In studying Nietzsche’s philosophy, it can be difficult to find a clear understanding of what his views are on freedom. In some areas, he seems to argue strongly against the idea of “free will,” while in other areas he seems to suggest that the heights of human achievement are reached by the “free” spirits. At first glance, Nietzsche might seem to contradict himself on these issues. His views on human freedom, however, are much more complex than to allow for a simple answer of “determinism” or “free will.” Nietzsche views human behavior as being the result of complex relationships between various drives, and to the extent that our drives dictate the courses of our live, we lack “free” will. But to the extent that we are able to moderate the relationships between our drives, we become more “strong” in our will and thus are able to achieve more.
In Beyond Good and Evil, § 21, Nietzsche addresses the issue of free will directly. People who defend the notion of free will want to “bear the whole and sole responsibility for one’s actions.” In order to be so responsible, we must be separated completely not only from all of that which brought us into being, but also from all of that which acts on us in our lives to push us in this direction or that. On the other hand, Nietzsche criticizes what he calls the “unfree” will, “an abuse of cause and effect.” He points out that cause and effect are figured as material things, a cause creating an effect, rather than as simply the conception of the relationships between events. This conception exists in our understanding of the events, though not necessarily in the events themselves. Our understanding of the world in terms of cause and effect is not itself a problem until we begin to believe that these “symbols” exist themselves in nature. When we impose the “mythology” of cause and effect onto the material world, we are stuck with the idea of the “unfree” will. The unfreedom of will is problematic in two very “personal” ways: on one hand it denies a person the glory of his goodness, on the other it allows him to deny responsibility for his failings. Nietzsche does not believe that either of these possibilities is realistic or does any practical good. In answer to the idea of unfree will, Nietzsche points out that “it is only a question of strong and weak wills.”
With what Nietzsche calls the strong and weak wills, the question of human freedom is not whether or not it exists, but to what extent does it exist? Where the human will, the will to power as it expresses itself in an individual, exists strongly, human freedom expresses itself greatly. Where the human will seems to be greatly broken and subverted by exterior forces, it is the weak will, and it might seem to illustrate what Nietzsche would call the “unfree” will. Free will, then, does not exist independently, it is something that must be chosen and embraced by humanity. Where humanity fails to choose and embrace the will to power, human freedom does not exist, but when it is embraced and taken on, such as in Nietzsche’s stages of self-transformation, humanity can, and will, be free.
In Beyond Good and Evil, § 26, Nietzsche discusses the relationship of the “superior” human being to the common people, the persons of strong will to the persons of weak. The superior human beings, though they feel compelled to set themselves apart from common humanity, must “go down…above all, ‘go in’.” He suggests that through the process of studying the “average man,” the philosopher will come to a more realistic understanding what it truly means to be free. Though a person with a higher calling than the average man might long to escape humanity—”aspire after a secret citadel where he is set free from the crowd”—in studying average humanity and its bondage are necessary steps toward achieving freedom. The cynics are more honest, he says, than those who would stand on higher moral ground and look upon human drives with disgust, and therefore can lend to the true seeker of knowledge a greater understanding of those human drives. The indignant man wants to deny those drives, is ashamed of humanity’s overall inability to suppress them. Without accepting the reality of these drives of weak will, one can never sublimate them in order to embrace a stronger will, a greater freedom.
Beyond Good and Evil, § 29 discusses those who enjoy more freedom than the average man. “Few are made for independence,” he says, “it is a privilege of the strong.” So much of humanity is blind to its own drives that it cannot possibly overcome those drives and choose freely what it will take from life, what it will make of life. The strong, however, or those who are most insightful into their own spirit and character and the spirit and character of humanity, are able to choose to redefine values, as the lion in the stages of self-transformation. “…he is probably not only strong, but daring to the point of recklessness.” He speaks here of the stages of self-transformation as a labyrinth, and when the strong enter this labyrinth, the average man can no longer sympathize, cannot understand the complexities of what becomes of this strong man. The values of the average man are dictated by the drives to which he is either blind or indifferent, and when a man of strength throws off these values and seeks the values of his own virtue, he leaves the average man behind. This average man does not enjoy the same freedom, but neither does he risk so much as the one who undergoes the process of self-transformation.
Beyond Good and Evil, § 41 addresses the issue of discovering whether or not one is suited for freedom. “One must test oneself,” he begins, “to see whether one is destined for independence and command.” None of us is completely enslaved by our circumstances, but we must judge for ourselves whether or not we will be capable of dictating our own freedom. This is not something that another person can decide for us, and in order to prove this to ourselves, we must be able to let go of all of those things upon which we depend. He provides examples of things that we would let command our will, such as other people, our homeland, or our own values. To attach ourselves to any of these, he suggests, is to sacrifice our independence, to give up our freedom in the name of some other good. “One must know how to conserve oneself: the sternest test of independence.” A person of strong will can choose to give himself prudently to such causes without sacrificing himself wholly, and as a result of this economy, the strong, independent person will retain enough of himself to do as he wills.
In sections 42 through 44, Nietzsche discusses the “new” philosophers, “very free spirits, these philosophers of the future.” He points out that though these philosophers love truth, they do not believe that this is a truth for all. He claims that there can be no common good, as “what can be common has ever but little value.” He criticizes heavily those whom he calls “eloquent and tirelessly scribbling slaves of the democratic taste.” Freedom, liberty, and independence seem to be used synonymously with democracy and equality, and yet Nietzsche points out that to be caught up in this herd, one is about as far from true independence, from “free” will, as one can get. The new philosophers will not be those who find a way for all to achieve freedom, they will simply be those who achieve their own freedom by way of self-transformation and embracing values of their own, not values for all.
Nietzsche points out some of the absurdity of modern thought when he asks, “why atheism today?” (BGE § 53). In the rejection of traditional religion, many modern philosophers are rejecting the idea of free will. The modern philosophers may be anti-Christian, but they are just as religious in their beliefs, Nietzsche suggests. Where once believers in God sacrificed what was precious to His will, modern philos
ophers sacrifice their wills to “stone, stupidity, gravity, fate, nothingness.” Determinism would take the responsibility of living from man just as God would. Where God allows for free will, those who do not follow His will are sinners, and those who do follow His will are “blessed” with his “grace.” Determinism portrays man as a top who spins as he’s been set spinning, without glory or fault in how he spins. Nietzsche does not find either of these scenarios very favorable.
In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche develops what he calls the stages of self-transformation. Through these three stages, a person can go from being an average human being to becoming an “overman.” In the first stage, called the “camel” stage, a person takes on the burden of the traditional values of his/her culture, perfecting him/herself as a virtuous person by the standards of tradition. Having become disciplined and capable of living values well, the person moves on to what Nietzsche calls the “lion” stage. The lion challenges the values of tradition, (which Nietzsche figures as a dragon), discarding those values that do not serve the person’s higher purpose. The lion replaces these values with practical values that arise from his/her passions to serve that higher purpose. After having thrown off the traditional values and replacing them with his/her own values, the person enters the child stage, where he/she lives as an “over[person],” a carefree value-creator and person of new virtue. The lion stage has also been called the “free-spirit metamorphosis,” and a person who has reached the child stage might also be known as a “free spirit.” These free spirits are the people who have taken not only all that is in them and redirected, but also those who are able to redirect the forces that act on them from without in order to take their lives in a direction of their own choice.
Nietzsche’s arguments in Beyond Good and Evil might often seem to refute the notion of free will, but on closer inspection, we have seen that Nietzsche simply argues that there are stronger and weaker wills. By elevating the notion of cause and effect to a sort of religion, Nietzsche suggests, we arrive at a belief in determinism where no human being is responsible for his life, good or bad, and we detect “in every ‘causal connection’ and ‘psychological necessity’ something of compulsion, exigency, constraint, pressure, unfreedom.” In the ranks of the average men, many are so greatly limited by the outside forces in life, including the pressures of society, culture, custom, religion, family, friends, and even life experiences, that their ability to will from what might be called their own “free” will is nearly non-existent. Ignorance, complacence, indifference, and apathy prevent many people from rising above the forces that shape them in order to make something of themselves. The fact that many people are slaves to all of those forces around them and their own drives to which they are ignorant does not provide us with any argument that all of humanity is constrained by fate or determinism.
This is exactly what Nietzsche hopes to achieve, I think, with his formulation of the stages of self-transformation. The strong and weak wills play themselves out in the world, and in humanity there are those who have the freedom to make their own lives and there are those whose lives are made for them. Nietzsche presents his stages of self-transformation as a set of useful tools for those who would make something of themselves. By mastering one’s own drives and creating values by which to live, a person is able to gain the most strength from all of his inner resources, the drives and passions that make him who he is. When all of the drives are sublimated into one direction, when all of the geese are flying in formation, so to speak, the person has the most strength as an individual and as a human being acting on the world around him. In this way, human freedom does not simply exist, human freedom is something that is available but must be achieved. Nietzsche’s stages of self-transformation are a vehicle for achieving this freedom, where otherwise we might be limited to the throes of fate and chance, slaves to our own drives and to the pressures of society.
However, in Beyond Good and Evil § 231, Nietzsche speaks of predetermined aspects of humanity. “But at the bottom of us, ‘right down deep,’ there is, to be sure, something unteachable, a granite stratum of spiritual fate, of predetermined decision and answer to predetermined selected questions.” He asserts that we cannot “relearn” certain things, but only learn them fully, “discover all that is ‘firm and settled’ within”. While this stance on the issue of learning, on the issue of core individual identity, would suggest a certain set of limitations placed on us by fate or God or whomever, this does not necessarily stand as an argument against human freedom. A person is limited by what he is, guided by what he is, directed by what he is, but ultimately has an opportunity, if he is strong, to will with what he has what he may. Nietzsche certainly does not argue for absolute and unlimited human freedom, but he does not argue, either, for a complete lack of human freedom.
Nietzsche’s stance on human freedom seems essentially to be a sort of soft determinism. The hard rules of cause and effect that would support an argument for the fate of hard determinism, as he says, are the symbols of a mythological understanding of the world that should not be mistaken for the world itself. When we transform cause and effect into material things, when we imagine that the relationship between one event and another is absolute and that one necessitates the other, we presume too much. Where it applies to human freedom, the past that gives rise to our present is not immutable, as in one interpretation of the idea of eternal recurrence. What we choose in the moment defines our past as much as our past defines the choices available to us in the present moment. It is an interdependent relationship, and with greater knowledge of ourselves and our resources, we gain greater strength to change who and what we are in both the past and the present.
This seems to be a foundation of the theory of self-transformation. In the camel stage, we perfect our ability to take on the values of tradition in order to learn about value and discipline. Taking on the values of our culture and society does not tie us more greatly to the world around us, does not make us more dependent on the traditional values, so long as we are able to enter the lion stage in which we critically examine those values. It is not our living the values of tradition that defines us when we enter the lion stage; it is how we respond to those values as we challenge what we know that defines us. We challenge the values to determine how they aid or hinder our ability to achieve our higher goals. Our higher goals, which might be what Nietzsche refers to when he speaks of the “granite stratum of spiritual fate,” shape most strongly what we are, and the values that we create to serve the higher goal instruct our virtue in the child stage. If the past was immutable and unchanging, and the doctrine of cause and effect irrefutable, then perhaps society, family, and tradition would dictate our fate completely. According to Nietzsche’s philosophy, the free-spirit metamorphosis is necessary if we are to gain the freedom that is available to humanity.
The aspect of Nietzsche’s philosophy that I find the most difficult is simply the formulation of a single, cohesive way of understanding these issues. I see two very important issues at hand: one being the issue of the relationship between human identity or mind or spirit and the physical world or matter and existence, the other being the issue of values and ethical behavior and how a person ought to go about living “well.” I have not so far, in reading Nietzsche’s work, gained a very clear understanding of what his precise views are on human nature. I do not fully understandwhat his views are on the relationship betw
een the consciousness and identity of the individual and the rest of the world. Only with a clear understanding of how he treats that issue do I feel I can fully understand his philosophy on values and ethics.
What are we, as individuals? This is the most important question that I have for Nietzsche. Some philosophers seem to want to define us by the minds with which we think or by the bodies with which we sense. Nietzsche addresses this issue in On the Prejudices of Philosophers, but I do not take from my reading of this section a clear understanding of what he believes. He points out that Shopenhauer believed that the only thing of which we can be completely certain is the will, but then takes great pains to show that even the will is very complex in its modes of existence. Of which part can we be certain? To this question he does not seem to provide an answer. Are each of us as individuals examples of separate and distinct wills, or is existence itself simply a result of the will to exist? Is our consciousness, our sense of identity and separateness from the rest of the world a result of our own personal will, or the result of some indivisible will for many consciousnesses to exist and believe themselves separate and distinct? Are our drives the result of a will to be driven, and does that will to be driven originate in our personal consciousness or is it received from the will of existence? What of our higher purpose? Is that a result of our will to serve some purpose? Or a will of the purpose to be served? As you can see, I have a great deal of questions for Nietzsche with this respect, and while at moments I felt as though I understood his meaning, understood how he would treat these issues, I find myself ultimately at a loss.
Without understanding how Nietzsche treats these issues, I have a difficult time understanding what his premises are for values and ethics. If the basis of his ethics is that each person should discover for him/herself their higher purpose, their own virtue which is separate and distinct from the virtues of others, then it would seem that there can be no hard rules whatsoever for human behavior. I understand this as his basis for a rejection of morality, but I am unclear on what he believes is the source of this higher purpose. Can this innate purpose express itself in some as moralists? Can it express itself in some as murderers? Can we ever know anything with any certainty about anyone else, or about even ourselves?
I appreciate Nietzsche’s stages of self-transformation as useful tools for personal growth, but I ultimately feel as though he is at once too hesitant to make claims about what values exist aside from those the “overman” is to create for himself and too eager to criticize the values that have thus far been created or recognized by humanity. Perhaps I am too great a coward to be a “free” spirit, but I believe that values exist to be discovered, not created. I believe that the phenomena of consciousness provides us with the impression that we are separate and distinct entities, when we are in fact simply a part of existence as it experiences itself. Love, or life-energy, is the most fundamental of values as I understand them, and as individuals, our greatest goal should be to act in such a way that we love all of existence to the best of our ability. Love as it expresses itself in human relations would be very much like Nietzschian friendship, and one would do well to love oneself by undergoing something akin to Nietzsche’s stages of self-transformation. I believe that all persons do at any given time the best they know how to do, but we are given opportunities to expand this capacity. Fear is how we react to the belief that we are separate from the rest of existence when we believe that the rest of existence will deprive us of having our needs met, and it is fear that prevents us from expanding our capacity to live well when we are presented with the opportunity. I do not believe in black-and-white morality, right or wrong, I believe only in degrees of lovingness. The more concerned we are with ourselves, the greater our fear and mistrust of the world around us will be, and the more afraid we are, the less loving will our actions be, both towards others and ourselves. I do not believe that we can separate what is good for ourselves from what is good for the rest of existence, as we are not separate from existence, and to the extent that we love, we will enjoy the benefits of love. To the extent that we withhold our love, we will suffer the lack of love, as will the world around us. As Nietzschian friends, we have an obligation to help others to broaden their horizons wherever we are capable to do so, and sometimes the most loving, the friendliest (in the Nietzschian sense, of course), thing we can do for a person is to leave him/her alone.
I do not know how best to resolve these beliefs with those we’ve encountered in Nietzsche’s work. It seems that Nietzsche believes strongly in the limitations that individuality imposes upon human beings, and the freedom of will would be one such area. Every individual, he seems to say, is a complex interweaving of physical, social, and psychological phenomena. He seems to call individuals to explore themselves for some defining attribute or purpose so as to gain an understanding of what to do with life. Through the stages of self-transformation, a person will ideally take the best of his society and the best of himself to synthesize some worthwhile cause to call his virtue, at which he will point all of his strength. The strongest individuals will be the most free from hindrances to this goal, though they will not necessarily be any more free in terms of choosing who they get to be. The weaker individuals will be constrained in their efforts to exert power over the world around them, and will often squander their lives chasing whichever wild goose seems to be most within reach at any given moment. In this understanding of things, Nietzsche’s view on freedom would seem to be something akin to the idea that the most strongly-willed people will be most free to achieve greatness, and those who are a confusion of weaker drives will not achieve much.