Happiness & Authenticity
exploring Nietzsche's perspective
The Individual’s Dilemma: the Bound Spirit
Living as a bound spirit means being bound to a certain way of life, a certain way of valuing, because it is the dominant perspective. We are bound by the norms, practices, points of view, and, among other things, the values that are associated with being a member of society.
Nietzsche thought that the processes of socialization and social conditioning pit the individual as a particular against the individual as he should be given the norms and values of society (e.g., the dominant moral values). By “society” I mean all forms of human social organization (e.g., families, communities, institutions, cultures, and the like) that come with (or endorse) certain values and norms that members conform to and/or where such pressures to conform exist.
The individual qua member of society is like one of the prisoners in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave: bound, he sees what his neighbor sees, believes what his neighbor believes, and values what his neighbor values—the same images and falsehoods make up his reality.
“The bound spirit assumes a position, not for reasons, but out of habit.”
To assume a position, “not for reasons, but out of habit,” Nietzsche argues, is to adopt a perspective simply because it dominates, because we are familiar with it.
Nietzsche thought that the individual will undoubtedly find it easier to live as a bound spirit—a prisoner of society, if you will—than to live as a particular. As a member of society, his beliefs, values, and the like are validated by the neighbor, and therefore the rightness of his action or belief stems from society’s approval of it.
As bound spirits we accept what we’ve been told is right, we accept an interpretation because we have lived with it and it has become familiar to us. We haven’t explored the possibilities on our own, and we haven’t formed our own reasons to justify the values and beliefs we have adopted.
The bound spirit exemplifies the rule, not the exception, and thus does not face the same pressures to conform, the same resistance, as one who tries to be a particular.
The bound spirit exemplifies the rule, not the exception…
Simply put, Nietzsche thinks that everything a bound spirit does qua bound spirit is understandable and relatable because he conforms to the dominant perspective, whereas the free spirit, the exception, will not be understood because of a difference in perspective.
“A man is called a free spirit if he thinks otherwise than would be expected…based on prevailing contemporary views. He is the exception: bound spirits are the rule.”
How conformity harms the individual
Nietzsche argues that widespread, prolonged conformity results in habitual acceptance and confirmation of a perspective that, though accepted as a given, no longer works for the individual. The dominant perspective fails the individual because through it he attains neither personal authenticity nor any higher development. The bound spirit therefore lives in a system within which his full self-expression is impossible, resulting in what Nietzsche calls the "internalization of man."
Nietzsche argues that “bad conscience” and “guilt feelings” result from the individual’s inability to express certain instincts and drives outwardly because he is shackled by societal norms. The bound spirit therefore exists in a society wherein the dominant perspective restricts his full (positive) self-expression and the realization of his power, causing him to negate certain natural aspects of his being.
In an attempt to explain his impotence and justify his existence, the bound spirit blames others who he perceives not only as having power and the ability to realize their own potential, but also as being the source of his frustrations. The bound spirit’s reaction to a world he perceives as being against him is ressentiment—incapable of expressing himself, he resents and desires revenge against those who have power and who can express themselves.
Conformity has led to the diminution of man, “making him mediocre and lowering his value.”
Living in society means living with persistent pressure to conform to the dominant norms and become a “good” person. Living as such, Nietzsche argues, has led to the diminution of man, “making him mediocre and lowering his value.” To become something more, to realize his own potential and develop “good conscience,” the individual must first free himself from his fetters—he must perform an act of overcoming.
“The ‘believer’ does not belong to himself.”
The Great Separation – Defining the free spirit
At the beginning of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, we are told that Zarathustra left his home to reside in solitude.
“When Zarathustra was thirty years old he left his home and the lake of his home and went into the mountains. Here he enjoyed his spirit and his solitude, and for ten years did not tire of it.”
Zarathustra’s departure represents the point at which he frees himself from the trappings of society. After he frees himself, he needs time to adjust to life without the familiar norms and values of conformity. In fact, it is when he is alone in his cave that Zarathustra takes possession of himself and takes charge of his own development and growth.
In Nietzsche’s view, an individual’s (positive) development is therefore contingent on whether he can free himself from the prison of society because without such freedom authenticity is impossible. Freeing oneself is not an easy task, however, and Nietzsche even suggests a sort of catalyst is needed.
“It may be conjectured that the decisive event for a spirit in whom the type of the ‘free spirit’ is one day to ripen to sweet perfection has been a great separation, and that before it, he…seemed to be chained forever to his corner.”
While there is no single way to achieve a so-called great separation, it can occur if the individual becomes aware of different perspectives and recognizes the potential “truth” of each. In such cases, the dominant perspective of his society is, as it were, removed from its pedestal and perceived anew. Such a realization can come “suddenly, like the shock of an earthquake” (Nietzsche).
An individual’s great separation can therefore result in a distrust of absolutes once he realizes that other norms and values could be and are possible.
“it is self-evident that the world is not good and not evil, let alone the best or the worst, and that these concepts ‘good’ and ‘evil’ make sense only in reference to men.”
Not surprisingly, Nietzsche believes the cultivation of an open-mind and the willingness to experience and “try on” new perspectives is an essential part of personal development and growth.
As Nietzsche saw it, there are no absolute or objective truths; rather, all truth depends on a point of view, on perspective. While awareness of the perspectival nature of truth is necessary for the individual to develop and eventually become the person he is, it can also be dangerous and detrimental.
In contrast to the bound spirit, the free spirit’s search for truth and meaning is infinitely more difficult because he cannot appeal to his neighbor. Nietzsche suggests that the free spirit’s activity is marred by questions after the great separation.
“Cannot all values be overturned?…Is everything perhaps ultimately false?…Such thoughts lead and mislead him…always further away [from the norm, the rule]. Loneliness surrounds him.”
Being free and aware, especially at first, means lacking a definitive sense of right and wrong, or a clear distinction between true and false, and thus with such freedom the free spirit faces possible nihilism and meaninglessness.
Once freed, the individual becomes acutely aware and conscious of many possible truths, possible interpretations, and is no longer acting simply because societal norms demand that he do so. With more acute awareness and a mind open to different possible ways of interpreting experience, the individual recognizes the possible reasons to act from varying perspectives and thus finds it harder to act precisely because right and wrong are no longer seen as given.
The individual must now discover and create his own reasons for acting.
“[The] ‘free spirit’…means a spirit that has become free, that has again taken possession of itself.”
The individual who becomes free becomes, in a sense, the author of his own life. Once he is aware that all value and truth are matters of interpretation, the individual is free to create his own values and his own perspective that will (ideally) make possible the realization of his full potential.
His value, self-worth, and ability to affirm life are thus tied to his ability to create himself and become all that he can become.
“A virtue must be our own invention, our most necessary self-expression and self-defense: any other kind of virtue is merely a danger.”
Nietzsche suggests that becoming a free spirit and remaining free are essential to any real (positive) personal development and growth. To this end, the individual must strive to cultivate an open mind and a willingness to break from society and be a particular, as well as try-on or experiment with new perspectives in his (continued) search for full self-expression.
“Creation—that is the great redemption from suffering, and life’s growing light. But that the creator may be, suffering is needed and much change…Thus are you advocates and justifiers of all impermanence.”
To be a creator, the individual must first be a destroyer—he has to destroy the bound version of himself to experience the joy in self-creation and self-overcoming.
In the act of destroying (the bound version of) himself there will be suffering, but, as Nietzsche thinks, suffering often promotes (positive) change and development. Ultimately, the individual will have to overcome himself and, as it were, continually destroy versions of himself (self-overcoming) as he pursues further development beyond his initial freedom—as he pursues personal authenticity.
“To create new values—that even the lion cannot do; but the creation of freedom for oneself for new creation—that is within the power of the lion….a sacred ‘No’ even to duty.”
The Authentic Individual
“Creation—that is the great redemption from suffering, and life’s growing light. But that the creator may be, suffering is needed and much change. Indeed, there must be much bitter dying in your life, you creators. Thus are you advocates and justifiers of all impermanence.”
The free spirit can be thought of as a stage in one’s development when self-creation and personal authenticity become real possibilities. As Nietzsche saw it, you must clear away the old to make way for the new. All creation requires destruction.
We must destroy our old selves, so to say, to truly rebuild ourselves and fashion ourselves in a way that is unique to us. In the process of rebuilding ourselves from the ground up we learn who we really are. This process of self-creation and self-overcoming is an essential part of the authentic life.
“Indeed, there must be much bitter dying in your life, you creators.”
The free spirit says ‘No’ to the rule, to conformity, and in doing so begins thinking for himself. Nietzsche thought that once we free ourselves, it becomes possible for us to determine our own self-worth and value rather than relying on outside/external conditions to determine them for us.
Nietzsche argued that in each of us there exists a multitude of conflicting drives and impulses, all of which, as it were, want to be actualized and expressed. While we might commonly refer to some of these drives or instincts as “good” and others as “bad” or “evil,” in the end each one is a part of who we are.
If we don’t find ways to express our drives outwardly, if we are unable to express ourselves in the world, then this energy is turned inwards. Nietzsche called this internalization – the cause of “bad conscience” – which makes the individual acutely aware of his lack of power, his impotence, and unchecked it gives birth to ressentiment.
The freedom of the free spirit is the first step in freeing ourselves from the internal conflict and struggle (e.g., self-doubt, jealousy, guilt, etc.) that we normally face when we are unable to actualize or express all our drives, when our full self-expression is inhibited.
Nietzsche’s concept of the Übermensch (or Overman or the authentic individual) represents a higher-type, and is one who finds and is capable of finding ways to express and actualize all his drives. Through such full self-expression, the overman is one who can live authentically.
“One thing is needful.—To ‘give style’ to one’s character—a great and rare art!…those who survey all the strengths and weaknesses of their nature and then fit them into an artistic plan until every one of them appears as art and reason and even weaknesses delight the eye.”
Creating and cultivating oneself—giving style to one’s character—does not mean simply acting on every instinct and drive one might have. If that were the case, Nietzsche’s view would result in disunity and thus in a lack of style.
As I see it, Nietzsche’s notion of giving “style” to one’s character means finding ways to express all of one’s drives and instincts, either directly or indirectly, so that none are internalized. Doing so requires an acute awareness of oneself, of one’s strengths and weaknesses, so one can find ways to express and actualize drives in accordance with the authentic individual one is.
In other words, the authentic individual or Übermensch is one who can transform or redirect certain drives and instincts so that otherwise inexpressible drives can be actualized and one’s power can be realized.
The authentic individual therefore expresses his creative powers in his cultivation of a unified self. The process of self-cultivation and creation requires him to take responsibility for himself and his actions.
The authentic individual knows who he is and does not deny any part of himself – He is the author of his own life.
“If we are bound to have weaknesses…then I would wish that everyone had at any rate sufficient artistic power to set off his weaknesses against his virtues and through his weaknesses make us desire his virtues.”
Nietzsche highlights the importance of striving to express, rather than deny, our natures. Humans are not uniform rational agents but unique individuals, and as such each one of us must find ways to express our full set of instincts and drives—to become who we truly are.
If Nietzsche is not suggesting that we live alone—social organization offers many (obvious) benefits—then his view implies a need to live differently and in a way that cultivates our individuality.
Authenticity and Affirmation
The authentic individual, in Nietzsche’s view, is one who can affirm life because he affirms himself. This means he knows who he is and takes full responsibility for himself and for the person he becomes.
As one who can affirm and accept himself, the authentic individual is one who can affirm and accept the moment.
“I want to learn more and more how to see what is necessary in things as what is beautiful in them – thus I will be one of those who makes things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love from now on!…some day I want only to be a Yes-sayer!”
“Amor fati” means love of one’s fate. When Nietzsche envisions an authentic individual, he imagines an individual who loves himself, affirms life, and who can love his fate.
“Amor fati” suggests living in such a way that we can accept the entirety of our past because it was necessary for us to be who we are now. It suggests a comfort with oneself and a deep understanding of oneself. More importantly, such affirmation is clearly connected to happiness.
One says “Yes!” to life because one lives in such a way that full self-expression is possible. One can be happy, because one is truly living one’s own life—taking full responsibility, full ownership for every part of oneself and for the person one becomes.
A close connection exists between happiness and personal authenticity because a happy life must be our own life. The authentic individual, Nietzsche argues, truly lives his own life and affirms himself.
“some day I want only to be a Yes-sayer!”
If you are interested in these topics and wish to explore Nietzsche’s philosophy further, I recommend starting with Nietzsche's Human, all too Human and/or The Gay [or Joyous] Science.
Thanks for reading.
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