win Nobel
prizes in different categories), Galileo, Copernicus, Kepler, Socrates, Plato,
Aristotle, Archimedes, Euclid, Hippocrates, Sigmund Freud, Gregor Mendel, Max
Plank, Niels Bohr and Stephen Hawking.
Leonardo da Vinci tops my list of Renaissance men and women. He was a polymath,
painter, sketch artist, sculptor, architect, musician, mathematician, scientist,
inventor, engineer, anatomist, geologist, cartographer and botanist. Other
contenders include Pythagoras, Aristotle, Galileo, Voltaire, Ben Franklin,
Thomas Jefferson, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz,
Blaise Pascal, Alan Turing
The great philosophers include Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Democritus, Epicurus,
Thales, Confucius, Michel de Montaigne, Rene Descartes, Immanuel Kant, Friedrich
Nietzsche, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.
The great inventors include Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, Alexander Graham Bell,
George Washington Carver, William and Orville Wright and Johannes Gutenberg.
The great playwrights include Homer, Sophocles, Euripides, Shakespeare, Marlowe,
Moliere, Chekov, Henrik Ibsen, Samuel Beckett and Tennessee Williams.
Great novelists and short story writers include Miguel de Cervantes, Charles
Dickens, Mark Twain, Herman Melville, Jane Austen, Emily Bronte, Charlotte
Bronte, George Eliot, Victor Hugo, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Edgar Allan
Poe, Jules Verne, Virginia Woolf, Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka, Marcel Proust, James
Joyce, Henry James, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, J. R. R. Tolkien and
Jorge Luis Borges.
Great explorers and discovers include Alexander the Great, Christopher Columbus,
James Cook, Marco Polo and Neil Armstrong
Great leaders include Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Abraham
Lincoln, George Washington, Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Victoria.
For sheer physical beauty, it's hard to imagine anyone more perfect that a
luminescent Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca. Angels would have a hard time
out-glowing her. Other breathtaking beauties include Beyoncé, Princess Diana
Spencer, Ava Gardner, Audrey Hepburn, Iman, Princess Grace Kelly, Veronica Lake,
Gypsy Rose Lee, Marilyn Monroe, Katy Perry, Ginger Rogers, Shakira, Brooke
Shields, Gene Tierney, Elizabeth Taylor and Lana Turner.
I should probably leave male physical beauty up to the fairer sex, but since
this is my list, I'll take a stab: Elvis Presley, followed by James Dean, Marlon
Brando, Richard Gere, Sam Cooke, Muhammad Ali, David Beckham, Chris Hemsworth, Brad Pitt, Robert Redford, Gary Barlow,
Denzel Washington, Omar Sharif, Rock Hudson, Cary Grant. (Ladies, how did I do?)
Religious figures include Buddha, Jesus Christ, Confucius, Mohammed, Moses and
Great freethinkers and heretics include Bruno, Galileo, William Blake, Percy
Bysshe Shelley, Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde.