Nietzsche’s Attack on Free Will
It is not uncommon to see Nietzsche’s name counted among the individualist philosophers. Online, the overlap between fans of Nietzsche and the fans of Max Stirner — the infamous egoist-anarchist — is very strong. Even in Academia, Nietzsche is seen as a forerunner of the existentialist movement, whose authors were primarily concerned with the individual coming to comprehend, and define, his or her subjective experience.
The reasons for seeing this streak in Nietzsche are not unfounded. Nietzsche’s rejections of the common morality, and of metaphysics itself, would seem to open the way to a radical individualism, wherein one is liberated from all claims of traditional knowledge. Nietzsche speaks less than favorably about “the masses”, and attributes the common morality to “the herd instinct”, but we may nevertheless still see the portrait of the fully-realized individual in his idea of the free spirit. This free spirit, due to the way he is constituted, and because his life circumstances have permitted him, can extricate himself from the superficial acceptance of the community beliefs. He can live as a philosophical wanderer, venturing above the various perspectives, forging his own personal virtues in the forge of his experiences, living by the power of a hard, worldly intellect.
But we must tread carefully in attributing a generic idea of individualism to Nietzsche — in light of what Nietzsche believed “the individual” to be. Nietzsche‘s beliefs about the human mind stood in stark contrast to the typical view of the human being, propagated by both Christianity, and by the ideals of the Enlightenment. According to Christianity, a human being was, fundamentally, a soul. The human being has an essence, which can be sourced to an immaterial, unitary core. Rene Descartes, as one of the founding philosophers of the Enlightenment, located this unitary core of the self within the human mind; in his preface to the faculty at Sorbonne, he wrote that he used the mind as a synonym for the soul. In Descartes’ cogito ergo sum formulation, the self-consciousness of the mind is the proof of all existence. The kernel of certainty that Descartes finds in his thought experiment is that he thinks, and that he is self-reflective: he knows that he thinks. The conscious mind is upheld as the indubitable basis of the individual.
Nietzsche’s view of the human being, on the other hand, wholeheartedly rejected both these views of man: as fundamentally a soul, or, as fundamentally a mind. Nietzsche locates the self in something that the Christians discarded, and that Descartes and the later rationalists found to be doubtful, or, rather, “less self” than the ego-consciousness: the human body. The body contains the mind, but is far from a unity. In the body, Nietzsche sees a multiplicity: an endless conflict, ruled by physiological drives, by instincts, by unconscious motivations.
This view of the self is given in great detail, albeit in religious language, in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, I.4, “The Despisers of the Body”:
[T]he awakened one, the knowing one, says: “Body am I entirely, and nothing more; and soul is only the name of something in the body.”
The body is a great wisdom, a plurality with one sense, a war and a peace, a flock and a shepherd.
An instrument of your body is also your small wisdom, my brother, which you call “spirit” — a little instrument and plaything of your great wisdom.
“Ego,” you say, and are proud of that word. But the greater thing — in which you are unwilling to believe — is your body with its great wisdom; it says not “ego,” but does it….
…Ever hearkens the Self, and seeks; it compares, masters, conquers, and destroys. It rules, and is also the ego’s ruler.
Behind your thoughts and feelings, my brother, there is a mighty lord, an unknown sage — it is called Self; it dwells in your body, it is your body.
There is more wisdom in your body than in your deepest philosophy. And who then knows why your body requires your deepest philosophy?
Your Self laughs at your ego, and its proud prancings. “What are these prancings and flights of thought to me?” it says to itself. “A by-way to my purpose. I am the leading-string of the ego, and the prompter of its notions.”
The Self says to the ego: “Feel pain!” And thereupon it suffers, and thinks how it may put an end thereto — and for that very purpose it is meant to think.
The Self says to the ego: “Feel pleasure!” Thereupon it rejoices, and thinks how it may ofttimes rejoice — and for that very purpose it is meant to think.
The self, as outlined here, has four notable characteristics that attack the Enlightenment view of the individual. The self: (1) is identified explicitly with the body; (2) is contrasted with the ego-consciousness, and defined as the “master” of the ego; (3) is identified as a multiplicity (“a plurality with one sense, a war and a peace, a flock and a shepherd”); (4) causes conscious thought to happen through blind, unconscious, physiological processes, as the “leading-string” of all the mind’s “notions”.
The self that one experiences as one’s “ego” — the image of the self produced by the conscious mind, through conscious self-reflection — is therefore a post hoc explanation of the physiological drives within the body. The conscious mind is a “false self”. It is a tool, or a servant. It is merely one part of the “true self” of the body. To the extent that it is useful, it is in how its powers of thought help gain the body’s pleasure or avoid its displeasure.
This “false self” authors the illusion of being an independent, unitary governor over the human organism. But the goals driving the body are not determined by the ego-consciousness. The ego-consciousness merely tells itself stories to explain why it is doing things. The true master — the real, human, Self — remains hidden in the unconscious.
In Beyond Good & Evil, II.44, Nietzsche describes his ideal thinker: “the free spirit”. He says that the free spirit will have “fore- and back-souls into whose ultimate intentions nobody can look so easily, with fore- and backgrounds which no foot is likely to explore to the end”. This means that Nietzsche’s ideal philosopher of the future is not a fantastical view of the intellectual, as someone with a mind “fully liberated” from their irrational unconscious mind, or from the base instincts.
The kind of freedom that the Stoics preached, for example, was the deliverance from the tyranny of desire. Similarly, throughout the history of Christian thought,the base impulses of the body were seen as sinful, something to be banished. While Nietzsche did later write of the higher man as both passionate and as “master of his passions”, the ideal human subject for Nietzsche is never delivered from the passions, nor really seeking such deliverance. He contrasts the free spirit, in fact, with the people called “free thinkers”, who have claimed false sort of freedom: “very narrow, imprisoned, chained type of spirits who want just about the opposite of what accord with our intentions and instincts”. (Ibid).
Reaching a communion with one’s passions is no easy matter. They exist as much as competing factions as they do a multiplicitous whole. The various unconscious drives of the back-self constantly push the fore-self in directions according to their own ends, which sometimes conflict. The story that we tell ourselves about who we are, what we want, and what we are doing, is created from the raw material of the “noise and battle with which our underworld of serviceable organs work with and against each other” (Genealogy of Morality, II.1)
Rejecting Free Will & Determinism
With this Nietzschean understanding of the self, there is a serious challenge to the classification of Nietzsche as an individualist. The various forms of individualism more or less presuppose that the individual possesses the faculty of a voluntarily governing free will. But this is exactly what the Nietzschean perspective on the self rejects. Nietzsche argues that freedom of the will, in the libertarian sense of the idea, is impossible.
Furthermore, he also rejects determinism, and all mechanistic explanations of the human being. He even rejects compatibilism — the view that free will and determinism can be synthesized into a model that includes both. Nietzsche, rather than picking one or the other, or choosing, “both/and” — instead chooses, “neither”.
A commonly-cited passage detailing Nietzsche’s view on free will is found in Beyond Good & Evil , I.21— and is sometimes construed as evidence for a compatibilist approach. This is incorrect, however, because Nietzsche does not accept both viewpoints, but rejects both. He writes:
The causa sui is the best self-contradiction that has been conceived so far, it is a sort of rape and perversion of logic… The desire for “freedom of the will” in the superlative metaphysical sense… the desire to bear the entire and ultimate responsibility for one’s actions oneself, and to absolve God, the world, ancestors, chance, and society involves nothing less than to be precisely this causa sui and… pull oneself up into existence by the hair, out of the swamps of nothingness.
The causa sui, or self-caused cause, was sometimes used as a theological argument for the grounding of God’s existence. Nietzsche rejected the existence of God, but saw in the ideas of intellectuals the absurd notion that they themselves could be just such a self-caused cause: that through their own intelligence they could somehow transcend the conditions of biology, culture, and life experience. Without these, what would be left of the self? Certainly, without biology, nothing would be left of Nietzsche’s “true self”, since the body is indelibly a biological entity with biological needs. The same must go for culture, and for the effects of the random experiences of one’s life.
To get rid of all of these factors: of nature, of nurture, of random chance — all factors which we consider, bizarrely enough, constraints on our will — there would be nothing left of what makes us who we are as individuals. A human being’s fate is set into motion by a myriad of conditions that are not subject to the conscious intellect. But strangely enough, because of the association of “the self” with the ego-consciousness, what we generally define as “free will” consists of bringing alternative courses of action before the mind’s eye, such that it may make a determination as to what to do. Factors like upbringing are outside of what we consciously chose, so we call it a constraint on our will — when it fact, most people would consider their upbringing to be core to their understanding of “who they are”. This is just one more example of how the ego-centric view of the self pollutes our understanding of the faculty of will.
What Nietzsche rejects as the opposite of this view is what he calls “unfree will”. He describes it, in the same section:
In the “in-itself” there is nothing of “causal connections”, of “necessity”, or of “psychological non-freedom”… The “unfree will” is mythology; in real life, it is only a matter of strong and weak wills. It is almost always a symptom of what is lacking in himself when a thinker senses in every “causal connection” and “psychological necessity” something of constraint, need, compulsion to obey, pressure, and unfreedom: it is suspicious to have such feelings — the person betrays himself.
Nietzsche chooses to examine both views on free will — the metaphysical, mystical, libertarian view, and the deterministic, constrained, scientific view — in terms of what they reveal about the psychology of the believer. Nietzsche writes, at the end of this chapter, that “psychology is now again the path to the fundamental problems” (BGE, I.23). The vulgar determinist wishes to feel himself absolved of any sense of self-control over his destiny. This ends up being yet another of the conscious mind’s traps: it reifies the “true self” as residing in the mind, which declares itself not to be a part of the body, and therefore not a willing participant in the body’s exploits. Rather, one defines their conscious experience as an unwilling servitor, bound by compulsion. The civilized mind, with its moral ideas, disavows the savagery of the body and declares a detachment from it. But this is just as much of a false mythology as the notions of the immortal soul.
What such a viewpoint truly represents is a feeble will, rationalizing away the shame of its own weakness. When the self and its will are not a unity, such a person is a disorganized mess of contradictions. A weak-willed person is unable to organize their various competing drives in a healthy, integrative manner. The philosophical position of determinism is merely a psychological confession. The state of dividedness, the feeling of helplessness — are symptoms of just such a weak will, and not an insight into some underlying deterministic truth of reality.
Elsewhere in his writings, Nietzsche praises the strength of having few virtues: of the ability for a unifying life project into which one throws themselves completely. This is the power of a strong will, in contrast. When the self feels itself in such alignment, one can truly know oneself — and accept one’s own irrational drives. By owning his own base nature, the noble soul does not feel constrained. Nietzsche writes, in Genealogy of Morality, I.10:
While the noble man lives in trust and openness with himself… the man of resentment is neither upright, nor naive, nor honest and straightforward with himself.
Rather than feeling constrained, “A human being who strives for something great considers everyone he meets on his way either as a means or as a delay and obstacle — or as a temporary resting place.” (BGE, IX.273) Even a sort of individualism is permitted to the higher man (BGE IX.265):
The noble soul accepts the fact of its egoism without any question mark, also without any feeling that it might contain hardness, constraint, or caprice, rather as something founded on the primordial law of things.
What therefore complicates our inquiry so far is that we have a sort of contradiction. Nietzsche believed that:
- The strong, noble individual feels himself in possession of his own destiny, and believes himself to act of his own power
- In actuality, no individual acts out of a faculty of a voluntarily governing will, but instead is driven by irrational impulses and biological needs
- The expression of point (2), while true, undermines the healthy sense of power possessed by the strong
- We find that the expression of (2), while true, coincides with the pathology of the weak
Whether we agree with his premises or not, this problem lays bare Nietzsche’s complicated relationship with “The Truth”. While explaining Nietzsche’s tightrope walk between truth-seeking and irrationalism is beyond the scope of this article (you can read more about it here), suffice to say that Nietzsche often argued that the truth could be dangerous and harmful. Rather than the Enlightenment viewpoint, that the truth was an unmitigated good and the highest value for man, Nietzsche saw that an unrestrained impulse for truth-seeking could be unhealthy, and that certain truths could undermine the capacity for action.
Given that Nietzsche seems to reject all positions on the matter, why should I claim that Nietzsche rejects free will, and rejects individualism? Because the feeling of freedom that the strong person feels is in direct opposition to the feeling of being burdened by a sovereign will, and under the yoke of moral responsibility. These notions became inextricable from the popular doctrine of free will, which was inculcated into the West by Christianity. Rather than the popular position in modern society being one of determinism, which one might expect from Nietzsche’s psychoanalysis of the determinist position (as a modern psychosis of the botched man), we instead find that the common morality is much closer to the Christian idea of free will. The argument for why Nietzsche’s position is more accurately described as a rejection of free will, is revealed in the contrast of the strong individual’s sense of freedom, against the free will advocacy of the popular morality.
The freedom of the strong person is amor fati — the love of fate. Nietzsche writes in Ecce Homo, “Why I am So Clever”, 10:
My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it… but love it.
The noble soul is open and honest with himself because he is not ashamed of himself. He recognizes fully that he is a product of his ancestry, of his culture, and of his upbringing: but he loves all of these thing as part of himself. Indeed: written into the very genome of one’s body are all of these factors, the ‘extended self’, as it were. Crucially, one does not uplift a doctrine of free will here as a doctrine that “things could have been different”: instead, every locus of willpower draws the inevitable and unstoppable consequences of its driving impulses at every moment. Rather than the idea of a self-caused cause, a capacity for action detached from all of things that makes one what they are, amor fati is the full recognition and love of oneself, as part of the dynamic, ever-living fire of reality. It is freedom found in the recognition of destiny, and the embrace of that destiny.
In contrast, the popular idea of freedom of the will originates from no such noble source. On the contrary, Nietzsche finds the origin of free will as a philosophical concept within the forges of religion. Specifically, freedom of the will is upheld for a psychological reason: it justifies the sense of moral responsibility. The doctrine of moral responsibility is the real reason for this idea, and its widespread acceptance among the populace (in practice, if not in conscious reflection). This is the psychological need that it fulfills. He writes, in Human, All Too Human, aphorism 39:
…[T]he history of moral feelings is the history of an error, an error called ‘responsibility’, which in turn rests on an error called ‘freedom of the will’…. Schopenhauer, on the other hand, concluded as follows: because certain actions produce displeasure (‘sense of guilt’), a responsibility must exist. For there would be no reason for this displeasure if not only all human actions occurred out of necessity (as they actually do, according to this philosopher’s insight)…. From the fact of man’s displeasure, Schopenhauer thinks he can prove that man somehow must have had a freedom….
To put this critique of Schopenhauer’s view in simpler terms, Nietzsche sees in the origin of free will a feeling of guilt. The displeasure that we feel after doing a wicked deed is, in actuality, the morality of our culture, whispering in our ear. As Nietzsche writes in The Gay Science, III.116, “Morality is the herd instinct in the individual.” Since we’ve had the “herd morality” inculcated into us since childhood — that what is evil is what causes harm to the community, and what is good is what helps the community — when we aggress against these principles, we feel guilt. Nietzsche is grappling here with the consequences of rejecting absolute morality: these moral feelings must come from somewhere, and therefore we must look to psychology. Nietzsche continues (Ibid):
But displeasure after the deed need not be rational at all: in fact, it certainly is not rational, for it rests on the erroneous assumption that the deed did not have to follow necessarily. Thus, because he thinks he is free (but not because he is free) man feels remorse and pangs of conscience. Furthermore, this displeasure is a habit that can be given up… Tied to the development of custom and culture, it is a very changeable thing, and present perhaps only within a relatively short period of world history. No one is responsible for his deeds, no one for his nature; to judge is to be unjust. This is also true when the individual judges himself. This tenet is as bright as sunlight, and yet everyone prefers to walk back into the shadow of untruth — for fear of the consequences.
The common idea of free will is therefore very different from the sense of freedom embraced by the noble fatalist. The “freedom” of the person within the conventional morality, is merely the community’s justification for the person’s feelings of guilt: “you ought to feel guilty, for you broke the community’s rules, whereas you could have done otherwise.” Nietzsche’s great insight is that this notion — this insidious “could have done”— is the lynchpin of the entire doctrine. And, it is a cultural fiction.
Without the idea that the subject could have done otherwise in the case of any given, no concept moral responsibility is possible. If one’s actions are simply the destined outflow of causes and conditions, and their ego-consciousness is merely a narrator, that observes but cannot do other than serve the body and its impulses — where can we find room to apply moral judgment or moral condemnation? We would be forced to consider every human action, whether pleasurable or displeasurable, a mere force of nature, with no more “moral” weight than is given to the actions of a rampaging elephant. Nietzsche writes, in Human, All Too Human, 102:
Why do we call the injurious man immoral? Because in the first case we assume necessity, and in the second a voluntarily governing free will. But this distinction is in error.
At this point in his career, Nietzsche had not yet formulated the doctrine of the will to power, as the explanation behind human action. Instead, he frames human action in the language of self-preservation, which we might interpret as ‘self-interest’, in the broad sense, and therefore as at least similar to the will to power. “We intentionally kill the criminal and do him harm, to protect ourselves and society…. All morality allows the intentional infliction of harm… when it is a matter of self-preservation!” (Ibid) The state will execute criminals as a matter of preserving the community, but this is neither moral nor immoral, since the criminal was only practicing his own form of self-preservation. Nietzsche thinks that the same governing principle applies, over the animals, natural disasters like thunderstorms, and the criminal; the principle of self-preservation can “explain all evil acts which men practice against other men; man wants to get pleasure or resist unpleasure; in some sense it is always a matter of self-preservation.” (Ibid)
Therefore, the origin of freedom of the will is found here: the intellect narrates a story about otherwise amoral, physiologically-driven subjects. While the instinct for self-preservation (or, later, will to power) is what drives these subjects, these subjects author a moral story in order to comprehend (and justify) themselves and their actions. In the stories of the world religions, and within their respective moral universes, we are not merely animals or forces of nature, but moral agents with the power to choose. The concept of moral responsibility undergirds the whole system, as a reification of one’s sense of guilt.
We therefore have psychological explanations of both of the popular positions which are not very flattering. There is the “unfree will” of the determinist: as a means of dealing with his shame. His will is weak, and he is unable to integrate his various drives, so he prefers to feel his conscious mind (which he still experiences as the “true self”) as morally absolved, trapped in the thrall of compulsion. On the other hand, the conventional morality purveys a “free will”, as a means of creating guilt. It is the culture’s means of behavioral control. By introducing this guilt-based pathology into the head of its members, the individuals learn to fear their own vices, insofar as they threaten the community. These vices are merely animal instincts, among the millieu of natural drives which human beings are subject to. While it is merely the community’s self-preservation instinct which compels this pathology, it cannot help but moralize this dynamic and label it, “justice”; it must distinguish its own “good” self-preservation instinct from the “evil” self-preservation instinct of individual. This moralism is itself yet another strategy for breeding out evil individuals.
Does this mean that Nietzsche is a moral relativist? Arguably, yes. For Nietzsche, the entire concept of moral responsibility advanced by the community, and undergirding the free will doctrine, is false. Self-preservation (or later, the will to power) is all there is. Human, All Too Human, 105:
The man who has fully understood the theory of complete irresponsibility can no longer include the so-called justice that punishes and rewards within the concept of justice, if that consists in giving each his due. For the man who is punished does not deserve the punishment: he is only being used as the means to frighten others away from certain future actions; likewise, the man who is rewarded does not deserve this reward; he could not act other than he did… Neither punishment nor reward are due to anyone as his; they are given to him because it is useful…
Nietzsche’s view therefore does not demand the release of criminals or the unwillingness to mete out rewards or punishments. The reluctance to engage in punishment is one of the signs by which you will know the shame-laden soul trapped in the viewpoint of “unfree will”: “[The determinists], when they write books, are in the habit today of taking the side of criminals; a sort of socialist pity is their most attractive disguise.” (BGE, I.21) The fatalist soul does not by that token embrace mercy and compassion as necessarily guiding their actions: on the contrary, such a one sees the necessity of conflict and the use of force in order to preserve one’s life or community as implied by the very conditions of existence. The freedom of amor fati — which is the freedom of the great individual — is to love even these vicious aspects of the human condition.
Nietzsche was enamored with the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. One of Heraclitus’ most famous phrases was the saying: “I sought for myself.” In this call for self-seeking, Nietzsche may have found his inspiration for navigating the way out of the simple dichotomy between “free will” and “unfree will”, both of which he rejected. We must remember which self that Nietzsche was seeking: it is not the illusory “fore-self”. One does not seek for the self on the road of the intellect.
Many of you may have wondered throughout this analysis whether or not a weak will can choose to become a strong will. This is perhaps where ‘the rubber hits the road’, and why I chose to title this article as I have done. Nietzsche argues, definitively, that it is not the rational intellect, or the ego-consciousness, that possesses the power to make this change. There is no spontaneous, self-caused power within the mind that can defy the conditions of reality and decide to make strong and integrated what was before weak and disorganized. The only force that can do this is the true self: the primal drives within the body that are either destined to forge a free individual, or else produce a botched, divided soul. If it is within your power to transform, you shall do so. If not, you won’t. Luck also plays a role. But there is no magical element in Nietzsche’s thinking that will allow a person to deny destiny.
This is encapsulated in the famous phrase of Nietzsche’s, “become who you are”, which appears in two different versions in The Gay Science. The first is in aphorism 270:
“What does your conscience say?” — You should become what you are.
It appears again in 355:
We, however, want to become who we are — human beings who are new, unique, incomparable, who give themselves laws, who create themselves!
This phrase is perhaps the best Nietzschean-ism on which to conclude our analysis, because it is so often held up as a vulgar exclamation of individual sovereignty. What we have in these two aphorisms is the contrast between the person who listens to their conscience, and the free spirit. In the first case, it is duty pushing the common person to become what he is. It is the morality of the community. In the second case, it is a conscious desire to become what one is. Whichever road one chooses — the road of convention, or the road of self-creation — one has no choice but to “become what one is”. The trajectory of one’s life is determined by fate, not by a sovereign mind making a detached, rational choice.
If there is anything useful to the average person in this analysis, it is that Nietzsche’s attack on free will is based on the idea that our expressed views are only superficially a philosophical exercise. More often than not, they are merely justifications for the way that we feel about ourselves — sometimes springing from our own psychology, sometimes due to pressure from the forces of culture. The significance of the free will question for Nietzsche is not that our ideas about it reveal anything about reality. Through reading philosophy, we don’t learn whether people are actually free, but whether they feel free.
In Nietzsche’s view, all of us are governed by fate. Therefore, if we are to speak of a true freedom — beyond mere feelings — we must conclude that it is found in the love of fate. The only relevant question of human freedom is whether someone loves their fate or not. Everything else is merely — their confession.