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  • Is Nietzsche a Perfectionist?Rawls, Cavell, and the Politics of Culture in Nietzsche’s “Schopenhauer as Educator”
  • Vanessa Lemm

Stanley Cavell's reading of Nietzsche as a moral perfectionist is without doubt the most influential perfectionist reading of Nietzsche. Cavell developed his interpretation of Nietzsche as a moral perfectionist in response to John Rawls's use of Nietzsche in A Theory of Justice.1 In a footnote of that book, Rawls cites a passage from Nietzsche's "Schopenhauer as Educator" in order to illustrate the principles of political perfectionism, which he condemns as "inherently undemocratic and elitist."2 Cavell, however, defends the moral perfectionism he finds in Nietzsche's philosophy of culture on the basis that such perfectionism is indispensable in fashioning an internal critique of democracy, vital to "the life of justice in a constitutional democracy."3

Textually, Cavell's quarrel with Rawls revolves around one single passage in "Schopenhauer as Educator." Although this passage is the only evidence presented in favor of an interpretation of Nietzsche as either a political or moral perfectionist, the result of this exchange has been that "Nietzsche tends to figure in contemporary discussions as the perfectionist par excellence."4 In what follows, I present a different reading of the passages on which Rawls and Cavell base their political and moral perfectionist interpretations of Nietzsche and argue that these passages from SE do not warrant the claim that Nietzsche is a perfectionist.5

Cavell correctly argues that Nietzsche is not a political perfectionist, but, in my view, his reading of Nietzsche as a moral perfectionist does not take into account two important aspects of Nietzsche's conception of culture. First, the moral perfectionist interpretation of Nietzsche poorly captures the political meaning of culture as a public struggle (agon).6 I agree with Cavell that culture as a public struggle is not advanced by means of political perfectionism, because Nietzsche's conception of culture in SE is inherently anti-institutional. But I hold against Cavell that culture is also not advanced by means of moral perfectionism, because for Nietzsche culture as a public struggle views the self as being situated amid an irreducible plurality that exposes the self to the other.7 Culture is not a private matter under the control of the self but, rather, always already a public and political matter that transcends the self's involvement with itself. Second, a moral perfectionist reading of Nietzsche relies on an individualistic interpretation of freedom too narrow to fully grasp the public dimension of [End Page 5] freedom as responsibility. Against the perfectionist interpretation, I aim to show how the political meaning of culture as a public struggle is reflected in the cultivation of responsibility. Responsibility in Nietzsche is based on an idea of freedom that differs from the kind of individualism found in the liberal idea of moral self-perfection where the self remains involved with itself, possibly also in the company of others chosen by the self but always within the private sphere, and is not, from the start, transposed in a sphere where the encounter with the other is primary and unavoidable.

I will begin with a presentation of Rawls's and Cavell's conflicting views, in order to then propose alternative solutions to the problems Cavell identifies in Rawls's use of Nietzsche. Finally, I seek to provide a nonperfectionist reading of Nietzsche's philosophy of culture, one that remains faithful to the purposes of Cavell's disagreement with Rawls by not succumbing to the prejudice against the values of a "radical aristocrat" and appreciating their potentially fruitful contribution to democratic politics.8

Two Views of Perfectionism

In A Theory of Justice, Rawls defines perfectionism as a teleological theory whose sole principle is to direct "society to arrange institutions and to define the duties and obligations of individuals so as to maximize the achievement of human excellence, in art, in science and in culture."9 Rawls contends that Nietzsche exemplifies such perfectionism. He backs up this claim by citing Hollingdale's translation of the following passage from SE in a footnote: "Mankind must work continually to produce individual great human beings—this and nothing else is the task . . . for the question...