Nietzsche as Perfectionist

Donald Rutherford. Inquiry. Volume 61, Issue 1. 2018.

Thomas Hurka has argued that Nietzsche’s ‘positive moral views’ can be formulated as a version of a perfectionist ethical theory (2007, 10). On the face of it, this seems improbable. Traditional perfectionists identify the human good with the perfection of human reason. Nietzsche denies that reason is fundamental to what we are or a characteristic that merits the highest value. Traditional perfectionists, moreover, identify the full development of our rational nature with the condition of virtue or moral excellence, which implies a commitment to pursuing the good of others for its own sake. Nietzsche is deeply critical of this cluster of ideas, which is the target of his ‘reevaluation of all values’. Given these differences, how could Nietzsche be a perfectionist in a sense that accords with the perfectionism of Aristotle, Aquinas, or T. H. Green?

A strength of Hurka’s interpretation is that it emphasizes the extent to which Nietzsche breaks with key assumptions of classical perfectionism. Hurka ascribes to Nietzsche a perfectionism that rejects notions of equality and justice central to the Western moral tradition. Nietzsche denies ‘optimistic factual claims’ (Hurka 2007, 10) made by his predecessors who seek to reconcile competing moral principles (e.g. perfection and happiness), and he forces us to confront difficult questions about the relationship between perfectionist conceptions of value and the demand on agents to promote such value in themselves and others. If Nietzsche is a perfectionist, then, he is an unusual one, and this for Hurka is what makes his views worth studying.

In the first section of this essay, I examine the support Hurka offers for his reading and argue that he fails to make a compelling case for the claim that Nietzsche defends a perfectionist moral theory. My main goal, however, is not simply to show Hurka wrong but to explore the larger significance of perfectionism for Nietzsche. In section 2, I propose a version of perfectionism as the value perspective of a ‘noble type’ that may emerge in the wake of a revaluation of all values. The basis of this perfectionism is an individual’s projection of an ideal of life to which she ascribes intrinsic value and in terms of which the value of other things is measured. Justifying this reading requires drawing a distinction between life-denying ideals—forms of the ‘ascetic ideal’—and life-affirming ‘counterideals’ that express the values of Nietzsche’s noble type. It also requires recognizing that the perfection of the noble type is expressed in an individual ideal that cannot be shared with others, as opposed to a common ideal of human perfection. The final two sections develop these distinctions, leading to the conclusion that there is a sense in which it is meaningful to think of Nietzsche as a perfectionist, though it is a very different sense from the one proposed by Hurka.

Hurka’s Nietzsche


According to Hurka, Nietzsche accepts both a perfectionist theory of value and a morality based on that theory. With respect to the theory of value, he argues, Nietzsche is plausibly read as defending a version of ‘narrow perfectionism’, according to which ‘the human good consists in developing whatever properties are fundamental to human nature’. For Hurka, these properties are associated with the exercise of will to power, hence ‘the best individuals … are those who are most powerful’ (2007, 10). On Hurka’s account, Nietzsche draws on this theory of value in advancing a consequentialist moral theory that ‘evaluates acts by the total amount of good they produce’ (16). A consequentialist theory of this sort can be structured in different ways depending on the weight given to the good of the agent and the good of others, and the principles according to which goods are aggregated across times and persons. In Hurka’s view, Nietzsche bases his moral theory on a ‘maximax’ principle, which directs agents to maximize the excellence, or power, of the ‘few most perfect members’ of society, remaining indifferent to the condition of the rest (18). Nietzsche’s perfectionism is thus a radically antiegalitarian doctrine, which assigns to all ‘the same moral goal of maximizing the perfection of the best’ (21).

Before considering the details of Hurka’s account, it is worth raising the question of its aim. Does Hurka offer his reading as the best all-things-considered interpretation of Nietzsche’s ethical thought, or does he use hints found in Nietzsche’s texts to develop a philosophically interesting form of perfectionism that might or might have been held by the historical Nietzsche? My understanding is that Hurka takes himself to be advancing a position that can be attributed to Nietzsche, though in some cases the texts leave undetermined exactly how the theory is to be developed. Hurka explicitly contrasts his approach with readings that regard Nietzsche as a ‘paradigmatically anti-theoretical philosopher’, who offers criticisms of existing morality, but whose own ‘positive normative claims … have neither the content nor the organization characteristic of moral theory’. Against such readings, Hurka takes ‘it as uncontroversial that Nietzsche’s positive moral views fall under the general heading of what today is called perfectionism’ (2007, 9). Without pursuing the issue further, I will assume that, although many of the claims Hurka makes are formulated against the background of his own defense of perfectionism, he believes that a version of such a theory is, in fact, Nietzsche’s own.

If Nietzsche is a narrow perfectionist in Hurka’s sense, he obviously is one in a very different way than his predecessors. According to Hurka, the relevant notion of human nature is given not in terms of the rational powers of a human being, but its essential will to power. For Nietzsche, the same fundamental property, will to power, is essential to all things, including human beings. Consequently, if Nietzsche is a narrow perfectionist who identifies the good with the perfection of human nature, and human nature with those properties essential to a human being, then he must identify the good with the maximization of will to power in an individual human being: ‘the best individuals are therefore those who are most powerful’ (2007, 10).

For the purposes of this paper, I will bracket the question of whether Nietzsche is committed to the doctrine that the essence of the world, and hence the essence of all human beings, is will to power. Suppose we grant Hurka this point. What follows from it concerning the human good? Hurka suggests two paths by which Nietzsche might reach the conclusion that the human good is the maximization of will to power. The first, that of ‘metaethical naturalism’, purports to draw evaluative or normative conclusions directly from facts about nature. Some have read Nietzsche as pursuing this strategy (Schacht 1983). He starts from factual claims about the ‘natural’ or unhindered striving of an organism—a striving for the expansion of power—and infers from this that its optimal state is one in which this occurs to the greatest degree. Hurka finds this approach unpromising on philosophical grounds since it is ‘open to the standard objections raised by Sidgwick, Moore, and others against naturalism generally’ (2007, 11). For his part, Hurka favors and offers on Nietzsche’s behalf a second strategy, which relies on positing a ‘substantive or non-analytic’ principle to the effect that ‘the human good consists in developing the properties essential to humans’ (12). As far as I can see, Hurka offers no support for this as a principle to which Nietzsche would subscribe, so here I think we have an example of Hurka telling us what Nietzsche should think rather than what he does think.

If Nietzsche were a narrow perfectionist in Hurka’s sense, the most promising way of making sense of this would be in terms of ‘metaethical naturalism’. All things by nature strive for an expansion of power, and their doing so to the greatest possible extent is what we mean by their ‘perfection’. But what normative conclusions follow from this? Is striving for perfection, or maximal power, something that individuals ought to or should do? Is it praiseworthy for them to do so? Do they act wrongly, if they don’t do so? Arguably, Nietzsche’s answer to all of these questions would be, No. Each of them invokes a substantive moral concept for which we find no basis in nature. At most, we might say that individuals do well for themselves, or flourish, when they expand their power, or succeed in exercising their will to power. If this happens, the outcome is good for the individual; if not, it is bad (A 2).

Although a handful of texts support such a reading, they must be squared with a more prominent theme in Nietzsche’s explanations of value. Hurka is silent about the many passages in which Nietzsche tells us explicitly that all value is ‘created’ by human beings as an expression of their affective responses to things. There is no value in nature, independently of its being given by human beings:

We who think and feel at the same time are those who continually fashion something that had not been there before: the whole eternally growing world of valuations, colors, accents, perspectives, scales, affirmations, and negations …. Whatever has value in our world now does not have value in itself, according to its nature—nature is always value-less, but has been given value at some time, as a present—and it was we who gave and bestowed it. Only we have created the world that concerns man! (GS 301)

Nietzsche’s pervasive antirealism about the ground of value is in tension with the main lines of Hurka’s perfectionist interpretation, which assumes an objective human good. If anything like Hurka’s account can be recovered from Nietzsche’s writings, it will have to be reconciled with the thesis that value judgments are expressions of kinds of life and that they are not answerable to external standards in terms of which life itself can be valued. I will return to this point in the next section.

First, though, we must consider the second half of Hurka’s proposal, which is that Nietzsche defends a perfectionist ‘moral theory’, based on an agent-neutral principle that ‘assigns everyone the same moral goal of maximizing the perfection of the best’ (2007, 21). Hurka finds support for this principle, which he labels ‘maximax’, in a number of Nietzschean texts (18). They are a heterogeneous group; I select three for comment.

Following Rawls, Hurka cites the following passage from Schopenhauer as Educator:

‘Mankind must work continually at the production of individual great men—that and nothing else is the task’ …. We ought really to have no difficulty in seeing that, when a species has arrived at its limits and is about to go over into a higher species, the goal of its evolution lies, not in the mass of its instances and their wellbeing, let alone in those instances who happen to come last in point of time, but rather in those apparently scattered and chance existences which favourable conditions have here and there produced; and it ought to be just as easy to understand the demand that, because it can arrive at a conscious awareness of its goal, mankind ought to seek out and create the favourable conditions under which those great redemptive men can come into existence …. It seems to be an absurd demand that one man should exist for the sake of another man; ‘for the sake of all others, rather, or at least for as many as possible!’ O worthy man! as though it were less absurd to let number decide when value and significance are at issue! For the question is this: how can your life, the individual life, receive the highest value, the deepest significance? How can it be least squandered? Certainly only by your living for the advantage of the rarest and most valuable instances, and not for the advantage of the majority, that is to say those who, taken individually, are the least valuable instances. (UM III: 6; KSA 1: 383-384).

The parts of the text cited by Hurka are underlined. I have filled in the rest to give a better sense of the context. Nietzsche certainly advances the idea that any individual should dedicate himself to promoting ‘the advantage of the rarest and most valuable instances’, whom he describes as ‘the great redemptive men’. But what is his rationale for this claim? Schopenhauer as Educator is an early work in which Nietzsche has not yet found his feet as a philosopher. The argument is premised on a teleological conception of nature that is foreign to his later thought. Nature as a whole is understood to have ‘a metaphysical goal [einem metaphyischen Zwecke], that of its own self-enlightenment’ or ‘self-knowledge’ (KSA 1: 383). This goal is realized in the appearance of ‘great redemptive men’, whom each of us should seek to produce. All of this belongs to a stage of his thought that Nietzsche leaves behind. Moreover, it does not entail that a person should act without regard to her own good. The ‘task’, he says, is ‘to promote the production of the philosopher, the artist and the saint within us and without us and thereby to work at the perfecting of nature’ (ibid., emphasis in original). The life of each person receives its ‘highest value’ and ‘deepest significance’ to the extent that it is dedicated to promoting the ‘metaphysical goal’ of nature wherever it can be realized, in oneself or in others. This is not Hurka’s ‘maximax’ principle.

A passage from BGE 258 offers a different message:

The essential characteristic of a good and health aristocracy … is that it experience itself not as a function (whether of the monarchy or commonwealth) but as their meaning and justification—that it therefore accepts with a good conscience the sacrifice of untold human beings who, for its sake, must be reduced and lowered to incomplete human beings, to slaves, to instruments. Their fundamental faith simply has to be that society must not exist for society’s sake but only as the foundation and scaffolding on which a choice type of being is able to raise itself to its higher task and to a higher state of being ….

The passage as a whole suggests a kind of perfectionist view, according to which anyone who is not a member of the aristocracy exists for the sake of the aristocrats. That sounds like Hurka’s maximax principle, but it is, in fact, worlds away. Nietzsche is describing how uncorrupted aristocracies see their place in the world. They are not just genteel people with fine manners and well-cut clothes. They take themselves to be superior beings, for whose sake the rest of society exists; in comparison to them, other human beings are ‘incomplete’, ‘slaves’, ‘instruments’. I see no reason to read Nietzsche as offering a moral theory here. He is simply describing the value perspective of the aristocracy—a perspective with which those they oppressed heartily disagreed, given the evidence of the French Revolution (GM I: 16).

Much the same point can be made about a third text Hurka cites from the Genealogy of Morals: ‘The well-being of the majority and the well-being of the few are opposite viewpoints of value: to consider the former a priori of higher value may be left to the naïveté of the English biologists’ (GM I: 17, note). For this passage to count as evidence for Hurka’s interpretation, he would have to construe it as containing both Nietzsche’s denial of the higher value of the well-being of the majority and his assertion of the higher value of the well-being of the few, which is consequential for how the majority should act. However, the argument of the first essay of GM doesn’t support this conclusion. What Nietzsche is concerned to bring out throughout the essay is the diversity of ‘viewpoints of value’ (Werth-Gesichtspunkte) or value ‘perspectives’ (Perspektiven). Different viewpoints are associated with different ‘modes of valuation’ (Wertungs-Weisen) (e.g. the ‘priestly’, the ‘noble’; GM I: 7, 10), based on the end promoted by the values; yet, it doesn’t follow from this alone that one can be judged superior to another. Assuming that Nietzsche is ultimately concerned with that problem—‘the determination of the order of rank among values’—its solution must come from another direction.

Challenging the evidence offered by three of the texts cited by Hurka in support of Nietzsche’s acceptance of a ‘maximax’ perfectionist moral theory doesn’t show that there are no passages that support such a theory. Examination of this evidence, however, reveals a consistent shortcoming of Hurka’s approach. Where Nietzsche speaks of value perspectives, which may differ sharply based on the interests and social position of the valuer, Hurka seeks on his behalf a true moral theory that describes the standard according to which every human being should judge value.7

This points to the most serious problem with Hurka’s account. Based on no apparent evidence, he construes Nietzsche’s perfectionism as having ‘an agent neutral structure, one where all agents are assigned the same moral goal, so their acts if right will tend to produce the same outcome’: ‘maximizing of the perfection of the best’ (2007, 21). Even if one were sympathetic to ‘maximax’ as representative of Nietzsche’s value perspective, positing agent-neutral moral reasons for action would be the wrong way to go about supporting it. Hurka arrives at his conclusion by leaning heavily on his own preferred version of perfectionism. According to Hurka, not every version of perfectionism must be egoistic: there can be versions of perfectionism (the ‘best versions’, he says) that ‘tell each person to care about others’ good as well as his own’ (22). The irony of framing the matter in this way is that while Nietzsche sharply criticizes moral views that require an agent to sacrifice her own good for the sake of the good of others, the perfectionism Hurka ascribes to Nietzsche requires exactly the same thing. It removes from the best a moral requirement to act on behalf of the less well off, but it places on every individual an agent-neutral requirement to act on behalf of the best.

I have raised objections to both parts of Hurka’s perfectionist interpretation of Nietzsche: his ascription to Nietzsche of an objective conception of the good and a morality that regards every human being as having an agent-neutral reason to act on behalf of the excellence of the best. The former thesis is questionable as a reading of Nietzsche’s account of value. The latter thesis misconstrues the direction of his ethical thought and could only be justified as a claim about what he should have said were he interested in the sort of perfectionism that Hurka defends. In the next section, I turn to the type of perfectionism with which Nietzsche can be associated. Although he does not accept a perfectionist theory of the good in Hurka’s sense, he draws on perfectionist ideas in conceptualizing the value perspective of the noble type who may emerge from a revaluation of all values.

Perfectionism and the Noble Mode of Valuation


In reconstructing what I take to be defensible in a reading of Nietzsche as a perfectionist, I begin with some broad assumptions about his understanding of the origin of value and the significance of value judgments. Discussion of these topics will take us over well-travelled ground, but it is necessary for an adequate framing of his perfectionism.

To reiterate: Nietzsche is an antirealist about value. There are no mind-independent, objective values; all values are attitude-dependent, reflecting the positive or negative affective responses of human beings to the world (including other human beings). In a slogan, all moralities are ‘merely a sign language of the affects’ (BGE 187). It follows that value is inherently relative: different individuals and different groups make incommensurate judgments about what is good or bad, right or wrong, reflecting their different value perspectives. Consistent with this, the most appropriate way to enlighten ourselves about the ground of values is through naturalistic investigations of their physiological, psychological, and historical origins.

In constructing his own genealogy of morality, Nietzsche focuses on two opposed value perspectives, ‘noble’ and ‘common’ modes of valuation, and two conflicting systems of values, ‘master’ and ‘slave’ moralities. Although there is a close relationship between these distinctions, and Nietzsche frequently runs them together, they are not identical. As I understand it, a ‘value perspective’ or ‘mode of valuation’ reflects a specific physiologico-psychological constitution (e.g. a set of dominant affects and drives), on the basis of which an individual is disposed to judge some things as having positive value and other things as having negative value. ‘Moralities’ or ‘tables of good and evil’, by contrast, are products of the expression of value judgments within concrete social conditions that support certain values acquiring authority and becoming the values of a culture. In his genealogy, Nietzsche argues for the historical and explanatory priority of an original master morality, construed as an expression of the noble mode of valuation, which is subsequently overturned and replaced by slave morality, an expression of the common mode of valuation.

For the moment, I place in the background the distinction between master and slave moralities and consider the more fundamental distinction between noble and common modes of valuation. Because the noble mode of valuation is Nietzsche’s own perspective, I concentrate on it. Three related psychological characteristics define the perspective of the noble type and inform the content of its values:

Spontaneity and self-affirmation. The noble type acts spontaneously in the determination of value: the noble type ‘conceives the basic concept “good” in advance and spontaneously out of itself and only then creates for itself an idea of “bad”’ (GM I: 11). In doing so, the noble type not only acts from itself—as opposed to reacting (negatively) to what is ‘outside,’ ‘different,’ or ‘not itself’—but it ‘affirms’ itself as fundamentally good, beautiful and happy, i.e. the paradigm of positive value (GM I: 10).

Pathos of distance. The noble type experiences itself as standing above the mass of human beings. It takes for granted its position at the top of a ‘long ladder of an order of rank and differences in value between man and man’ (BGE 257); its feeling of being above other human beings explains its judgment of itself as having the highest value: ‘the exalted, proud states of the soul are experienced as conferring distinction and determining the order of rank’ (BGE 260).

Normative independence and the commanding of value. Given its conviction about its own value, the noble type acknowledges the claim of no one to dictate how it should think or act: ‘The noble type of man experiences itself as determining values; it does not need approval; it judges, “what is harmful to me is harmful in itself”; it knows itself to be that which first accords honor to things; it is value-creating’ (BGE 260; cf. GM I: 2). Thereafter, the noble type asserts its values by commanding others to recognize their authority; ‘for will, as the affect of command, is the decisive sign of sovereignty and strength’ (GS 347).

Nietzsche’s characterization of the noble mode of valuation takes for granted his antirealism about value. All values are ‘created’, in the sense that they come to exist as a result of human beings’ affective responses to the world and have no reality independently of those responses. What distinguishes the values of the noble type is that they are a spontaneous expression of its life and reflect its affirmation of its life, whereas the values of the common type are essentially reactive and reflect an underlying dissatisfaction with life (GM I: 10). ‘Master morality’ is a socialized expression of the superiority of the noble type. Higher types stand above the common people in a tightly controlled social hierarchy and feel themselves superior to them. Reflecting their superior status, they accept the authority of no one to dictate what they should do or think; rather, they claim for themselves the authority to dictate to others what they should do or think. In sum, the noble type assigns the highest value to itself and little or no value to others, and claims the right to command others on how they should judge value in general.

According to Nietzsche’s genealogy, in traditional cultures marked by sharply defined social strata, the noble type imposed its morality on the lower ranks of common people (BGE 261). With the rise of Christianity, this order was overthrown. Drawing on the precedents of Jewish divine law and the rationalism of ancient Greek ethics, Christianity propounded a universal morality that recognized the equal value and moral standing of all human beings. Furthermore, in each of the Greek, Jewish, and Christian variants of slave morality, the ground of the authority of value judgments was removed from individual human beings and transferred to a higher tribunal: God or reason. Thus, the dictates of morality were seen as inviolable: regardless of one’s social standing, one was obligated to obey them. One’s individual will was answerable to moral requirements, and one was judged praiseworthy or blameworthy based on one’s conformity, or failure to conform, to those requirements. Over time, the ascendant slave morality usurped the place of master morality, as witnessed in the conversion of the Emperor Constantine and many lesser pagan rulers. Because of its insistence on the superiority of the noble type who is independent of the judgment of others, master morality was a prototypical case of immorality that had to be extinguished.

By the end of the nineteenth century, Nietzsche observes, the authority of the Judeo-Christian moral scheme has been significantly weakened. He conceives of his own project of a revaluation of all values as an instrument for promoting a reversal of value perspectives that would return authority to the noble mode of valuation. A revaluation of values would restore the primacy of the life- and self-affirming tendencies of the noble mode of valuation; uphold the ‘pathos of difference’, wherein the feeling of superiority—standing above the common—is accorded normative significance; and return to the individual the authority to judge value for herself, recognizing no one—and no external standard—as standing over her and dictating how she should think or act.

This much I take to be uncontroversal as a summary of Nietzsche’s position. Less straightforward is the relationship between a renewed expression of the noble mode of valuation and a return to the institution of master morality. If the hegemony of Christian morality were overcome, what would be the result? Despite Nietzsche’s occasional bellicosity, there is no reason to think that the outcome of a revaluation of all values must be a return to the hierarchical social order within which master morality made its first appearance. Nietzsche regards social conditions as influencing the acquisition of values and the motivation of individuals to think and act in ways that diverge from those licensed by dominant norms. In a society that works diligently to enforce a particular set of values—as Christian societies did for centuries—challenges to those values will be few and costly. When the mechanisms of enforcement lose their effectiveness, other value schemes will assert themselves. Master morality might again dominate in circumstances in which a new authoritarian political order took root. Alternatively, as the authority of slave morality diminished, one could envision new opportunities for the expression of the noble mode of valuation within the framework of a liberal state that enabled individuals to esteem things from this perspective should they choose to do so.

If this is correct, then the significance of Nietzsche’s revaluation of values lies less in the support it offers for a return to master morality, which involves the dominance of the noble type over a class of inferior people, than in its claim for a space in which the noble mode of valuation can be exercised by those who seek to do so. This conclusion is supported by the models Nietzsche offers of new manifestations of the noble mode of valuation. Artists, free spirits, and philosophers of the future exemplify in different ways the characteristic mode of valuing of the noble type: they feel themselves to stand above the common run of life and they insist on the right of independence—to judge value for themselves. We may add to this Nietzsche’s acknowledgment that a revaluation of values is fundamentally a shift in psychological perspective, an ‘inversion of the value-positing eye’ (GM I: 10), and that the result of such a transformation will inevitably bear traces of the perspective that has been overcome (GM II: 12). For these reasons, we should not expect the renewed authority of the noble mode of valuation to issue in a replication of the original scheme of master morality. What will emerge is a value scheme that carries over features of slave morality within a perspective expressive of the noble mode of valuation.

It is in these terms that we can begin to delineate the form of Nietzsche’s perfectionism. There are a variety of ways in which the noble mode of valuation can be manifested: an aristocratic political order, Dionysian art, new philosophers who are ‘commanders and legislators’ of values. Along with these we may include a value perspective that incorporates features of perfectionism: an individual identifies her good with the realization of an ideal version of her life, conceived in terms of the elevation or perfection of her powers. This value perspective preserves the characteristics of the noble mode of valuation—spontaneity, the pathos of distance, normative independence—but modulates their expression in ways that distinguish the resulting perspective from the original form of master morality. Nietzsche describes how in ‘spiritualized’ individuals both the pathos of distance and normative independence are transformed in ways that reflect the internalization of practical demands by Christianity. Although the pathos of distance begins as the ruling caste’s sense of its distance above lower social orders, there grows from it another, ‘more mysterious pathos’: ‘the craving for an ever new widening of distances within the soul itself, the development of ever higher, rarer, more remote, further-stretching, more comprehensive states—in brief, simply the enhancement of the type “man”’ (BGE 257). Likewise, although normative independence is initially expressed in the ruler’s instinct for sovereignty and the command of others, it can develop into an instinct to command oneself, to hold oneself accountable to a law that reflects ideals of intellectual and moral virtue (GM II: 2). In these ways, Nietzsche lays the ground for a new noble type that adopts the ethical perspective of perfectionism. While preserving the affirmative stance of the noble mode of valuation, the perfectionist perspective is premised on an individual’s heightened awareness of the distance between what is common in her and the individual she might become; and she conceives of the realization of the latter in terms of her meeting the demands of specific virtues, including intellectual conscience, honesty, courage, and a capacity for solitude.

Key to this reading of Nietzsche is the thought that a new version of the noble type might guide her actions in a way that is recognizably ethical. She projects an ideal of an intrinsically desirable form of life that involves the perfection of powers she values in herself (‘ever new widening of distances within the soul’); and through psychological structures taken over from Christian morality (internalized patterns of command and obedience), this ideal may acquire normative authority for her. It supplies a perspective from which she can assess whether her desires are ones she should try to satisfy. Of course, any ideal that such an individual projects must be understood as originating in her own psychophysical constitution. Value judgments in general are expressive of an individual’s drives and affects. It is consistent with this assumption, though, that there are value judgments that are more or less superficial with respect to an individual’s life. There are many things that a person judges good or bad, expressing her affective responses to them, which nonetheless tell us little about who she really is. Those that do are ones that have been integrated into a conception of herself that occupies a position of authority with respect to the rest of her desires. Having formed such a conception centered on values that she takes to be definitive of who she is, she is in a position to judge value for herself—not just from the perspective of her actual desires but from the perspective of who she would be, her ‘true’ or ‘ideal’ self.

I emphasize that this perfectionist value perspective is not a form of perfectionism in Hurka’s sense: a moral theory that posits an objective human good and entails agent-neutral reasons for action. The perfectionism I attribute to Nietzsche is consistent with his defense of the attitude-dependence of value judgments and the outlines of his genealogy of morality. An overly narrow construal of perfectionist ethics—e.g. one that took the defense of ‘commonsense morality’ as a condition of the adequacy of the view—might find Nietzsche’s stance to be no form of perfectionism at all. This conclusion, though, is questionable when viewed from the perspective of ancient Greek eudaimonism, the ethical ground from which perfectionism grows. For eudaimonists, the central ethical question is posed in the first person: Is my life going well or badly? Am I living in a way that I can affirm the goodness of my life? Eudaimonists answer this question in different ways, emphasizing the relative contributions of virtue, pleasure, or good fortune to the constitution of a successful life. Perfectionists defend a version of such an answer that identifies a life’s goodness with the attainment of forms of excellence associated with the perfection of human nature. Nietzsche rejects several of the assumptions on which traditional versions of a perfectionist ethics are based, e.g. that there is a common objective human good; that this good can be identified with the perfection of reason; that the perfection of practical reason guarantees an agent’s adherence to the requirements of morality. Yet, his rejection of these assumptions does not imply that he is not moved by the central question of eudaimonism (‘Is my life going well or badly?’), and that his answer to this question is not given in perfectionist terms.

To see how this answer is worked out by Nietzsche, the rest of this essay explores two aspects of his position in greater detail. In the next section, I examine whether the role assigned to ideals in perfectionism is consistent with Nietzsche’s harsh attack on ascetic ideals. In the final section, I consider more briefly his requirement that the ideal in terms of which one’s perfection is defined must be an individual ideal that one gives oneself.

Ideals and Counter-ideals


The thought that Nietzsche’s positive ethical outlook is oriented around the projection of ideals may seem to many a non-starter. Nietzsche’s uncompromising attack on ideals and those who teach them can leave the impression that he means to reject all ideals: positive representations of what human beings might aspire to become. Ideals are predicated on the embrace of a ‘mendaciously invented … ideal world’, which falsifies reality. ‘The lie of the ideal has so far been the curse on reality’, rendering mankind ‘mendacious and false down to its most fundamental instincts’ (EH P2).

Preserving a role for ideals in Nietzsche’s philosophy requires that a distinction be drawn among different types of ideals. In the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche attacks what he qualifies as ‘ascetic ideals’: value standards that are predicated on a denial of bodily drives and appetites. Such drives and appetites are fundamental to life, yet from the perspective of ascetic ideals they are an impediment to the realization of higher human ends. An ascetic ideal, in general, advances an image of human beings as better off for the denial of bodily appetites. As a result of their suppression, it is supposed, we are able to become more rational, more virtuous, more divine.

The third essay of the Genealogy documents the pervasiveness of ascetic ideals, concluding with Nietzsche’s famous comment that, ‘Apart from the ascetic ideal, man, the human animal, has had no meaning so far’ (GM III: 28). In saying this, Nietzsche does not rule out the possibility of new ways in which human beings might give meaning to their lives, including the experience of suffering (GM II: 24). Illustrative of such positive ideals is the figure of Zarathustra, whom Nietzsche describes as a counterideal [Gegen-Ideal] to the ‘harmful ideal par excellence’ (EH III GM; KSA 6:353). Whether or not it is correct to identify Zarathustra as Nietzsche’s ideal, Zarathustra matches the model of the noble type. His character embodies the features of the noble mode of valuation—spontaneity, the pathos of distance, normative independence—and he is shown to respond to challenges in ways that Nietzsche admires, through self-overcoming, ultimately acquiring the ability to ‘redeem’ existence exactly as it is.

The noble type is distinguished by its instinct for growth and development—an upward movement that Nietzsche identifies with the increase of power, or perfection:

‘Perfection’: in those states (especially in sexual love, etc.) there is naively revealed what the deepest instinct acknowledges to be the higher, more desirable, more valuable in general, the upward movement of its type; likewise, which status it’s really striving for. Perfection: that is the extraordinary expansion of its feeling of power; it is wealth; it is the necessary bubbling and brimming over all limits (9 [102]; KSA 12: 393-394; LW, 160)

The upward movement of life, its striving for an expansion of power, is experienced by the noble type as a ‘higher, more desirable’ form of existence. Exemplary of this form of existence for Nietzsche’s perfectionist are states that answer to the development of the soul’s powers: its honesty toward itself, the ability to embrace conflicting perspectives, its capacity to create values. States such as these are difficult to achieve and are judged good by the noble individual, who feels her life enhanced by them. Acknowledging that she is only partially defined by such states (she sometimes slips back into common ways of feeling), she projects an ideal of existence in which her soul’s powers are more fully realized, and she holds herself accountable to this ideal.

In a Nachlass passage, Nietzsche draws on this understanding of perfection to offer a typology of ideals, under the heading: ‘The origins of the ideal. Examination of the soil on which it grows’ (11[138]; KSA 13: 63-65; LW, 226-227). The entry concludes with a division among three kinds of ideals:

The three kinds of ideals have a similar content: each represents a highest form of existence as a ‘deification’. Yet, they are realized under different conditions. Nietzsche analyzes the Christian ideal as ‘an intermediate structure’ between the second and third kinds, both of which are versions of the ascetic ideal. Sometimes, this ideal involves, as in the third case, a denial of reality: ‘the projection of the ideal into the anti-natural, anti-factual, anti-logical’. At other times, it offers something more subtle: the identification of perfection with an ‘intellectualisation’ of reality, where ‘the brutal, the animal and direct, what’s closest are most avoided’. This may be the ideal of the priestly type, but it is also the ideal of the sage, and even of pagan natures who admire the purity of this type, as ‘Goethe finds his “saint” in Spinoza’.

For Nietzsche, the first, ‘pagan’ type of ideal captures the only defensible meaning of perfection. In contrast to ascetic ideals that are projected by a life-denying will, pagan ideals express ‘aesthetic’ states, in which the ‘world is seen as fuller, rounder, more perfect’. In this type of ‘idealizing’, Nietzsche writes, ‘one enriches everything out of one’s own fullness’ (TI IX: 8-9). One spontaneously affirms things as having beauty and value, as being inherently desirable. The impulse to ‘create’ value in this way is characteristic of the noble mode of valuation. It is manifested in the production of art that an artist deems to be valuable in itself. And, it is expressed in the projection of an ideal of life that answers to the noble individual’s sense of the ‘pathos of distance’: the gap between what she is and what she experiences as a ‘higher, more desirable’ form of existence. In adopting a perfectionist value perspective, then, the noble individual lives through ideals: representations of a higher form of life to which she aspires and holds herself accountable. Yet, these must be ‘pagan’ ideals that track the upward movement of life and the enhancement of her powers. This by itself does not make them superior in value to other ideals, but it explains why Nietzsche, who identifies himself with the noble mode of valuation, construes them as such.

An Ideal of One’s Own


The noble type identifies its perfection with the spontaneous development of its powers, especially the cognitive and affective powers on which the creation of value depends. No ideal that lacked this form could be associated with the noble mode of valuation. Still, to this point we have isolated only a generic ideal, whereas Nietzsche stresses that the noble type is distinguished by the fact that it pursues an individual ideal, one that expresses a unique value perspective. As he remarks in the Gay Science, to imagine oneself accountable to a universal law, ‘betrays that you have not yet discovered yourself nor created for yourself an ideal of your own, your very own—for that could never be somebody else’s and much less that of all, all!’ (GS 335).

That the good of the noble type is associated with the pursuit of an individual ideal is defended by Nietzsche in works stretching back to Schopenhauer as Educator. This early essay highlights a question that confronts any human being: Will you accept the challenge of living as an individual who accepts responsibility for how you should live, or will you live as a ‘factory product’ who merely reproduces the culture of your time and place? Accepting the challenge of living independently is represented as a higher form of existence, which, like any ideal, entails struggle and hardship. It requires that one find a ‘path’ of one’s own and pursue that path resolutely. In seeking a path that is uniquely one’s own, one pursues ‘the fundamental law of [one’s] own true self’. This ‘law’ and this ‘true self’ do not express a reality hidden within the soul, but stand above one as the perfected self to which one may aspire: ‘your 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’ (UM III: 1).

The individuality of the ideals projected by the noble type is an essential part of the overcoming of Christian, or herd, morality. In his Nachlass, Nietzsche criticizes what he calls ‘the rule of Christian prejudice’: ‘For each soul there was just one perfecting; just one ideal; just one path to redemption’. He goes on to note that even if Christianity ceases to rule as a religion, the ‘prejudice’ of a single ideal, or path to ‘redemption’, endures:

the optical habit remains unshaken of seeking a value for man in his approximation to an ideal man: basically, one still upholds both the perspective of self and equal rights before the ideal. In sum: one believes one ‘knows’ what the final desirability is in respect of the ideal man. (11 [226]; KSA 13: 87-88; LW, 233)

The corrective for this ‘optical habit’ is to insist that there is no single ideal for human life. There are only ideals projected by individuals as higher versions of their lives.

Nietzsche’s emphasis on an individual’s capacity to determine value for herself, to dictate a unique law to which she holds herself accountable, is an abiding theme of his mature works. The noble type assumes the challenge of finding its own way, which is inevitably at odds with the common way, prescribed by Christian morality (Z III: 11; GS 338). Doing so is always a challenge, for even the noble individual is tempted, out of pity or duty, to answer the demands that others (persons or the state) make on her. For this reason, Nietzsche sees solitude as essential for finding and adhering to one’s own path, guided by an ideal of one’s own creation (Z III: 9; BGE 212, 284; TI I: 3).

Drawing together the different parts of Nietzsche’s thought that converge on this theme—the discovery of one’s ‘true self’, ‘becoming who one is’, being the ‘poet of one’s life’—would take us beyond the limits of this essay. Suffice it to say that they are united by a perfectionism that traces its roots to ancient Greek philosophy. As Nietzsche recognizes, ancient versions of perfectionism are inherently noble in that they stress the capacity of some individuals to enjoy a superior existence, beyond the lot of most human beings (GS 18). They represent this existence as a rare accomplishment, in which one is freed from the ordinary demands of life—those imposed by the body and other human beings. On Nietzsche’s analysis, these philosophers err fundamentally in identifying their freedom with a life of reason or identification with the divine. Yet, the desire to live above and apart from a common humanity is one that Nietzsche shares and that he invests with the highest value. The explanation of how it is possible to do this—what it means to perfect oneself, the source of the ideals in terms of which one represents one’s perfection, and the sense in which one is accountable to those ideals—are innovations of his philosophy; but for all that, in his ethical outlook, Nietzsche remains deeply indebted to perfectionism.