Part Two: The Free Spirit
Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Free Spirit”
Friedrich Nietzsche introduces the “Free Spirit” in ‘Human, All Too Human’, it’s subtitle being ‘A book for Free Spirits’. What resonates with me the most is Nietzsche’s take on the “Free Spirit”: one “who goes against the herd”, and “onwards along the path of wisdom” in order to “improve society.”
So, what does this mean, a “Free Spirit”? Nietzsche has first of all in mind the prototype of the“Enlightenment”philosopher, the ‘enlightened’ spirit who fights moral prejudices, religious fanaticism, superstition and arbitrariness of political power. By the way ‘Human, All Too Human’ is dedicated, in a significant way, to the memory of Voltaire on the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of his death. In Ecce Homo, Nietzsche will retrospectively say that by introducing the figure of the “Free Spirit” the goal was to “emancipate from a foreign body”, and this foreign body is idealism.
“Human, All-Too-Human” is the monument of a crisis. It calls itself a book for free spirits: almost every sentence in it expresses a victory — with this same book I freed myself of that which did not belongto my nature. Idealism does not belong to me: the title says, “Where you see ideal things, I see — things human, alas all-too-human!”…I know humanity better…In no other sense is the term “free spirit” to be understood here: a spirit that has become free, that has once again taken possession of itself.[i]
Nietzsche describes his underground approach very suggestively? This approach is undermining, methodical and irresistible and overcomes all idols, all ideals sanctified by the European culture whether in matters of morality, philosophy, religion or art, holiness, genius, moral superiority, essence, the absolute, etcetera… :
If one looks more closely, one discovers a merciless spirit that knows all the hideouts where the ideal is at home — where it has its castle keeps and final security, as it were. With a torch in hand that gives off absolutely no “torch and go” light, with a penetrating brightness this netherworldof the ideal is brought to light. It is war, but war without powder and smoke, without warlike poses, without pathos and dislocated limbs — all this would itself still be “idealism.” One error after another is put on ice, the ideal is no longer opposed — itfreezes…Here, for example, “the genius” freezes; a little ways further “the saint” freezes; beneath a thick icicle “the hero” freezes; in conclusion “faith” freezes, so-called “conviction” freezes; “pity” also cools down considerably — almost everywhere “the thing-in-itself” freezes…[ii]
“The thing-in-itself” is an allusion to the Kantian philosophy which, although critical and embodying the spirit of the Enlightenment par excellence, does not manage to permanently expel the last vestiges of a metaphysical thought, and continues to postulate an essence of things, beyond their simple appearance. So, if Nietzsche salutes the emancipatory momentum prompted by the Enlightenment, he warned against a criticism that would not go until the end, until its last consequences. A criticism that would depend still too much on dualistic thought patterns and the Christian matrix (there is a good, there is a bad; there is an essence, there are appearances; there is a relational, there are absolutes). The risk of an incomplete critique being to replace one thought content with another, without calling into question the type of thought, its hidden springs; the danger being basically to replace an idealism by another idealism, God by Man, Faith by Reason, a dogmatic belief by an equally dogmatic atheism. To Nietzsche, professed atheism by his contemporaries is very often an idealism which ignores itself. One of the figures of this atheism is, according to Nietzsche, the “Free Thinker” (“der Freidenker”) who he resolutely opposes to the “Free Spirit” (“der Freigeist” or “Freie Geist”) – one should be careful not to confuse those two!
One of the characteristics of the “Free Spirit” is its ability to break with cultural habits and to escape from the pernicious constraint of tradition:
Free Spirit a relative concept– He is called a free spirit who thinks differently from what, on the basis of his origin, environment, his class and profession, or on the basis of the dominant views of the age, would have been expected of him. He is the exception, the fettered spirits are the rule [ … ] – In any event, however, what characterizes the free spirit is not that his opinions are the more correct but that he has liberated himself from tradition, whether the outcome has been successful or a failure. As a rule, though, he will nonetheless have truth on his side, or at least the spirit of inquiry after truth: he demands reasons, the rest demand faith.[iii]
So, Nietzsche says that the criterion is not the correctness of the vision, nor the success of the enterprise, but rather the desire to emancipate and the pulling force that imply a courage and an increase of energy of which only a few are capable. And this will and force are constantly needed to break the lethargy of cultural evidence that constantly threatens to lull individuals into a prefabricated, stereotypical thought. In other words, the “Free Spirit” wants to break free from its cultural cage. Nietzsche uses in another passage of ‘Human, All Too Human’, a metaphor, that of “The spider’s web”, in which habits surround us, imprison us. The “Free Spirit” must hate habits, rules, norms, conventions, as so many intellectual laziness, narcotics that anesthetize the body as well as the mind. And this wrenching is painful because it’s actually a kind of self-mutilation. It is of one’s self that one must eradicate routines and inheritances. Bad habits, they lodged themselves in all the fibers of our body, in every nook and cranny of our brain:
That is why the free spirit hates all habituation and rules, everything enduring and definitive, that is why he sorrowfully again and again rends apart the net that surrounds him: even though he will as a consequence suffer numerous great and small wounds – for he has to rend those threads from himself, from his own body and soul. [iv]
Nietzsche uses a German term that characterizes the breaking attitude of the “Free Spirit” – or whoever aspires to be, for the mind is never free immediately, spontaneously; it is a “spirit becoming free” says Nietzsche, and becoming free continuously. The term that characterizes this attitude – its positioning marginal or out of step with the mainstream of the time, with the doxa – is the term: “unzeitgemäß”. “Unzeitgemäß” literally means “who is not in conformity with the present time “, with the time, which is out of step, thus inopportune, untimely. Nietzsche loves this word and idea, and gives the elements of definition, of what he means by unzeitgemäß:
It was thus truly roving through wishes to imagine I might discover a true philosopher as an educator who could raise me above my insufficiencies insofar as these originated in the age and teach me again to be simpleand honestin thought and life, that is to say to be untimely, that word understood in the profoundest sense; for men have now become so complex and many-sided they are bound to become dishonest whenever they speak at all, make assertions and try to act in accordance with them.[v]
The “Free Spirit” does not live a comfortable life and he does not really care. To him, the essential factor of living close to his needs lies in the intensity that this lived experience brings him; a life that is attentive to its own laws of development:
[The Free Spirit] will, to be sure, destroy his earthly happiness through his courage; he will have to be an enemy to those he loves and to the institutions which have produced him; he may not spare men or things, even though he suffers when they suffer; he will be misunderstood and for long thought an ally of powers he abhors; however much he may strive after justice he is bound, according to the human limitations of his insight, to be unjust: but he may console himself with the words once employed by his great teacher, Schopenhauer: “A happy life is impossible: the highest that man can attain to is a heroic one.” [vi]
The “Free Spirit” is therefore untimely. Not only out of step with its time, but even more so, as suggested by this quote, contrary to his time, against his time. Why this radicality? Because, according to Nietzsche, it is necessary not only to challenge such and such aspects of its culture (for example: a trait of the German mentality, Bismarck’s government policy, a literary fashion), but more generally and more fundamentally to reverse the hierarchy of values prevailing within the German and even European culture.
The inadequacy of the “Free Spirit” with its culture must be reduced, Nietzsche hopes, in a future time. In fact, Nietzsche very often refers to the “philosopher of the future” who, finally, will be understood by subsequent generations. Meanwhile, the “Free Spirit” is condemned to be misunderstood, condemnation that he accepts willingly, according to Nietzsche, as an elector sign of its exceptionality:
We incomprehensible ones– Have we ever complained about being misunderstood, misjudged, misidentified, defamed, misheard, and ignored? This is precisely our lot– oh , for a long time yet! Let’s say until 1901, to be modest – this is also our distinction; we wouldn’t honor ourselves enough if we wanted it otherwise.[vii]
How ironic that Nietzsche evokes the year 1901 – he who died in 1900. As he wrote in Ecce Homo: “My time has not yet come, some people are born posthumous”[viii] and in the preface of the AntiChrist: “Only the day after tomorrow belongs to me. Some people are born posthumously.”[ix] So, the “Free Spirit” is also untimely in its relation to the past, even to history. Basically, the “Free Spirit” is inactual by default, although he would like to be deeply actual; he aspires to shape the culture of the future. The “Free Spirit” must face the reality of life whatever the narcissistic wounds it causes. Nietzsche rejects idealistic worldviews, he accepts the share of cruelty, inequality, absurdities. What does life hold? According to Nietzsche, it basically accepts the Dionysian part which constitutes it and which animates all existence. To be able to accept that is to be intellectually honest and have courage. Knowledge remains an ideal, in fact, for Nietzsche, but an ideal for the strong, for the “Free Spirit”:
The final, most joyful, most excessively – exuberant yes to life is not only the highest insight, it is also the deepest, the one most strictly confirmed and supported by truth and science. Nothing is to be neglected, nothing is to be dispensed with — those aspects of life which Christians and other nihilists reject are of an even higher order in the ranking order of values than those, which the decadence-instinct might think good and call good. To grasp this requires courage and, as a condition of that, an excess of strength: for exactly as far as courage dares to venture forward, exactly to that degree one approaches the truth. Knowledge, the yea-saying to reality is just as much a necessity to the strong as cowardice and the flight from reality — the “ideal” — is to the weak, inspired by weakness…[x]
“How much truth can a spirit endure, how much can it dare?”[xi] It’s a question Nietzsche asks in Ecce Homo and which indicates the criterion of what is a “Free Spirit”. Truth, in this quote, does not mean, it has been well understood, an ideal of truth, but the capacity to accept reality as it is. The ideal of knowledge that animates the “Free Spirit” is not the quest for truth, with a great T – the truth as absolute knowledge, closed, definitive – for Nietzsche it is the “gay knowledge” or “Gay Science.” The formula seems to hold an oxymoron. This becomes even clearer when we look at the original language: in German, the work is entitled “Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft”: “The Joyous, Gay Science”. How to interpret this idea of ”The Gay Science”? There is at first a form of provocation, the will to take the opposite of the German university philosophy and in particular that which is its core target: the “Idealist” philosophy, represented by Kant, Hegel or Fichte. The goal of these thinkers was precisely to make philosophy an absolute knowledge. Now, to Nietzsche, this science is anything but joyful, anything but liberating or light; it encloses the individual in complex, oppressive, closed systems. Systems who, in the end, fail to satisfy the legitimate thirst for knowledge, that the human being feels, and which restrains his need for freedom. In place of this heavy science, Nietzsche therefore claims a joyful science. To what extent can science, knowledge, be joyful? Why should they be so, by the way? Because knowledge, to Nietzsche, must be considered for what it is: the product of a lived experience, of an experimentation, still in progress, which allows to adopt a multiplicity of points of view on the existence, and thus to give a greater amplitude to this existence. Life is not always joyful, of course, but the certainty, viscerally tested, of being able to draw from moments of exaltation, enjoyment, to be able to move upwards, inseparable from downward movements, inclined to a form of confidence, lightness, and serenity. Nietzsche uses in many places of his work a specific word for this quiet state of assurance: the word “Heiterkeit”, which is translated in different ways in English: serenity, but also joy, good mood, serene mood, like a clear sky. The adjective “heiter” qualifies, in German, a sky which no cloud obscures. And indeed, Nietzsche often makes this association between the state of the sky and his own state of mind. A serene sky is to him more and more indispensable, a condition of physical and mental health. Well, Nietzsche will find this sky, this favorable climate, in Genoa, Italy, during the winter of 1881-1882, which are months of calmness on the front of his disease and where he will write most of the Gay Science – in particular during the month of January, 1882. In Ecce Homo, Nietzsche returns to the genesis of Gay Science, six years later, in passing this biographical detail:
“Daybreak” is a yea-saying book, deep, but bright and kind. The same applies once more and in the highest degree to the gaya scienza: in almost every sentence of this book profoundness and playfulness go softly hand in hand. A verse, which expresses my thankfulness for the most wonderful month of January I have ever experienced – the whole book is a gift – sufficiently reveals from out of what depths the “science” here has become gay:
You who with a fiery spear
Melt the ice of my soul,
So that it roars down to the sea
Rushing toward its highest hope:
Ever brighter and even healthier,
Free in most loving necessity —
Thus it praises your wonders
“Profoundness and playfulness goes softly hand in hand,” says Nietzsche nicely in this quote: it is, again, the idea that lightness is acquired at the price of many experiments, at the price of a wrenching out of gravity; a wrenching sometimes painful, but whose pain ends up being overcome. We can be happy and deep, it is not contradictory, it is even probably complementary.
So what the“gaya scienza”says is that life is the source of our values and not the truth. This makes me think of a famous quote of Parker Palmer:
The drive and affective determinations are paramount, it is they who produce the thoughts and various interpretations of reality. And among these impulses, Nietzsche values those that stimulate creativity, pugnacity, and self-transcendence.
In the aphorism §324 of Gay Science, Nietzsche writes:
We tried in this part to make a small inventory, non-exhaustive, of the main features of the “Free Spirit”: he/she has the strength and the courage to break with traditions, forms of cultural habituation, even, and especially, with the habits who have insinuated themselves into their own fibers; it is an untimely spirit, who navigates against the current, who puts an offbeat and is skeptical regarding his time, which abstains from all hypes; it is a viscerally anti-idealistic mind, who considers that ideals are inventions designed to divert us from life; it is a light spirit, because it has been able to emancipate itself from the authority prohibitions and absolutes (political, religious or moral), light also because he/she is the bearer of a “gay knowing” (the fact that life is an experiment and that it belongs to him/her, the free spirit, to be the active subject of knowledge and to set one’s own scale of values). Let’s finally add that the free spirit understands that one can only acquire all these features, in struggle, trial and error, falling and rising up and mostly in loneliness.
Henry Nelson Wieman’s view on Nietzsche’s “Free Spirit”: the “Creative Self”
Nietzsche’s point of view of the “Free Spirit” brings me to Henry Nelson Wieman’stake on the “Creative Self”. Warning: what I’ll write in the sections of this essay regarding Henry Nelson Wieman are my interpretations of Nelson Wieman’s philosophy based on some of his books and, mainly, of what I’ve learned through the help of my mentor, Charles Leroy ‘Charlie’ Palmgren, whose mentor precisely was Henry Nelson Wieman:
In 1966, Wieman met and formed a working relationship with Dr. Erle Fitz, a practicing psychiatrist, and Dr. Charlie Palmgren. Together, the three founded the Center for Creative InterChange. Fitz, Palmgren, and Wieman met regularly in Wieman’s home to focus on how creative interchange could be the basis for psychotherapy, applied behavioral sciences, and organizational development. After Wieman’s death in 1975, Palmgren continued to nurture the creative interchange philosophy, identifying the conditions necessary for the CI process to occur and developing tools to help people remove the barriers to those conditions. [xv]
Charlie Palmgren puts it this way:
We were born with our Creative Self and we are conditioned into a created self. Our Creative Self enters the world aware. That awareness is conditioned into a conscious created-self. They are not two “separate selves.” They are two aspects of the same self. Unfortunately, in the conditioning process most of us end up being conscious of and identifying with the conscious aspect of our Creative Self. In short, we become conscious at the expense of remaining aware of our awareness.[xvi]
Indeed, Henry Nelson Wieman underlines the importance of being and staying aware. Awareness is obtained through observation of reality. To understand this ‘reality’ awareness is combined with consciousness:
All observation involves sense experience, but it is sense experience combined with some interpretation. This interpretation may bring into action the resources gathered by a lifetime devoted to absorbing thousands of years of culture combined with emerging insights rising out of profound struggles to find the way of life for humankind. [xvii]
The “Creative Self” is, to Wieman, aware and conscious and holds itself subject to correction and receptive to ever-deeper insights that may help to save him from a misdirected commitment. Awareness and Consciousness are both needed. In Wieman’s words: Sense experience (Awareness) is interpreted (Consciousness) in context. In other words awareness is giving meaning by the way the individual interprets it. This interpretation is done using one’s individual mindset. So, the ‘Creative Self’, who transforms the created self, is my interpretation of what Nietzsche calls the ‘Free Spirit’. This “Creative Self” is not the prisoner of the Vicious Circle” as the “Free Spirit” is not a prisoner of its foreign body(or “the spiders web”). Both, the Vicious Circleand the foreign body are metaphors for the actual created self. The “Creative Self” should continuously transform this created self towards the Original Self. Wieman writes that man is made for this creative transformation:
Man is made for creative transformation as a bird is made for flight. To be sure he is in a cage much of the time. The bars of the cage are the resistances to creative transformation, which are present in himself and in the world round about. Also, like most birds long confined, he settles down in time and loses both the desire and the ability to undergo creative transformation. But in childhood creativity dominates. The mind expands its range of knowledge and power of control, its appreciative understanding of other minds and its participation in cultural heritage. At no other time there is so much expansion and enrichment of the mind and the world, which the mind can appreciate. But resistances are encountered which bring on anxiety, frustration, failure and misunderstanding. To avoid suffering, the mind becomes evasive and creativity dies down. The bird ceases to beat against the bars of the cage.[xviii]
This means that the “Creative Self” is in the cage of its created self much of the time. Charlie Palmgren has identified this cage and coined it the Vicious Circle:
Consider the following logic spiral. When an adult’s demands are disrupted, frustration sets in. If the demands are important enough, or if such disruption occurs repeatedly, stress erupts, and the adult fight-or-flight emotions of anxiety, hostility, shame and blame are triggered. Once caught in this negativity, the adult begins to reject herself and her own behavior. Because such rejection is in direct violation of her sense of worth, the cycle begins again of conditional worth, striving to overcome inadequacy, gaming, demands and expectations, frustration and stress. This is the vicious circle. And unfortunately, we are all caught in it to varying degrees at various times in our lives.[xix]
When we are locked up in our Vicious Circle, we are disconnected from our Intrinsic Worth. Charlie Palmgren beliefs that this human worth is the capacity to participate in transforming creativity [i.e. Creative Interchange]:
Human worth is our potential to continually expand what any one of us can know, appreciate, imagine and do. We are designed especially for this transformative process – just as the eagle was designed for flight. The ability to learn, grow, change, develop, imagine, and discover is what constitutes our human worth and fulfills the purpose of our design. While our worth originates in this capacity, we live out of our worth by engaging in transforming creativity. In this way, human worth is both about “being” and “doing”.[xx]
Our purpose should be to continually transform our created self towards our Original Selfthrough our “Creative Self”. In order to be able to do so, we must be committed to the transformative process, to Creative Interchange; and in order to commit ourselves to creative interchange, three conditions should, according to Henry Nelson Wieman, be met:
The first of these three required conditions is not in itself sufficient. It is one necessary condition when taken in conjunction with the other two. It is the requirement that worshipful commitment be directed to what is accessible to empirical inquiry. […]
A second condition must be met if worship is to combine ultimate commitment with a mind open to correction and continuous inquiry. The commitment must be to what creates in me appreciative understanding of the basic values motivating the lives of other people with whom I deal. […] When ultimate commitment is given to this creative kind of interchange, my mind is open to new insights, to learning, to correction, and to inquiry […]
The third condition required for an ultimate commitment combining the most complete self-giving with a mind open to inquiry and subject to correction is to practice commitment to creative interchange on two levels. […] If one can be mistaken, there is a truth that can be missed. This is the certainty sustaining the two-level commitment, giving it a foundation at the deeper level more secure than any other. […] In the two-level commitment one is committed to the good, win or lose. […][xxi]
I love Charlie Palmgren’s paraphrase of Wieman’s two-level commitment:
The Original [Creative] Self and the created self can become integrated into a whole self that is both being and becoming. You can be a chicken and an eagle […]
To integrate our self and become mutually supportive of others who are being [becoming] their original selves, we must practice a two-fold commitment. It isn’t enough to be committed to being and doing our best to be open to change, growth, and transformation. It isn’t sufficient to be committed to ongoing learning and transformation if we’re unwilling to be and act on the best we now know.[xxii]
So, Henry Nelson Wieman spoke of the need for two levels of commitment. I like to present those two levels this way, making a synergy between the definitions of Henry Nelson and Charlie:
- On the first level we should commit ourselves to the best we now know (empirically, scientifically, experientially) about the source of human good, the “Creative Self”; to that which transforms human life by expanding the range of what we know, appreciate, imagine and control from the inside-out; and
- On the second and deeper level, we must finally (ultimately in the words of Henry Nelson Wieman) be committed to whatever it is that in fact transforms human life in the direction of the better, no matter how different that operating reality, which is creative interchange, may be from our ideas about it.
So our interpretation of Nietzsche’s “Free Spirit” is Wieman’s “Creative Self”, who is committed to be and act on the best he/she now knows and stays open to the transforming power of Creative Interchange in order to upgrade that best he/she now knows. So the “Creative Self” is Authentic and Humble, stays open and trusts Creative Interchange, which is, to me, Yoda’sForce; “May the Force be with you!”
Nietzsche’s “Free Spirit” vs. Wieman’s “Creative Self”
Both – the “Free Spirit” and the “Creative Self” – are what Nietzsche called ‘inactual’ and therefor do not live a comfortable life. And both do not really care since both know that their lived experience will develop them to a ‘higher’ level. Both know that one has to break “the spider web” of habits.
To become a “Free Spirit” and to live from your “Creative Self”, both, Nietzsche and Wieman underline that courage is needed. Wieman add a second characteristic, which is, I assume, not Nietzsche’s cup of tea: humility. Being “untimely” means for Nietzsche: “being again to be simple and honest in thought and life”, which combines the ideas of being authentic and humble of Henry Nelson Wieman.
Both the “Free Spirit” and the “Creative Self” aspire to shape the future. Nietzsche and Wieman understood that the inadequacy of the “Free Spirit” c.q. “Creative Self” with its culture must be reduced. Therefor a transformation of the culture – a culture paradigm shift – is needed.
Friedrich Nietzsche very often refers to the “philosopher of the future”. I hope you’ll understand by now that to me that philosopher is Henry Nelson Wieman.
To Nietzsche and Wieman, knowledge must be considered for what it is: the product of a lived experience, of an experimentation, still in progress, which allows to adopt a multiplicity of points of view on the existence, and thus to give a greater amplitude to this existence by obtaining wisdom.
Both, Nietzsche and Wieman reject idealistic worldviews, they accept the reality of cruelty, inequality and absurdities. Nietzsche states that profoundness and playfulness goes hand in hand, while Wieman states that “We have to live richly with dark realities.” [xxiii]
While Nietzsche’s “Free Spirit” has once again taken position of itself, Wieman’s ‘Creative Self’ evolves the created self in the direction of the “Original Self”; so Wieman’s “Creative Self” is capable of creating – once again – the “Original Self”, the Self we’re born.
[xvi]Palmgren, Charles. http://www.creativeinterchange.org/?p=168
[xxi]Wieman, Henry Nelson. Seeking the Faith for a New Age. Essays on the Interdependence of Religion, Science and Philosphy. Edited and Introduced by Heppler, Cedric. L. Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, Inc. 1975. pp. 134-142.