Who is the 'Sovereign Individual'? Nietzsche on Freedom
CAMBRIDGE CRITICAL GUIDE TO NIETZSCHE'S ON THE GENEALOGY OF MORALITY, Simon May, ed., 2010
29 Pages Posted: 15 Sep 2009 Last revised: 4 Oct 2009
Date Written: September 10, 2009
Who is the “sovereign individual” of GM II:2, and what does he have to do with Nietzsche’s conceptions of free will, freedom or the self? I shall argue for what would have been, at one time, a fairly unsurprising view, namely, that (1) Nietzsche denies that people ever act freely and that they are ever morally responsible for anything they do; (2) the figure of the “sovereign individual” in no way supports a denial of the first point; and (3) Nietzsche engages in what Charles Stevenson would have called a “persuasive definition” of the language of “freedom” and “free will,” radically revising the content of those concepts, but in a way that aims to capitalize on their positive emotive valence and authority for his readers. More precisely, I aim to show that the image of the “sovereign individual” is, in fact, consistent with the reading of Nietzsche as a kind of fatalist, which I have defended at length elsewhere. To show that the image of the “sovereign individual” squares with Nietzsche’s fatalism, I distinguish between two different “Deflationary Readings” of the passage. On one such reading, the figure of the “sovereign individual” is wholly ironic, a mocking of the petite bourgeois who thinks his petty commercial undertakings - his ability to make promises and remember his debts - are the highest fruit of creation. On another Deflationary Reading, the “sovereign individual” does indeed represent an ideal of the self, one marked by a kind of self-mastery foreign to less coherent selves (whose momentary impulses pull them this way and that), but such a self, and its self-mastery is, in Nietzschean terms, a fortuitous natural artifact (a bit of “fate”), not an autonomous achievement for which anyone could be responsible. To associate this ideal of the self with the language of “freedom” and “free will” is an exercise in “persuasive definition” by Nietzsche, a rhetorical skill of which he was often the master.
Keywords: Nietzsche, free will, freedom
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation