It is at its highest reaches that humanity must be understood; the plains — or the depressions — will always be explored soon enough. —Henri De Lubac
Moral Perfectionism names an attitude toward human perfectibility — an attitude of “incessant conversion” to one’s more perfect self. The term comes from Stanley Cavell’s Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome, where he traces the idea to Nietzsche and Emerson. I’ll start here by presenting Moral Perfectionism in light of Rene Girard’s mimetic theory to draw out the importance of selecting and imitating good models: our true educators who alert us to our true nature. Then, I’ll discuss two paradoxes that emerge in Cavell’s text regarding the abstract schema of perfectibility and the problem of representativeness. Finally, I’ll meditate on the difference between Moral Perfectionism and what John Allison calls “possibilism,” also with some reference to the model of perfection in Christ. I hope by the end the reader will clearly understand Moral Perfectionism — the concept, its relevance and its applicability. Though my tone here is philosophical, what’s at stake is deeply personal for me — more than I could briefly say, but my friends and readers will recognize it. This text represents the fruit of many year’s efforts and questionings; consider it a better of the statements of myself.
Models of Perfection: Selection and Imitation
In all matters anthropological, it is important to begin by recalling that human beings imitate one another. We are immersed in a world of rituals, habits, standards and models that we never decided upon for ourselves initially — but that we have to decide on if we are to become ourselves and not live as slaves of our mimesis of others. Whether we are aware of it or not, we select, or inherit, or suffer models. We become who we are through creative imitation — there is no other way.
Rene Girard’s thesis about mimetic desire, echoed by psychoanalysis, boils down to the following: human desire is not autonomous. There is no subjective core, pure of influence from the other, that would decide what it wants “on its own” in a vacuum. Even if some subjective agent experiences desires as their own, this is no evidence for an autonomous origin. Rather, we want what we want because the other has (or wants) it. We internalize this want to the point of identifying with the other’s desire — we experience it as our own. Furthermore, our desire is not even so much for what the other has so much as what the other is when they have it. Our desire is for the model’s being. We want to be (like) our model — to have the mode of being they have. (Jealousy, in this sense, is more about wanting to be in the other’s place than about the coveted object. At a certain intensity, the object of desire drops out entirely.) However, taking models is not a straightforward a process. More often a model is an amalgam of influences, a mixture of real-life encounters and amorphous social contagion. In any case, the non-autonomy of human desire — its mediation by the model — is the central insight to contemplate here. 
We can now better understand why Moral Perfectionism starts where it does: with the importance of following a good model, or the necessity of striving after the highest ideal. Moral Perfectionism is not about being perfect according to a social standard (e.g. the ability to score perfectly on a test). Moral Perfectionism means rather: striving to perfect oneself according to models of perfection — lived, not abstract models; models published in the lives of great persons. The beginning of the moral life, on this account, would not be the study of ethical problems, the following of dos and don’ts, or practice in virtue per se. It would be the discovery of one’s own moral self as being represented in and awakened by the moral self of great others.
To thine own greatest humanity be true… This is not a moralism of prescribed behavior, social convenience, or political expectation, but a moralism of the highest human types. This was Nietzsche’s obsessive pursuit. His highest ideal was most comprehensively expressed in his Zarathustra. But while such an ideal may initiate a contestation of prevailing morality, to the point of overturning it, it is still a moral intervention at the level of perfectibility of man’s moral self. Whatever its inflection, the morality at stake in Moral Perfectionism is less about restraining the bad than “releasing the good” (Cavell, 18). It teaches us to rise above democracy’s (and moralism’s) failures otherwise than by “excuse or withdrawal.” It jolts us from the complacency of our consent to regimes of untruth and compels us to activate our moral conscience, to invent a moral life that we can consent to in truth — with our own voice, in our own body, at the pitch of our very soul.
The importance of imitating a model of the highest ideal is stressed by Emerson when he tells us that the quality and viability of democracy hinges on it. Democracy fails because it tends to sink to the lowest common denominator. When a society lacks attention to models of the best in humanity, it regresses into domination by the worst models, to the point of indolence and turpitude. For Cavell, Emerson and Nietzsche converge here upon a strong notion of culture as that which alone can save from the flattening effect of mediocrity, non-thinking, herd mentality, and conformism to acquired programming and conditioning of every sort. Exposure to and engagement with culture means encountering humanity’s greatness as it is stored up in art, thought, and holiness. Through these an individual first comes to understand their “true nature” as a pinnacle to strive for. They first understand that they must “activate” their soul if they are to live. It is the great neighbor, the excellent model, the exceptional figure who first reveals this pinnacle possibility to us. They remind us that we are alienated from our own prerogatives and that we hate this degradation of ourselves. Nietzsche puts it well: Continue reading