Philosophy Now|April/May 2020
Scattered through Nietzsche’s writings are proclamations of his ‘untimeliness’, expressing the conviction that he will be ‘born posthumously’. He claims that few in his time have ears to hear him, that he must trust in future generations to understand him, and also that he is preparing that future audience. Along with these proclamations goes his prediction that one day his name will be associated with a crisis unprecedented in human history. Nietzsche appears to suggest that his work may help precipitate the most acute stages of this crisis; but he also positions himself as humanity’s guide through and beyond the coming upheaval.
What is the nature of this predicted crisis? The most common reading of it represents, I believe, a misconception or underestimation of its nature and scope. This common idea is that Nietzsche is speaking of the gradual erosion among humankind of our belief in any binding, transcendental values. This process is exemplified by, but not restricted to, the decline in religious faith. Without the foundational belief in a divine sanction for human systems of morality, and without faith in a reward beyond it for our conduct in this brief life, the idea that one’s life and actions (and especially one’s efforts and sufferings) are meaningful becomes inestimably more difficult to accept. The result is nihilism: a renunciation not only of religious belief but also of the sustaining convictions of antiquity that the continued flourishing of the community to which one belonged might supply a suitable end for one’s action.
The case can certainly be made that this strain of nihilism has spread, and one can appreciate that this mass renunciation of inherited values was already underway in Nietzsche’s time – as he recognised. Indeed, Nietzsche is one of the most astute chroniclers of this malaise and its progress. But one need only read a little of Nietzsche’s diagnoses and prognoses of this to realise that what he is describing is a more or less inevitable process, and in some way therefore independent of him. Nietzsche could today be identified as one spur to the Western decline in religious faith; but after reading his own writing on the subject, you might well conclude that this process would have continued anyway, without his contributions. That is to say, one might concur with a famous assertion from his notebooks (The Will to Power, Preface 2) that in the rise of nihilism, Necessity itself was at work. But the decline of humanity’s belief in transcendental values is just a preliminary. The true looming crisis on which Nietzsche trains his eyes is considerably more shattering.
No Free Will: To Power or Otherwise
The nature of the projected crisis is indicated by a conviction expressed throughout Nietzsche’s writing: his absolute unbelief in the freedom of human will.
Though the precise nature of his unbelief in human freedom is subject to debate, what is certain is that Nietzsche did not conceive of human beings as being in any traditional sense free agents, responsible for their actions. Our thoughts and consciousness are functions of deeper processes beyond our ken, and the freedom of our will is an illusion. There are different varieties of denial of free will, support for several of which can be found in Nietzsche’s writings, but none of them allows a notion of freedom substantial enough to grant us responsibility for our choices and actions. Let’s look at three varieties here. All are easily understood, require no philosophical training or reading of Nietzsche whatsoever, and more than likely have occurred to and been pondered by any reasonably intelligent human being.
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