Nietzsche on Herd Thinkers vs. Free Spirits
Friedrich Nietzsche wasn't the kind of guy to preach incremental change through moderate means. On the contrary, he was bold and uncompromising in his ambition, which was no less than taking a hammer to our lazy assumptions about right and wrong. Only then, he believed, could we break free from the spiritually debilitating Christian morality that had turned people into cringing slaves of dead dogmas. As a source of universal meaning, God's death left western civilization at a crossroads by the late nineteenth century: either a more worthy morality must emerge from the ruins, or nihilism would. Avoiding the latter fate was why Nietzsche turned his life into a one-man crusade to finish off Christian morals so something better could emerge.
But this was easier said than done, and he knew it.
The Enlightenment had started the job on the philosophical front, demoting God to the inert abstraction of deism. But the most devastating blow against the Old Faith came later from Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection, which was an elegant way of explaining life without recourse to a divinity. This appealed enormously to Nietzsche, who found in his understanding of evolution a materialistic framework around which to develop his philosophical ideas on culture.
Darwinism seemed to provide exactly that, though to be fair, the version of Darwinism that Nietzsche applied to his philosophy was based on a misunderstanding of the theory. Darwin did not believe that evolution had any goal toward which it was moving. Species simply adapted to their environments through natural selection. Those organisms whose traits, behaviors, or mutations promoted survival in a given environment procreated and passed on their genes. Those that couldn't, died off. In this relationship between the environment and biology, nature sets the tune and life dances to it.
On the other hand, Nietzsche assigned human agency to cultural evolution, with cultures evolving into something higher and nobler led by the efforts of great men. Here independently thinking free spirits not bound by conventional morality intervene to take control and guide the process. In this way, we evolve in an upward progression from animal to barbarian to cultured man and, eventually, to superman, at least for a chosen few.
This cultural theory became a combination of Hegelian dialectics and Nietzsche's somewhat caricatured misunderstanding of Darwinian evolution, creating a hybrid that contained elements of both. In Nietzsche's view, each society had a clear division between a herd majority and a free-thinking minority. These two groups existed in constant tension with each other. The conforming herd types kept the trains running on time, the laws policed, the water running, and the store shelves stocked; maybe they were dull and bland with dull and bland lives, but this hard and steady core made society run.
Meanwhile, the artistic free spirits languished on the margins of society, dreaming of a better day when their more noble but still shunned higher ideas could evolve culture to its next stage. This next stage would be the old society but now mutated into a new cultural entity morally equipped to survive and compete in its new environment.
So what did he think of the herd types and the free thinkers? Some of his views are what you'd expect, though don't underestimate Nietzsche's ability to surprise. While he can't hide his elitist contempt for herd types - that contempt is framed into the "herd" label, after all - he understands the crucial role they play in sustaining society.
At the same time, even if he identifies with the free spirits, he also understands their very real limitations. You can't have a civilization where they are the majority. God help us! It won't work because they won't work, at least not doing the kind of uninspiring labor it takes to keep it all running. Most people can't spend their lives taking long, contemplative walks in the Alps to come up with earth-shattering ideas as Nietzsche did.
So the free spirits live out of step in a world that they cannot fit in or relate to, just like Nietzsche did.
The Morality of 'Bound Spirits'
In Human, All Too Human, we see Nietzsche's initial outline for a theory of culture. In it, morality and consciousness are the fundamental means of transmitting values from one generation to another.
Philosopher Sven Gellens sees Nietzsche as offering three aspects of morality that act as stabilizers for society.
The first is how the individual internalizes social norms so that they become unreflected habits. In other words, someone who internally self-regulates an externally-existing moral system, doing so voluntarily and with minimal oversight. A society full of people who do this well doesn't need to rely on outside coercive measures to enforce compliance. That trained inner voice will suffice.
Second, any functioning moral system will work for the benefit of the group over the individual. From an evolutionary point of view, this means strength in numbers, i.e., what's best for the larger group trumps individual needs since the individual's survival is predicated on that of the group.
And third, morality sustains itself by being passed down from generation to generation, kind of like offspring. As long as this happens, the moral status quo can sustain itself over long periods (Gellens 311).
While morality is the glue that binds the group together, tension exists between those who readily conform and obey society's rules and those who do not. A majority in any society uncritically accepts the prevailing morality of the culture they found themselves born into. Nietzsche often calls them the 'bound spirits,' or simply 'the herd.' I will use the two terms interchangeably since he did, but they are merely average decent people leading average decent lives, no questions asked.
In Human, All too Human, Nietzsche writes, "The bound spirit assumes a position, not for reasons, but out of habit; he is a Christian, for example, not because he had insight into the various religions and chose among them" (HAH. V.226). Or, put another way, he's a Christian because he's always been a Christian. Bound spirits live by conditioned beliefs. Born and educated into Christianity, Islam, liberalism, communism, or any other all-encompassing -ism, you name it, bound spirits live in the pre-packaged mental worlds they are raised in. They never think to question the sense or rationality of those beliefs, and if they do, the culture has ready-made canned answers from respected authorities that sound convincing enough. Morality this way is like a reflex, and well-being and good conscience end up tied together to create a socially well-adjusted individual.
Nietzsche elaborates: "If someone acts from a few motives which are always the same, his actions take on great energy; if these actions are in harmony with the principles of bound spirits, they are acknowledged, and also produce in the one performing them the feeling of a good conscience." (HAH.V.228)
But these are not merely mindless drones. Far from it. Again, this is the only way a society can function. They accept a society's core values, internalize them, and then pass them down to the next generation. According to Nietzsche, a high-functioning herd type is often praised as strong of character and good conscience, a community pillar, and a model citizen even. Talent, or a lack thereof, is irrelevant to whether one belongs to the herd or not. What matters is the unconditional acceptance of the rules and values that govern society.
Far from being just the unwashed masses, these are also the priests, judges, police, doctors, farmers, lawyers, teachers, soldiers, tenured academics, and journalists, to name a few, who garner social capital by successfully maneuvering within the acceptable limits of an established ethical system. Conformity and predictability become synonymous with strength of character and confer social rewards accordingly.
If framed as positive virtues, those with talent who predictably conform are lauded as reliable team players. They often do quite well for themselves, winning faster promotions, getting trusted with security clearances, and eventually, trading that cubicle for the corner office. You can trust them to do the right thing. They're professionals, trusted, and reliable to the end. They don't get paid the big bucks to think for themselves, but to follow and implement already-existing rules.
In many ways, a society's "winners" are those herd types who have best internalized its values. For the bound spirits, faith in the system gets confirmation by succeeding in it, and they succeed in it by believing in it. Doing so grants the system credibility that then passes from one generation to the next. Such an equilibrium can last for centuries.
On the other hand, Nietzsche's free spirits are society's creative misfits, the mavericks, the unprofessional, the bad test-takers, the psychotropically-adjusted, the simply maladjusted, the forever-out-of-step, the outcasts, and the shunned. They get by the best they can, usually by struggling on the margins. They're artists by nature, unconventional by disposition, and prone to annoying everyone with constant questions about why things are the way they are and why can't they be otherwise.
To put it in very loose Darwinian terms, Nietzsche felt that the free spirits were the necessary mutations, the aberrations from the norm, who could only ever exist in small numbers. Most lived and died either defeated by the system they could never fit into or miserable unto death from trying. Not surprisingly, this was a profile of Nietzsche himself, and these outcasts have a critical leadership role to play in his theory when the status quo breaks down and the old morality loses its cohesive power. When that happens, these free spirits are needed to show the way forward.
But more on them below.
Consciousness Evolved to Make us Bound Spirits
Consciousness is the second component of Nietzsche's conception of culture. In The Gay Science, Nietzsche declared that "Consciousness is the last and latest development of the organic and hence also what is most unfinished and unstrong." (GS.I.11) He believes this is because consciousness evolved from our ancestors' need to communicate and for protection.
"As the most endangered animal, he needed help and protection, he needed his peers, he had to learn to express his distress and to make himself understood; and for all of this he needed 'consciousness' first of all…." (GS.V.354)
Therefore, since consciousness developed from this primal communal need, it belongs to the herd mentality.
"My idea is...that consciousness does not really belong to man's individual existence but rather to his social or herd nature; that, as follows from this, it has developed subtlety only insofar as this is required by social or herd utility." (GS 354)
Interestingly, Nietzsche says that with consciousness, the sense of self, the ego, cannot exist except as a part of a broader social world. That's probably right. We didn't evolve to be independent self-actualizing individuals outside the context of the group. This is a modern invention and a much more precarious social experiment than many realize. The self as subject needs other subjects as objects to distinguish itself as a self in the wider social world.
After all, our human default is to blend into the anonymous mass of the warm and comforting crowd. "It's okay, everyone's doing it!" is a kind of lullaby. No one wants to stand out. Perhaps that's why 77% of American vehicles are somewhere in the safely anonymous white-gray-black spectrum. But if you ask people their favorite colors in general, blue, green, red, and purple consistently round out the top four across the world.
The individual identities that we celebrate so much today don't prosper without others acknowledging and validating them. In other words, most of us care a lot about what other people think of us, and so we adjust our behavior accordingly to accommodate. We are not socially self-sufficient. Like emperor penguins huddling together for warmth against the bitterly cold Antarctic winds, we need each other to survive.
This is the evolutionary gift of consciousness.
Thus, for Nietzsche's project of preaching the advent of the Overman (Ubermensch), the herd default represents both an enormous problem and an opportunity to overcome. Remember, the Overman was his grand idea of the person who, with Zarathustrian willpower, could transcend the mundane herd existence of the bound spirits to evolve into something higher. Nietzsche worried that the evolution of consciousness was an almost insurmountable obstacle to developing any more profound, more meaningful individualism like this.
"Whatever becomes conscious becomes by the same token shallow, thin, relatively stupid, general, sign, herd signal; all becoming conscious involves a great and thorough corruption, falsification, reduction to superficialities, and generalization." (GS 354)
While Nietzsche is again framing these herd types in unflattering terms, he does not always mean it that way. Nietzsche argues that an evolutionarily successful society (i.e., one that survives and adapts) must be composed chiefly of uncritical believers who unite behind a shared consciousness.
This communal consciousness and the morality that comes with it act as evolutionary adaptations to ensure our success. Nietzsche calls these universally binding truths, and it does not matter if they are patently false.
For example, it doesn't matter whether gods ever lived on Mount Olympus from where they ruled over humanity, or whether Marxist logic accurately explained everything about History with scientific precision, or whether Jesus died for our sins and will return someday to settle accounts. No, truth or falsity matter not one iota. What matters is that everyone accepts these paradigms along with the ethics built around them. Truth in any objective sense is beside the point.
We may scoff at our predecessors for their naïve beliefs in God or gods or the ironclad logic of Marxist theory, but our era offers tantalizing glimpses of this same phenomenon in action. Take some of our own sacred assumptions to illustrate my point:
A representative democracy with universal suffrage and fair elections is the best political system (or better than all the alternatives). Right?
Protecting freedom of speech is critical to a free and open society. Right?
Discrimination based on sex, race, or sexual orientation is wrong. Right?
If you live in the developed world, you probably agree with most, if not all, of those statements, just like me.
Whether these beliefs are factually accurate or not is less important than the cohesion they give us. These are our universally binding truths. To paraphrase the confident assertion of the American founding document: "We hold these truths to be self-evident," But 'these truths' are only that, our truths, even as they have been our compelling guiding principles for over two centuries. But for most periods in history and for most societies that have ever existed, our modern truths were most certainly not "self-evident."
The Role of Free Spirits
"The period you grow up in and mature in always influence your thinking. This in itself requires no self-criticism. What is more important is how you have allowed yourself to be influenced, whether by good or evil." -Vaclav Havel, 'Living In Truth'
As Nietzsche tells us in Human, All Too Human, "A man is called a free spirit if he thinks otherwise than would be expected, based on his origin, environment, class, and position, or based on prevailing contemporary views. He is the exception: bound spirits are the rule" (HAH V225).
Free spirits see through the illusions that guide the lives of everyone else. They are a constant reminder that this cultural moment that we so take for granted is but a fragile edifice held together by little more than the communal aspirations and affirmations of the majority. The centuries-old Roman world fell apart when the old gods and ancient civic virtues no longer stirred the hearts of men to action. The thousand-year reign of the Church that came after collapsed when people stopped believing in it and embraced science and reason instead.
Nietzsche argued that free spirits see uncomfortable truths that others can't see and the herd hates them for it. At best, they're tolerated, and at worst, they're persecuted and silenced by a system that deploys its collective anti-bodies to suppress the potentially viral threat that non-conformist free thinkers represent.
Yet in times of spiritual crisis, when old truths break down, free spirits are called upon to infuse society with a fresh way of looking at the world and our place in it that once again stirs the heart just as much as the dying paradigm once did.
He tells us, “In such communities, spiritual progress depends on those individuals who are less bound, much less certain, and morally weaker [by the herd morality's standards]; they are men who try new things, and many different things” (HAH.V.224).
And, "Wherever progress is to ensue, deviating natures [free thinkers] are of greatest importance. Every progress of the whole must be preceded by a partial weakening" (HAH.V.224).
Philosopher Julian Young writes:
“Nietzsche’s central insight is that both the ‘herd instinct’ and free-spiritedness are essential to a thriving community. The former binds individuals together as an adaptive unity capable of collective, in particular self-preserving, action. The latter - which in a healthy community must be possessed only by a minority - prepares the day when communal faith will need to mutate in order to remain adaptive (Young 329)."
This, I think, summarizes Nietzsche's position quite well.
I'll close with a historical example to illustrate the point: Vaclav Havel was an artist, free thinker, and dissident living in communist Czechoslovakia from the 1960s through the 1980s. During this period, his refusal to conform to communist values marginalized him from mainstream society.
His political activities against the regime earned him the animosity of the authorities. His plays were banned, and he even spent four years in prison between 1979-1983. Illegal copies of his celebrated essay The Power of the Powerless ensured that his ideas didn't languish in obscurity only to eventually die with the artist.
Conditions changed. The Marxist social construction of reality began collapsing by the late 1980s. Havel, acting in a way that Nietzsche would have understood and perhaps approved, stepped forward and led Czechoslovakia through its successful transition from communism to democracy.
In this situation, a single individual - an artistic man of "higher" culture - was able to go from dissident playwright (free-spirit) to president of a nation within a matter of years. Here, the non-conformist stepped forward to lead when the old, dying monolith broke down. By doing so, Havel transformed and "evolved" his culture for the benefit of many. The bound spirits couldn't do it on their own but were willing to follow the lead of someone who could show them a better way.
But with the revolution over, the cycle begins anew. Havel was only a means, not an end, to changing society in a time of upheaval. The bound spirits are bound by something new, not Marxism as before, but our western system of universally binding truths (democracy, capitalism, freedom, equality) I listed above.
A new herd ideal emerges that is simultaneously a comfortable brand-chasing consumer, a shrewd self-promoter, and a tireless self-improver. And so it goes: a new crop of free spirits emerge who don't fit into this new Brave New World and so must suffer through the contradictions of the new order until the next cultural crisis demands resolution, whenever that may be.
Call this what it is: a Nietzschean dialectic with some evolutionary characteristics, with the herd and free spirits existing in opposition and conflict, forever in tension with each other, but each needing the other to resolve itself into something higher that has staying power until a new dialectic emerges that needs to be resolved. That which finally emerges on the other end of this process will have "evolved" to adapt to the new environment.
To paraphrase Nietzsche, that which does not kill a culture will make it stronger.
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