Friedrich Nietzsche and free will

Friedrich Nietzsche and free will

The 19th-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche is known as a critic of Judeo-Christian morality and religions in general. One of the arguments he raised against the truthfulness of these doctrines is that they base upon the concept of free will.



In The Gay Science, Nietzsche praises Arthur Schopenhauer's "immortal doctrines of (...) the a priori nature of the causal law (...) and the unfreedom of the will"[1], which have not been understood enough. Following is the short description of his views.

The law of causality

Schopenhauer argued that the law of causality is the basis of all our intellectual capability. We call X a necessary condition for Y; Y cannot happen without X. And all necessary conditions taken together make a sufficient basis (a cause): if there is no lacking condition for Y, Y must happen.[2]

The law of causality, or ex nihilo nihil, states that everything has a cause, except for The Whole[citation needed] (the universe, the universe plus God, etc.). This law (that everything has a basis from which it springs) cannot be negated, because the negation thereof would then be another law: "out of nothing something can arise" (e.g. as a rule of quantum chaos). Thus arises the quandary that the law of causality might exist apart from causation of the whole (i.e. universe), which would effectively negate the entire law. The law of causality must, by definition, refer to all things, without exception, lest it become a self-defeating law.

Physical freedom

In his On the Freedom of Will, Schopenhauer calls the fact that we can do whatever we will a physical freedom, i.e. lack of obstacles, which does not mark moral freedom.[2] "Free" here means: one acting according only to one's will; if we try to use it to the will itself, we ask: "is will itself willed? do you want your will to become such-and-such?". This question appears in Nietzsche's Zarathustra, e.g. in the chapter "Backworldsmen".[3]

Chance vs necessity

In his On the Freedom of Will, Schopenhauer draws a distinction between necessity and chance.[2] He calls necessity an implication from a sufficient cause (i.e. something that is known already – if we know that the sufficient cause is present). An event is called random (relatively to some sufficient basis) if it does not follow from this basis. As freedom means lack of necessity, it would mean a lack of any sufficient cause, i.e. absolute randomness (a chance).

It is therefore the question of whether something depends on another thing (i.e. is in some way determined by it) or does not depend on anything (then we call it a chance). Or, in other words, whether something can be predicted, whether it is already known for sure (because of the sufficient cause), or not. Compare Luther's argument, where everything is a necessity because the Creator knows it already. And, on the other side, chance in all languages is defined "that what cannot be predicted"[4].

Nietzsche's analysis

Power of will

In Beyond Good and Evil, 21[5], Nietzsche criticizes the concept of free will both negatively and positively. He calls it a folly resulting from extravagant pride of man; and calls the idea a boorish simplicity. The latter probably relates to ordinary-man's visions like there is a God which (after the ellapse of eternal waiting) creates the world and then waits and observes (being, however, still "beyond time"): and then he is surprised and subdued by what I do (and well, I am too!). (This vision is brought up by Nietzsche in The Antichrist, sect. 48).

Next, he shows that it represents an error of causa sui (X is a cause of X – whereas "cause" should mean something beyond):

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 more than Munchausen daring, to pull oneself up into existence by the hair, out of the slough of nothingness.

Finally, he suggests that the only real thing about will is whether it is strong (i.e. hard to break) or weak:

The "non-free will" is mythology; in real life it is only a question of strong and weak will.

Nothing is (nor can be) fully resistant to stimula, for that would mean it is unchangeable: whereas nothing in this world is or can be unchangeable[6]. He therefore continues Schopenhauer's question of "whether you will, what you wanted to will".

Men generally agree that will is power. "Freedom" of will then in fact means: power of will (see argument from The Antichrist, 14). Will has power over actions, over many things; therefore, things are determined by will. But is this power unlimited? Does a will rule without being ruled itself? Does a Christian want to sin? – Nietzsche disagrees. A godless man becomes pious as a "grace", he did not want it; and likewise a pious man becomes godless without any merit or guilt. Nietzsche suggests in many places that if a pious man becomes godless, it is because of the power of his values, of the will for truthfulness...

"Me", will, and chance

Will is something that determines man's acts, thoughts etc. It is will what makes man reluctant to toss a coin for something (see The Antichrist, 44, about Christians: "in point of fact, they simply do what they cannot help doing"). The problem is, whether it is itself ruled? And here there are two terms which complicate the picture: the term "me" and "chance" (i.e. something independent from anything, uncontrollable).

The term "me" (as in sayings "it's up to you", "it is you who wants things") is already recognized as empty in the preface of Beyond Good and Evil (or as connected with the superstition about the soul). Later, Nietzsche states more clearly that it is a tautology ("what will I do? what will my decision be?" – "it's up to you" – that actually means: your decision depends on your decision, something happens in your mind and not somewhere else...). See e.g. On the Genealogy of Morals[7]:

For, in just the same way as people separate lightning from its flash and take the latter as an action, as the effect of a subject which is called lightning, so popular morality separates strength from the manifestations of strength, as if behind the strong person there were an indifferent substrate, which is free to express strength or not. But there is no such substrate; there is no "being" behind the doing, acting, becoming. "The doer" is merely made up and added into the action – the act is everything. People basically duplicate the action: when they see a lightning flash, that is an action of an action: they set up the same event first as the cause and then yet again as its effect. (...) "We weak people are merely weak. It's good if we do nothing; we are not strong enough for that" – but this bitter state, this shrewdness of the lowest ranks, which even insects possess (when in great danger they stand as if they were dead in order not to do "too much"), has, thanks to that counterfeiting and self-deception of powerlessness, dressed itself in the splendour of a self-denying, still, patient virtue, just as if the weakness of the weak man himself – that means his essence, his actions, his entire single, inevitable, and irredeemable reality – is a voluntary achievement, something willed, chosen, an act, something of merit.

The same, however, can be applied to the moral weakness of a Christian (his lack of resistance), who would certainly prefer not to sin and would construct himself otherwise if he could. "And many a one can command himself, but still sorely lacketh self-obedience!"[8] – Nietzsche criticizes the idea of "free choice", and even of "choice" (see the end of above quotation): man does not want to "choose", man wants to affirm himself ("will to power").

Next problem is the role of chance. Unless the change brought to us is big enough, a chance is generally responded by will, wherever there is will. He calls it "the redemption (of chance)". This topic is to be found as early as in Human, All Too Human[9], and it returns in many places of Zarathustra. For example in part 3 it is discussed as follows:

I am Zarathustra the godless! I cook every chance in my pot. And only when it hath been quite cooked do I welcome it as my food.
And verily, many a chance came imperiously unto me: but still more imperiously did my Will speak unto it (...)[10]

Earlier in this part: "The time is now past when accidents could befall me; and what could not fall to my lot which would not already be mine own!"[11]

To cut it short, if it was always that "we choose a chance", then there would be determinism (for "we", "we ourselves" means: our will and its filtering and determining capabilities). And if it happens otherwise ("a chance chooses us"), then there is indeterminism. But the latter case means we have no will in a topic, i.e. it is at that time morally indifferent to us, adiaphora, not against anything (and therefore even more there is no guilt).

What is unfree will?

If people talk about free will, then it is certainly some restricted reality (if "freedom" meant "everything", there would be no need for a separate word). What follows? That there must be events external to one's freedom: therefore, besides "free will" there should also consequently be "unfree will". Although Nietzsche considers both terms entirely fictional, he gives some clues about the psychological reality behind them:

The states of power impute to a man a feeling that he is not the cause, that he is not responsible for them — they come unwillingly: and thus we are not the doers — unfree will (i.e. awareness of a change done to us, without former willing from our side) needs some foreign will.[12]

In short, an unexpected change. Now, going back to the already-mentioned definition, chance means: that what cannot be predicted. If randomness affects man (unsubjugated, reaching even the surface of his consciousness), then it is "unfree will". Therefore, wherever we call something free, we feel something free, in short: wherever we feel our power, it is deterministic, it is a necessity. And indeed Nietzsche says it with the mouth of Zarathustra:

Out into distant futures, which no dream hath yet seen, into warmer souths than ever sculptor conceived, — where gods in their dancing are ashamed of all clothes: (...)
Where all time seemed to me a blessed mockery of moments, where necessity was freedom itself, which played happily with the goad of freedom:[13]

The same in Beyond Good and Evil:

Artists have here perhaps a finer intuition; they who know only too well that precisely when they no longer do anything "arbitrarily," and everything of necessity, their feeling of freedom, of subtlety, of power, of creatively fixing, disposing, and shaping, reaches its climax — in short, that necessity and "freedom of will" are then the same thing with them.[14]

The world is semi-deterministic

Yet in another part of Zarathustra Nietzsche claims that when we look long-term enough, and from the bird's-eye perspective of supreme powers big enough, a chance is unimportant, because it is ruled and step-by-step softened and arranged by natural laws and necessities, which constitute the order of the world and evolution:

If ever a breath hath come to me of the creative breath, and of the heavenly necessity which compelleth even chances to dance star-dances: (...)[15]

To Nietzsche everything in this world is an expression of will to power (see BGE, 36). To exist is to represent will to power, to cause influence (compare similar views of Protagoras' disciples in Plato's Teaitet). One can cause influence only on something that exists. Therefore (through induction), an act changes everything from that moment onwards. If one thing was otherwise, everything would have to be otherwise (and generally also backwards). Contrary to Chesterton's views, this general rule is not affected by chances: they of course change the world course too, but still: if one thing was set otherwise, everything would have to be otherwise.


Because causa sui is nonsense, even a chance has a cause (only the whole has no cause), and it is "divine dice" (or "Divine Plan"):

If ever I have played dice with the gods at the divine table of the earth, so that the earth quaked and ruptured, and snorted forth fire-streams: –
– For a divine table is the earth, and trembling with new active dictums and dice-casts of the gods: (...) [15]

To Nietzsche, no-one is responsible either for the necessities (laws and powers) he represents, or for chances he encounters (which conquer him unwillingly – and which, as things totally independent from anything, only the "supreme being" could change); after all, noone is absolutely and completely resistant, there can always happen something which changes you deeply enough.

From Twilight of the Idols:

What alone can our teaching be? – That no one gives a man his qualities, neither God, nor society, nor his parents and ancestors, nor he himself (the latter absurd idea here put aside has been taught as "intelligible freedom" by Kant, perhaps also by Plato). No one is responsible for existing at all, for being formed so and so, for being placed under those circumstances and in this environment. His own destiny cannot be disentangled from the destiny of all else in past and future. He is not the result of a special purpose, a will, or an aim, the attempt is not here made to reach an "ideal of man," an "ideal of happiness," or an "ideal of morality;" – it is absurd to try to shunt off man's nature towards some goal. We have invented the notion of a "goal:" in reality a goal is lacking . . . We are necessary, we are part of destiny, we belong to the whole, we exist in the whole,–there is nothing which could judge, measure, compare, or condemn our being, for that would be to judge, measure, compare, and condemn the whole . . . But there is nothing outside the whole! – This only is the grand emancipation: that no one be made responsible any longer, that the mode of being be not traced back to a causa prima, that the world be not regarded as a unity, either as sensorium or as "spirit;" – it is only thereby that the innocence of becoming is again restored . . . The concept of "God" has hitherto been the greatest objection to existence . . . We deny God, we deny responsibility by denying God: it is only thereby that we save the world. –[16]

Nietzsche's conclusions

About man and freedom

In The Antichrist, 14, Nietzsche argues that man should be treated no otherwise than as a machine. And if we add some general chaos (randomness) to the image, that doesn't change anything. A chance involves no obligation (A 25, near the end).

He points both to the weakness of man and of God. Man wants the good, "God" wants the good, and yet evil happens. So where is this "freedom" (i.e. power) of will? And where is this good God?

About good and evil

These two are mixed and interdependent. Good causes the evil, and evil causes the good. See e.g. the Aftersong in BGE, or "The Seven Seals", 4, from Zarathustra. The dichotomy between God and the devil is a "dualistic fiction"[17].

About organized religion

Religion is about controlling people: one human-machine wants to achieve power over another. Even the term "freedom", very often used by the priests, in its positive sense actually means "power". Religion is by no means more "fulfilling the will of God" than anything else. As God is primary and almighty, his will is by definition always fulfilled (it is impossible that he wills something and it is not fulfilled).

A priest, a prophet, a moralist only rules, and by no means does anything for men's "salvation". For what could he do? Knock at a chance?

If Jesus came to rule, and at the same time were the "Son of God", it would be senseless, because God rules everything anyway. – But he said: "I haven't come to be served".

(This argument is raised in The Antichrist, where he portrays Christianity as the corruption of original doctrine taught by Jesus of equal rights for all to be children of God, the doctrine of no guilt, no gulf fixed between God and men).

The whole "freedom" is invented by the priests in order to master the process that takes place in the machine called human brain – nothing more. And in order to master it, they have first to denaturize it (A, 26).


  1. ^ The Gay Science, sect. 99, trans. W. Kaufmann.
  2. ^ a b c See Schopenhauer's On the Freedom of Will, c. 4, where he quotes Thomas Hobbes.
  3. ^ Thus spake Zarathustra, "The backworldsmen", tr. T. Common.
  4. ^ Dictionary meanings of "chance"
  5. ^ Beyond Good and Evil, sect. 21, tr. H. Zimmern
  6. ^ Twilight of the Idols, c. 3, sect. 2, tr. W. Kaufmann.
  7. ^ On the Genealogy of Morals, , tr. W. Kaufmann.
  8. ^ Thus spake Zarathustra, tr. T. Common, "Old and new tables", 4.
  9. ^ See Human, All Too Human, tr. R.J. Hollingdale, sect. 173, under the topic: Corriger la fortune (to correct a chance).
  10. ^ Thus spake Zarathustra, "The Bedwarfing Virtue", 3.
  11. ^ Thus spake Zarathustra, "The Wanderer".
  12. ^ The Will to Power, Book II ("Critique of highest values hitherto"), I. Critique of religion, 1. Genesis of religions, §135, where he shows the notion of "unfree will" as crucial to religious explanations (such as actions of gods or spirits).
  13. ^ Thus spake Zarathustra, "Old and new tables", 2.
  14. ^ Beyond Good and Evil, sect. 213.
  15. ^ a b Thus spake Zarathustra, "The Seven Seals", 3.
  16. ^ Twilight of the Idols
  17. ^ The Antichrist, 17.

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