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Nietzsche’s People II

This post will not answer the questions raised at the end of my last post. In that post, I looked solely at the Hyperboreans introduced in §1 of The Anti-Christ, though I did talk briefly about the free spirits of Human, All Too Human. I did not mention that, even in the sections I was discussing there, the free spirits make an appearance (§13, specifically). They have since made another appearance, and that has prompted me to reflect on the precise relationship between the Hyperboreans and the free spirits, to see just who it is they are and what it is they do. Are they the same people, or are they distinct?

The first thing to note is that Nietzsche claims membership in both peoples. §1 begins: “– Let us look one another in the face. We are Hyperboreans – we know well enough how much out of the way we live.” Here, Nietzsche introduces his invented people with the first person plural. Likewise, when the free spirits make an appearance, in §13, the same happens: “Let us not undervalue this: we ourselves, we free spirits, are already a ‘revaluation of all values’, an incarnate declaration of war and victory over all ancient conceptions of ‘true’ and ‘untrue’.” But that Nietzsche identifies himself with both does not mean that they are identical, and indeed I think they are not.

A crucial clue comes in §36, where Nietzsche writes:

– Only we, we emancipated spirits, possess the prerequisite for understanding something nineteen centuries have misunderstood – that integrity become instinct and passion which makes war on the ‘holy lie’ even more than on any other lie….

Here he refers to a group that he calls the emancipated spirits. ‘To emancipate’ means to set free, particularly from legal, social, or political restrictions. Thus, in referring to this group as “emancipated”, he is indicating not just that they are free spirits, but that they are spirits that have been set free, i.e. that were once not free. From what have they been set free? §8 provides a clue:

It is necessary to say whom we feel to be our antithesis – the theologians and all that has theologian blood in its veins – our entire philosophy…. One must have seen the fatality from close up, better still one must have experienced it in oneself, one must have almost perished by it, no longer to find anything funny here (the free-thinking of our naturalists and physiologists is to my mind funny – they lack passion in these things, they do not suffer from them –).

In this section, Nietzsche does not make any reference to free spirits, but I think that is the natural group to contrast to both the theologian and the freethinking naturalists. The suggestion, as I understand it, is that those atheistic naturalists who oppose theology have not suffered from it, are not set free from it, and so operate at a level of bloodless intellectual argument. (Nietzsche, by contrast, once said his atheism was an instinct—a comment that could sustain many posts by itself.) This passage, in conjunction with the later reference to “emancipated spirits,” suggests that Nietzsche intends his free spirits to be more narrowly defined than mere freethinkers: they are freethinkers who have been set free, rather than having been born free.

This also comes out when we look at the contexts in which Nietzsche talks about his free spirits. §13 follows a string of sections in which Nietzsche criticizes the way that priestly instincts have thus far determined what is to count as ‘true’ and ‘false’. Immediately following the sentence I quoted above, Nietzsche goes on to discuss the difference in method that characterizes the old and new ways. Nietzsche thus uses the free spirits as a direct antidote to something theological that he finds sickening. The same happens in §36: the passage I quoted shows the emancipated spirits in opposition to the “holy lie” promulgated by the church. (Interestingly, Nietzsche seems to regard this lie as a horrible misunderstanding of Jesus, who in the previous sections was described quite positively. But that, too, is another topic for another time.)

The free(d) spirits are thus, as I see it, defined negatively as much as positively: they are defined by what they stand in opposition to. As §8 puts it, they “must have seen the fatality from close up,” or, better, have “almost perished by it.” Borrowing from Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the free spirits are closely linked to the lion stage, that of throwing off burdens, clearing out space for creation.

The Hyperboreans, by contrast, are primarily described positively. They are not up close: “we know well enough how much out of the way we live” (§1). Moreover, it is of them that Nietzsche speaks of the “Formula of our happiness: a Yes, a No, a straight line, a goal…” (§1). True, they are defined in part by their opposition to the indecisiveness of “modern man”, but not because they wage war on him—rather because they have gone to live elsewhere, away from his “south winds.” Thus I see the Hyperboreans as distinct from the free spirits: the former are living apart, whereas the latter are actively engaged in battle.

But now that I’ve suggested this distinction, I want to scuttle it somewhat. In §7, Nietzsche discusses Christianity as the religion of pity. After a great deal of illustrating the evils of pity, Nietzsche concludes:

Nothing in our unhealthy modernity is more unhealthy than Christian pity. To be physician here, to be inexorable here, to wield the knife here – that pertains to us, that is our kind of philanthropy, with that are we philosophers, we Hyperboreans! –

This shows the Hyperboreans defined in opposition to Christian pity in an active way: they must wield the knife, act as the physician, etc. So they are not exclusively set apart. Moreover, the bit I quoted from §8 earlier immediately follows this, and that means that we instinctively feel its “we” to be referring not—as I suggested earlier—to the free spirits, but rather to the Hyperboreans. Yet the reason I gave earlier for seeing it as referring to the free spirits still stand: that is the natural opposition to the “funny” freethinking naturalists. One means of resolving this problem is to simply equate the two: the Hyperboreans and the free spirits are equivalent. Another method would be simply to say that Nietzsche is confused or unclear on this point (frankly, the work is not among his most lucid).

I want to try to preserve the distinction in at least some form, however. The movement of the text in the first seven sections is roughly as follows: the introduction of the Hyperboreans and the contrast with modern man (§1), a rapid-fire synopsis of what Nietzsche considers good, bad, and happy (§2), the setting out of the problem: how to cultivate the higher type of man (§3), discussion of the possibility of the higher man arising by chance, unwilled, alongside a denial of the modern notion of progress (§4), the introduction of Christianity as what has opposed this higher type of man (§5), pulling back the curtain on the depravity of man, which is implicitly attributed to the dominance of Christian values (§6), the aforementioned critique of pity as a tendency hostile to life (§7). What we see in this movement is a movement from setting out of a positive task, that of breeding the higher type of man (§1-3), to illustrating the obstacles standing in the way of this task, those set by Christian values (§5-7). In §7-8 we see the slide from Hyperboreans to free spirits—this, to me, signifies Nietzsche’s movement from the positive task to the negative task required to establish it. The Hyperboreans and the free spirits thus remain associated with different tasks, or different aspects of the same task.

Are they distinct peoples for this? Because I cannot yet answer the questions I raised at the end of my last post, I cannot answer this question either. I am not sure, ontologically, psychologically, philosophically, etc. just what Nietzsche’s peoples are supposed to be. I hope, however, that this post has illustrated somewhat what it is that Nietzsche makes them do.

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