Sunday, January 31, 2010

Nietzsche's Freedom: Self-Overcoming

Does Nietzsche have any conception of freedom in his writings? And what does that freedom look like? Is it familiar or in any way related to the common philosophical notions of free will, autonomy, self-determination, and others? Upon first glance, it would seem that the answer is no, for he constantly assaults such typical and dogmatic philosophical inquiries. Nevertheless, Nietzsche does mention freedom explicitly and relatively often throughout a majority of his works. What are we to make of this apparent contradiction? He refutes the actuality of the generally discussed versions of freedom and blames those philosophers of uncritical and immature philosophical discourse; but he himself then continues to talk about freedom not only as a real possibility, but also as an attainable ideal! What could this “freedom” be to which Nietzsche refers, if it is not one of the usual notions?

Robert Pippin also identifies this apparent contradiction in Nietzsche’s treatment of freedom when he explains, “the problem of freedom, whether as metaphysical issue or as a possible human aspiration… does not seem to be one of Nietzsche’s central concerns… however, it would appear that there is a sense of freedom, one at least somewhat still connected to much of our intuitive and everyday understanding of freedom, that is quite important to Nietzsche: self-overcoming” (Pippin 69). What could Nietzsche possibly mean by this puzzling and apparently contradictory phrase, self-overcoming? How could we overcome our self? What will this achievement look like? One might initially think that self-overcoming suggests that we must somehow seize complete control of ourselves and become perfectly rational agents; that we should claim absolute responsibility for our actions and a sort of perfect understanding of every behavior we do. Perhaps these ideas are close or at least related to what Nietzsche actually means; but we must be very careful in how we precisely understand this. Clearly Nietzsche does not want to raise rationality onto the sort of pedestal as “old Kant” suggests we do (BGE 5). Indeed, any sort of initial guess as to what he might mean by self-overcoming will likely prove inaccurate. So we are left with a puzzle. What does self-overcoming mean? And what does self-overcoming have to do with freedom?

As he begins his task of investigating self-overcoming in Nietzsche, Pippin explains that “what does interest Nietzsche about… traditional philosophical questions [is]: an etiology and often genealogy of the psychological type to whom one or the other of these positions would appeal” (Pippin 70). Thus, he suggests, we must begin to approach this version of freedom by investigating Nietzsche’s views on psychology. He goes on to spend much of the essay describing Nietzsche’s general psychology, explaining how self-overcoming fits into the broader picture of Nietzsche’s catalogue of works, and what sort of psychological perspective one will have upon achieving this goal. Unfortunately, by the end of the essay, Pippin fails to clarify sufficiently the actual process of self-overcoming. He never explains Nietzsche’s advice for how we might achieve this ideal, and never describes what the self-overcome man will look like. Is overcoming oneself really even possible? I will endeavor to explicate the process of self-overcoming, as described (rather cryptically) by Nietzsche in his Beyond Good and Evil.

Where to begin?

As anyone familiar with Nietzsche knows, rarely does he come right out and give us a clear explanation of his views and ideals, and his discussion of self-overcoming is no exception. How then might we begin to unpack the details of this form of freedom? While he rarely offers a positive formulation of his ideals, he does spend plenty of time describing his negative ideals – i.e. the people and institutions that represent a perversion or complete opposite of his own aspirations. Thus, to describe the actual process of self-overcoming, we must pair the few explicit references that he does offer, with his more frequent rants against his anti-exemplars. In this way, we will hopefully discover a way of backing into a positive explanation of his ideal.

Given this strategic approach, let us begin our investigation of his unique view of freedom by looking at his criticisms of the more typical approaches to freedom. In BGE 21 (perhaps the most common starting point for any discussion about freedom in Nietzsche), he addresses the typical free will debate between the Libertarians and Determinists. This account of freedom wonders whether in any given situation we have a free choice in our behavior; Libertarians say that we could choose otherwise in any given case, while Determinists say that all of our choices are predetermined by naturalistic or causal factors. Where does Nietzsche weigh in on this argument? He swiftly condemns the Libertarians when he starts, “The causa sui is the best self-contradiction hitherto imagined, a kind of logical rape and unnaturalness” (BGE 21). By “causa sui” he means the idea that we are the causes of our own actions, that we have the free choice to behave in any number of ways in a given situation. This common notion of free will implies that we have a complete control over our decisions, and that no external influences cause our behavior. Even as he rejects the Libertarian view, he goes on to reject the complete opposite viewpoint, the Determinists, when he rejects the “‘unfree’ will which amounts to an abuse of cause and effect” (BGE 21). In other words, he thinks that the Determinists are merely deluding themselves into thinking that there is not even a shred of agency or choice in our activity.

In general, Nietzsche hates common, dogmatic philosophy, so it is hardly surprising that he not only rejects both Libertarians and Determinists, but also rejects the entire free-will debate. The first book of BGE, in which 21 is located, is entitled “On the Prejudices of Philosophers.” Given this context we can see that Nietzsche considers the free-will debate, among other common philosophical arguments, to be nothing more than a mere prejudice; in other words, the free-will argument has never really been critically considered, and turns out to look for human freedom in all the wrong sorts of places. But if Nietzsche is right that we do not have a free will, and we do not have an unfree will… What do we have? What could freedom look like? Let us look a bit further into what he says of the will for more clues as to how we ought not to consider freedom. Likely, his rejection of the entire discussion of a free will suggests that, in fact, the entire notion of a ‘will’ is itself a misguided and dogmatic prejudice: both the Libertarians and the Determinists are entered into a debate over a transparent, controllable, and simple “will” that turns out not even to exist. Ultimately the discourse proves to be nothing more than a wild goose chase.

In BGE 19, Nietzsche makes explicit his conclusion that talk of a will is blatantly inaccurate. Shocked at the lack of critical thought among most philosophers, Nietzsche observes, “Philosophers are given to speaking of the will as if it were the best-known thing in the world… But it seems to me that in this case… [philosophers] have taken up a popular prejudice and exaggerated it” (BGE 19). Basically, he believes that when you really look at the ‘will,’ you can clearly see that it is “above all something complicated, something that is a unity only as a word” (BGE 19). He goes on to list the sensations, the feelings, the thoughts, and the affects all simultaneously present in the supposed function of ‘willing,’ and seems baffled that anyone could practice such “inadequate caution” as to reduce this entire unknown process to a single term (BGE 19). The common conception of freedom as the decision-making power of a single, purposeful “will” is woefully simplistic and plainly inaccurate.

If we do not have a will, then what do we have? For once Nietzsche supplies a somewhat explicit answer: “in real life it is only a question of strong and weak wills” (BGE 21).[1] The prejudice he observes in philosophers is their conclusion that we possess a single will with which we direct every one of our actions; in fact, as his alternative description of our decision-making process identifies, that supposed will is in fact constituted by a plurality of wills. The common philosophers simply misrepresent the will. There is no overarching “I,” but effectively many little “I”s all interacting and ultimately determining our final decision. That final decision is all that the typical philosophers see and crudely identify as the ‘will.’ He goes on to elaborate this basic description when he says, “In all willing it is absolutely a question of commanding and obeying, on the basis, as I have said already, of a social structure composed of many ‘souls’” (BGE 19). Here we begin to see the importance of fleshing out Nietzsche’s views of personhood and psychology. What is the self really? What is this social structure of many wills? And what is the relationship between the self and the wills? Once we develop Nietzsche’s notion of the self, we will be better prepared to uncover how we might overcome that self.[2]

What does the self look like?

Nietzsche’s notion of the self consists in his idea of a hierarchy of drives. In BGE 6, Nietzsche touches upon this subject as he explains what is really going on when the prejudiced philosophers practice their philosophy. By the end of the section, Nietzsche concludes that “above all, [the philosopher’s] morality bears decided and decisive testimony to who he is – that is to say, to the order of rank the innermost drives of his nature stand in relative to one another” (BGE 6). This parallel between personal identity and the collection of drives makes clear that Nietzsche believes that our self is intimately and essentially linked to a set of drives that are operating deep within us. Dudrick and Clark use this same passage to help explain that, “Nietzsche takes who the person is to be identical with or constituted by the rank order of his drives” (16).[3]

Given that we are constituted by our drives, we must now further examine the nature of the drives and their interrelationship. What does this social order look like, why is it important, and what are the implications of that ordering for our selves? Dudrick and Clark spend significant time exploring the nature of this rank-ordering. Ultimately they conclude that “this order is not a naturalistic or causal order, an order of strength, but a normative order” (6). To make this distinction more explicit, we can consider the difference between humans and animals. Animals drive-ordering is merely causal: the drive with the most brute strength ultimately determines the animal’s behavior. Human beings however, have a more sophisticated and more dynamic relationship among their drives; the rank-order of drives in people can shift and change, and different drives can gain control of different types of situations at different times. The reason these shiftings of rank occur is that our drives are all motivated by the will to power: “each drive tries to seize hold of the person’s cognitive capacities and monopolize them as much as is both possible and practical for seeing the world from its point of view” (11).

To help understand what Dudrick and Clark mean by a normative or political order of drives, we can look at human society. Our country’s political order consists of a few individuals being elected to represent the entire population. Just so, the drives can be understood as sort of electing some few drives of the total set to be the primary representatives of the whole self. This is where we can begin to see the normative aspect of the rank-order, versus the non-normative character of a merely causal order: certain drives are chosen to represent all the drives for some sort of reason other than strength or mere brute force.[4] To summarize, we have a whole collection of many drives, but some smaller group of them earns the right to speak for the self, and all the other drives agree that that smaller group ought to represent the rest of them.

One might argue that this account contradicts the idea of that each drive acts according only to the will to power. For if only a few drives are elected to represent them all, then are not the unelected drives left with no power at all? Why would they deny themselves the chance to have influence over a person’s behavior? In fact, this is not what happens at all. Many of the weaker drives will, in the end, benefit from such a political arrangement where their voice may be heard despite it having only a relatively weak strength. The strongest drives will likely have significant power either way. And the medium strength drives consent to the arrangement in the hopes that one day they will be strong enough to enter the echelon of the powerful political representatives. Thus, all wills to power are ultimately satisfied, and with the important consequence that they are normatively ordered.

This does not suggest that the drives work in perfect harmony, and that they all agree unanimously to the decisions – that would seem to contradict the will to power. To make this analogy even more clear, we might want to consider a sort of revolutionary political order – take the developing United States for example. During this time, there were many influential politicians all with vastly different views on what the country should look like – how the Constitution and Declaration of Independence ought to read, how the political structure ought to be ordered. From all of these vehement and often conflicting views, a final decision was reached. Even today, if we think about American politics, we see radically different political perspectives in all different parts of the government as to how the entire United States ought to behave. And yet, final decisions are made. Different views are represented or given more attention at different times, and there is a constant shifting of power going. Decisions are reached even in spite of deeply antithetical views.

The normative interpretation of the rank-order of our drives leads to the important implication that a person’s hierarchy of drives arranges or constitutes that person’s values. Thus we can see that there are two levels of analysis for any given person’s behavior, “the micro-level, that of the drives, and the macro-level, that of the person” (12). This distinction matters greatly to Nietzsche’s description of the self, as Clark and Dudrick notice, for “what appears at the micro-level as drives operating according to the will to power appears at the macro-level as a person operating according to the will to value. It is only the drives that aim at power; the person, the philosopher herself, aims to represent the world in the terms of her values” (13). Thus, we can understand values to be sort of the external manifestation of the ordered drives.

This does not imply, however, that our values are identical to the drives. Dudrick and Clark return to their distinction between the micro- and macro-levels of person analysis to explain that “philosophy is an expression of the will to power [and] does not entail that the philosopher’s activity – the activity of the person – is characterized by this will. The will to power characterizes the activities of the philosopher’s drives when she does philosophy. The will of the philosopher herself, however, is not the will to power, but the will to value” (12). As we go through our lives, we have a will to value; we find meaning and focus our lives based around some moral system. However, beneath the surface of these human values or morals, in places that we cannot clearly see, there is a world of drives that ultimately dictates these values.

One final point must be reiterated in this discussion of the drives and their relationship with the person. The self is not lost. The self is not reduced to a mere set of drives. Instead, the self is constituted by those drives. We are still a person, we are still a self, there is still an agent acting according to his own value scheme; however, operating even beneath that person and that value scheme are a set of drives directing the person’s behavior. Thus there are two levels of every person operating simultaneously: the drive level, and the person or value level. This does not suggest that when we act we are not acting in accordance with our values, for we are; but it is important that we remember that what constitutes those values and our behavior is the political order of our drives.

Let us consider an example to make this point more clearly. Consider a person who decides to help his elderly neighbor shovel the snow out of her driveway. Why did the person decide to act this way? He will claim that he helped because he values altruism and helpfulness. This value certainly is motivating this man’s behavior; his value of altruism is in fact the reason he has helped his neighbor to shovel snow. But now let us dive deeper and consider the possible drives contributing to his maintenance of this value. What drives constitute this value? What drives gave him that value, according to which he was acting? Perhaps this value really stems from the drive to gain esteem from his peers. Perhaps his altruism stems from his desire to earn rewards or payment. Perhaps he acts altruistically because his drive to social power realizes that by being nice to his neighbors he might one day be elected as town mayor. Perhaps his altruism really only stems from a drive to follow his mother’s wishes. Clearly the value of altruism could stem from a number of different sources; indeed, the same value in different people will be constituted by different drives. What it is important to remember here is that the fact that these drives constitute the value of altruism does not suggest that the value is not actual. Instead, we come to realize that the behavior can be accurately interpreted at both of these levels.

Why does this explanation of the self matter to self-overcoming?

Dudrick and Clark emphasize the fundamental importance of the presence of values when they conclude that, “Because this normative order of the drives constitutes one’s values, what makes one a person is precisely the capacity for values” (6). Thus, an animal whose drives are ordered merely causally will have no value system but will merely act according to the tyranny of their strongest drives. People are unique in that our drives interact in such a way that we find value in our existence; our decisions are not always based upon the causally strongest drive, but on the meaningful interaction and ordering between all of the drives. We can explain our actions and decisions based upon a systematic set of values that we believe ourselves to possess purposefully and rationally. This is a great comfort to philosophers and man in general, particularly in the face of broader existential worries. But does not Nietzsche’s account imply that there is something wrong with merely using values to explain our action? Does not his account of the self suggest that there is in fact something even more foundational than our values? Are not philosophers only partially correct in their explanation of human behavior?

Nietzsche raises these questions as he investigates what the typical philosophers are really doing. Initially, he reemphasizes the important distinction between the value-level and the drive-level when he observes that “[every drive] has at some time or other practiced philosophy – and that each one of them would be only too glad to present itself as the ultimate goal of existence and as the legitimate master of all the other drives” (BGE 6). He reminds us here that what really dictate our actions are our drives; that these form the real basis of our selves.[5] He next begins to imply the inaccuracy and shortsightedness of philosophers when he describes their work as “a confession on the part of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir” (BGE 6). Here he suggests that philosophers have no awareness that all that their philosophies really communicate are the external trappings of a more fundamental and covered up aspect of our self. In other words, these philosophers preach their values, morals, and world-interpretations without any understanding that those values are constituted by a hierarchy of drives. Philosophers thus turn out to be little more than door-to-door salesman of their personal values, who have no inkling of what those values represent or how those values relate to their own or anyone else’s selves.[6]

The real problem with this sort of philosophizing is that fails to address a fundamental essence of the actual human condition: the level of the drives. In all of us, and in philosophers specifically, our drives interact and shuffle depending on the different situations in which we find ourselves, and on the different political strenghts with which the drives find themselves. This movement and ordering is exhibited in our actions. Philosophers attempt to explain these actions and furthermore, attempt to prescribe other peoples’ actions based upon observations and considerations at the value level only. This turns out to be the ultimate prejudice of philosophers: they only interpret at the value level and deny the existence of the deeper drive level. Thus they ignore what constitutes our very person – an appalling mistake to Nietzsche for any account of human behavior. Philosophers believe themselves to be creating philosophy according to the value of the will to knowledge. They think themselves to be offering categorical explanations of the world and rigorous, indubitable deductions of the values we ought to maintain or hold, but ultimately these conclusions are hypocritical and inaccurate – for our values only represent the more essential and unique happenings deeper within us. Nietzsche observes that “what happens at bottom is that a prejudice, a notion, an ‘inspiration’, generally a desire of the heart sifted and made abstract, is defended by them with reasons sought after the event… cunning pleaders for their prejudices, which they baptize ‘truths’” (BGE 5). Not only do dogmatic philosophers not understand the truth about people in general, but they also do not even know their own true selves! Yet they simultaneously claim to have objective understandings of the world, and they go so far as to proselytize their own perspectives to others.

Insofar as philosophers see only their values, they fail to understand what those values really represent. They are afraid to dive to the depths of the self, beyond values and amidst the drives; they examine only the macro-level, but not that micro-level that provides its foundation. They do not understand that in their philosophy, “there are no moral phenomena, only moral interpretation of phenomena” (BGE 108); they stop at values as if those are the most essential phenomena of the world, but really they offer only a short-sighted and partial interpretation of what really constitutes to a person’s behavior. Philosophers look at the values, claim an objective and full interpretation, and refuse to admit the reality that “someone could come along who, with an opposite intention and art of interpretation, knew how to read out of the same nature and with regard to the same phenomena the tyrannically ruthless and inexorable enforcement of power demands” (BGE 22). They refuse to admit that someone could in fact interpret the very same behavior using the politically tense micro-level, which the typical philosophers ignore and deny.

How does this prejudice of philosophers relate to self-overcoming?

With this explanation of the ultimate prejudice of philosophers, we have finally arrived at a basic idea of Nietzsche’s anti-ideal; using this anti-ideal, we may now begin to uncover and describe a positive conception of Nietzsche’s ideal of self-overcoming.

Ultimately, the inability, ignorance, or blind refusal of philosophers to examine humanity beyond the value-level represents the fundamental prejudice and consequent failure of all philosophers. Why do they do this? It is terrifying to reach below values, for values are all we have ever dealt with regarding human behavior; if there were no values, what would be left? Furthermore, by citing values alone, we claim a sort of responsibility or moral purposefulness over our actions; with values we can explain why we act in the ways that we do. We are very fond of the illusion that we know our motives perfectly; it is very difficult and scary to give up the idea that we know exactly why we behave as we do. Nietzsche explains that fundamentally these philosophers are afraid to admit that “It might even be possible that what constitutes the value of those good and honoured [moralities or value-systems] resides precisely in their being artfully related, knotted and crocheted to those wicked, apparently antithetical things, perhaps even in their being essentially identical with them. Perhaps! – but who is willing to concern himself with such dangerous perhapses” (BGE 10).

The reason philosophers cling to the value level of behavioral interpretation is that the possibility that there is something constituting even those values that we do not know is scary. Furthermore, the drives that constitute those values turn out to be “wicked” and “antithetical things,” that really look nothing like our beloved values at all. The drives are motivated by a will to power, they can be violent and belligerent with each other. It is very disorienting and disillusioning to realize that our blessed virtues and moralities stem fundamentally from a set of bellicose, “tyrannically ruthless and inexorable” drives (BGE 22). As seen in the snow-shovelling example above, our values can in fact be constituted by very different-looking and indeed opposite-looking drives. For this reason, common philosophers simply refuse to see to the drive-level, and if they were able to see the drives, they would likely try and deny them; for the apparent moral bankruptcy of the drives would suggest that our values are in fact not so perfect. This would be a very difficult contradiction for typical philosophers to maintain.

Opposite to these petty and timid dogmatists, Nietzsche promises that we must “await the arrival of a new species of philosopher, one which possesses the tastes and inclinations opposite to and different from those of its predecessors – philosophers of the dangerous ‘perhaps’ in every sense” (BGE 10). The essential difference between the anti-ideal and ideal will be the new philosopher’s headlong charge past values and straight for the drives. He will not be afraid to admit and even affirm that the source of his values consists in the hierarchy of power-hungry drives. Why deny the real essence of our selves? Why perpetuate the inaccurate prejudice? We must come to know our selves!

Thus, the first stage of overcoming our self will be an overcoming of prejudices, and, specifically, an overcoming of the prejudice to interpret our actions at only the macro-level, the value-level. The new philosopher will possess “good humour… distrust of these modern ideas… disbelief in all that has been constructed yesterday and today… A little strength, soaring, courage, artistic power more, and they would want to go up and away” (BGE 10). The new philosopher will regard philosophers’ conclusions as the mere prejudices that they are – as shallow, inaccurate explanations of the human condition. The free-will debate will be rejected. An entirely new sort of freedom will be undertaken: one that will not separate the self from the wills or claim the authority of “causa sui” over them, but instead identify and embrace the fundamental unity between the drives and one’s values.

Nietzsche thus resolves the first chapter, “On the Prejudices of Philosophers,” by using his negative ideal as a springboard for arriving at his positive ideal: “We sail straight over morality and past it, we flatten, we crush perhaps what is left of our own morality by venturing to voyage thither – but what do we matter! Never yet has a deeper world of insight revealed itself to daring travelers and adventurers” (BGE 23). We must hazard the depths, regardless of the apparently terrifying consequences. The task is scary because it is unknown and potentially unknowable; it is terrifying because it is beyond values, beyond good and evil – when all man has ever dealt in is precisely these values! But only thus will we be able to approach truth and knowledge. Only thus will we begin to see ourselves as we really are. Only thus will we both understand and accept that our beloved values are essentially linked to our wicked and power-hungry drives. The essential first step of overcoming oneself is to fully understand our self. And fundamentally, our self is our hierarchy of drives. With this conclusion, Nietzsche sets the stage for the second chapter of BGE: “The Free Spirit.”

Further evidence supporting prejudice-overcoming as the first step in self-overcoming?

In BGE 32, Nietzsche presents a genealogy of the prejudices of philosophers; this investigation serves to establish more explicitly the importance and necessity of overcoming the prejudice of understanding ourselves merely as a collection of values, and not as a collection of drives. He begins by describing what he calls the “pre-moral” period of human history, during which “the imperative ‘know thyself!’ was then still unknown” (BGE 32). Here we can imagine a very immature and merely conscious species of primitive man, constituted by a merely causal set of drives as an animal.

Next, however, after survival had been established as somewhat granted and humans developed society, man entered the “moral” period, which represented “the first attempt at self-knowledge… Instead of consequences, the origin: what an inversion of perspectives!” (BGE 32). On this characterization, we can see how initially impressive and revitalizing this perspective-inversion truly was; man suddenly gained self-awareness, and an interest in himself as a psychological organism. In its conception, the moral period was truly an amazing revolution in human thought, but slowly and surely “to be sure, a fateful new superstition, a peculiar narrowness of interpretation therewith became dominant… men became unanimous in the belief that the value of an action resided in the value of the intention behind it” (BGE 32). Here we see the shift from a causally ordered set of drives in man, to a more normatively ordered set.[7] Here also we see the development and dogmatic embrace of ideas of the self, the will, and the value-level only; in his attempts to understand himself, man created these philosophical terms as a sort of initial attempt at self-knowledge, but soon got swept up in them, losing track of our drives.

In its ambitions, the “moral period” was a monumentally important shift of perspective; however, he emphasizes that the “morality of intentions, has been a prejudice, a precipitancy, perhaps something provisional and precursory… but in any event something that must be overcome” (BGE 32). Man got bogged down in interpretations of the value-level alone, and forgot his original goal coming to know himself. Thus, Nietzsche believes, we have reached a time when we ought to return to this original goal, and invert our perspective once again: “ought we not today to have arrived at the necessity of once again determining upon an inversion and shift of values, thanks to another self-examination and deepening on the part of man – ought we not today to stand on the threshold of a period which should be called… the extra-moral” (BGE 32). Thus Nietzsche explains that we must overcome morality – i.e. life directed only at the value level – toward some further end. This is where Nietzsche’s new philosopher must begin to overcome himself: “the overcoming of morality, in a certain sense even the self-overcoming of morality: let this be the name for the protracted secret labor which has been reserved for the subtlest, most honest and also most malicious consciences as living touchstones of the soul” (BGE 32). We maintain our normative drive-ordering, but we have a new self awareness, a new knowledge of what our selves really are. Instead of stopping at the value level when interpreting our actions, we will now see the integration of the rank-ordered drives and the values.

Having overcome prejudices, what is next for the new philosopher, the self-overcomer?

We have now separated from the common prejudices of philosophers and modern human society in general, but we do not yet really know our drives explicitly. We know they are there and that they are what make up or very essence, but what do we do with that sort of vague awareness? Given all that we know about the way we ought not to treat our drives, we can now begin to make some educated preliminary guesses as to the nature of self-overcoming. It will ultimately represent a new relation to the drives that will result in a new and once again inverted perspective of our self, a new sort of self-knowledge. Consider the analogy Nietzsche offers: “The sage as astronomer. – As long as you still feel the stars as being something ‘over you’ you still lack the eye of the man of knowledge” (BGE 71).[8] Here we can see Nietzsche as identifying the man who reaches this new perspective on himself to be his ideal philosopher: the man of knowledge. This man of knowledge has an entirely new perspective on himself; a new more enlightened understanding of his internal composition. The drives are not something distinct from himself, nor is he distinct from his drives (just as the stars are not really above you but all around, for up and down are only relative terms). Instead, the man is the ordered drives, and the drives are the man. The man of knowledge knows that he is constituted by his drives and by the values dictated by their ordering. He can interpret his own behavior as a result of both levels of analysis. So how do we begin this process of coming to gain this new perspective on the drives? What does the true man of knowledge do?

Here we begin to enter very foreign ground, for as Nietzsche clearly explains, we have only ever really dealt in values, and never beyond them. Thus it is very difficult, if not impossible, actually to know the rank-ordered drives and to know what they are doing. Nietzsche describes this difficulty when he says “all that in [an action] which is intentional, all of it that can be seen, known, ‘conscious,’ still belongs to its surface and skin – which like every skin, betrays something but conceals something more” (BGE 32). We can only really see our values or our intentions, and upon close scrutiny we realize that they hint at the existence of drives lurking beneath; but ultimately they cover up the drives more than they expose them. Just overcoming the prejudices of philosophers does not suddenly reveal to us the drives; we cannot make a list of the drives and their rank-order. Because the drives are so hard to know clearly, the process of forming a more intimate understanding of them becomes very challenging; this is why the true man of knowledge, Nietzsche’s ideal, is such a rare and special achievement. It is this self-knowledge that will ultimately characterize Nietzsche’s ideal as a man of knowledge, a new, true philosopher.

So how can we hope to begin describing actual self-overcoming, when even those new philosophers have a hard time getting started? Nietzsche himself identifies the difficulty with describing the self-overcoming process when he says, “It is hard to be understood: especially when one thinks and lives gangasrotogati[9] among men who think and live otherwise, namely kurmagati[10] or at best ‘as the frog goes,’ mandeikagati[11] – I am certainly doing everything I can to be hard to understand myself!” (BGE 27). This passage suggests that the real issue with trying to describe self-overcoming has to do with a sort of translation error between the true man of knowledge and the common person; they live so differently, with such different fundamental perspectives, that they cannot even really communicate with one another. It is as if the common person simply would not understand the man of knowledge without having first begun to experience self-overcoming. He reiterates this point in the very next section, saying, “That which translates worst from one language into another is the tempo of its style, which has its origin in the character of its race, or, expressed more physiologically, in the average tempo of its ‘metabolism’” (BGE 28).

Thus, to say what he can about self-overcoming, Nietzsche must be clever. He must describe the process cryptically and artistically, and leave room for interpretation by the budding man of knowledge, for ultimately this ideal is so fundamentally personal that no one can communicate it to another person. Does this leave us hopeless to try and figure out what self-overcoming looks like unless we have begun the actual process? How could we begin if we literally do not know where to start, or what the process entails? We must remember, once again, that Nietzsche does discuss his ideal, even if only cryptically. There are clues to be found and, as before, we must pair those rare positive descriptions of his actual ideal with the more common descriptions of his anti-ideal.

What advice does Nietzsche offer the budding self-overcomer?

Having established the self-overcoming man to be the same as the “man of knowledge,” Nietzsche’s “new philosopher,” we can now read any passage where he speaks of his ideal man and recognize it as directly relevant to the process of self-overcoming. In BGE 26, Nietzsche directly addresses this very man, offering advice and describing the nature of his undertaking. He opens by explaining, “Every superior human being will instinctively aspire after a secret citadel where he is set free from the crowd, the many, the majority, where, as its exception, he may forget the rule of ‘man’” (BGE 26). This separation from the common human population is the evident consequence of escaping the prejudices of philosophers. It is a psychological separation, in that he understands himself and interprets his own and others’ behaviors differently from anyone else. The self-overcomer can no longer relate to the public who deal exclusively in values and thus, to fully escape them, he must pull out of their discourses. Indeed, any discussion to others of his endeavor to overcome himself will prove impossible and ultimately hinder his task: “Take care philosophers and friends of knowledge, and beware of martyrdom! Of suffering ‘for the sake of truth’! Even of defending yourselves! It spoils all the innocence and fine neutrality of your conscience” (BGE 25).

However, Nietzsche goes on immediately to warn that extreme isolation will actually undermine the new philosopher’s task: “if he continually avoids it and, as aforesaid, remains hidden quietly and proudly away in his citadel, then one thing is sure: he is not made, not predestined for knowledge… the study of the average human being, protracted, serious, and with much dissembling, self-overcoming, bad company… this constitutes a necessary part of the life story of every philosopher” (BGE 26). Here Nietzsche seems to be endorsing to the self-overcomer the very strategy of this paper – that of critically investigating negative ideals as a means of more fully understanding the positive ideal. Also here, we find Nietzsche explicitly listing self-overcoming as a central task to the new philosopher (further evidence for concluding that we might use any passage where he talks of the new philosopher as a description of self-overcoming).

But what is Nietzsche really recommending that the self-overcomer do during his periodic returns to the discourses of the regular population and common philosophers? Where must he look for insights? And what do those insights tell us about the ultimate end goal of self-overcoming? Nietzsche explains to the self-overcomer that, “cynicism is the only form in which common souls come close to honesty; and the higher man must prick up his ears at every cynicism, whether coarse or refined… whenever anyone speaks ‘badly’ of man – but does not speak ill of him – the lover of knowledge should listen carefully and with diligence” (BGE 26). This passage is a highly illuminating one for our investigation of self-overcoming. When the philosopher descends amongst the dogmatic discourses for clues about the drives, he ought to begin his search at their own self-criticisms. This echoes again the process of overcoming prejudices, but Nietzsche suggests that now the man of knowledge will be able to see more than just the prejudices to which mankind clings. Having previously identified the prejudices and having stepped back to think about them and eliminate their influence upon his own interpretations of behavior, the new philosopher will now be able to see beyond the prejudices and begin to isolate pieces of honesty concerning the drives that constitute peoples’ values. Where might he find those pieces of honesty?

The cynic, who ruthlessly criticizes man for his faults, tries to reduce a person to some base or uncontrolled motivations; furthermore, he generalizes his criticisms to the entire human population, boiling down all human beings to fundamentally the same simple and identically motivated creatures. The cynic speaks of man “as a belly with two needs and a head with one” (BGE 26). Cynics are those who “seek and want to see only hunger, sexual desire, and vanity, as though these were the actual sole motives of human actions” (BGE 26). So why listen to what the cynics have to say? This tendency of the cynic toward generalization and criticism of man and his values, as described by Nietzsche, in fact sounds very much like an analysis of man’s behavior at the level of drives. The cynic looks past values and past man’s professed intentions, to explain their behavior as determined or constituted by some unknown, uncontrolled, unintentional motivation; thus the cynic claims to know other people better than they know themselves, and further claims to know all of mankind as a base and amorally motivated species.

The cynical perspective is directly analogous to the sort of perspective the man of knowledge will begin to develop first toward others, and ultimately toward himself. Recall that the problem we arrived at after overcoming prejudices was the near impossibility of being able to know the goings on of the drive-level. But through practice, the drives can come to be known, or at least intelligently guessed. Thus the self-overcomer will observe the common man and analyze his behavior more intensively, using the cynic’s criticisms as helpful clues for peeling off the layers of behavioral analysis. Why does that man eat the cookie? A common philosopher might say simply because he is hungry. A cynic might say because he is fundamentally selfish and did not want to share, or that he has no control over his own hunger. Which of these explanations is more like the true philosopher’s? Clearly the cynic’s is a deeper explanation (though the cynic has only a crude and underdeveloped notion of the drive level). The true philosopher, through practiced observation of others and of himself, will slowly begin to develop the clearer awareness of the drives and thus practice and develop his own self-knowledge that is required for his ideal perspective.

Let me reiterate the difficulty of this task. It requires constant, rigorous examination and critical reflection. The philosopher must totally reinterpret the behaviors of men; every single behavior must be considered a deeper level that nobody else even knows to exist. It is a task of extreme independence. It is a private project of coming to know man and ultimately oneself more truly. One must have an extreme will to truth in order to begin this endeavor, and it is not for the weak or faint of heart.

Who is capable of overcome himself?

As one would expect, Nietzsche explains that, “Few are made for Independence – it is a privilege of the strong. And he who attempts it, having the completest right to it but without being compelled to, thereby proves that he is not only strong but also daring to the point of recklessness” (BGE 29). The self-overcomer must be brave enough to extend himself beyond good and evil, as described above, and he must be strong enough to stay that course of interpretation. But what sort of strength is this? Here we must return to Nietzsche’s views on human psychology, for the last time he discussed strength directly regarded the hierarchy of drives: “in real life it is only a question of strong and weak wills” (BGE 21). Thus we can imagine that the self-overcomer will have a set of drives uniquely arranged in such a way that he feels a sort of fundamental need to overcome himself. It will be a sort of genetic or predetermined disposition. Nietzsche endorses the fact that only some few men will have a predisposition toward self-overcoming when he says that, “Our supreme insights must – and should! – sound like follies, in certain cases like crimes, when they come impermissibly to the ears of those who are not predisposed and predestined for them” (BGE 30).

From where would this strength or predisposition to overcome oneself arise? It seems that there are three factors involved in determining the strength or weakness of a given set of drives. First of all, man is born with a uniquely causally ordered original set; different people will have different sets of drives with different relative and total strengths. Someone might have all very strong drives, someone might have all very weak drives, and other people will have more average levels of strength and weakness for each specific drive. Another factor involved in the budding self-overcomer is simple luck. Nietzsche confirms the relevance of luck explicitly, saying, “he is lucky, however, as a favorite child of knowledge ought to be” (BGE 26). He will have to be lucky in his original set order, and he will have to be lucky in the way that they develop. The idea of luck is thus related to the third factor: the development of the drives. At birth we do not have a normative order to our drives, but merely a causal order; infants do not have a capacity for values because their drives have not entered a mature state of political ordering. Thus, the rank-order of drives occurs through a process of development and experience. Only as a child grows older does he begin to possess values, which represent the external manifestation of a normatively ordered set of drives.[12] Nietzsche describes this very sort of developmental process when he says, “[I mean the drives] as a more primitive form of the world of emotions in which everything still lies locked in mighty unity and then branches out and develops in the organic process… as a kind of instinctual life in which all organic functions together with self-regulation, assimilation, nourishment, excretion, metabolism, are still synthetically bound together” (BGE 36).

This third factor begins to suggest a possible way of understanding self-overcoming, for if our drives do develop and change, then there is the possibility that we can consciously affect that change! To be more precise, the drives, which have now elevated themselves above the “fog” of external prejudices (BGE 44), develop the strength and ability to order themselves purposefully and much more freely. Once the prejudices are removed and once external restraint is lifted from them, the drives will be essentially liberated to determine themselves more autonomously. Again, great strength in the collection of the drives itself is required to attain this liberty, and further, to capitalize upon it: “Something might be true although at the same time harmful and dangerous in the highest degree; indeed, it could pertain to the fundamental nature of existence that a complete knowledge of it would destroy one – so that the strength of a spirit could be measured by how much ‘truth’ it could take” (BGE 39). This ties directly in with the idea that most people cannot even comprehend what self-overcoming would be, but instead, “What serves the higher type of man as food or refreshment must to a very different and inferior type be almost poison” (BGE 30). A weak soul – that is a weak set of drives – would perish given the ability of total autonomy, and “in the end it must be as it is and has always been: great things are for the great, abysses for the profound, shudders and delicacies for the refined, and, in sum, all rare things for the rare” (BGE 43).

What does the self-overcomer do?

It is important for us to remember that the drives and our external behavior are fundamentally united. Thus, this new desire of the drives to determine themselves more completely, and more autonomously will manifest itself as changes in our values and in our behaviors. The new philosopher’s desire to overcome himself is the expression of his drives’ decision to fundamentally change some aspect of their own political arrangement. But what precisely is going on at the drive level? To determine this, we must now adopt the strategy of the self-overcomer: looking at his actions and interpreting that behavior at the level of the drives. If we can find a description from Nietzsche concerning the external behavior of the self-overcomer, then we might begin to understand better what the drives are really doing. Ultimately we will end up with an understanding of the new philosopher, the self-overcomer, at both levels of interpretation – we will understand how he behaves, and we will understand what the drives are doing to determine that behavior.

Nietzsche characterizes the new philosopher with a highly informative epithet, and an enlightening contrast to the old philosophers. Nietzsche offers a stab at describing the new philosopher’s external behavior with a single title when he says, “These philosophers of the future might rightly, but perhaps also wrongly, be described as attempters. This name itself is in the end only an attempt, and, if you will, a temptation” (BGE 42). As an attempter, we understand the self-overcomer basically to be trying new behaviors or values. This idea of testing different values is reiterated when Nietzsche negatively characterizes the old philosophers, whose philosophies and values remain static and uncriticized throughout their entire authorship: “[Old philosophers] belong in short and regrettably, among the levelers, these falsely named ‘free spirits’ – eloquent and tirelessly scribbling slaves of the democratic taste and its ‘modern ideas,’ men without solitude one and all… good clumsy fellows who, while they cannot be denied courage and moral respectability, are unfree and ludicrously superficial” (BGE 44).

What does this attempting really amount to? Nietzsche offers an example of two behaviors that the self-overcomer ought to attempt at some point or another: “One must test oneself to see whether one is destined for independence and command; and one must do so at the proper time. One should not avoid one’s tests, although they are perhaps the most dangerous game one could play and are in the end tests which are taken before ourselves and before no other judge” (BGE 41). Independence and command can be seen as two values that a person might hold; and for Nietzsche to suggest that the self-overcomer must try out or attempt these values, suggests that what the new philosopher is really doing is experimenting with values. He reemphasizes this point when he explains that, “In the end it is not merely permitted to make this experiment: it is commanded by the conscience of method” (BGE 36). Thus the self-overcomer essentially has to undertake these experiments with his own values, and he has to attempt to behave in new ways according to new moralities. But where does this requirement come from? What demands this “method”? Here we must recall that all behavior represents a manifestation of the political order of the drives. Any change at the value or behavioral level indicates a change at the drive level. But what are the drives doing? And how does this differ from what goes on in a non-self-overcomer?

Recall that our values are dictated by the political elite of our drives. Thus, if at the macro-level the self-overcomer is attempting or practicing new behaviors according to different values, then those new behaviors and different values must really stem from a change in the political ordering of the drives. Let us consider another useful analogy to investigate how the drives and external behavior affect each other, in order to better understand the link between this value-attempting and drive-shifting. If we think about exercising or lifting weights, we see that the more time we spend exercising a certain part of the body, the stronger it gets; the parts of the body that do not get worked out, wither and weaken. This similar strengthening and weakening occurs amongst the drives. Any behavior we exhibit represents a decision made by the rank-ordered drives. When that decision is reached, then the drives that primarily contributed to that decision will be strengthened and earn a more politically powerful voice. They will have successfully lobbied for their chosen behavior to a nation of other drives, and their power of determination will become better established. As this drive gains more and more political influence through repeated exercise, the tendency of the person to act according to that drive’s chosen behavior will be strengthened into a sort of habit. Eventually, if the drive is strengthened enough, the person will find himself to be acting according to a new or different value due to the fundamental change in the political order of his drives.

Let us now examine more closely these changes at both the drive and the value levels the in order to more fully answer the question of what the self-overcomer really does. Basically there are some drives that never really have their will to power satisfied; nevertheless, their voices still shout out for recognition. Despite their minimal political clout, they still express their desired behavior. The political elite in the self-overcomer see these drives, and instead of being ignored further, the drives decide that perhaps this typically ignored drive ought to be given a chance. Consider for example someone’s drive to contradict his mother’s demands. Perhaps, through the self-overcomer’s behavioral history, this drive has rarely been allowed expression, and the person has always behaved in a way that placed his family’s interests above all else, as his mother wishes. But the self-overcomer’s strong and enlightened set of drives might decide that it is worth at least an attempt to permit this normally ignored drive recognition, just to see what happens, just to see whether or not this drive, in the end, might help satisfy many other drives’ wills to power. As this drive is given the political power to dictate the person’s behavior, the person will be seen as exhibiting a new sort of behavior. This behavior will be seen at the macro-level as attempting a new value. What precise value this will be, will differ from person to person, depending upon how that drive chooses to direct its behavior. But perhaps, in this individual, it will look something like valuing one’s friends more highly than one’s own family. As this behavior continues, this new habit will slowly develop into a full-fledged value. Simultaneously, as this new drive successfully expresses its will to power more often, it will slowly gain the status of a politically powerful drive. Thus the drives will have purposefully determined themselves in a new arrangement.

However, this does not mean that the self-overcomer ought to try any and every value. Instead, Nietzsche explains, “One must know how to conserve oneself: the sternest test of independence” (BGE 41). The drives must also take this warning to heart, for it seems that it could be very easy for them, once practiced in granting new and different drives political power, to begin letting any drive express itself merely for the sake of having more and more drives reach satisfaction. But Nietzsche warns against this sort of loss of control or careless indifference when he says, “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you” (BGE 146). Not every drive will or ought to reach expression. Indeed, just as important to the task of strengthening drives and inducting new ones into the political order (thus changing a person’s values), is the job of weakening other drives and censuring them from the political elite (which will also change a person’s values). The key to living this process of self-overcoming is that the politically ordered drives should never come to a static, uncritical, or dogmatic state. Instead, the drives should fuel their conflict and let certain ones gain expression while others are denied satisfaction. This continual, ever-critical process of self-determination at both the value level and the drive level is what truly characterizes the new philosopher; as Nietzsche describes, “certainly [these new philosophers] will not be dogmatists” (BGE 43).

How is self-overcoming a freedom?

Understanding this process of self-overcoming as a sort of purposeful self-determination or creation, we can now understand the fundamental difference between what a self-overcomer is doing, and what a non-self-overcomer does. At first this accomplishment does not seem terribly interesting or ideal, for it seems that everybody’s values and habits change over time as their drives reorganize themselves naturally. As people grow older, for example, they typically begin to value family and religion much more highly. So what is so special about the self-overcomer’s changing values? The key difference really originates in the self-knowledge learned by the new philosopher. Understanding one’s self as constituted most fundamentally by a hierarchy of drives enables the new philosopher basically to create himself. Without this self-knowledge, any change in one’s values will feel like they merely happen to a person. In the self-overcomer, however, these fundamental changes are not a passive occurrence, but an active self-creation. The self-overcomer can look at his own changing behavior and smile at the fact that his changing values are a sort of purposeful self-creation. The increasing sense of liberty that the drives begin to feel in their own ordering, will represent itself as a feeling of affirmation in the self-overcomer; he will recognize his own changing values and affirm this transformation as necessary to his own free development.

The new philosopher does not sit back and let his values change, but his drives purposefully and meaningfully order themselves, and the consequent values are intended and affirmed. This sort of authorship ties in closely with more typical ideas of freedom like agency and self-determination, but Nietzsche provides us with a much more thorough account of the possibility and execution of the freedom ideal.

He again contrasts this form of freedom, this process of self-overcoming, with the dogmatic philosopher and his outdated modes of freedom: “They too will be free, very free spirits, these philosophers of the future – just as surely as they will not be merely free spirits, but something more, higher, greater and thoroughly different that does not want to be misunderstood or taken for what it is not” (BGE 44). Nietzsche here suggests that the usual notion of freedom sells short the real form of freedom to self-create learned by the self-overcomer; this new version of freedom bears a significance that transcends a mere freedom to choose one’s own actions, or freedom to navigate a life plan. Instead, there is an extensive and continuous process of complex self-determination going on in the self-overcomer that one earns through persistent effort and practice at the level of the drives. Here we can again see that the essential key to differentiating oneself as a self-overcomer consists in Nietzsche’s model of self knowledge. Nietzsche himself reiterates this point, asking, “Is it any wonder that we ‘free spirits’ are not precisely the most communicative of spirits? That we do not want to betray in every respect from what a spirit can free itself and to what it is then perhaps driven?” (BGE 44).

Given this exposition of self-overcoming, we can now clearly understand Nietzsche’s conclusions about freedom laid out in the BGE Preface: “But we who are… free, very free spirits – we have it still, the whole need of the spirit and the whole tension of its bow! And perhaps also the arrow, the task and, who knows? The target…” (BGE Preface). The self-overcomer is the truly free man. The extreme tension of his spirit, the vehement and antithetical political nature of his drives and their conflicting wills to power create in this ideal philosopher the feeling of a need: the drives need to determine themselves autonomously and express themselves more completely. The new philosopher perceives this need of the spirit, this extreme will to truth, through a continual process of self-understanding. Given his set of tools, the bow and the arrow, the politically tensed drives and the self-knowledge of his essential unity with those drives, the self-overcomer finds himself free, very free, to create of himself his own ideal.

[1] Interestingly, Nietzsche uses the very word that he seems just to have eliminated from our vocabulary: “will”. Why would he do this? Probably, he uses the language of the dogmatists here in order that he might begin to explain his psychology to common philosophers using terminology that will be intelligible for them.

[2] Here we enter the realm of Nietzsche’s psychological views. Pippin suggested we ought to begin our investigation here, but strangely he never really did so himself. Thus, I will endeavor to lay out Nietzsche’s understanding of human psychology in much more detail than does Pippin, and I will ultimately form the basis of my account for self-overcoming upon these investigations.

[3] Regarding the important issue of the ‘will’ discussed above, Dudrick and Clark mention that, “[the fact] that this rank order constitutes who the person is seems to fit well with Nietzsche’s insistence that there is no “’being [or single will] behind the doing”” (14).

[4] This analogy is a helpful way of understanding the interactions of the drives, but one must bear in mind that it is meant simply as a helpful image. This is not to suggest that our person is constituted by a number of little internal persons. But applying the idea of an intentional stance to drives can help us better understand the will to power motivating the drives, and the way in which the drives order themselves.

[5] Again, remember that this does not imply that our “self” does not actually exist. Nietzsche merely wants to remind us that that self is constituted by the rank-order of our drives.

[6] He continually condemns the philosophers who write books and profess their own “truths” in books, as if proselytizing their own value systems in the hopes of gaining loyal followers and with the intention of mere self-aggrandizement. (E.g. BGE 30, 39).

[7] This connects with the development of the “bad conscience” discussed by Nietzsche in the Genealogy of Morals.

[8] This perhaps harkens, ironically, to Kant’s professed Copernican Revolution of Philosophy, in which he claims to have fundamentally altered the philosophical perception we have of ourselves and of the world.

[9] Gangasrotogati: as the Ganges flows, i.e. fast. (

[10] Kurmagati: As the tortoise moves, i.e. slowly. (ibid.)

[11] I would guess that this means something like “in spurts.”

[12] In BGE 31, Nietzsche identifies this development as he tracks the maturity of valuations from youth to adulthood.