Become What You Are

2007-03-24

Yes, today seems to be José Ortega y Gasset day at one small voice. Here's another passage I found in Phenomenology and Art, from his essay "Esthetics on the Streetcar", in which Ortega updates and sublimates Nietzsche's dictum "become what you are":

It is love that makes me speak... love for the multiplicity of life, which even the best of us, against our will, have helped to belittle. Because, just as the Greeks held that all Being is One and reduced beauty to a norm or general model, so Kant found Goodness and Moral Perfection in a generic, abstract imperative.

No, no; duty is not the same for all. Each of us carries within his own exclusive and inalienable duty. To guide my conduct Kant offers me a criterion: that I wish always for what another might wish for. But this empties the ideal. It makes it a judicial mask, a mask with the features of no one. I can only fully want what I want with my whole individual being....

We saw earlier that the individual face is as once a design for itself as well as a more of less complete realization. And so it is with morals, for I imagine I see how each person who goes by is contained in a moral outline of himself: this profile shows how this individual would be at his most perfect. Some people completely fill the contours of their possibilities with their actions; more often we fall short of this fullness through some defect, some lack, some excess....

Therefore, let us measure people in terms of themselves: what each is in reality against what he potentially is. "Become what you are." Here is a just imperative. But what usually happens is what Mallarmé suggests so marvelously, so mysteriously, when he calls Hamlet "the latent gentleman who cannot manage to be."

This idea of finding the sublime matrix of ideals, norms, and perfection in reality's unlimited capacity for innovation can be fruitful everywhere.

A fine expression of a sophisticated individualism.


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