In Part 19 of Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche cast doubt on the notion that we can independently apply our will to ourselves and the world around us. He contended that the act of willing is complex, and that the sense of agency that accompanies it is but a superfluous part of the process. He never explicitly said “Free will is an illusion,” but to interpret his meaning any other way would be equivalent to plugging your ears, squeezing your eyes shut, and singing.
In Part 21, he returns to the subject of free will, and this time without any question as to what he thinks of it.
He starts off by saying that “The causa sui is the best self-contradiction that has been conceived so far, it is a sort of rape and perversion of logic…” Don’t worry, we’ll get to the point shortly.
“The desire for ‘freedom of the will…’” he continues, “…involves nothing less than to be precisely this causa sui and…to pull oneself up into existence by the hair, out of the swamps of nothingness.”
There’s no ambiguity here. Nietzsche clearly doesn’t believe in free will—no inference necessary. But it wouldn’t be Nietzsche if he just left it a that. He goes on to ask the reader “…to carry his ‘enlightenment’ a step further, and also put out of his head the contrary of this monstrous conception of ‘free will’: I mean ‘unfree will,’ which amounts to a misuse of cause and effect.”
It’s true that there is no free will, according to Nietzsche, but he goes on say that the notion of cause and effect should not be considered a worthy alternative. These are just concepts— “…conventional fictions for the purpose of designation and communication—” and they do not actually exist on their own. In using categories, laws, motivations etc. to describe nature and the unfolding of reality, Nietzsche says that we are acting “…as we have always acted—mythologically.”
The idea that we’re enthralled to a sequence of causes and effects is as much a fiction as the idea that we are the sole authors of our actions, according to Nietzsche. “…in real life it is only a matter of strong and weak wills.”
Nietzsche holds that these two approaches to the idea of free will—the beliefs that we are free and that we are unfree—are equally wrong. He says that they are also equal in that they both constitute highly personal views.
On the one hand, people who believe in free will are eager to maintain a belief in themselves, and to vainly claim ownership of their successes and good qualities. But people who believe in unfree will “…do not wish to be answerable for anything, or blamed for anything…” This latter group is more likely to side with criminals, according to Nietzsche, and compensates for their weak wills by preaching a fatalistic worldview.
Now I can understand Nietzsche’s objections to the idea of the unfree will to an extent. I do agree that the ideas of cause and effect are human constructs, as are all the other categories that we apply to nature. They do a good job of describing reality in terms we can understand, but we should stop short of saying that they are reality. They’re useful concepts, but they are concepts that we added post hoc.
I also understand his distaste at the use of cause and effect to avoid responsibility for one’s actions, and as an excuse for a weak will (though the latter of these seems a little meanspirited). But I do bristle at the idea that we should reject the notion that we’re constrained by cause and effect, or that we should ignore its ethical implications when it comes to evaluating our actions and those of others. Just because it seems like a copout to use cause and effect to absolve ourselves of responsibility, doesn’t mean that the concept isn’t valid. It just means that it leaves a bad taste in our mouths, or at the very least in Nietzsche’s.
Misgivings aside, however, Nietzsche did a good job of expressing himself here, and I understand his objections to the idea of unfree will for the most part. I am, however, still puzzled by his assertion that real life is just a matter of “strong and weak wills.”
Thankfully, he expands on this concept in Part 22.
Now Nietzsche doesn’t specifically mention cause and effect in Part 22 of BGaE, but he does linger on the concept of natural laws, which comprise all of the categories and rules that Humans have ascribed to nature, including cause and effect.
Nietzsche’s main problem with the belief in natural laws is that it is not nearly as subjective as we’d like to think—as I myself am inclined to think, if I’m being honest. The belief in natural laws isn’t the result of impartial observation (sound familiar?), “…but rather only a naively humanitarian emendation and perversion of meaning, with which [we] make abundant concessions to the democratic instincts of the modern soul!”
Nietzsche argues that natural laws are a concept rooted in disdain for privileged classes and those who exercise the most power in the world. Natural laws are an example of “plebian antagonism” towards these groups, and of what he calls a “more refined atheism.” These “plebians” (Nietzsche’s word, not mine) are drawn to the idea of natural laws because the existence of said laws diminishes the power of more privileged ruling classes.
It’s true that there is a democratic flavor to the notion of natural laws. After all, these are laws which we all must obey, no matter our social standing. As a person of middling social status, I certainly see the appeal in the idea that even those with absolute power are themselves tyrannized by nature—even if it’s ironic (as Nietzsche points out) to thwart one kind of power by introducing an even greater power. So it’s obvious why natural laws are attractive, but again, I don’t buy that their attractiveness somehow diminishes their validity.
Nietzsche continues by asserting that natural laws are “…interpretation, not text…” Whether or not you believe in the validity or usefulness of natural laws, this is a good point. It’s true that whatever laws we ascribe to nature represent our best interpretations of the patterns that we see, and no matter how closely they reflect reality, they remain interpretations, made by humans for humans.
This being the case, there’s always room for someone to come forward with a different interpretation of those patterns, and now Nietzsche asks us to suppose that someone does just that.
“…somebody might come along who…could read out of the same ‘nature,’ and with regard to the same phenomena, rather the tyrannically inconsiderate and relentless enforcement of claims of power—an interpreter who would picture the unexceptional and unconditional aspects of all ‘will to power’ so vividly that almost every word, even the word ‘tyranny’ itself, would eventually seem unsuitable, or a weakening and attenuating metaphor—being too human…”
Nietzsche reminds us that the wide acceptance of one interpretation doesn’t mean that the door is shut to new interpretations. In this case, he suggests that the world could be interpreted in such a way as to reinforce systems of power which we deem oppressive. Such an interpretation might even favor these systems so heavily as to make a harsh word like “tyranny” seem insufficient to describe them. It might even be that human language is at bottom unable to properly describe the interplay of different powers in the world.
But all that being the case, Nietzsche goes on to concede that the person offering this interpretation could still “…end by asserting the same about this world… namely, that it has a ‘necessary’ and ‘calculable’ course, not because laws obtain in it, but because they are absolutely lacking, and every power draws its ultimate consequences at every moment.”
Now I had to sit and puzzle over this quotation for quite a while, and I still only half understand it. The first part’s simple enough. A person who rejects the popular notion of natural law could still believe that reality has a predictable course. I understood this on the surface, but I have a hard time with the idea that this is somehow opposed to natural law, rather than just being a different version of natural law—common law versus civil law, if you like.
Am I to understand that, rather than being governed by cause and effect and the laws of physics, that the universe unfolds based on the extent to which its constituents exert power over eachother? That the only law is power?
That’s fine, but even if we allow for that, how does that power arise? How is one entity’s power over another determined? Wouldn’t changes in power require a cause of some sort? Or is power something indivisible that’s determined by its own…power?
Nietzsche must have seen these questions coming, because he finishes Part 22 by acknowledging that this hypothetical interpretation is open to objection.
“Supposing that this also is only interpretation—” he says, “and you will be eager enough to make the objection?—well, so much the better.”
It seems like Nietzsche’s just reminding us that there’s no interpretation of reality that’s immune to the prejudices of its interpreters. Either those prejudices will influence the interpretation, or the interpretation will itself be coopted to serve this or that moral or political aim, no matter how impartial it was to begin with.
I’m still scratching my head at the idea of the absence of laws allowing for the course of history to be predicted, or of power “[drawing] its ultimate consequences at every moment.” This all immediately smacks of woo-woo to me, but that might be the point.
Nietzsche seems to think that the more easily understandable an interpretation of reality is, the less closely that interpretation actually reflects reality. To come closer to the real nature of the world is by definition to light upon concepts that are hostile to interpretation, and which seem garbled or inaccessible.
Then again, I don’t think Nietzsche invoked these final thoughts about power and the absence of laws for the strict purpose of making a point. I think they do indeed reflect his conception of reality, even if they fall short of conveying it completely.
But for now, that’s alright.
I’m a long way from fully grasping what Nietzsche is talking about with regards to power, but there are still 200 pages left in Beyond Good and Evil. Assuming Nietzsche’s worth his salt as a philosopher and writer, that should be enough to fill in the blanks.