About this Issue
Friedrich Nietzsche’s ideal of the “free spirit” offers a distinct vision of what freedom could be. What does it offer a liberal society?
Readers not up on their Nietzsche don’t need to worry; lead essayist Prof. Steven Pittz of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs offers both a helpful guide to one of the philosopher’s most evocative ideas—and an argument about how the free-spirited individual stands to benefit the society around him. Replying to his essay will be Prof. David Owen of the University of Southampton and Prof. Matthew Meyer of the University of Scranton, each of whom will have a somewhat different approach to the question. We will then feature an open discussion among the participants.
The conversation will continue and the comments will remain open for the coming month.
What Use Has Society for a Free Spirit?
What do free individuals do for a society? I am grateful for the opportunity to answer the question, as I also explore this theme in my own work, principally Recovering the Liberal Spirit: Nietzsche, Individuality and Spiritual Freedom (SUNY 2020). This question also compels us to talk about freedom in a somewhat unusual way. That is, rather than focusing on the liberating effects of rights and liberal institutions, we will focus more on the lived experiences of individuals in society. We do this by contemplating what I call spiritual freedom, which I consider a species or category of liberal freedom. The discourse on freedom in liberal societies is usually dominated by questions of economic and political liberty. These categories are undoubtedly important, and I do not mean to suggest that liberty lovers should cease discussing and defending economic and political liberties. But freedom extends past economic and political dimensions; it extends to our spiritual life. Spiritual freedom is an additional category of liberal freedom, which does not supplant but instead complements the economic and political liberties that we enjoy in the West.
I define spiritual freedom as intellectual freedom plus a concern for spiritual fullness. In the book I explain these terms in detail, but here I will provide just a brief sketch. Intellectual freedom is a good that almost everyone—and all liberals—are wont to affirm. If we are not intellectually free, then our thoughts are not our own, and our thoughts are not self-generated—we are prisoners to the thoughts of someone or something else. We might be in the grips of ideology or under the spell of an authoritative figure, but in any case our minds are not free to gain knowledge independently. Spiritual freedom contains intellectual freedom—which is often tied to the ideals of the Enlightenment—within it. Yet it further contains a concern for spiritual fulfillment. To be spiritually free is not as desirable as being spiritually full. Spiritual seekers pursue some sort of satisfied, or full, spiritual state. I call this a state of “spiritual fullness.” This sketch of spiritual freedom is quite abstract, and to make it more concrete I describe the free spirit, the embodiment or model of spiritual freedom. A free spirit is someone who is both intellectually free and one who pursues spiritual fullness on his/her own terms.
Who are these free spirits? After all, “free spirit” is a bit of a hackneyed term in modern culture, as they appear in Hollywood movies, pop culture and the vernacular. The “free spirit” tends to be portrayed as one who lives an alternative lifestyle, an escapist, one who refuses to follow the basic rules of social convention. They refuse to face “reality,” they are disenfranchised by the “system,” they cannot or will not work a “regular” job, and often they dabble in mysticism. In short, the popularized “free spirit” is generally taken to shun the “real world,” and to live instead in a world of dreams, illusions, and mystical intuitions.
The free spirit I discuss is quite different from the popularized “free spirit.” He is precisely concerned with avoiding dreams and illusions. Our free spirit is not an escapist; rather, he is concerned with avoiding the common pitfalls of escapism. Our free spirit, which borrows much from Nietzsche, is a skeptic who seeks above all to be free of illusions about the world. He desires to interact with the world on his own terms, and using his own faculties. Free spirits are skeptics, and here we see the emphasis on independence of mind or intellectual freedom. Our free spirit is also remarkable in the way she pursues meaning and fulfillment in her life, namely in her quest for spiritual fullness. She is able to face reality without falling to despair. Free spirits welcome a world without obvious rational meaning and without authoritative doctrines. These are a cause for wonder rather than crushing doubt; as an invitation to create meaning rather than as a terrifying abyss. The free spirit affirms life and creates value in it—that is, she achieves spiritual fullness—through independent discovery and through aesthetic perspective (which I will not discuss here for brevity’s sake), as opposed to traditional perspectives such as communal or religious doctrines, or through belief in a teleological human progress of some sort. Consequently, a free spirit is likely to be detached, to a large degree, from the traditions, morals, and general ethos of the community in which she lives. They wish to be free from custom and convention; free from groups and associations, and communities, that interrupt their solitude and create harmful attachments; and free from dogmatic claims to truth and authority.
Free spirits, then, will always be to some degree opposed to society as it exists around them. They require detachment from many things that others believe in and value most highly. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that they are often treated with suspicion by the majority of people. As thinkers like Mill, Tocqueville, Emerson and others have observed, society (particularly democratic society) doesn’t like difference. Conformity is the norm, and independent individuals are pressured in myriad ways to go along, at times even threatened. Emerson pithily explains this tension between society and “independent spirit”: “Society, to be sure, does not like this very well; it saith, Whoso goes to walk alone, accuses the whole world; he declares all to be unfit to be his companions; it is very uncivil, nay, insulting; Society will retaliate.” There will always be tension between free spirits and society, but this tension is not merely adversarial. Each needs the other, for reasons we can just briefly discuss here. Free spirits are free compared to others in society; one is more or less spiritually free than others in a relative, not absolute, sense. Moreover, the independence of mind and aesthetic perspective characteristic of the free spirit are aspirational rather than permanent, and they admit of degrees (i.e., some are more spiritually free than others, and individuals themselves are more or less free at different times). Thus, a free spirit experiences and exercises spiritual freedom within the norms and conventions of the society in which they live, in what is an ongoing process of acceptance or rejection of what society presents to them.
But why does society, which views such individuals with suspicion, need free spirits? In short, because they are a bulwark against spiritual and political oppression. Such oppression may take the form of political propaganda, which free spirits will clearly resist, internally at the very least. In modern liberal democracies, the power of public opinion requires a check. Free spirits are consistently resistant to public opinion and the putative authority it can possess. Many political thinkers, such as Hume, Tocqueville, and Mill have cautioned liberal societies about the dangers of public opinion. Modern liberal societies are often not, in practice, as tolerant of freedom of thought as they are in theory. Tocqueville warned of the democratic “tyranny of the majority”; Hume worried that a politics of opinion would be run by parties running on extreme, and especially abstract, speculative principles that were in reality merely prejudices. And Mill: “Protection against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough; there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling, against the tendency of society to impose…its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them.” He continues, “there is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence; and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs as protection against political despotism.” Free spirits have a role to play here: they demonstrate how intellectual and spiritual freedom in theory—i.e., freedom of thought protected through political rights—also becomes intellectual and spiritual freedom in practice. It is not merely the skeptical outlook of the free spirit that checks oppression, it is the way in which they live. Their independence, stubbornness, and resistance to social pressure in many forms provide a visible alternative to conventional norms. I stress this practice of spiritual freedom, perhaps obnoxiously, because the freedoms we do enjoy in the West are worth very little without exercise. We too often take for granted our freedoms, when they only reap rewards if we use them. A remark by Soren Kierkegaard makes the point plain, “aren’t people absurd! They never use the freedoms they do have but demand those they don’t have; they have freedom of thought, they demand freedom of speech.” Genuine freedom is something we all must continually work towards—it is aspirational.
I hope this brief sketch of the free spirit does justice to the idea, and I look forward to an opportunity to answer whatever questions come from readers and the other contributors to this forum. To conclude, I have suggested here that one important way to answer the question of what freedom does for a society is to look at the effects that genuinely free individuals have on that society. On the one hand, the lived experience of free spirits clarifies and expands what freedom can mean for us, as it evinces the aspirational quality of independence of mind and spiritual fullness. On the other hand, these same free individuals demonstrate these qualities and resist the power of conformity and the putative authority of public opinion. In so doing, they provide a check on dogmatism and fanaticism, and they loosen the knot of ideology. Put differently, what freedom does for society is enables the individuals within it to achieve spiritual freedom—these individuals in turn demonstrate and protect genuine independence of mind, supporting and furthering the freedom of society. These effects of free individuals seem to me beneficial in any age, but are perhaps even more necessary over the last century and to the present. The catastrophic damage caused by the mass movements of the 20th century, both fascist and communist, point emphatically to the need for independent figures willing to resist the growth of collective ideology, like our free spirits. Today, illiberal movements on both the left and the right are forming rigid ideological doctrines and seeking to enforce conformity to them through a variety of methods, some more coercive than others. Individuals willing and able to resist these forces—to remain spiritually free despite great pressure to go along with the crowd—are crucial to the maintenance of a free society and should, in my view, be encouraged and admired. My humble goal in writing about spiritual freedom is to clarify what these individuals do for society and remind the rest of us why we should be grateful for them.
Finally, I wish to re-iterate the complementary, even symbiotic, nature of the categories of liberal freedom mentioned at the beginning of the essay. I focus on spiritual freedom, but insist also on the importance of more recognizable categories of freedom as part of a sort of liberal recipe. Our economic freedoms (freedom to work, engage in contracts, etc.) and political and civil freedoms (First Amendment protections, due process, etc.) combine with spiritual freedom to constitute genuine individual liberty (as I see it, economic, political, and spiritual freedom are all necessary, but not sufficient, conditions for the proper exercise of each other). This liberal combination is a robust and sophisticated recipe for freedom, and remains the greatest intellectual defense that lovers of liberty have against a whole host of political theories and movements that seek to diminish or eliminate the freedom of individuals.
 Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson (EWRWE) ed. Brooks Atkinson (New York: Penguin/Random House, 2000), 87.
 John Stuart Mill, On Liberty ed. Gertrude Himmelfarb (New York: Penguin Books, 1981), 63.
 Soren Kierkegaard, Either/Or: A Fragment of Life trans. Alastair Hannay (London: Penguin Books, Ltd., 1992), 43. At the time of Kierkegaard’s writing, Denmark was still a monarchy, and freedom of speech was not a protected right.
On Free Spiritedness
Steven Pittz’s plea for liberal attention to spiritual freedom and his account of the significant role that free spirits may play in a liberal polity belongs to a strain of liberal thinking encompassing Emerson, Thoreau, Tocqueville, and Mill, to which Nietzsche, at least in his middle period, has significant affinities. What unites these thinkers is the view that the very success of liberalism in realizing political and economic liberties creates the conditions of a further threat arising from within the free realm of civil society. Liberal society, as they might put it, is haunted by the spectre of social despotism exercised through the power of majority public opinion expressed as sanctionable social norms. Such a rule of conformity is both a form of liberal unfreedom in that it obstructs the formation and expression of free individuality—and a medium through which the wider liberties of the liberal state may be undermined or bypassed (for example, by demagogues mobilizing public opinion).
It is against this background that Pittz’s contention resonates that free spirits—who exhibit the (aristocratic) virtue of independence of mind within a commitment to spiritual fulness—are valuable and necessary figures for sustaining liberal society. Free spirits are thus conceived as a defense against the rule of conformity, against both the direct threat of social despotism and its use as a medium to support or enable political despotism, because they are personally resistant to propaganda and customary norms, and because they serve as visible exemplars of “living in freedom” (as we might put it). Spiritual freedom—or free spiritedness—then looks like a disposition that liberal society requires to sustain itself.
Although (or perhaps because) I am sympathetic to Pittz’s view, it is worthwhile considering a counterargument. This argument would contend that free spirits aren’t necessary to liberal society because living in a free society enables individuals to take up plural conceptions of the good and supports the emergence and flourishing of diverse voluntary associations based on shared interests or values as well as a plurality of political parties that express different value-coalitions. The claim here is that these forms of plurality dissolve the threat of social despotism through majority public opinion because they obstruct the formation of any stable majority view, and they do so in part because the diversity of voluntary associations and the plurality of political parties means that these bodies perform a functional role equivalent to that of free spirits in challenging the social norms and political ideologies of other groups. Why, then, would we need free spirits?
There is, I think, some force to this argument. Voluntary associations will typically be alert to those social norms that potentially limit or threaten their interests and values, and a diverse plurality of such associations is likely to help provide checks on the ability of any association (or groups of associations) to shape public opinion into a despotic power. However, I would submit, the force of this claim is limited by the fact that we have prudential reasons based on the history of liberal societies to doubt that their diversity and plurality is always effective as a counter to the power of majority public opinion—and, in such contexts, free spirits are needed. Consider, for example, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, which played a central role in launching second-wave feminism in the United States by exposing “the problem with no name,” that is, the ways in which the oppressive power of patriarchal social norms functioned by making women feel there was something wrong with them in being unfulfilled by a purely domestic life as wife and mother. Or consider the essays of James Baldwin, so central to the continuing struggle for African American equality, which exposed and dissected the everyday operation of pervasive racist norms in American social life. The lives and works of such thinkers as exemplifications of free spiritedness illustrate how important this disposition is to the challenge of liberalizing society, and perhaps especially of liberalizing a society that already takes itself to be liberal. In such contexts, free spirits play the crucial role of displaying another way of relating to one another, of dispelling the myths that such societies want to tell themselves, and of exposing civic audiences to truthful recountings of their national histories and current conditions. A liberal society needs to be able to face its past and its present with honesty, to acknowledge its graces and disgraces, and yet this is something that nation-states, liberal or not, seem to find it hardest to do.
But how is this disposition of free spiritedness to be generated and reproduced in a liberal society? This question arises because the presumption behind the strain of liberal thinking that Pittz draws on is that free spiritedness cannot be supposed to be a spontaneous product of a liberal political order; if it could, then the concerns expressed by Emerson, Thoreau, Tocqueville, and Mill would be redundant. Rather these thinkers suppose that liberal society needs to cultivate and sustain a culture that supports the valuing of free spiritedness. How is this to be accomplished?
There are at least two components that are crucial to the generation of free spiritedness as a feature of liberal culture. The first concerns education and the cultivation of the disposition of free spiritedness. The second concerns the public sphere and the conditions of responsiveness to free spiritedness.
For Nietzsche, a key component is an education system that differentiates between what we might call “liberal education” and vocational training. The former is focused on cultivating the skeptical disposition, intellectual capabilities, and courage for truth required for sounding out idols and contesting customs, whereas the latter is oriented to enabling individuals to earn a living. It was already apparent to Nietzsche in the context of Bismarck’s newly formed German national state that education was being oriented to serve the needs of the state and that the Gymnasium and the University, formerly the sites of genuine education, were now machines of what we might call “flexible vocational training” for government service and the “liberal” professions. The modern state as a provider of public education funded through general taxation has strong utilitarian reasons to favor vocationally oriented education over liberal education and to subordinate culture to the ideological legitimation needs of the state. In this context, the role of universities in sustaining liberal education becomes key and, hence, the importance of maintaining the independence of universities from the state (and particularly from full dependence on state funding) in order to resist the external pressures of the “employability” agenda, in which liberal education is judged against vocational standards (“How much do graduates of Classics earn after graduation?”). This is not to say that free spiritedness is limited to graduates of a liberal education, but rather to say that the valuing of liberal education in the education system and most visibly at universities plays a central role in sustaining the cultural commitment to the disposition of free spiritedness and the material conditions for its reproduction. A culture that values liberal education will also value institutions such as public libraries that make the materials of a liberal education available to all and an organization of social life that ensures that there is sufficient leisure time for individuals to have real, rather than merely notional, access to such materials.
Free spirits can, however, only perform their idol-dispelling role under conditions in which they can make their voices public and in which their arguments are not simply ignored. The publicity condition requires that a liberal society is characterized by a diverse and plural media environment. Such a culture will resist concentrations of media ownership as a threat to liberal society. The uptake condition entails that this environment is characterized, at least in part, by a commitment to intellectual conscience, to the force of the better argument, not merely to pre-determined editorial lines or partisan positions. A basic respect for facts, however inconvenient they are for one’s own views, is a fundamental requirement for such an environment.
As these brief reflections on education and public media suggest, free spirits do not come free—and the demands of a culture of free spiritedness have implications for the arrangement of civic institutions and of economic life that are liable to stand in tension with the logic of the modern state, which is concerned with its own ideological legitimation, and with the logic of a capitalist economy, which is concerned with its rate of profit. In this respect, though, sustaining free spiritedness entails enacting limits on the modern state and on the capitalist economy that social liberals should endorse anyway. The price of a liberal society is vigilance against the threats that the state and the capitalist economy pose to liberal freedom and while spiritual freedom may, as Pittz argues, complete the idea of liberal freedom by adding another dimension to economic and political liberties, the cultivation of free spiritedness also puts constraints on the expression of these liberties.
But here I think it is important to pause to note a feature of the argument that I have developed thus in relation to Pittz’s concern with spiritual freedom, namely, that my remarks have really only focused on the instrumental role that the practice of independence of mind plays in a liberal society, and Pittz’s idea of spiritual freedom appears to encompass more than this. Free spirits are on a quest for spiritual fulness for Pittz, but what this spiritual fulness consists in remains somewhat unclear. It seems plausible that the relevant notion is that of realizing one’s genius (in Emerson’s terms) or “becoming what one is” (in Nietzsche’s), which we might gloss in terms of embracing life as a challenge, of challenging oneself to develop one’s capacities (and particularly one’s capacity for directing one’s own agency) and of challenging conventions and customs that would limit one’s ability to shape one’s life. Such an ideal is demanding—and can be variably realized as Pittz notes—but its relationship to the cultivation of independence of mind is clear. If I have grasped Pittz’s point correctly, the claim is that it is only if liberals endorse this ideal as an intrinsically valuable form of life that liberal society gets the instrumental benefits that free spiritedness brings. But is this an ideal for everyone? And how are those who are not attracted to (or simply reject) this ideal viewed in a liberal society? Pittz acknowledges that free spirits will stand in an agonistic relationship to society, but doesn’t this require that free spirits are, as Nietzsche supposed, the exception rather than the rule? And doesn’t a culture than promotes and values free spiritedness thereby devalue those who embrace tradition and conformity? How exactly is a liberal society to privilege the ideal of spiritual freedom while acknowledging that this is an ideal that only a few will be able to exemplify fully? For those like myself who are in sympathy with Pittz’s claim concerning the vital role that free spirits play in a liberal society, these questions cannot but be pressing.
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.
To David Owen on Free Spirits, the Liberal Temperament, and Liberal Education
In his response essay, David Owen presents a counterargument to the question of whether society needs free spirits, as well as offering insights into how spiritual freedom might be cultivated in a liberal society. On the whole, there seems to be more agreement than disagreement between myself and Owen, but I will take this opportunity to address some of the issues he raises.
First, the argument that liberal society already promotes value pluralism, and that voluntary associations provide diversity enough to challenge powerful social norms and political ideologies, is one that looks different in theory than in practice. I strongly support voluntary associations and hope for genuine pluralism—like all liberals—but also have doubts about their efficacy in combatting norms and dogmatism in practice. Conformity within groups is certainly as strong, often stronger, than conformity at the level of society (would anyone suggest that fraternities and sororities promote independence of mind?). Thus, free spirits are needed within groups as well. I suspect that on this point Owen agrees, and his mention of figures like Betty Friedan and James Baldwin is illuminating. Both liberal society and the plurality of associations within it need individuals who challenge their norms and susceptibility to groupthink. Relevant here, as well, is the distinction I make in the book between liberal institutions and liberal culture. Liberal institutions, including freedom of association, provide the political framework for pluralism and for spiritual freedom. A free spirit should have no need, in my view, to revolt against liberal institutions. Liberal culture, on the other hand, is prone to the same suffocation of spiritual freedom as any other regime (some, Nietzsche and perhaps even Tocqueville and Mill, would argue the problem is more acute in liberal societies, where many wrongly believe they have “achieved” freedom and no longer need to guard it). The free spirits’ role, then, is to check these ever-present tendencies of liberal culture to stifle genuine independence.
I was grateful for Owen’s discussion of cultivating spiritual freedom and the conditions necessary for it to be accepted in liberal society. I do, however, think that we must consider Nietzsche’s focus on the will when we think about the emergence of free spirits. A proper liberal education is a strong support for spiritual freedom, but for Nietzsche I don’t believe it is decisive. Whereas Mill and Tocqueville subscribe to a view of the independent spirit consistent with the ideals of the Enlightenment and the use of one’s reason to arrive at knowledge independently, Nietzsche identifies temperament and an uncommonly strong will as key components of the exceptional individual. Unpacking this idea of Nietzsche’s is complicated, as one must analyze and disentangle several exceptional types that Nietzsche discusses (free spirit, philosopher of future, ὔbermensch, genius). I suspect that any readers who are not Nietzsche scholars have little interest in such an unpacking, so I will refrain from attempting that here (although I am sure both Professors Owen and Meyer could have much to say on that subject, and I welcome any comments they may have outside of this forum). Suffice it to say here that the free spirit is marked by an unusual temperament, one that is not primarily cultivated through education (which is not to say education has no effect on it). For Nietzsche, they are stubborn, skeptical, and cheerful by temperament and they desire above all other pursuits to remain in a condition of independence.
Thus, while I agree with Owen’s emphasis on a genuinely liberal education, and support its ability to encourage spiritual freedom broadly, I also argue that free spirits are simply out there—in various domains and possessing differing degrees of the characteristics of spiritual freedom, to be sure—and that their presence demonstrates spiritual independence to others. This notion connects to Owen’s later query about whether free spirits are, as Nietzsche contends, the exception rather than the rule. The short answer is yes, but this does not preclude all individuals from working towards spiritual freedom. As I argue in the book, “despite our liberal “rights” to thought, speech, and expression, true independence of mind is a rarity in our society…it is not the norm but the exception. The norm is borrowing thoughts others have generated, and if we are honest, we are all guilty of this from time to time. It takes hard work to form one’s own opinions and to actualize independence of mind—it is a goal we ought to aspire to, not something which we automatically possess once we are provided with a corresponding ‘right’.” Free spirits model the pursuit of genuine independence of mind, showing others the possibility of detaching from widespread norms and conventions.
I will conclude by briefly addressing one more issue that Owen raises, namely what precisely consists in the quest for spiritual fullness. On this point I fear I cannot answer in a satisfactory manner, partially due to the limited space available and partially due to the multitudinous ways in which one might approach spiritual fullness. I claim no ability to either pinpoint the nature of spiritual fullness or to exhaust all the options for its pursuit. Owen suggests the independent development of one’s capacities—away from the conventions and customs that would limit such development—in the manner in which both Emerson and at times Nietzsche prescribe. I would be a fool to reject such a noble ambition, but I approach the question of spiritual fullness differently. In the book, I focus on aesthetic experience as a path to fullness (with the adjoining argument that independence of mind loosens the hold of authority upon us, opening a space for wonder and aesthetic experience in general) and present it as a positive orientation for a free spirit, who otherwise is often in a detached or negative stance relative to the conventions of society. This idea clearly requires much more development to be convincing, but I will leave it at that for now because any attempt in this short space will likely raise more questions than it answers.
Yet I still wish to emphasize the importance of spiritual fullness, in whatever way one might pursue it, to theorizing about liberalism. It seems to me that almost all liberals—from classical liberals and libertarians to Rawlsian liberals—have become accustomed to emphasizing economic and political liberties when they promote or defend liberalism. As necessary as that endeavor is, it leaves a gap through which critics of liberalism push the idea that liberal individuals are lost and spiritually empty. They point to the loss of connection to community, to other sources of meaning (tradition, religion, family, etc.), and to the general spiritual isolation of the modern liberal individual (as an aside, I do think isolation is increasing, but I believe that is due much more to the ubiquity of the smartphone than to any form of political organization or as a result of any political philosophy). In short, liberals are “atomized” and spiritually empty. The idea of spiritual fullness as a component of spiritual freedom is meant to push against such criticism. There is a spiritual dimension to liberal political philosophy as well as a positive orientation for liberals to go along with their “negative” liberties, and I think liberals need to develop these more. I have no illusions that I have precisely resolved this issue or even offered the best way for liberals to do this, but I hope it is a start.
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.” 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.
 John Gray, Liberalisms: Essays in Political Philosophy (London: Routledge, 1989), 264.
The Free Spirit and the Vocations
In his essay and his initial reply to my response, Steven Pittz is at pains to emphasize that there is a spiritual dimension to liberalism and that our understanding of liberal freedom is incomplete unless it incorporates spiritual freedom alongside economic and political freedom. He is, of course, aware that he is not the first to make this claim—and here I want to go back to perhaps the first major inheritor of Nietzsche’s reflections on spiritual freedom and amor fati, namely, Max Weber. What is interesting about Weber for our concerns is that he shares the view that liberalism must, if it is not to die off, have what Pittz calls a spiritual dimension and one that can be related to the free spirit in Nietzsche’s sense, but that Weber locates the demands of such spiritual freedom in terms of the idea of ”calling” (Beruf) that he elaborates in his two great essays ‘Science as a Vocation’ and ‘Politics as a Vocation’. In each of these essays, Weber articulates the external and internal demands of the vocation, the requirements of “personality” (which is the gloss on spiritual freedom), as the distinct conditions of amor fati in each value-sphere.
A modern liberal political order is also an order in which one must choose between different value-orientations—the scholar, the politician and the artist, to pick the most obvious three, each commit themselves to an ultimate value that is incompatible with the alternatives, and which imposes its own inner demands as well as different external demands given the disparate organisation of science, politics and art in the modern state. In this way Weber sought to reconcile Nietzsche’s vision of free spirits with the sociological character of the modern capitalist bureaucratic state.
I introduce Weber into this discussion because I want to ask whether Pittz would endorse this approach to thinking about spiritual freedom in a liberal political order or whether his free spirits are to be seen in more purely aesthetic terms. My point here is that one might argue that the kind of aesthetic experience that Pittz aligns with the free spirit is the experience of seeing one life in terms of an ultimate value that foregrounds certain features and activities over others. It is in large part the value-orientation that “gives style to one’s character.” The importance of Weber is that he recognizes that such commitments are not solely composed of those inner demands that so excited his young audience but require affirming the mundane, tedious, and often dispiriting tasks that go along with being, for example, a scholar in a modern university or a politician in an age of party democracy. For the scholar, on Weber’s account, this means—despite whatever temptations may exist to the contrary—separating one’s work from one’s personal politics.
While I remain sympathetic to Pittz’s view that spiritual freedom matters for liberal society, the example of Weber brings into focus the point that an account of spiritual freedom in modernity has to wrestle with both the pluralism of values and the institutional make-up of modern social life.
Will a Free Spirit Be a Liberal Spirit?
I want to thank Steven Pittz for his thoughtful comments on my response essay. He addresses a number of my concerns, and he provides much to reflect upon. That said, I think he slightly misreads my argument and my main concern with his thesis. Specifically, my main worry is not, as he claims, whether it is “appropriate at all to use Nietzsche’s ideas in defense of liberalism.” As I state in my initial response, there are resources in Nietzsche to do this, and Pittz rightly finds them in the early phases of Nietzsche’s free spirit project. Instead, my initial worry was this: depending on the precise nature of his claim, his thesis is either obviously true or potentially false. The thesis is obviously true if Pittz’s claim is that a free spirit with a critical-skeptical mindset, perhaps like Socrates, can help sustain and support the liberal order. In contrast, if Pittz’s claim is that free spirits or critical-skeptical thinkers will necessarily sustain and support the liberal order, then Nietzsche could be understood as a prominent counterexample that Pittz needs to address. In this sense, his thesis is potentially false.
After reading Pittz’s response, I think he can be understood as charting a middle ground between these two unsavory options: free spirits will tend to benefit the liberal order and sustain liberal society. Thus, the connection between liberalism and free spiritedness is neither a mere conceptual possibility nor a matter of necessity; instead, it’s the claim that critical-skeptical free spirits who resist the trends and fashions of the day will often, but not always, benefit the liberal order. Because this is a tendency of free spirits, it is still possible to have illiberal or bad or even dangerous free spirits, and the question is what to do about these. Here, Pittz begins his response by addressing this question head on: He points to the liberal harm principle that prohibits such free spirits from harming others in their quest for spiritual freedom. So far so good.
Pittz goes further with his response. What if the ideas of a free spirit like Nietzsche threaten political institutions, as some have worried? Pittz counters this by doubting whether Nietzsche had such a political project and distinguishing between the political and the cultural, arguing that most free spirits destabilize dogmas in the cultural realm but do so within a liberal political framework. In response, I worry about making such a sharp distinction between culture and politics, and I don’t think that Nietzsche needs to have a positive political project to cause problems for liberalism and therefore for Pittz’s argument. For instance, Pittz argues that “society” cannot allow a free spirit to violate the liberal harm principle. But what if free spirits like Nietzsche undermine society’s commitment—by way of influencing the beliefs of individuals that make up society—to the very principles that support the liberal harm principle? In short, what if these “bad” free spirits become culturally dominant? It is hard to see how they wouldn’t have a corrosive influence on liberal institutions and the ability for society to uphold and enforce something like the harm principle.
Pittz concludes his remarks with an attempt to show how one can both be a free-spirited skeptic and a liberal at the same time. To do this, Pittz distinguishes between liberalism in practice and liberalism as dogma, and he argues that one can be a liberal in practice without being firmly committed to liberal dogma. Again, I have no doubt that it is theoretically possible to be both a liberal and a free spirit. Indeed, the kind of dogma-free, practice-based liberalism Pittz sketches here reminds me of the sort of the foundationless, pragmatic liberalism Richard Rorty would espouse. On this view, to be a liberal—and here is a variant of the harm principle—is simply to believe that cruelty is the worst thing one can do: No grand narratives about freedom, equality, and human rights are required.
In his closing lines, Pittz subtly moves from a claim about the mere compatibility between free spirits and pragmatic liberalism to the stronger claim that the “general characteristics of the free spirit” make it “quite liberal in nature.” Although this is the kind of claim that Pittz needs in order to respond to my overarching concern, his claim here depends on a fairly narrow notion of what the free spirit is or can be. If it turns out that the free spirit is one of a Pyrrhonian flavor, then Pittz is probably right: apolitical Pyrrhonian skeptics, like Epicureans or even Cynics, will fit well with, or at least not undermine, the liberal order.
However, I fail to see why the quest for spiritual freedom tends toward this sort of skepticism. It’s clear that a critical attitude is necessary to liberate oneself from inherited beliefs and cultural dogmas, but it is not clear that this liberation will result in the sort of suspension of judgment that the Pyrrhonian skeptic advocates. In Nietzsche’s case, it is true that he advocates a suspension of judgment about the value of life at the end of the first chapter of Human, All Too Human, but, as I noted in my initial remarks, he later praises the free spirit who actively undermines customs and customary beliefs in a work like Daybreak (the second main work of the free spirit trilogy). In short, the idea that Nietzsche remains some sort of apolitical Pyrrhonian skeptic, even during the free spirit works, is dubious, and thus Nietzsche himself provides an image of the free spirit that differs from the one Pittz presents.
But even if Nietzsche did provide an image of the free spirit that is in line with Pittz’s characterization, I think it’s clear that the quest for spiritual freedom or fulness will not necessarily result in a form of Pyrrhonian skepticism and a corresponding pragmatic liberalism. In short, for Pittz’s argument that the free spirit will tend to support the liberal order to work, he needs, at the outset, to place limits or constraints on what the free spirit will become. In my view, once the free spirit breaks the chains of convention and escapes the cave of convention, there is no telling, in advance, where the quest for spiritual freedom will lead. She could become a hardline Platonist, a Pyrrhonian skeptic, a devotee of Dionysus, or even discover some new human possibility, and for this reason, it is hard to say, in advance, whether such a free spirit will be well disposed toward liberalism or not.
Some Final Replies to Owen and Meyer
I would like to begin this final reply by thanking Professors Owen and Meyer for their thoughtful comments on my initial essay. I also thank Jason Kuznicki at Cato for the opportunity and for so expertly managing the conversation. In this brief response I will not be able to address all that Owen and Meyer proffer in the way of criticism, but I am sure that their ideas will help shape my continuing work on these themes in the near future. For that I am especially grateful.
Professor Owen urges that we consider the importance of a “calling” and of evaluating our lives in terms of an “ultimate value” when we discuss spiritual freedom. I’ll confess that, after reading and re-reading Owen’s remarks, I am still struggling to find a satisfactory approach to this issue. On the one hand, the notion of spiritual fullness requires connection to something outside of ourselves, some source of meaning and attachment. Committing ourselves to a value that orders our lives and helps us “become what we are” certainly fits the bill. On the other hand, emphasizing such commitment or the idea of a “calling” when evaluating spiritual fullness also moves us away from understanding spiritual freedom as a category of liberal freedom.
When I talk about spiritual freedom, I couch it primarily in terms of negative liberty (I’m thinking there of Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between positive and negative liberty). I think of it more as freedom from social pressures than as freedom to pursue a particular spiritual life. This is not to say that I don’t also discuss the potential positive orientations of a free spirit, but I choose not to over-determine what these orientations might be. I am wary of using the language of positive liberty—thinking of our freedom in terms of our possibilities or capabilities of achieving certain ends—because I believe it devalues the importance of individual choice and underestimates the number of ways that individuals might pursue spiritual fullness. It also tends toward a rank ordering of ultimate values, something that Nietzsche wants to do more than I do, and of course he also thought that liberal orders destroyed higher values and ways of being. I depart from Nietzsche here, as I am less gloomy about the possibilities for spiritual pursuits in the liberal age. I think the spiritual dimension of liberalism is weak and ought to be fostered and grown, but Nietzsche seems to find this dimension of liberalism irredeemably barren.
All that said, I am sympathetic to Owen’s claim that spiritual freedom requires hard choices and real commitments. It cannot be easy aesthetic pleasure and escaping societal pressures all the time. I personally find Nietzsche’s claim that we must find meaning in and affirm our suffering to truly affirm life to be something of an existential truth. As Owen notes, we must be able to affirm the “mundane, tedious, and often dispiriting tasks” that go along with our personal commitments. However, I’m not sure that we should emphasize these ethical questions when we talk about a liberal category of spiritual freedom. That is the best response I can muster, while recognizing that I might not be following Owen’s line of reasoning all that closely. I’d welcome any further comments he has on these issues (outside of this forum, of course).
To Meyer I might start by thanking him for articulating my approach more clearly than I have: yes, my view is that free spirits will tend to benefit the liberal order. Moreover, it is this beneficial consequence that warrants the risks inherent in the promotion of spiritual freedom, which Meyer lays out for us and which I will attempt to address. Before I do, however, my quick answer to the warning that free spirits are not certain to stay within the bounds of the liberal order is simply this: it is worth the risk.
Meyer is certainly right that spiritual freedom might result in destabilization of liberal principles themselves. I rely on the harm principle to protect other citizens from “bad” free spirits, but Meyer understandably raises the concern that free spirits might “undermine society’s commitment—by way of influencing the beliefs of individuals that make up society—to the very principles that support the liberal harm principle.” Meyer has convinced me that I need to think more about this problem, but my initial defense would be an empirical one. In short, while there is no theoretical limit against a free spirit’s destabilization and potential overturning of liberal principles, I just don’t think there is enough spiritual freedom operating in society to completely overturn the power of any widely held principles, including liberal ones. In my view, free spirits destabilize and weaken—perhaps in the end improve—the norms, conventions, and principles that are in favor at any given time, but they very rarely (do they ever?) win the argument in the end.
Meyer further asks, “what if these ‘bad’ free spirits become culturally dominant?”, and my response is largely the same. For one, and I follow Nietzsche here, free spirits will always be the exception rather than the rule (as Nietzsche insists, the “free spirit is a relative concept”, Human, All Too Human). But the more salient fact is that social power will always be stronger the power of individuals in liberal societies. Here I follow J.S. Mill’s assessment of the balance between individuals and social power in the modern liberal age: “There has been a time [in history] when the element of spontaneity and individuality was in excess, and the social principle had a hard struggle with it. The difficulty then was to induce men of strong bodies or minds to pay obedience to any rules which required them to control their impulses…But society has now fairly got the better of individuality; and the danger which threatens human nature is not the excess, but the deficiency, of personal impulses and preferences.” (On Liberty).
I plan to spend more time thinking about this question as well as to further investigate Nietzsche’s changes to the free spirit ideal between Human, All Too Human and Daybreak. I’ll look forward to using Meyer’s recent book on the free spirit as a guide in that investigation. I’ll conclude, however, by restating my view that despite the possible dangers of promoting spiritual freedom, I remain confident that the benefits will greatly outweigh the costs.