Are Free Spirits Too Free for the Liberal Order?

I’d like to begin by congratulating Prof. Pittz on his new book, Recovering the Liberal Spirit: Nietzsche, Individuality and Spiritual Freedom. As I understand it, his book is the occasion for this exchange on the (revised) question: what do free individuals do for a society? Because my work on Nietzsche is the reason I have been asked to contribute to the conversation, I will focus my remarks on Nietzsche and the role his concept of a free spirit plays in Pittz’s essay and argument.

For those familiar with Nietzsche, the question up for discussion might seem foreign or even misstated. Nietzsche rarely asks what great individuals can do for society but rather what society can do for the flourishing of great individuals. Moreover, if a defining feature of liberalism is its emphasis on limited government and individual rights, a cursory reading of Nietzsche’s works suggest that he is either silent about or even hostile to such notions. Nevertheless, Nietzsche’s works express multifarious views and they have been subjected to a wide range of interpretations. Thus, there might be a case for thinking that Nietzsche has something to contribute to liberalism and that, as Pittz argues, Nietzsche’s conception of a free spirit can benefit a free society.

In contrast to his book, Pittz says relatively little about Nietzsche in the essay. Instead, his focus is on a general notion of spiritual freedom, and he argues that spiritually free individuals not only give meaning to the liberal freedoms we enjoy, they also provide a valuable “bulwark against spiritual and political oppression.” Nevertheless, Nietzsche’s project does play a significant role in the essay. According to Pittz, Nietzsche’s notion of a free spirit provides us with a concrete example of what the abstract notion of spiritual freedom can be.

What is the free spirit? Pittz assures us that Nietzsche’s free spirit is not like the popular version found in modern culture, as “one who lives an alternative lifestyle, an escapist, one who refuses to follow the basic rules of social convention.” Although I think Nietzsche’s own life is a lot closer to this version of the free spirit than Pittz admits, one can certainly find the alternative picture of the free spirit Pittz presents in Nietzsche’s writings. Specifically, Pittz argues that the genuine free spirit is a skeptic concerned with avoiding dreams and illusions, all the while overcoming any despair that might emerge from a confrontation with reality.

Human, All Too Human, the first of Nietzsche’s free spirit works, provides significant evidence for Pittz’s claims. Appealing to the likes of Voltaire and Descartes and embracing the cold and sober methods of the natural sciences, Nietzsche sets out in the work to purge himself of any false beliefs he may have about nature, morality, religion, and art. In this way, he cuts through the comforting illusions to which most of us cling. At the same time, the free spirit maintains “a good temperament,” one that avoids judgments about the value of existence and takes pleasure in truth seeking and scientific discovery.

The free spirit also detaches herself from politics, society, and even family. Nietzsche sketches this process in the second half of Human, and in the final chapter he presents himself as “a wanderer” alone in the desert of knowledge. Pittz, too, notes that free spirits will stand in opposition to society. However, he also claims that a “free spirit experiences and exercises spiritual freedom within the norms and conventions of the society in which the live.” In my view, Pittz is downplaying some of the more radical aspects of Nietzsche’s free spirit project, not to mention Nietzsche’s later emphasis on solitude, thereby making the free spirit more social than Nietzsche would have her be. Even in Daybreak, the second of the free spirit works, Nietzsche calls upon the free spirit to engage in “little deviant acts” that openly defy the reigning customs of the day.

Pittz’s account of the free spirit, however, does not rely on Nietzsche alone. Instead, he appeals to thinkers such as Mill, Tocqueville, and Emerson to explain how the free spirit resists conformity and the tyranny of the majority. According to Pittz, the free spirit serves as a bulwark against spiritual and political oppression. The idea is that spiritual and political oppression often result from the masses uncritically accepting the dogma of political leaders and the whims of society. Those who are spiritually free check these tendencies, effectively serving as guardians of freedom against the alleged ills of collectivism. They do this through their skeptical outlook and the actual practice of freedom.

Although his argument enjoys support from the aforementioned thinkers, one might question the rosy relationship Pittz paints between spiritual freedom and the benefits free individuals provide for society. Although Nietzsche situates his own free spirit project within this tradition, Nietzsche adopts views as the free spirit project unfolds that put pressure on Pittz’s argument. Moreover, the free spirit project is, on my reading, merely a propaeduetic to Nietzsche’s later works in which he presents ideas and archetypes that threaten the liberal order Pittz wants to protect.

The problem that Nietzsche’s free spirit project poses for Pittz’s argument emerges when the skepticism of the free spirit is turned toward the very principles that ground and support liberalism itself. Although the free spirit might grow from the seedbed of liberal freedom and a culture of Enlightenment, there is no guarantee that the free spirit will remain committed to the ideals and principles that make the free spirit possible. Indeed, the free spirit might come to see liberalism itself as just another dogma or mass delusion from which one needs to be liberated, and I think Nietzsche’s free spirit holds just this.

The same can be said for the truth-seeking skepticism that Pittz attributes to the free spirit. Although the free spirit works begin with this general ethos, I have argued that the free spirit works effectively enact a self-overcoming of the idea that we must, as an ethical imperative, seek truth at all costs. In Daybreak, Nietzsche sets out to eliminate the prejudices of morality, and this culminates in Nietzsche’s proclamation of the death of God and the elimination of his shadows in the third book of The Gay Science. On one reading of the death of God, Nietzsche is trying to eliminate our commitment to a moral egalitarianism that persists as a shadow of God. On my reading, Nietzsche is providing a subtle critique of the idea that unrestrained truth-seeking, which drives the initial phases of the free spirit project, is a moral obligation. As Nietzsche explains in the fifth book of The Gay Science, the idea that truth has an absolute value is itself a moral prejudice or “shadow” that depends on the existence of God. Once we no longer believe in God, the truth-seeking project of the Enlightenment loses its obligatory force. As a result, the free spirit can now embrace both truth and “untruth” or “lies,” and Nietzsche does this in the name of an aesthetic affirmation of life or what Pittz might call a quest for spiritual fullness. In this sense, the cold and sober skeptic of Human is supplanted by the philosopher-artist in Nietzsche’s later works.

On the reading I defend, Nietzsche’s free spirit is not the end point or telos of his philosophy. Instead, the free spirit works are a “plowshare” used to prepare the soil for the projects he pursues in his later works. In other words, the free spirit is a mere precondition for the task of becoming who one is and affirming life through art forms associated with the Greek god, Dionysus. The difficulty that this poses for Pittz’s argument has to do with the conceptions of both philosophy and politics that emerge in Nietzsche’s later works. In the second book of Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche presents a philosopher of the future that both emerges from and goes beyond the free spirit project. Later in the text, we learn that this philosopher is also a commander and legislator, one who expresses her will to power by saying “thus it shall be.” Although this is much disputed terrain, the text suggests that this successor of the free spirit will hardly be a guardian of the liberal order. Instead, there are reasons for thinking that the philosopher of the future is in some way affiliated with what Nietzsche calls “great politics,” a concept that ostensibly has more affinities with authoritarianism and empire than any form of liberal society or liberal freedom.

If Pittz’s goal is to show how someone pursuing spiritual freedom could benefit a liberal political order, I think he succeeds. There are a range of figures from Socrates to Kant and Mill who can readily be invoked to support this project both through their ideas and the lives they led. It is also true that elements of Nietzsche’s philosophy can be seen as supporting this ideal, most notably in the early stages of the free spirit project. The problem, however, is that Nietzsche consciously constructs his free spirit works to show how the ideals of the Enlightenment, when taken to their proper conclusions, lead to what are seemingly illiberal conceptions of philosophy and politics. Thus, if Pittz’s goal is to argue the stronger claim that those who pursue spiritual freedom will, by nature or even some necessity, benefit liberal society and protect liberal freedom, then Nietzsche’s own thinking might provide a powerful counterexample that Pittz needs to address.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Steven Pittz describes spiritual freedom as a kind of intellectual freedom that is concerned chiefly with achieving spiritual goals. In a liberal society, a free spirit may also stand as a bulwark against oppression, provincialism, and mindless conformity. As a result, those who are willing to rethink their society’s received wisdom are both vital and often persecuted.

Response Essays

  • David Owen offers two challenges to the claim that spiritual freedom is necessary for a free society: First, he suggests that voluntary associations and value-coalitions will naturally emerge in a free society and break up social despotism all on their own. The free spirit may not be all that necessary. But in his second challenge, he argues that it could be the case that free spirits do best with a degree of perhaps paradoxical social support, especially in the areas of education and the media, which are crucial to the production of free spirits and the spread of their ideas and examples.

  • The free spirit—unbound by social norms and received ideas—may or may not be an asset to liberalism, says Matthew Meyer. The fearless investigation of norms and ideas may lead an individual to reject liberalism itself. Meyer argues that, on a careful reading of Nietzsche, that philosopher’s free spirit ideal may even have more of an affinity with authoritarianism and empire than liberals like Steven Pittz would like to admit.