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My basic question concerns the meaning of freedom in Nietzsche's work. Nietzsche suggests that, in reality, a will can never be absolutely "free" or "unfree"—rather, any particular will is going to be strong or weak to some actual degree, ruling indeed though ruled in turn. So (he claims) our "free will" is a "boorish simplicity, a long folly, owing to our extravagant pride"—from Beyond Good and Evil:

The desire for "freedom of will" in the superlative, metaphysical sense, such as still holds sway, unfortunately, in the minds of the half-educated, the desire to bear the entire and ultimate responsibility for one's actions oneself, and to absolve God, the world, ancestors, chance, and society therefrom, involves nothing less than to be precisely this causa sui, and, with... daring, to pull oneself up into existence by the hair, out of the swamps of nothingness.

But I'd like to contrast this with another short bit from Twilight of the Idols:

Freedom is the will to be responsible for ourselves. It is to preserve the distance which separates us from other men. To grow more indifferent to hardship, to severity, to privation, and even to life itself.

How do those two quotations square with one another? In my (admittedly limited) understanding, the meaning of the will is about the meaning of the Earth, that it is, in its way, a matter for destiny to determine and we must accept its discipline stoically. So with all the irony and caprice of universal history, the future is entirely in our hands, despite the fact that we are not truly free—but in our unfreedom, critical new freedoms are heralded, albeit at the cost and the end of long and painful transformations.

The underlying point seems to be about the possibility of the emergence at long last of nobler spiritualities, an expanded image of thought, etc. Is this interpretation more or less correct? What is the real sense of "freedom" here, or in this oeuvre generally?

  • With as much as Nietzsche emphasizes the Greek gods and the ancient greeks themselves, is it even possible that he gave free will any creedence at all? No Ancient Greek would ever speak of such a thing, to them it was plainly obvious fate was master of everything, and Nietzsche was well aware of this. When it sounds like he's a fan of freedom, it's because, in those cases, he's not speaking to the converted. -- @junyerrr – user13702 Feb 14 '15 at 21:53
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Nietzsche has a tenuous relationship with free will. His theories here are fairly difficult, conceptually, to grasp, and I certainly won't claim that I have a thoroughly complete understanding of it. Also, it's worth bearing in mind that it isn't unheard of to find contradictions across Nietzsche's various works. Even putting aside the very late stage in his life where he becomes maniacal, his books were written at different times, and you can see his thought developing and becoming more refined in the later books, which occasionally contradicts sweeping claims that he made in the earlier books. That's in part why academic studies of Nietzschean philosophy generally center on a single text.

But as I understand it, the point he's trying to make in Beyond Good and Evil  is that there is really no such thing as free will. No one can ever be a truly free agent (i.e., no one can truly be sufficiently free to be morally responsible) because such would require that one be causa sui  (or, the cause of oneself), and since we are not causa sui , we cannot be free agents.

There are a couple of different ways that he goes about proving this in BGE, but they're fairly complex and not particularly relevant here. As a short summary, the first is that it's logically impossible to be causa sui  (merely claiming that the very concept is "fundamentally absurd" and "the best self-contradiction that has been conceived so far"), and the second is that, based on his previously-developed notion of human agency, that we don't have sufficient control over our actions in order to claim that we acted out of free will. Or, in other words, that human beings are not self-caused in a sense that is sufficient to underwrite ascriptions or claims of moral responsibility.

He argues that both our moral and religious traditions (particularly Christianity, of which he holds a particularly bitter resentment) conspire to prevent us from ever truly having free will. In fact, he says that what we possess are causally determined wills. One of the aphorisms he uses to prove this asks the question, "Does a Christian want to sin?" Nietzsche disagrees, arguing that a true Christian can never truly want to sin, thus concluding that the Christian never truly has free will, as he was never free in the first place to do whatever he wished.


However, in (primarily) Twilight of the Idols  (and Genealogy of Morals), Nietzsche beings to develop a more positive, productive sense of free will, and more generally, freedom itself. He says that free will is not, in fact, characterized by the ability to do whatever you want, whenever you want, because if it were, it would be a meaningless concept. One who indulges their every whimsy is really just one who is a slave to her own impulses. Suffice it to say that Nietzsche doesn't think this is a particularly desirable state of affairs.

Instead, he asserts that true free will is more accurately characterized by ambition and achievement. Really, he says, it's the ability to set a goal and act in such a way as to achieve it. This is also known in his works as the "Will to Power" (not to be confused with the corrupted form later espoused by his sister). Striving to reach the highest possible position in life is the ultimate goal of the will to power, and is in fact itself a manifestation of the will to power. In other terms, the will to power is just agency free will, as opposed to deserts-based free will. And he takes such agency free will to be a rare achievement, as opposed to the natural endowment that is deserts free will, the most commonly conceived form.

Examined again in this light, it becomes apparent that the quote you've taken from TI  is really just a restatement or reprisal of the will to power:

Freedom is the will to be responsible for ourselves. It is to preserve the distance which separates us from other men. To grow more indifferent to hardship, to severity, to privation, and even to life itself.

True freedom, from a Nietzschean perspective, is really the will to affirm and to be responsible for oneself. It requires struggle against hardship and an acceptance of life's pain and suffering in a positive, life affirming way (amor fati ). But it explicitly does not  mean the denial of one's impulses and instincts. Indeed, it's the freedom from having to rely on them, but at the same time, the freedom from having to categorically reject them.

(In summary: I think that the two quotes are really talking about two completely different things, although Nietzsche labels them both "free will". In fact, there are two entirely different notions of free will at play here, one of which Nietzsche harshly criticizes and the other, he exalts.)

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    +1, thank you, Cody. This was really helpful. After re-reading my question it does sound like I'm impertinently pointing out a contradiction; that wasn't really my intention. I appreciate you distinguishing that he's talking about two 'freedoms' here: on the one hand, the 'free will' of responsibility, the logic of the priest and the cop; on the other, the 'freedom' of the spirit and flight, the logic of daybreak. Apollo and Dionysus, perhaps :) Thanks again! – Joseph Weissman Jun 8 '11 at 0:32
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    @Joe: No problem. It doesn't seem "impertinent" to observe a possible contradiction at all! As I explained, there are a number of places where a direct contradiction is evident, and a great deal more where only subtle shades distinguish two concepts. Yes indeed, Apollo and Dionysus is probably how Nietzsche himself would explain this. I never was much for the Ancient Greeks or the more fanciful realm of his writing, to be honest. Glad this cleared up some of the confusion. – Cody Gray Jun 8 '11 at 3:24
  • may i ask what the difference is between the overman's WtP and the herd's? – user35983 Dec 29 '18 at 16:11
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The desire for "freedom of will" in the superlative, metaphysical sense, such as still holds sway, unfortunately, in the minds of the half-educated, the desire to bear the entire and ultimate responsibility for one's actions oneself, and to absolve God, the world, ancestors, chance, and society therefrom, involves nothing less than to be precisely this causa sui, and, with... daring, to pull oneself up into existence by the hair, out of the swamps of nothingness.

In (so-called) primitive societies religion is pervasive, one owes thanks to ones ancestors, to gods or the God. Of this Nietszche approves. The 'half-educated man' is a certain figure of the Romantic who emancipates himself from this posture of submission and renouncing and dissolving all ties looks back into the abyss that has thus opened up 'from above' as Caspar David shows, in the mountains the wayfarer rests above the sea of fog.

But is this not also the position of the 'spirit that moves upon the deep' as in Genesis? Now, suddenly, we see the wayfarer is etherealised into Noble Spirit, the uncaused cause of himself, and the abyss, the deep, his to mold into a world.

Nietsche finds all this risible - for this is high hubris - as the Greeks & Judiacs knew all too well - Oedipus suffered from it: This New Type of Man having kindled a Enlightment using his bare hands hoists himself above the learning of Antiquity, into a new space pregnant with possibilities, he imagines himself as master (of himself) & creator (of a new world). But man is not metaphysical, but physical; he is substantial but he isn't the uncaused substance, the causa sui itself

Or as Shakespeare put it (in Measure for Measure):

Man, proud man! Drest in a little brief authority

Most ignorant of what he's most assured,

His glassy essence

Like an angry ape

Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven

As makes the angels weep

But abjuring such impossible & fantastic flights ego-fantasy we return to the image of the wayfarer - weary and stoic - having climbed so far - he has endured hardship, silence & solitude; and having endured becomes indifferent. He is the figure of the ascetic enduring privation, and the figure of the mystic practising austerities and able to consider a calm contemplation the gap that separates himself from the world - the sublime abyss - and yet able to imagine himself into the world, and the world inside of himself. This is the proper sense of freedom; a freedom that knows its place. Or:

Freedom is the will to be responsible for ourselves. It is to preserve the distance which separates us from other men. To grow more indifferent to hardship, to severity, to privation, and even to life itself.

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