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The Journal of Nietzsche Studies 23 (2002) 63-87

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Nietzsche on Fatalism and "Free Will"

Robert C. Solomon

Nietzsche is often classified and taught along with the "Existentialists," mainly because he is (like Kierkegaard) so adamantly an "individual" and an early advocate of "self-making." But Nietzsche also subscribes to a number of harsh doctrines that might be described as "fatalism" and a kind of "biological determinism," to name but two. Fatalism, strictly understood, means that nothing could be other than it is, and Nietzsche's sharp sarcastic comments about "the improvers of mankind" make it quite clear that he does not think that people can change their (collective) nature. Moreover, his persistent emphasis on "instincts," "drives," and "physiology" suggests a form of determinism based on our biology. Each of us individually has a particular "nature" that (whether actualized or not) cannot be altered.

Like such existentialists as Søren Kierkegaard and Jean-Paul Sartre, Nietzsche is a powerful defender of what one might call "the existential self," the individual who "makes himself" by exploring and disciplining his particular talents and distinguishes himself from "the herd" and the conformist influences of other people. But Nietzsche also attacks the very concept of freedom and with it the existentialist idea that we are free and responsible to make of ourselves what we will. Furthermore, Nietzsche celebrates precisely those ancient concepts of "fate" and "destiny" that Sartre, in particular, rejects as exemplary of "bad faith." The question then becomes whether Nietzsche's many comments and occasional arguments in favor of "the love of fate" (amor fati) and against "free will" undermine any interpretation of his philosophy in existentialist and "self-making" terms.

I have argued elsewhere1 that they do not and that Nietzsche might quite properly be included among the existentialists. What I want to do here is to argue in some detail that Nietzsche's fatalism and Nietzsche's "self-making" are ultimately two sides of the same coin and not at odds or contradictory. To what extent does Nietzsche embrace and to what extent does he dispense with notions of responsibility and, in particular, the responsibility for one's character and "who one is." After all, "What does your conscience say?—You shall become the person you are" (Gay Science, 270). [End Page 63]

Nietzsche on Freedom qnd Fatalism

If one interprets what Nietzsche has to say about self-making along the lines of Kant and the infamous free-will problem, then the combination of fatalism and self-making surely will appear to be at odds. And if one interprets Nietzsche's conception of fatalism along the lines of the thesis of scientific "determinism," one will also find that there is little "wiggle room" for the kind of self-making thesis that Nietzsche advocates. True, Nietzsche is an enthusiastic advocate of the scientific method (during some periods of his career, at least). But it does not follow that he is a determinist. Indeed, he has some incisive skeptical comments on the concept of causality (and hence determinism). Most important, however, are the differences between determinism and the scientific outlook, on the one hand, and fatalism and Nietzsche's concept of fate, on the other. In brief, fatalism is not determinism, and Nietzsche's acceptance of the former has almost nothing to do with the latter. It is rather a harking back to the ancient Greek notion of moira, or fate, and has little to do with modern scientific thinking.

Whatever else it may be, self-creation is not a human version of what Nietzsche thinks is impossible even for God, namely, creation de nihilo. We cannot act as a causa sui, "bootstrapping" our way into selfhood. Nor does it require or involve any break from natural laws, like Kant's noumenal subject, the target of many of Nietzsche's most ferocious attacks. Self-making, which is ultimately a kind of self-cultivation, is by no means independent or separable from one's native talents, one's "instincts," one's environment, the influence of other people and one's culture. It is not...


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