Philosophy, University of Warwick
Updated thesis title: Honesty & Obedience: Nietzsche on the Preconditions of Freedom.
I explore the relationship between honesty, freedom and obedience in Nietzsche’s writings.
We tend to think that freedom involves an absence of obedience, constraint, tyranny, dominance, restrction, etc. Freedom of movement, for example, is violated by restrictions on movement; freedom of speech by restrictions on speech; economic freedoms by restrictions on the capacity to make economic decisions, and so on. In Beyond Good and Evil section 188, Nietzsche examines the preconditions of freedom and comes to a different conclusion:
But the strange fact is that all there is or has been on earth of freedom, subtlety, boldness, dance, and masterly certainty, whether in thinking itself, or in ruling, or in speaking and persuasion, in the arts as in morals, has evolved only by virtue of the ‘tyranny of such arbitrary laws’; and in all seriousness, there is no small probability that precisely this is ‘nature’ and ‘natural’ – and not that laisser aller!
Laisser aller is the view, often associated with libertarian conceptions of freedom, that one is freer the less one is tyrannised, constrained, and obedient. In some respects this is true, for Nietzsche (depending on the type of constraint), but in BGE 188 Nietzsche thinks that protracted obedience is a precondition of all freedom on earth hitherto. Indeed, BGE 188 is a polemic against laisser aller and a defence of the view that protracted obedience, constraint and tyanny (provided by moralities) are necessary preconditions of freedom.
Here’s an example of what Nietzsche has in mind: When I write a sentence, do I type characters at random, pressing the keys as though my laptop were a piano? No. When I wish to convey an idea in writing, do I run my fingers from the “P” down to the “Q”, according to my desires? No, of course not. Certainly I could do so. But for Nietzsche this approach would produce laisser aller freedom; it would not produce writers with “freedom, subtlety, boldness, dance and masterly certainty.” “[O]ne should recall”, writes Nietzsche, “the constraint under which every language has hitherto attained strength and freedom – the metrical constraint, the tyranny of rhyme and rhythm. How much trouble the poets and orators of every nation have given themselves!” The Austrian writer Robert Musil, who was influenced by Nietzsche, describes something similar:
In his potentialities, plans, and emotions, man must first of all be hedged in by prejudices, traditions, difficulties and limitations of every kind, like a lunatic in his strait-jacket, and only then will whatever he is capable of bringing forth perhaps have some value, solidity and permanence.
Becoming free requires obedience over a long period of time. With respect to writing, I must obey certain grammatical conventions, the tyranny of rhythm and rhyme, the metrical constraint, the form which suits each sentence, the undulations of voice, the journey appropriate to communication, the various solicitations which arise within in me. I discipline myself as though I were chiselling a form out of stone. The art of chiselling also requires certain constraints: I must, for instance, hold the chisel the right way up; it would be absurd to hold the blade and to repeatedly wallop the handle into the stone, splitting the wood and hurting my hand in the process.
Now, of course, not all forms of obedience will lead to value, solidity and permanence. I could, for example, obey the instruction of a woeful craftsman who teaches me that the secret to chiselling is to chew on my elbow with the chisel between my toes whilst dancing underwater. I might acquire a degree of skill in the process, but it is not really the type of freedom which Nietzsche and Musil have in mind. What really matters, for Nietzsche, at least, is obeying the virtue of honesty. This is perhaps the boldest claim in my thesis. For Nietzsche, protractedly obeying the virtue of honesty requires intellectual courage in extremis:
Philosophy, as I have understood it so far is a voluntary living in regions of ice and high mountains—the seeking out of everything strange and questionable in existence, everything which hitherto morality has forbidden. Through long experience of such wanderings in forbidden territory I acquired a very different and perhaps undesirable opinion of the causes of men’s moralizing and idealizing. The secret history of philosophers, the psychology of their great names was revealed to me. How much truth can a spirit endure; how much truth can it dare? This became for me more and more the actual test of value. Error (the belief in the ideal) is not blindness; error is cowardice. Every conquest, every step forward in knowledge is the outcome of courage, of hardness towards one’s self; of cleanliness towards one’s self. I do not refute ideals; I merely put on gloves in their presence. Nitimur in vetitum: under this banner my philosophy will one day be victorious; for that which has hitherto been most strictly forbidden is without exception the Truth.
Freedom and strength are measured by how much truth one can tolerate, or more precisely, by the extent to which one needs to have the truth “diluted, disguised, sweetened, muted, falsified.” Hence, freedom, honesty and protracted obedience (e.g. obeying the demands of honesty) are linked in Nietzsche’s writings.
So far, I have provided a “middle-voiced” reading and exegesis of BGE 188. The next step in my project is to link BGE 188 to BGE 227:
Honesty ‑ granted that this is our virtue, from which we cannot get free, we free spirits ‑ well, let us labour at it with all love and malice and not weary of `perfecting’ ourselves in our virtue, the only one we have: may its brightness one day overspread this ageing culture and its dull, gloomy seriousness like a gilded azure mocking evening glow! And if our honesty should one day none the less grow weary, and sigh, and stretch its limbs, and find us too hard, and like to have things better, easier, gentler, like an agreeable vice: let us remain bard, we last of the Stoics!
1. Dostoevsky, Turgenev, and Russian nihlist writers, esp. relation to Nietzsche (and N's remarks on D)
2. Epictetus, Seneca, Aurelius, and other stoics (esp. N's sustained commentary on stoic philosophy)
3. Shakespeare, esp. Hamlet and Caesar (and N's remarks on S and Hamlet)
3. Cervantes' Don Quixote (and N's remarks)
4. Musil's Man Without Qualities (and influence of N)
5. Chopin's Nocturnes (also Nietzsche's remarks on C).
Awarded to students whose credit-weighted mean for the year is 16.5 or above.