51. Becoming

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“Becoming who you are
is not something one is ever finished doing.”


It is not with sadness that we should begin this penultimate post, but with unbridled joy because, as we say a fond Adieu to Sartre, we can enthusiastically declare Guten Morgen, with a smile on our faces, to an old friend with whom we shall now converse. Friedrich Nietzsche will provide not just blazing insights and face-slapping provocation, but the perfect flag for us to merrily thrust into the mountain we have climbed since we began our journey, oh, so many moons ago. He will also ensure that we will continue mountaineering because, as we he will soon demonstrate, our travels should never end.


So, let us begin.

All the way through our posts the idea has been to elucidate thinking that can help us to be more ethical and to that task I think, arguably, we can also align Nietzsche, if we begin by looking at his work through the lens of moral perfectionism, as suggested by Thomas Hurka. Although, let me just state that Hurka, in my opinion misunderstands Nietzsche, but we’ll get to that in a bit. For now, let’s see what Thomas has to say. In Perfectionism, Hurka examines the possibility of such a concept and in doing so defines two categories needed to comprehend this theory:

“I use ‘perfectionism’ (or ‘narrow perfectionism’) to refer to a moral theory based on human nature, and ‘broad perfectionism’ for the more inclusive view that values some development of capacities or some achievement of excellence.”

Hurka then goes on to state more explicitly that “to develop the best or most defensible perfectionism, we need, most fundamentally, the best concept of human nature.” Straight away, then, we can see that in order for a theory to be perfectionist it must give an account of human nature and this, I propose, is one of Nietzsche’s aims within On the Genealogy of Morality. In the first chapter of the preface he introduced and closed it’s lament with “We are unknown to ourselves… we are not ‘knowers’ when it comes to ourselves.”


This, I take to be the point of departure for Nietzsche, to try and address the issue of ‘self-knowledge, or ‘human nature’, to place it within Hurka’s ‘narrow perfectionist’ framework.

However, in order to verify my claim for a pursuit of human nature within On the Genealogy of Morality, we must examine its methodology. Nietzsche quite clearly was not trying to trace human nature back to a starting point in a Hobbes, Locke, or Rousseau. Michel Foucault confirms this in his examination of On the Genealogy of Morality, with reference to history: “only a metaphysician would seek its soul in the distant ideality of the origin.” Thus we have to ask ourselves ‘how is Nietzsche utilising human nature?’ A pointer is given by Foucault, because he reveals that Nietzsche focuses on how human nature has ‘descended’ to it’s current position through a genealogical analysis, which, as he puts it,

“Identifies the accidents, the minute derivations – or conversely, the complete reversals – the errors, the false appraisals, and the faulty calculations that gave birth to those things that continue to exist and have value for us.”


My claim as regards Nietzsche’s project, then, is that his study of human nature is directly related to his study of the genealogy of morality in as much as the latter becomes the former, because tracing the twists and turns of morality also traces the ‘progress’, or decline, of our nature. However, I believe that it would be quite wrong to view Nietzsche as just a ‘narrow perfectionist’ and just a genealogist. Instead, the task should shift to Hurka’s other prong and the examination of Nietzsche in terms of ‘broad perfectionism’: a “development of capacities or some achievement of excellence”.

Sticking with On the Genealogy of Morality, David Owen can help as he rather neatly unpacks Nietzsche’s text into three key questions:

  1. What are we?
  2. How have we become what we are?
  3. Given what we are, what can we become?

Owen’s third question is where the standard, or simplistic, interpretation of Nietzsche arises in that he “values some development of capacities or some achievement of excellence.” However, this ‘standard interpretation’ is not always one that shows Nietzsche in a positive light. John Rawls in A Theory of Justice, as pointed out by James Conant, has fears concerning that type of perfectionism because “it will ask the claims of justice to take a back seat to the claims of excellence.”


Conant, after reading Stanley Cavell’s Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome, comes to Nietzsche’s aid and retaliates against Rawls by introducing a new analysis of a passage from Nietzsche’s Schopenhauer as Educator. Rawls, Conant claims, significantly misinterprets the meaning of the passage due to a mistake in the translation. From this mistake, Rawls and his followers, such as Hurka, understand Nietzsche’s ‘model’ to have a teleological structure – “one which seeks to maximise those states of affairs which it deems desirable and evaluates moral principles primarily according to the degree to which they maximise optimally.” Or, to put it another way, let’s value those who demonstrate excellence more than those who don’t. This teleological and pernicious structure which, as we shall see, later Conant refutes leads Hurka into the position of accusing Nietzsche of “an excessively anti-egalitarian nature: ‘Nietzsche equates the aggregate excellence in a society with the excellence of its few best members, and wants social policy to maximise that’.”

This misinterpretation, of course, symptomatically resonates with the manufactured misuse by Nietzsche’s anti-Semitic sister who caused severe problems after his death. However, the current misinterpretation stems from a passage in in the sixth section of Schopenhauer as Educator, where Nietzsche wrote:

“Mitunter ist es schwerer, eine Sache zuzugeben als sie einzusehen; und so gerade mag es den meisten ergehen, wenn sie den Satz uberlegen: ‘die Menschheit soll fortwahrend daran arbeiten, eizelne grosse Menschen zu erzeugen – und dies und nichts andre is ihre Aufgabe.’ … Denn die Frage lautet doch so: wie erhalt dein, des eilzenen Leben den hochsten Wert, die tiefste Bedeutung? … Gewiss nur dadurch, dass du zum Vorteile der seltensten und wertvollsten Exemplare lebst.” (Italics mine)


Which R. J. Hollingdale, in 1983, translated as the following:

“Sometimes it is harder to accede to a thing than it is to see its truth; and that is how most people may feel when they reflect on the proposition: ‘Mankind must work continually to produce individual great human beings – this and nothing else is the task.’ … For the question is this: how can your life, the individual life, retain the highest value, the deepest significance? …. Only by your living for the good of the rarest and most valuable specimens.” (Italics mine)

Conant makes clear that this “is the only textual support adduced by [Rawls] for the claim that Nietzsche adheres to ‘the strong version of perfectionism.’” The ‘strong version of perfectionism’ is the teleological, or pernicious one. So, if Conant were to provide a close analysis of this passage and find a way to refute the claim of a teleological structure to Nietzsche’s moral perfectionism then Rawl’s objection and Hurka’s subsequent accusation of anti-egalitarianism could be dismissed as invalid. Conant does just this by analysing the word ‘Exemplare,’ which was translated by R. J. Hollingdale as ‘specimen’. By employing Kant’s ‘theory of genius’ from the Critique of Judgement (to find out how you’ll have to read Nietzsche’s Perfectionism: A Reading of “Schopenhauer as Educator”), Conant lends weight to his preferred translation of ‘Exemplare’ to ‘exemplar’ and by so doing brings the focus of the passage to a purely individual basis:

“It becomes clear, that you, the reader, are asked to ask yourself a question. The question you should ask yourself is: how can your life, the individual life, attain the highest value and the deepest significance? That’s a question Nietzsche says you must ask yourself in solitude; and if you pursue it, you will find that your answer to that question will force upon you the notion of an exemplar.”

Friedrich Nietzsche and Arthur Schopenhauer by Werner Horvath, 2000.
Friedrich Nietzsche and Arthur Schopenhauer by Werner Horvath, 2000.

So if we are to follow Conant, Nietzsche’s moral perfectionism now takes a new turn, in that it is not teleological, and consequentially pernicious, but rather it is individual, courtesy of a focus upon exemplarity. Conant next answers the obvious question of what, for Nietzsche, was an exemplar, by referring to Schopenhauer as Educator:

“I sensed that in him, Schopenhauer, I had discovered that educator and philosopher I had sought for so long… I strove… to see through the book and to imagine the living man…who promised to make his heirs only those who would and could be more than merely his readers.”

By examining this quote we can see that Nietzsche was not interested hero-worship, instead there is a requirement to be more than merely a reader. This point is given as a personal example, but in Thus Spoke Zarathustra it is made universal: ‘One repays a teacher badly if one remains only a pupil.” So, it seems that an exemplar requires emulation, but not copying.

Socrates taught Plato who then taught Aristotle
Socrates taught Plato who then taught Aristotle

In Zarathustra/Zarathustra as Educator, Richard Schacht suggests “that in and by means of Zarathustra and Zarathustra, Nietzsche sought to provide posterity with something capable of performing the kind of ‘educating’ function he had discussed in [Schopenhauer as Educator], and considered Schopenhauer to have performed for him.” Such an ‘educating’ function is what Conant determined as ‘exemplariness’, or a way of showing how to attain our higher selves, which links Thus Spoke Zarathustra to On the Genealogy of Morality. Plus, If we take him at his word in Ecce Homo, Beyond Good and Evil and On the Genealogy of Morality are the ‘reasons why’ or denying parts of his work, whereas Thus Spoke Zarathustra was ‘how to’ or affirmative part.

Let’s regroup a little.

Courtesy of Hurka and Foucault we have seen that On the Genealogy of Morality tracks the descent of humans in terms of what they value. Conant then pulls Nietzsche from the brink of mistranslation and appropriation by revealing the concept of the exemplar and its individual application, as opposed to any socially teleological formation. Finally, Schacht helps position Thus Spoke Zarathustra as the literary manifestation of an exemplar. The point of all the proceeding, though, to be clear, is that we as individuals could, and therefore should, do better.


Conant, in referring back to Schopenhauer as Educator, however, doesn’t rest on his laurels because he recognises that there is more work to be done around such statements as the following:

“Let him follow his conscience, which calls to him: Be yourself! All you are now doing, thinking, desiring is not you yourself.”

Conant realises that Nietzsche was not trying to distinguish between two selves: one that you are at the moment, and your ‘true’ self. Instead, what Nietzsche was hammering towards was something more along the lines of personal evolution:

“Becoming who you are is not something one is ever finished doing.”

Thinking in this manner and drawing threads together leads Conant to the realisation that one can outgrow a particular exemplar and move on to another. This he suggests is what Nietzsche did in practice:

“Schopenhauer is a teacher of whom [Nietzsche] may boast because he is a teacher the author has outgrown… Emerson is an example that as the texture of [Schopenhauer as Educator] serves to reveal, continues to function as one of the author’s current exemplars.”

Arthur Schopenhauer and Ralph Waldo Emerson
Arthur Schopenhauer and Ralph Waldo Emerson

Accepting that this is brilliant work by Conant, and also Nietzsche(!), there is, however, an unruly sticky patch to overcome. Whilst fully appreciating the point that one is a ‘work in progress’ as such and never becomes one’s self in a finite or teleological sense, and that we are in a constant state of becoming: outgrowing exemplars, and moving on to new ones; I believe that if we adopt this position of exemplarity there is a problem. The problem starts as we begin to search in order to attach our “heart to some great man”, as Nietzsche suggests.

As Conant explains, “your ‘higher self’, according to Nietzsche, comes into view only through your confrontation with what you trust and admire in an exemplary other.” Thus, we achieve our ‘higher self’ by attaching our heart, and placing our trust and admiration in the exemplar. Boiling down further, all three of these conditions for action come from our seeing particular qualities in the exemplar, and this is where I see the problem. Our seeing governs our trust, admiration, and potential for attaching our heart, and this can only be based on knowledge gained by ourselves, either directly or indirectly (for example, from others). Can this knowledge ever be sufficient for us to act and attach our hearts without regret that we might have missed a ‘truer’ potential exemplar? Or, stuck between a choice of two or more potential exemplars, assuming that we have done everything possible to “trade off” differences and attributes and still not been able to come to a decision, how do we choose?


David Owen sees the potential for a moral dilemma in the latter situation but then advocates ‘moral luck’ as having to come into play, and suggests that as long as we do, indeed, act then we are on Nietzsche’s path to the higher self.

However, does the fundamental problem not remain? That our basis for following Nietzsche’s moral perfectionist model is flawed because we have an uncertain foundation upon which to act: our knowledge alone. If we accept my reasoning that, ultimately, this is what attaching our hearts to reduces down to, then surely this is not sufficient? The door is left open to doubt and constant questioning of the chosen or potential exemplar.

To close the door, we need to take a step back and consider what I believe was Nietzsche’s original underlying master plan for On the Genealogy of Morality: to make us question those we feel drawn to, and not to accept as given the current or standard modes of practice for moral thinking. In this way, the actual fulfilment of having an exemplar is no longer necessary. It is not in the fulfilment of attaining an exemplar, but rather in the process of entertaining the idea of potential exemplars, and their inherent flaws, that leads us to a position of real ethical thinking.


Weighing up whether someone else could be our exemplar is quite possibly the best way of getting ourselves to think about ethics and working out just what is important in our lives and how we should lead them.

In writing this post, I am deeply indebted to one of my exemplars, Professor John Lippitt.

These are my personal views on ethics and they are not intended to represent the views of Conway Hall Ethical Society.
Dr. Jim Walsh


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