Moral Perfectionism

Moral Perfectionism

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. [1]

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:

[Y]our true nature lies, not concealed deep within you, but immeasurably high above you, or at least above that which you usually take yourself to be. Your true educators and formative teachers reveal to you what the true basic material of your being is, something in itself ineducable and in any case difficult of access, bound and paralyzed: your educators can only be your liberators. And that is the secret of all culture… I know of [no better way of finding oneself] than to think on one’s true educators. (“Schopenhauer as Educator”, p 129-130)

Whoever has perfected themselves reflects, albeit partially, our own perfectibility to us. For Nietzsche, it is the artist who teaches us this, that “every man is a unique miracle.” To realize we are a “unique miracle,” we must first and continually attach our heart to a great neighbor (to many great neighbors!). By accepting the exemplar(s), we are not idolizing them or imitating them in the narrow sense of copying. Rather, through them we lead ourselves back to our own prerogatives, “unshrivel” our own nature, and recall our right to our own aspirations (Cavell, 51). We hear the call to our own potential genius through the publication of the genius of others. An essential aspect of this call is to recognize just how much we have, so far, rejected our own self.

What the great thinker despises in mankind is its laziness, for it is out of laziness that men come to be factory products not worthy to associate with. They lack the strength to be alone, to be other, because they remain in bondage to a conception of themselves, of life, of intelligence that they have merely inherited from the herd mentality. Whoever wishes to not belong to the masses must, by contrast, learn to obey “conscience”; they must live “according to [their] own laws and standards,” and demonstrate “why and to what end [they] came into existence now and at no other time” (Nietzsche, 128). While this may sound at odds with Girard’s thesis — that human desire is not autonomous — Nietzsche is getting at the fact that we discover what is true about ourselves by thinking through what ought to be (could be) true for all humankind, were it to perfect itself. Contra Nietzsche [2], however, it is not a matter of competition among rivals (Nietzsche’s “great politics”) but of imagining the identical — the perfectible identity of humanity. Nonetheless, to imagine this does mean cultivating an aversion for the false presentations of humanity, a distaste for the mediocrity of all its productions, and an unquenchable thirst for something valuable and lasting in the face of such debasement and neglect.

To refuse the “forced false smile of conformity” means to understand oneself as a “vessel of the democratic idea,” as someone who is urgently charged with finding “the true smile on the face—where else?—of the true man,… the representative man, the human being who is the sign of what is to be human” (Cavell, 28). We are far from the contemporary lust for customizing oneself, for choosing and indulging one’s difference from others, for seeking niche avenues of happiness, and so on. Rather than leading to self-satisfaction with a version of oneself, one recognizes one’s difference from oneself in self-dissatisfaction. This prompts and pressures us to incessant conversion, to overcome ego for the sake of genius, to “constrain” ourselves to the standard of the true man and be drawn by him beyond our “attained self” (Cavell, 58).

Moral Perfectionism thus involves cultivating a shame over oneself qua one’s present stance (e.g., as being all-too-submerged in laziness and the false smiles of conformity, as having settled for a corrupted happiness, as consenting to the mire of falsity and the depredations of quality, etc.), so as to then consecrate oneself to one’s next, higher, or further self (the true smile on the true man: at stake is our cheerfulness).

In being animated back to life by the good model, we recognize that we have failed to follow our higher aspirations. We catch hint of our as-yet concealed self — “my own, unsettlingly unattained” (Cavell, 51). Cavell speaks of an impersonal hatred of oneself for having betrayed oneself, or simply for having become bored with oneself (see Heidegger’s Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics on the link between “profound boredom” and the possibility-to-be-oneself). Aware of the co-implication of self and world, this hatred applies as well to all debased and perverted versions of possibility, all the parodies  advertised as roads to the possible. Cavell uses the example of the Army recruitment slogan “Be all that you can be” (read: “All you can be is a mercenary”) but we think also of today’s options for body modification, technological transhumanism, and other fetishes of customization. Indeed, “it is a mission of Emersonian Perfectionism precisely to struggle against false or debased perfectionisms” (13). But as for how to judge the debased from the noble, the false from the true, how to discern which model is worth pursuing — that is a question posed to conscience, a conscience that must be cultivated and informed through the imitation of models, by those who were and remain “the sign of what is to be human.” It is urgent that we seek out these models of humanity at its heights; otherwise we will never understand it or ourselves, preoccupied as we tend to be with its plains and depressions.

The moral perfectionist, confronted with the failures of democracy especially, is so disgusted with the present state of things that only a “transformation of the self” leading to the “transformation of things” will do (Cavell, 46-48). They refuse to give consent to the injustice of the present regime — indeed they recognize that society is a circumstance of violence out of which we must extricate ourselves. Cavell calls this “aversive thinking,” a rhetorical tempering of Nietzschean “despise.” It is to refuse to be the slave of our slavishness or give consent to ideas we have not thought through in light of our true nature. It is to hate the degree to which we bear our lives “dumbly” or justify them “automatically.” The moral perfectionist’s undertaking is a matter of taking radical responsibility for the unity between life and thought, between words and speaking those words with our own voice. As Kafka also understood, at stake in everything we do, say, and think is the eternal justification of our life — the moral perfectionist feels the weight of this fact fully, at the risk of being crushed by it.

Paradoxes of Moral Perfectionism

There are two connected difficulties inherent to Moral Perfectionism: a) the necessarily abstract statement of the schema of perfection, and b) the lack of any perfect representative of perfection, that is, its inherent quality of discoveredness on the journey.

a) That the Unattained lead the Attained

The schema of perfectibility is abstract in that we cannot exhaustively describe the perfect (it is not a matter of exhibiting ‘perfect qualities’). Plus, even if we could, the realization of perfection in our own instance will always take the thoroughfare of our own experience and its transfiguration; and these particulars will in turn feed back upon the idea of perfection itself. With each human who takes it upon themselves to be a “sign of what is to be human,” the community of perfectionists in friendship grows and expands, as do the contours of the happiness they share. The moral imagination is vastly more capable — and challenged — after the appearance of a Nietzsche or an Emerson, assuming humans heed their call. It is therefore neither possible nor prudent to define ‘what’ is perfection; we would then be limiting the moral imagination of the other and of the future. The best we can do is to point to models — to those human beings who manifested and “publicized” their perfectioning, trusting finally that it is up to each person to activate their own soul and discover the perfect.

At the same time, it can be helpful to contemplate the schema of perfectibility in the abstract. For Emerson and Cavell, this is the problem of self-reliance. “The self is always attained, as well as to be attained.” It is in this tension that we stretch into the demands of perfectibility and moral personhood — our “capacity for self-criticism, the capacity to consecrate the attained to the unattained self” (Cavell, 49). The attained self acts negatively on the unattained/attainable (it enslaves us to our slavery), and the unattained/attainable acts negatively on the attained (it disquiets us, disrupts our slavishness). Cavell states the regulatory principle of the idea of perfectibility as follows: “to manage the reliance of the attained on the unattained/attainable.” Put otherwise, the self that we are (and/or think we are) must rely on the true nature “immeasurably high above” it. The not-yet-attained must rule and govern the already-attained.[3] The ideal for which we strive must be ever set before our eyes as our true identity — the identity we share in, and for, an unattained/attainable, more perfect humanity.

Who or what we are is always stretched between past-present-future (as it is presently conceived) and the unknown or absolute future (the threshold of perfection in Mystery). Indeed, we could say we are torn between the ontic (the being that we ‘are’) and the genuinely ontological (Being as such); or between the life that we live (details, experiences, facts) and the life through which we live (generic potentiality/eternal life). We could multiply schemata of perfectibility into different registers and idioms, but the important point lies elsewhere — in the calling itself and how we respond to it today.

Perfectionism is a “moral urgency”: it is today that we consecrate time to our unattained self, today that we fight “chagrin in every word, with every breath,” today that we recognize we have lost the way and must find our way back, today that we upset our tepid rejections of our further self (Cavell, 55). Living the unlived life — which the great neighbor represents to us in reminding us of our genius and its prerogative — cannot be postponed; and the fact that it is postponed (that we, in practice, do postpone it!) is for the moral perfectionist something deeply troubling. Indeed, the shameless postponement of genius is what most shames the moral perfectionist — it is the most hateful aspect of things, both in society and in himself (where he alone can do something about it).

Perhaps we could say that we exist as the exigency of our perfection — whether heeded or unheeded. Our present self is always “knotted” to the next self. Our significance is ever deferred for this reason; and yet it is “equally never deferred,” for the present self is an actuality we desired. We are always as yet “partial” in our demand of self; some step of life as yet lacks from our thinking. And yet, how ever we respond today, that we are as our response to this demand. Hence the possibility of disappointing our own perfection and never realizing it. We are ever underway to our “further” self, yet only by way of drawing a “later circle” — and this “later circle,” linking the attained in reliance to the unattained, only exists when and insofar as it is drawn. Emerson does not view this drawing of the circle as an imperative in a Kantian way, but rather as the seduction to a journey of the soul to walk on. We are drawn on beyond ourselves, or we are not. We are averse to ourselves and make our reversals, or we do not. Still, it is as Hölderlin says: each person is entitled to use all their energies and products to this end: “Now whatever is necessary as a means to this supreme end, whatever is indispensable for your never completed process of moral perfection, all that you have a right to” (Essays and Letters, 50).

The work of undertaking labors for our own nextness (Cavell speaks of “brooding” for the sake of the “unborn”) is the preeminently cultivating idea, for by way of it we advance into the next world — not a beyond world, but a Utopia that exists qua nextness, qua our advance beyond the conformist into a democracy that would be worthy of the name. Although there is no reward for it and it cannot be imposed, anyone who understood this self-turning, this self-revolutionizing and “incessant conversion” away from societal conformity, would see the supreme worth of it. It is a movement from merely haunting the world, afraid to say “I am,” to existing in it as an illustrious illustration of what a human can be. This “unattainable but attainable self,” which abstractly states perfectibility, is the mysterious X that “the wise man… describes to each man [as] his own idea.” It is the zone of our truest thoughts which we find reflected in the works of genius. It is the highest ideal which the greatest models of humanity represent to us and which we, were we to pursue it ourselves, may come to illustrate in our turn.

b) That the Represented become Representatives

But who decides who are these wise men, these persons of genius, these true educators? The quickest answer, following Nietzsche: whoever liberates us from the tepidity of our present life, he or she is our liberator. Whoever calls us to our next self, whoever reminds us of our unattained yet attainable self, acts for us as the “friend within,” the “voice of conscience” that calls me to my own most proper possibilities (Heidegger, Being and Time, §34). They represent to us who we may become — if we undertake the soul’s journey and continue to draw the circle between attained and unattained self. (One may fruitfully compare this to Agamben’s thoughts on genius in his Profanations, as well as Sloterdijk’s reflections on anthropotechnics in You Must Change Your Life.)

The good model represents our true nature to us, awakens us from our slumber in a false, debased, unworthy nature. Emerson’s famous line is worth reciting: “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts. They come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” Our own majesty (thus far rejected by us) is represented in the work of genius (enlightening us to reverse the rejection). However, what good does this do, if it merely remains represented? For the work of genius represents human majesty not uniquely for us, but identically for all humans. Furthermore, these thoughts are not “implanted” in me by the other, for then we would be talking about idolatry rather than an apprenticeship in perfection (Cavell, 57). From the initial stage of recognizing our own thoughts in the model, we must go on to appropriate them as our own, whereupon they are no longer our model’s but ours. We must move from represented to representative — from being educated by others to being an educator for others.

Cavell’s thoughts here oscillate between abstract statements on perfectibility (the self-reliant relies on the unattained) and the split position of its representatives (each model represents to us what we must come to represent to all). I would invoke the effective unattainability of representativeness to address both difficulties at once. No more than one definite ideal can define the idea of perfectibility, no model can occupy the space of the exclusive representative of human perfection. And, for every pioneer in perfection, thousands of new frontiers are opened. In a sense, we ourselves are the only effective pioneer, the only one empowered to say Yes. We inhere in life as our unattained self. The attainable insists in us as much, if not more, than we exist as attained. I am pointing again to where imitating good models becomes, not rivalry, but a pursuit of human identity whose stakes lie finally with oneself alone, though in full acknowledgement of one’s “partiality” (each of us only partially participates in “Man Thinking”). Practically put, the efforts of our models do us no good unless we follow their lead in thinking our thoughts and uniting life and thought. Not only can no model ‘go the whole way’ for us, none can force us to take a single step if we do not accept to be genius. Likewise, we could never attain representativeness ourselves, for the circle between attained and unattained must ever be drawn anew. I would say that the effectivity of the ideal human identity lies in this “incessant conversion” in the direction of an impossible representativeness for all humanity. Such that a categorical imperative of Moral Perfectionism might read: live such that any member of humanity could find a representative of their own highest perfection in you.

We can now see the interrelation between two motifs pointed out by Cavell. On the one hand, Emerson differs from Plato because he lacks a “sun” (e.g., the sun of the Good) and because he has “no standing representative of the path to it” (Cavell, 10). On the other hand, Emerson “elects himself to be our representative” and warns that we must “elect our (private) representative(s).” No standing representative of the path, yet we must elect the right representatives. At the limit, then, we must stand where no one can and anyone is entitled stand (recalling Nietzsche’s Zarathustra subtitle). Cavell deals with this paradox (not entirely satisfactorily, in my view) by invoking the process of individuation. This process leads “in a sense” beyond representativeness in general, but only where individuation (preceding all individuals, hence all society) marks a journey into the effectively unattainable. This is where the journey recurs on itself — where imitation of the representative transfigures one into a model of the unrepresentable. To represent the “unrepresentative-able” would be the most abstract statement of Moral Perfectionism as it applies to one’s potential representativeness for “everyone and no one” (that is, for other processes of individuation to be managed in self-reliance). To manifest this paradox would be the task of the artist, philosopher and saint in whom nature makes “a leap for joy” and for the first time reaches “its goal” (Nietzsche, 159) — in a later Nietzschean tongue, this is where man “becomes a bridge.”

If we do not elect our (private) representatives, we are ineluctably doomed to the fate of conformism, laxity, inauthenticity. We will never “become what we are,” for we will have never allowed our potential to be awakened through its reflection in genius, which awakens the genius within us. At the same time, none of our elected representatives can stand for us, no more than anyone could act on the call in our place. This is why Emerson is wary of the fables surrounding great men as limiting what we conceive of as possible on their model. For Emerson, it is best to not fixate on any one model (“The man has never lived who can feed us ever”) but to view all the best models as possessing a fragment of our soul which we alone will comprise into one. The best idea is to lovingly make our own what our elected representatives represent, so that we may elect ourselves as representatives and stand for the genius of others (though not without discomfort, shame, and acknowledgement of partiality) :

If I feel over-shadowed and outdone by great neighbors, I can yet love; I can still receive; and he that loveth maketh his own the grandeur he loves. Thereby I make the discovery that my brother is my guardian, acting for me with the friendliest designs, and the estate I so admired and envied is my own. It is the nature of the soul to appropriate all things. Jesus and Shakspeare are fragments of the soul, and by love I conquer and incorporate them in my own conscious domain. His virtue,—is not that mine? His wit,—if it cannot be made mine, it is not wit. (“Compensation”, 169-170)

Emerson’s election of himself as representative (of genius, of democracy…) is justified only by his love, by his making his own those features (virtue, wit, etc.) which outdo and overshadow him in his great neighbors. This is not an arbitrary self-election based on a desire to influence others to his own credit. He is not representing himself qua attained self (which is all the rage today) but the moral perfectionist in the other who is to be. In himself, he is nothing. It is an election earned by dint of the seriousness (and cheerfulness!) of the lived endeavor of self-perfection; all credit goes to the impersonal genius of humanity. For it is only by attaining proximity to the unattained (the ideal, the absolute…) that one might deserve to be elected as representative in this philosophical republic of words. As Cavell puts it: “[T]he great have been [my] delegates and… ‘I’ can one day, so to say, be that delegate. I forerun myself, a sign, an exemplar” (54). Self-election means nothing unless you have “forerun” yourself into representing to yourself and others the high possibility and responsibility of liberation, of aversion and extrication from the conformist morass, of self-perfection. God is not mocked; neither is a Moral Perfectionist. “Genius is our life insofar as it does not belong to us” (Agamben).

Virtuous Divinization versus Possibilism and Voluntarism

Our becoming ourselves is ever entangled with the becoming of others, our manifesting of ourselves for others as a model of human becoming. This is to “publish” oneself, wherepon one realizes that what is most private is paradoxically most public. Our striving for perfection involves not just our individual selves but other and future selves as well. It differs from the maximalization of culture in the world, but only because its first focus is to seek the reality of culture in oneself. This is no solipsistic endeavor but the condition for any democracy worthy of the name. By it we prepare ourselves for genuine service — service not to the conditions of today, but service to a deeper and higher underlying layer which can reach the genius in others, “where time and place seem to fall away—not as if history is transcended but as if it has not begun” (Cavell, 41).

I would like to now differentiate Moral Perfectionism from some other attitudes that, though perhaps seeming similar, in fact differ from it so much as to be opposed.

Moral Perfectionism does not fall under the heading of what John Allison has adroitly labeled “possibilism” as the common error of the moderns. Possibilism means the elevation of what is possible over the “metaphysically actual,” such that the actual has no necessity but is entirely contingent and changeable. This leads to the idea of “anything goes,” the ethos of “if we can, we should,” and that whatever the will wills is good, i.e., voluntarism, a vulgar application of the will to power. Anyone defending the attitude of Moral Perfectionism would have to be clear that it is not about exploring the possible for its own sake. This is where the “unattained/attainable self” must constantly be checked against human genius, happiness, and fellowship in mutual cultivation and good. For example, certain technological achievements in the area of body modification were unattainable a few decades ago, but their attainment today does not mean there has been any progress into the unattained self. (No external achievement, we might say, guarantees the activation of genius.) Indeed, in placing the possible higher than the actual, the moderns opened the door to a renovation of the human, yet in such a way that it was untethered from any higher teleology than the will to will for will’s sake, or to change what is for change’s sake. We witness more and more the chaotic price we have paid for giving desire and innovationism the final say in all things possible. Moreover, sadly, most often under the guise of “going to the limits of the possible” (Bataille’s admirable if puerile adventure), consumers are simply sold conformity in a fancy package.

Suffice it to say, the “unattained/attainable self” at stake in Moral Perfectionism is not the merely “possible self” of the anything-goes type, for it entails the discernment of the highest teleology possible for humans. Such a teleology surpasses the perfection of the body, the perfection of the intellect, or the perfection of the world — it necessarily enters the zone of the soul’s perfections (nature’s “leap of joy”). I believe this can still be captured by the traditional idea that our highest perfection is found through participation in the Good, True, and Beautiful and their transcendent source. Let’s call this “virtuous divinization” for short. I lay my own cards on the table here when I say: for Moral Perfectionism to avoid the pitfalls and misconceptions of possibilism and voluntarism, it must “put itself into God’s hands” where “God” is the ultimate end and source, the “metaphysically actual” Mystery from which all our perfections flow and to which they return in communion, in communication with the whole corporate body of humanity. Such a formulation would probably not ring foreign to Emerson, though admittedly Nietzsche might object, since he intended to stand for “spirituality setting itself new goals.” I affirm and praise the search for new goals! Such is the creator spirit within us, our imbrication in God. In the final analysis, it is simply impossible to conceive of a human perfection that would not have final reference to the perfection of Being itself and be nested in it as its source and end. Nietzsche’s favorite refrain Alle Lust will Ewigkeit, will tiefe, tiefe Ewigkeit — All Joy wants Eternity, wants deep, deep Eternity suggests to me nothing less. We must learn to read all voices of moral perfection as nested in this universal quest for eternal joy; then too will we understand what is at stake in managing our individuation processes in the direction of the unattained self.

In closing, I wish to return to Girard and his insistence that the only model that will lead humanity out of the violent circle of mimetic rivalry and crisis is Jesus. We have seen already that Emerson objected to upholding Jesus alone as model (or anyone alone) simply because of how this might limit the moral imagination to an inherited fable. However, this situation of Jesus in the quest of moral perfection strikes me as an advance in Christian thought, not its rejection. Nietzsche, too, who certainly understood that Christ lived in eternal blessedness, does not fall outside its ambit entirely, though his obsession with rivaling the Crucified with Dionysius drove him mad. I do not want to enter into apologetics here, but it does strike me that, along with instituting the perfect model of non-rivalry in moral perfection (“the least among ye shall be the greatest,” etc.), Christ at the pinnacle position frees us to love a multitude of models wherever they inform and inspire us to the unattained self in us, for then we know that no one need dream of usurping Christ’s central position.[4] Put otherwise, to befriend Christ is to be the friend of every quest for human perfection no matter its idiom; while it also ensures that all those quests ultimately nest themselves within an obedience to the ultimate teleological ground of Being, what Karl Rahner calls the obedientia potentialis, the essence of human being that was fulfilled perfectly in Christ.

Once again, this is another way of stating of believing! that our human identity lies in our reliance on the unattained, yet with zero rivalry as regards the attainments. Each of us is surely a “unique miracle” with a true nature to realize that is “immeasurably higher” than what we think we are. However, there is no competition of difference between miracles; rather, here is an invitation into a conversation among friends as to the actual basis of their perfectionism and of the “mutual happiness without concept” they find (Cavell, 32). To this extent, Emerson’s “ground of hope” is worth recalling once more: that there is not a diversity of men but “One Man” present to each partially. The moral perfectionist refuses the amputation of that oneness into severed parts alienated from the trunk into distributed functions. We know instead that the individual is in the right state only when it is “Man Thinking” — at the very antipodes of conformism, averse to whatever limits or distracts from our consecration to the unattained, and committed to making our everyday impressions our own ideas, transmuting life into truth. Yet even all this, which we conduct through our innermost tunnels, is only a good in light of the salvation (“cultivation”) of all. I leave Emerson the last word in testament to the grandeur prepared for each of us who need only respond in love to our true nature’s call:

The one thing in the world, of value, is the active soul. This every man is entitled to; this every man contains within him, although in almost all men obstructed and as yet unborn. The soul active sees absolute truth and utters truth, or creates. In this action it is genius; not the privilege of here and there a favorite, but the sound estate of every man. (“The American Scholar,” p 47)


[1] Striving after the being of the model, especially if the model is somehow present in one’s immediate environment, can quickly turn the model into obstacle. Girard calls this the model-obstacle, and it is at that point that we enter the zone of mimetic rivalry: competition for the same object of desire or position in the social system of desire. This then can lead to mimetic crisis and violence. On Girard’s account, humanity emerged in response such violent crises when we were forced to devise ways to attenuate them (e.g. the system of religion, sacrifice, prohibition, law, etc.). An example of such controls is the Ten Commandments, which register the need to prohibit wanting what the neighbor has — do not kill, do not steal, do not covet your neighbor’s wife and possessions, etc. Such a prohibition stems from the community’s terrible experience of what happens when mimetic rivalry goes unchecked, escalates, and explodes in violence (e.g., the never-ending blood feud, which would have quickly risked wiping out a small human groups). Today we fear the same mutually assured destruction in more apocalyptic proportions. (For more on these matters see Girard, Battling to the End, Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World, Evolution and Conversion, among many others.)

[2] Nietzsche remains dreadfully stuck between conquering his own self, being his own man, and becoming (or portraying himself as) a rival to all other men. He wants to have the greatest influence on mankind, “break history in two,” legislate over others, and so on. As Jacob Taubes pointed out, he seems particularly bent on destroying St Paul in the field of value-creation. One cannot help but admire the verve and ambition of Nietzsche’s quest, but as Girard has pointed out, his mimetic rivalries got the best of him, especially his rivalry with Richard Wagner. The proper correction here might be to say that, in the arena of moral perfectionism, there can be no war. It is rather what Cavell calls a “conversation of justice” among friends. No doubt this is the saner and more fruitful route to take.

[3] In Aurobindian language, this would mean the psychic or inner being and spiritual Self directing everything at the outer, physical, vital, and mental level of our being. See my The Inner Being (in the Integral Yoga).

[4] Christ inaugurates a circle of imitation not for place of rank, but for place of emptiness among saints — of sacrifice unto death for the truth. This perspective allows one to draw equal nourishment from, say, Von Speyr’s The Boundless God as from the Gospel itself. Because Von Speyr has integrated through prayer the Lord’s presence into her thoughts and words, there is no competition between the model’s speech and the disciple’s. This does not erase the priority of order, but it does free up the imagination to contemplate the essence of the message (the kerygma) in a language ever more accessible to new neighbors. With the advance of culture (methods of reading and exegesis, theories of symbolism and imagery, psychological interpretations, and so on and so forth), later writings may in fact convey the essence of original more potently or toaudiences who might otherwise have no access to the original (think of Jung’s Aion). But we can witness the same sort of opening of the field at play with an engagement, say, of Nietzsche’s text. I am not obliged to make rivals out of Nietzsche and Christianity in the same manner as he did. On the contrary: from the perspective of moral perfectionism, I am obliged and indeed spontaneously moved to respond to the perfectionist call no matter its origin. Nietzsche’s understanding of the ascetic ideal, as outlined in The Genealogy of Morals, must be grappled with if Life and holiness are to be affirmed together. A Christian such as me will only be further refined in my thought and practice by dealing with the ideas, pleas, and critiques found in The Will to Power. No doubt this may make my Christianity and my antagonism with conformist Christianity more difficult on me and more confusing to others. But that is to be expected for a moral perfectionist whose journey of soul takes him beyond the confines of the presently-defined world. If in my personhood I am called to some aspect of my true nature by a given thinker, the onus lies on me to understand exactly why, and to situate this model among the other models. My priority is to respond to every model of greatness that calls me to my own greatness, and to newly purpose all these greatnesses in the culture of myself and for your culture.

Agamben, Giorgio. Profanations.
Cavell, Stanley. Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Essays.
Girard, Rene. Evolution and Conversion.
Hölderlin, Friedrich. Essays and Letters (Penguin).
Nietzsche, Friedrich. “Schopenhauer as Educator” in Untimely Meditations, trans. R.J. Hollingdale.

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2 Responses to Moral Perfectionism

  1. paulsbench says:

    This was an excellent essay about an interesting theme. You also sparked my interest in Stanley Cavell’s writings. I’ll check out the lecture series you referred to. Thanks, Timothy.

  2. K.d. Lyn says:

    I didn’t expect to find my entire life philosophy eludicated in writing today, but here I am! I’ve found that I fall into depression when there’s a wide disconnect from the life I’m living and the life I want to/”should” be living, and the more I learn the more I think this mindset is also tied to my bipolar diagnosis. When the world was upside-down and everything felt wrong and my greatest desires were fulfillment, peace, and joy…my brain gave me a manic episode that felt like a profoundly euphoric spiritual affirmation.
    If fulfillment is found in the striving toward a personal ideal, and pain is found in stagnation, can a moral perfectionist ever be at peace? How does one exist in a state of simultaneous being and not-being? Is it just in accepting that true moral perfectionism is impossible, and that the striving, however small, is enough to honor our convictions? I think I’m moving toward accepting that I will never be truly at peace until I die…

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