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  • Nietzsche's Free Spirit
  • Amy Mullin

On the back cover of the original 1882 edition of The Gay Science, Nietzsche tells us that this book represents "the conclusion of a series of writings by Friedrich Nietzsche whose common goal is to erect a new image and ideal of the free spirit."1 He furthermore tells us that to this series belong: Human, all too Human (1878), The Wanderer and His Shadow (1880), Daybreak (1881), and The Gay Science (1882, Books 1-4).2 Nietzsche's interest in the topics of fate and freedom dates back to some of his earliest writings, those written in the spring of 1862 and recently translated by George Stack as "Fate and History" and "Freedom of Will and Fate."3 Furthermore, Nietzsche's writings after 1882 remain dedicated, unto the last, to the importance of this new ideal of the free spirit. Thus, for instance, Part Two of Beyond Good and Evil (1886) is entitled "The Free Spirit," and in the autumn of 1888, in plans for his never written Revaluation of All Values, Book 2 was to be entitled "The Free Spirit. Critique of Philosophy as a Nihilistic Movement."4

Yet little attention has been paid to interpreting Nietzsche's corpus, particularly [End Page 383] the works from his middle period, as characterized by a common goal, that of erecting a new image and ideal of the free spirit.5 Furthermore, too often little distinction is made between what Nietzsche admired in the past, nobility or the master, what he admires in the present, the free spirit, and what he hopes to come in the future, philosophers of the future and the Übermensch. The philosophers of the future will be very free spirits, but they will not be merely free spirits. Nietzsche tells us that he and his fellow free spirits are merely the "heralds and precursors" of the philosophers of the future.6 This suggests that we cannot simply equate, as Alexander Nehamas does, the free spirit and the "philosopher of the future,"7 and we should not speak interchangeably of masters or nobles, free spirits, philosophers of the future, and Übermenschen.8

In a related error, free spirits are said to possess all the traits Nietzsche praises. Ruth Abbey, for instance, characterizes the values constitutive of free spirithood as "autonomy in thought and action, intellectual strength and daring, desire and ability to pursue the truth, capacity for cruelty and the skills of dialogue."9 While it is true that Nietzsche does suggest that the dialogue is the perfect conversation,10 he nowhere associates skills in dialogue with a free spirit. Instead, the free spirit is strongly associated with isolation, which would tend to preclude conversation, skilful or otherwise.

We need to give an account of the free spirit which distinguishes it from Nietzsche's other ideals, while also connecting the new ideal of a free spirit to other aspects of Nietzsche's thought, most particularly his condemnation of [End Page 384] universalistic moralities, and his account of the possibility of controlling one's interpretations of the world in order to carry on experiments in knowledge. It is only once we have become clear about what a free spirit is like that we can evaluate Nietzsche's claim to have constructed a new ideal, and begin to consider whether this ideal has any appeal for us today, and why.

In order to understand what a free spirit is and is not, we need (1) to distinguish between so-called free spirits and Nietzsche's new ideal of a free spirit, and (2) to appreciate the radical distinction between freedom of spirit and freedom of will.11 We will then be in a position (3) to see that, far from being opposed to necessity, free spirits are a product of it. We will then need (4) to look at the details of Nietzsche's account of the free spirit. Do free spirits share characteristic traits? Since free spirits all begin as fettered spirits, we will need to see what trajectory Nietzsche sees free spirits taking from fetters to freedom. Here it will be important to recognize that Nietzsche speaks of several stages of free...


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pp. 383-405
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