Does Nietzsche Believe in Free Will?

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was notoriously outspoken and opinionated, particularly on the subject of free will.

Sep 23, 2023By Luke Dunne, BA Philosophy & Theology


Friedrich Nietzsche was a leading 19th century German philosopher whose work was focused on a wide array of topics. He was particularly drawn to controversial subjects, and much of his philosophy is deemed controversial even today. Because he wrote in a bombastic, engaging style, this often obscures his final position on issues. This means it is often difficult to interpret Nietzsche. So, what did Nietzsche really think about free will? We discuss his thoughts in more detail below.


Nietzsche Believes That Humans Are Fundamentally Free

Statue of Friedrich Nietzsche in Saale, via Travelwriticus


Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy is renowned for its focus on controversial topics, and for its willingness to deny the existence of things which many hold dear. Free will is one such thing. For many philosophers, the existence of free will is a requirement if morality is taken to exist in the ordinary sense. If we are to be morally responsible, then surely our choices have to be free.


Free will is one of the major subjects of philosophy, and  it is also one in which many and various topics of philosophy intersect. The difficult of interpreting Nietzsche’s views on free will derives from the difficulty of remaining consistent across all of these different areas of philosophy.


Nietzsche can, at certain points, be said to hold that human beings are fundamentally free. Indeed, Nietzsche’s ideal for human beings is one in which free individuals are given the opportunity to pursue their ends as they place. Autonomy is one of the highest ideals in Nietzsche’s view, and to put such a high price on it suggests that he believes it exists!

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For Nietzsche, philosophy is all about the construction of ideal ways of living, and what philosophy is primarily concerned with comes down a competition of values. To that extent, Nietzsche can certainly be said to believe in free will by implication. However, the picture is a little bit more complicated than this. As we shall see in the next section, it is arguable that the conception of freedom which Nietzsche advocates nonetheless excludes many other versions of freedom.


Nietzsche Believes That We Are Free to Choose Within Constraints

Nietzsche in Basel, Switzerland, c. 1875 via Wikimedia commons.


Nietzsche undoubtedly believed in the importance of personal authenticity – the idea of living the life that you are meant to live, and therefore advocated the creation of the kind of society in which human beings are free to pursue the goals they choose for themselves. Another chief Nietzschean virtue was that of “self-overcoming”. Nietzsche urged people to embrace their unique perspectives and desires, and to see themselves as individuals. Nietzsche didn’t see human freedom in decontextualized, abstract or spiritual terms.


Rather, Nietzsche identified the driving force that motivates individuals to assert themselves as the “Will to Power”. The fact that Nietzsche’s conception of human beings is often founded upon a kind of biological basis – the constant references to the underlying drives or instincts which move human beings – imposes a set of constraints on human freedom. If human beings are free, they are free only in spite of (or perhaps because of) these constraints.


Nietzsche Is Skeptical About the Existence of Free Will

The Crucifixion with the Virgin and Saint John, Hendrick ter Bruggen, c.1624-5, via The Met


Nietzsche was critical of the idea of free will as understood in the traditional metaphysical sense. Just as he rebelled against many of the prevailing philosophical notions of his time, so he rebelled against the idea of free will. He was especially critical of free will in the terms which Christians conceived of it. He rejected the notion of a completely autonomous and unconstrained will that is unaffected by external influences or causal determinants.


As we have seen, he had a keen sense of human behavior as deeply influenced by various factors, including biology, culture, social conditions, and personal experiences. Moreover, Nietzsche criticized the idea of ascribing moral responsibility based on free will, considering it a distinctly modern phenomenon and a product of Christianity’s influence on modern culture.  


This form of morality, on Nietzsche’s account, which possessed notions of guilt, punishment, and reward, was a tool used by the weak to suppress the strong. He saw the concept of free will as a way to assign blame and responsibility, ultimately stifling the individual’s creative and assertive nature. As we have seen, Nietzsche conceives of philosophy as the business of creating values and defining our values. Thus Nietzsche may not have thought that we can properly define our values in light of the doctrine of free will as it was ordinarily conceived.

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By Luke DunneBA Philosophy & TheologyLuke is a graduate of the University of Oxford's departments of Philosophy and Theology, his main interests include the history of philosophy, the metaphysics of mind, and social theory.