Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about the connection between happiness and personal authenticity. It seems reasonable that such a connection exists, because a happy life should be our own life.
To get a better understanding of what is required to live authentically, I thought I would explore Friedrich Nietzsche’s notion of the free spirit. For Nietzsche, the free spirit is a sort of steppingstone on the path of one’s development that leads to the possibility of self-creation, self-exploration, and personal authenticity.
This exploration will be completed in 3 parts. Today, I begin with Part 1 – Nietzsche’s conception of the bound spirit.
The Individual’s Dilemma: the Bound Spirit
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.
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.
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.
(Check out my article on Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, here.)
“The bound spirit assumes a position, not for reasons, but out of habit.”Nietzsche
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…
“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.”Nietzsche
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.
(See my related article The Individual Versus the Collective – Conformity and non-Conformity, here.)
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).
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.
(Please see my related article, The Death of God – Nietzsche and Nihilism.)
Conformity has led to the diminution of man, “making him mediocre and lowering his value.”Nietzsche
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” (Nietzsche). 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.
(To learn more see my article, Freedom & Responsibility)
Ask Yourself: What binds me most? What values, ideas, and beliefs have I accepted simply because I am familiar with them? In what way(s) am I limited by the beliefs, concepts, or the interpretations I accept?
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Want to discover more? Check out these related articles and posts: How to Face Your Fears & Realize Your Goals, The Human Condition – Kafka and Man’s Search for Meaning, Thinking for Yourself – Checking in with Camus, Kafka’s Parable Before the Law, Belief as a Noble Risk, Imagination, and The Importance of Exploration and Experimentation.
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