To Matthew Meyer on Nietzsche’s Relationship to the Liberal Order

Is it appropriate at all to use Nietzsche’s ideas in defense of liberalism? This question seems to be at the heart of Matthew Meyer’s response essay, and I will try to answer it, along with some of Meyer’s specific reservations, without getting too thick into the weeds of Nietzsche scholarship. After all, Nietzsche was openly hostile to liberal institutions, particularly in his later period, and many of Nietzsche’s preferred human types, as Meyer notes, possess decidedly illiberal characteristics. In fact, I largely agree with Meyer’s interpretation of Nietzsche, yet still believe that the free spirit is both a helpful and eligible notion for thinking about liberal freedom. Meyer also notes the possible, perhaps probable, tension between free spirits and any firm ideals and principles, including liberal ones. I will also try to address this issue, after making a case for using Nietzsche in the first place. Those readers who have no interest in scholarly debates about Nietzsche may want to skip the next three paragraphs.

The reason I use Nietzsche, as I stress repeatedly in the book, is that I think we can discuss the free spirit without always referring to Nietzsche himself. I borrow Nietzsche’s description, but I also revise and expand it as well in an attempt to conceptualize spiritual freedom. I do not try to paint Nietzsche as a liberal, which cannot be justified textually, and indeed acknowledge his critique of liberalism at multiple points of my argument. I focus solely on his free spirit, and I extrapolate and discuss the characteristics of a spiritually free human being using Nietzsche as a helpful guide. Many Nietzsche scholars would deem this an improper practice, claiming that one cannot separate the free spirit from the rest of Nietzsche’s work (perhaps this is my own “little deviant act”?). I chose this approach because Nietzsche gives us a richer description of spiritual freedom than any of the more liberal thinkers that Meyer notes from my book (Mill, Tocqueville, Emerson). Those thinkers do well to show us what is possible for individuals in liberal age, and what a liberal person is like, but when it comes to analyzing the spirit or soul (or to use a more contemporary term, the psyche), Nietzsche is simply a heavier hitter. I am drawn to Nietzsche, as many other readers are, because of his spiritual/psychological depth, and his ability to reach individuals directly and at times personally using his aphoristic style. The liberal Mill, as much as I admire him, is often too reserved and even anodyne in his writings to represent a bold spiritual dimension to liberalism. This is my clumsy motivation for using Nietzsche, in any case, and his figure of the free spirit provides more opportunity to contemplate spiritual freedom, whether in a liberal age or not.

All that is not to sidestep Meyer’s concerns. They are rightly put forth, and anyone familiar with Nietzsche would have similar questions about my approach. In general, I think my way of reading Nietzsche shares much in common with Meyer’s, both from reading his response essay and his published work (I have not, however, had the opportunity to read Meyer’s 2019 book on the free spirit, so my comments here reflect that ignorance). I will try to address a few of his particular concerns here. First, as Meyer notes, Nietzsche’s works are often separated into an early, middle, and later period, and the free spirit works occupy the middle period, when Nietzsche casts a more favorable eye at scientific discovery and stripping away comforting illusions in the pursuit of truth. Skepticism permeates these middle works, and thereby permeates the figure of the free spirit as well. This skepticism (along with cheerfulness), married to a strong preference for independence and solitude, leads the free spirit to seek detachment from society, to carve a space for him or herself outside of societal pressure, norms, and so on. In his later period, Nietzsche clearly moves beyond such detachment, not least in the development of other archetypal humans, such as the philosopher of the future, the übermensch, and the “genius” in Twilight of the Idols. These later types do not simply interrogate and destabilize the values and norms of their time, they create new values and actively seek to impose new values on society (they are “commanders” and “legislators”, as Meyer observes). This act of creating and imposing new values takes them well beyond detachment, and they play an active role in overthrowing liberal values themselves, according to Nietzsche. Thus, I focus my analysis on the free spirit, while acknowledging the differences of these later types. While I agree with Meyer about Nietzsche’s move beyond the free spirit, I don’t agree with his claim that the free spirit is “merely a propaedeutic to Nietzsche’s later works” and is therefore superseded by the later types. As I have not yet read Meyer’s book on the free spirit, I cannot adequately evaluate or respond to this issue. But I can remark that Nietzsche’s praise of Goethe as a model free spirit (and “genius”) in a work as late as Twilight of the Idols is just one piece of evidence I put forward that he considered the free spirit a choice-worthy human type (among others) until the end. I make a more thorough case along these lines in the book, but whether or not Nietzsche remained in favor of free-spiritedness, I submit that we should.

In a similar vein, I’m not sure I agree with Meyer’s claim that the free spirit project is marked, in its initial phases, by “unrestrained truth-seeking”, and that when Nietzsche moves beyond truth-seeking and realizes the importance of “untruth” (as he often reminds us, the truth is terrible!) he has also moves past the free spirit. On my reading, the free spirit is more connected to skepticism than truth-seeking. There is an admiration for scientific discovery and even empiricism in Human, All Too Human, but this is never severed from deep skepticism—as skepticism is what drives the will to discover. I think skepticism permeates Nietzsche’s works throughout all 3 periods, allowing that it is illuminated most in the middle period (I’m inclined to follow Jessica Berry in this regard, who situates Nietzsche in the ancient Pyrrhonist tradition of skepticism). In any case, however, the take-away is that the free spirit is not so different from the aforementioned “philosopher-artist” types of the later period as to render them unrelated. I see as the main difference that the free spirit remains detached from the norms, conventions and values of his time (“fearlessly hovering over them”), but the free spirit does not seek to create new values and impose them on others. It is this difference that makes the free spirit much more compatible with liberal principles, and therefore a much better model for spiritual freedom.

Nevertheless, there is tension between the free spirit and all ideals and principles, including liberal ones. Meyer is absolutely right in suggesting that free spirits may come to see liberalism as just another dogma or mass delusion. Moreover, free spirits, untethered as they are from norms and conventional morals, may also be pesky disruptors or even dangerous (might not some terrorists and criminals fit the criteria of a free spirit?). Perhaps, as Meyer’s title suggests, free spirits are simply too free for the liberal order. There are several reasons, however, to doubt that this is the case. First, I contend that, generally, the tension between free spirits and society is beneficial, even if some free-spirited behavior seems illiberal in nature. This tension dispels societal myths, punctures widespread illusions, and simply stirs the pot of public discourse in important ways. As well, liberal society does place limits on such behavior. The question of what to do about bad or dangerous free spirits is answered, in my view, by the liberal harm principle. Society cannot allow free spirits to harm others in their quest for independence, but it ought to allow them maximum freedom otherwise (of course, what constitutes harm is a controversial affair these days, but my view is of the classical liberal variety, which focuses primarily on physical harm).

Second, it’s important to distinguish the arenas of culture and politics, or political institutions. The concern that many political theorists have about Nietzsche and his work is that it threatens to topple political institutions. The ways of the free spirit fit into this. But I think that most of the resistance to established values and norms, for Nietzsche and the free spirit, comes in the arena of culture. True political revolutions are rare, but free spirits are always contesting, doubting, questioning, rejecting, and destabilizing the dogmas of their time. The vast majority of this activity comes in areas of life below or outside the political: in the broader culture, within associations, within families and peer groups, at workplaces, and so on. Part of a well-functioning and plural civil society is frequent contestation of norms in these areas, and this can and should happen within a liberal political framework. When it comes to interpreting Nietzsche, this is also a point of debate. Many political theorists who work on Nietzsche attempt to make sense of his “political project”. I don’t think Nietzsche had a full-scale political project, but rather assorted thoughts on politics. My view is that Nietzsche’s insights and criticisms were most often aimed at culture generally, and I don’t see convincing evidence that he had a specific type of political revolution in mind; a revolution that would overthrow liberalism and replace it with some neo-aristocratic order (which, again, is not to suggest he was pro-liberalism—he clearly preferred many aristocratic forms to those of democratic equality).

Third and finally, I argue that there is a way to be free spirited and liberal at the same time. This method again turns on the divide between liberalism in practice or in theory, or practice and dogma. Political philosopher John Gray distinguishes between liberalism as a practice and liberalism as dogma, and he argues that the practice of liberalism is the much more resilient of the two. Gray argues that the skeptic (which he calls the “political Pyrrhonist”) is suited to the liberal project because “he will not engage in the vain project of constructing a liberal doctrine,” but will instead “protect the historical inheritance of liberal practice from the excesses of an inordinate liberal ideology.”[1] In other words, one need not dogmatically adhere to liberal or Enlightenment ideals, or any ideals at all, in order to be a liberal in practice. The general characteristics of the free spirit seem to me quite liberal in nature, and they represent something closer to the standard of genuine liberality than to its deviation. Indeed, I believe that a general expansion of spiritual freedom in society would lead to an expansion of genuine liberalism and a stronger appreciation for the liberal project as a whole. Unfortunately, we live in an age when this is desperately needed.


[1] John Gray, Liberalisms: Essays in Political Philosophy (London: Routledge, 1989), 264.

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.