What Does it Mean to Be Free? Here’s Nietzsche’s Answer

How does Nietzsche conceptualize freedom, and how does it intersect with other elements of his thought?

Aug 13, 2023By Luke Dunne, BA Philosophy & Theology
what is freedom friedrich nietzsche
Photo by Cdd20, via Pixabay


How important is freedom, and what does it mean to be free? Is freedom largely a question of escaping external constraints, and if freedom does have an inner element, what is it? Nietzsche’s philosophy is profoundly concerned with the attempt to answer these questions. This article will explore some of the concepts Nietzsche employs in his analysis, including that of negative and positive freedom, self-mastery, and the self.


Two Conceptions of Freedom in Nietzsche

Portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche by Gustav Schultze, 1882, via Google Arts and Culture


At various points in his authorship, Nietzsche appears to strongly approve of our adopting freedom, especially “freedom of the spirit,” as an ideal by which we should orientate our lives. It is natural to ask two questions whenever the concept of freedom is invoked.


The first is: “freedom from what?” The second is: ”freedom to what?” It is commonplace in modern political theory to conceive of freedom as having a negative face and a positive face. The negative aspect is this “freedom from”—for instance, freedom from the coercion of the state. The positive aspect is a little bit more nuanced. Certain elements of whatever we have the “freedom to” do are really restatements or at least consequences of more negative freedoms (the freedom to live without certain constraints certainly falls into this category).


However, other things we have “freedom to” do are quite separate from more negative forms of freedom. We have, for instance, the freedom to participate in certain government services. The point of introducing the concepts of positive and negative freedom is to offer a basic subdivision of the extremely slippery concept of freedom with which to analyze and understand Nietzsche’s theory more thoroughly.


Freedom From What?

What Freedom! by Ilya Repin, 1903, via Wikimedia Commons.

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Nietzsche is quite clear about the kind of things he believes we should strive to be free of. These include, above all else, the norms and conventions which govern our lives. These are the norms of social conduct, political and public life, and religious morality.


As with various other appeals to the value of negative freedom, Nietzsche sets against the confines of these norms the ideal of the isolated, free-thinking, and free-acting individual. Yet there is an ambivalence to Nietzsche’s conception of self-interest, and its potential to release us from the confines of prevailing social norms: “Self-interest is worth as much as the person who has it: it can be worth a great deal, and it can be unworthy and contemptible.”


This ambivalence deserves further explanation. Perhaps, in order to understand Nietzsche’s conception of freedom, it is necessary to understand his conception of the self and its relationship to our actions. In short, this article follows from the postulation that Nietzsche’s conception of freedom is intractable from his theory of the self.


States of Mind: Those Who Go by Umberto Boccioni, 1912, via The Met Museum.


Nietzsche’s relationship with the science of the self is a complicated one. At certain points, he appears to hold—as various philosophers, from Hume to Anscombe, do—that philosophy is at an impasse (perhaps more than that), and needs to take lessons from psychology. For, as Nietzsche claims, “psychology is once again on the path to the fundamental problems.”


Much of Nietzsche’s philosophy involves trying to get at how things really are through various kinds of psychological arguments. Morality and religion are, for Nietzsche, the consequence of the fulfillment of certain psychological needs above anything else. Nietzsche does not just turn to psychology as a way of exposing what is malicious about our social order. He also has a conception of human psychology of a more positive sort.


Against the Conventional Concepts of Mind

Free your mind by Mark Brierley, 2019, via the Cook House Gallery.


Part of what makes Nietzsche’s psychology so difficult is the fact that his evident antipathy to concepts that implicitly characterize the self as united (the soul, the person, and so on) sits alongside his invocation of those very same concepts in different contexts. Even accepting the qualification that much of Nietzsche’s philosophy is self-consciously concerned with putting contradictory demands upon those who intend to take it up and use it, this contradiction is worthy of further analysis.


Is it possible to reject that a concept is true, while still acknowledging that it is embedded into our way of thinking and speaking in a way that does not allow us to straightforwardly abandon it? Even as Nietzsche struggles to escape from concepts that he himself is skeptical of, he is simultaneously developing concepts to replace them, to surpass them gradually.


The Country Election by George Caleb Bingham, 1846, via The University of Iowa.


This sense of the organic process of thought, the possibility that even sudden revolutions are never separable from their pre-existent historical context, is arguably Nietzsche’s greatest contribution to philosophy. One such concept for Nietzsche is that of the drive. A “drive” is a pattern of thought and is, therefore, not a totally new concept. It is a subdivision of the concept of habit, a very old concept in the history of ethics and the philosophy of psychology. The concept of the drive is paired with that of the affect, another concept that is new but old at the same time. The affect is, after all, really only an emotional state, but one which is taken to combine reaction with receptiveness, to constitute both an experience/interpretation and a precursor to action.


New Concepts of Mind and Freedom

Friedrich Nietzsche by Edvard Munch, 1906, via Thiel Gallery.


The chief context in which the affect and the drive are (re)deployed in Nietzsche is to reconstitute the concept of the soul:


“The way is now open for new versions and refinements of the soul hypothesis, [including] ‘mortal soul,’ ‘soul as subjective multiplicity,’ and ‘soul as social structure of the drives and affects.’”


In effect, Nietzsche aims to corrupt or warp the prevailing concepts of the soul and mind, to use them as an exoskeleton for the new concepts he wants to suggest should now dominate our conception of ourselves.


The introduction of complexity is more than conceptual—it is a philosophical commitment that “multiplicity” is characteristic of our inner worlds. Moreover, just as Nietzsche’s moral philosophy emphasizes the constructed nature of value and morality, so too are the mind and the psyche a space of self-fashioning. Nietzsche returns again and again to the possibility of constructing interesting, varied, new lives and ways of living.


At certain points, Nietzsche appears to recall the Platonic demand that the philosopher lead the way in developing a true theory of reality apart from the confines of appearance. The novelty is in his suggestion that the philosopher really finds himself in the vanguard of the realm of activity rather than knowledge.


The Perfect Law Of Freedom by Adeleia U, 2020, via Artmajeur.


What are the implications of Nietzsche’s theory of psychology and the self for his theory of knowledge? To answer this question, it is necessary to return to the distinction which we first approached freedom with—the distinction between positive and negative kinds of freedom.


The conception of the self as something which we must be free to self-fashion implies both that we should create a space of freedom from the constraints of social, ethical, and religious norms (including those which dictate the concepts with which we conceive of the self, the mind, the soul). Having done this, we must develop our capacity to use the space we have cleared to actively create something genuinely new.


The Problem with Freedom in Nietzsche

The Freedom of New Thinking by Erik Pevernagie, 1997, via Wikimedia Commons.


In certain ways, Nietzsche’s theorization of freedom reflects broader issues inherent to any attempt to characterize this concept. Being free requires, on the one hand, opposing specific constraints and attempting to act in a totally positive, unconstrained way. At certain points, negative freedom must come before more positive forms can emerge. In other cases, negative freedom cuts against positive freedom, and Nietzsche’s reticence to totally overthrow the prevailing categories of psychology. Nietzsche’s conception of freedom goes beyond the positive and negative elements, which is to say, beyond the idea of freedom as an interaction with that which is external to the individual, and turns on the concept of self-mastery.


The conception of the human psyche as composed of drives and affects is the site of Nietzsche’s characterization of self-mastery. A critical part of self-mastery for Nietzsche involves the integration of the various drives and affects with one another. The conception of the free individual as the one who has unified their psyche is far from new—it is one of the characteristic elements of the Greek conception of the mind, for instance. In Nietzsche’s view, however, the freedom that is constituted by controlling these drives stands in contrast and as an alternative to the “superlative metaphysical” conception of freedom as absolute freedom.


We can therefore conclude with the observation that, in Nietzsche’s hands, the absolute significance of freedom and autonomy is matched only by the contingency and ambivalence of the concept of freedom in itself.

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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.