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Existential Compatibilism Part II: Nietzsche & Camus

October 15, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

In Part I: Sartre and Freedom, I discussed the general tone of my inquiry into the nature of metaphysical freedom in existential literature, and focused on Sartre’s portrayal of absolute freedom and choice as essence precedes existence. I concluded that Sartre ignores key (and basic) metaphysical  considerations from his ontological approach, to the detriment of finding a compatibilism useful to the determinist project. In this, Part II, I will discuss how Nietzsche and Camus introduce such considerations into their worldviews, with Nietzsche displaying a clear understanding of the implications of determinism but failing to clarify how the free spirit, sovereign man, or overman can act in good faith knowing any ‘overcoming’ is causally determined. Finally, in Camus we find the affirmation of the task at hand as the only level of freedom available when working within a deterministic worldview, and I postulate that, while a thin conception of freedom to be sure, it is a ledge from which a larger project might be conceived.

Nietzsche: The Waterfall and the Sovereign Man

Nietzsche has been accused of being inconsistent, whether knowingly or unknowingly, in his support of both free will as well as determinism.[1] However, I believe this is because his conception of the way a person can obtain free will differs vastly from the traditional agency argument, since not all persons are capable of exercising a free will. Nietzsche’s conception of free will is almost in direct opposition to Sartre’s self-made freedom out of choice. Though it was written sixty years prior to Existentialism is a Humanism[2], Nietzsche argues against Sartre’s style of freedom in Beyond Good and Evil:

The desire for “freedom of the will” in the superlative metaphysical sense, which still holds sway, unfortunately, in the minds of the half-educated; the desire to bear the entire and ultimate responsibility for one’s actions oneself, and to absolve God, the world, ancestors, chance, and society involves nothing less than to be precisely this causa sui and, with more than Munchhausen’s audacity, to pull oneself up into existence by the hair, out of the swamps of nothingness.[3]

Here Nietzsche rebukes those who seek to ignore any deterministic considerations when formulating a conception of freedom of the will. To be sure, Nietzsche affirms in several places adherence to a deterministic picture of the universe. Perhaps the clearest elucidation is found in Human, All Too Human  where Nietzsche equates the human situation to that of a waterfall, saying, “At the sight of a waterfall we think we see in the countless curvings, twistings and breakings of the waves capriciousness and freedom of will; but everything here is necessary, every motion mathematically calculable. So it is too in the case of human actions; if one were all-knowing one would be able to calculate every individual action, like-wise every advance in knowledge, every error, every piece of wickedness.”[4] Given these passages, it would seem difficult to reconcile any claim Nietzsche might make on behalf of free will.

However, Nietzsche utilizes overcoming and the concept of the sovereign man to build a framework for free will as an earned capability rather than a de-facto characteristic of every man. In On the Genealogy of Morals he gives us a striking picture of the sovereign man as the one who is free from the determinations of morality and custom and instead is a genuine individual and true to his own character:

We discover that the ripest fruit is the sovereign individual, like only to himself, liberated again from morality of custom, autonomous and supramoral (for ‘autonomous’ and ‘moral’ are mutually exclusive), in short, the man who has his own independent, protracted will and the right to make promises – and in him a proud consciousness, quivering in every muscle, of what has at length been achieved and become flesh in him, a consciousness of his own power and freedom, a sensation of mankind come to completion. This emancipated individual, with the actual right to make promises, this master of a free will, this [is a] sovereign man.[5]

This conception of freedom differs from Sartre’s in that not all of us can be or will become a sovereign individual, whereas Sartre asserts that we are all principally free, we must only realize it.[6] To be sure, Nietzsche does not want to affirm any sense of “could have done otherwise” free will; not even the sovereign individual is a causa sui but rather finds freedom in overcoming morality and creating new values true to his character.[7]

Nietzsche addresses far more metaphysical questions by affirming determinism than Sartre does ignoring it entirely in favor of ontological questions. While Nietzsche’s conception of free will is not the robust form Sartre proposes nor that which a Compatibilist could only dream of discovering, it provides an additional step toward utilizing existentialist thought to provide a satisfying and internally consistent compatibilist account that affirms both determinism as well as freedom.  Despite this, Nietzsche is not entirely clear how, given a determined universe, the act of creating values and overcoming can be labeled as “free.” Even though he rejects the causa sui freedom of Sartre, Nietzsche still seems attached to accepting too robust of a sense of freedom. Another element which still plagues Nietzsche’s compatibilism is that even the sovereign individual’s free will appears to be, on some level, a placating illusion: “The actor himself, to be sure, is fixed in the illusion of free will…The actor’s deception regarding himself, the assumption of free-will, is itself part of the mechanism it would have to compute.”[8] Given this, the most preferable approach would combine existential freedom with the agent’s knowledge of the determined nature of the universe. Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus appears to offer such an approach, to which I shall now turn.

Camus: The Myth of Sisyphus and the Freedom in Embracing Determinism

Camus seeks to draw a distinction between metaphysical freedom and freedom of action: “In order to remain faithful to that method, I have nothing to do with the problem of metaphysical liberty. Knowing whether or not man is free doesn’t interest me.”[9] However, in doing so he provides a unique option for accepting both determinism as well as the absurd freedom of action. For Camus, the absurdity if life results from a disparity between the meaninglessness of life and man’s desire for his life to have meaning and purpose: “This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity.”[10] The conception of the universe as having possibility and opportunities for man to create meaning, i.e. Sartre’s view of complete freedom, inevitably gives way to an understanding that there are no options in the universe, and meaning cannot be constructed out of such metaphysically free choices: “Before encountering the absurd, the everyday man lives with aims, a concern for the future or for justification…He still thinks that something in his life can be directed. In truth, he acts as if he were free, even if all the facts make a point of contradicting that liberty. But after the absurd, everything is upset.”[11] When man realizes his inability to have such completely free choices there is the feeling that all meaning is lost, and to be sure there is no objective meaning in the universe.[12] This prompts the question of suicide; why shouldn’t man kill himself from the meaninglessness of life? Sartre’s response to this also answers the question of how a determinist can find meaning and freedom of action, as represented in the myth of Sisyphus. Although Camus’ concepts of absurdity and the absurd hero play a significant and very particular role in Camus’ philosophy, due to concerns of scope and focus I shall only address one aspect of it in order to draw attention to how the Myth of Sisyphus may be used as a defense of the only freedom possible within determinism. The important aspect I shall examine is the absurd freedom that man can come to realize in the deterministic and meaningless world.

In “The Myth of Sisyphus” Albert Camus seeks to re-examine the Greek myth of Sisyphus, who was doomed by the gods to forever push a heavy boulder uphill; when he reached the top, the boulder would roll back down to the point where he began. Camus takes this imagery and holds it up as representative of the absurd hero who must overcome the meaninglessness of his task to find meaning and a sense of freedom in his life. Sisyphus is trapped in a cycle of actions with no connection to his desires or plans, without the ability to choose alternate actions (no metaphysical freedom of “could have done otherwise.”) While Camus draws a parallel between Sisyphus and the modern labor person, a clear parallel emerges for the determinist trapped in a series of event-causal chains.[13]
Sisyphus and the determinist face similar dilemmas of meaning; their situation is not their choosing, and they cannot exercise genuine metaphysical freedom to alter their fate. But the opportunity for freedom for both Sisyphus and the determinist lies in the moment of reflection upon being a prisoner, and this is the moment Camus focuses upon, saying, “It is during that return, that pause, that Sisyphus interests me…That hour like a breathing space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks toward the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.”[14] In this moment of return wherein Sisyphus reflects upon his only task, and the determinist reflects upon his only possible action, a new type of freedom emerges, a ‘freedom of action’ as Camus calls it:

The only conception of freedom I can have is that of the prisoner or the individual in the midst of the State. The only one I know is freedom of thought and action. Now if the absurd cancels all my chances of eternal freedom, it restores and magnifies, on the other hand, my freedom of action.[15]

This freedom of action is constituted by the affirmation and making the fate one is resigned to truly one’s own.
Sisyphus, Camus concludes, must be considered happy because the task is wholly his – the task becomes his meaning and Sisyphus rebels against his punishment instead making it his life’s work:

All Sisyphus’ silent joy is contained therein. His fate belongs to him. His rock is his thing…If there is a personal fate, there is no higher destiny…For the rest, he knows himself to be the master of his days…This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

In his task Sisyphus finds meaning, but this necessitates his acceptance that he is not metaphysically free.  This acceptance and the freedom of action it grants would not be possible for Sisyphus or the compatibilist if determinism were not accepted and acknowledged. In fact, the absurd freedom stems directly from the constant re-affirmation of the fixed state of the situation either Sisyphus or the compatibilist find themselves in. This is represented in the following passage in which Camus says, “Sisyphus, proletarian of the gods, powerless and rebellious, knows the whole extent of his wretched condition: it is what he thinks of during his descent. The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory.”[16] Thus the acceptance of determinism can give us a victory over it in terms of giving meaning and freedom to our lives in a way not possible with metaphysical freedom.

Concluding Thoughts: Existential Freedom as Compatibilism?


As shown, existentialism offers a unique and not entirely metaphysical response to compatibilist concerns of maintaining both freedom and determinism consistently and still finding purpose or meaning in a world without alternatives. However, the freedom Sartre proposes is so devoid of metaphysical concerns that it is hardly of use to a compatibilist, seeing as Sartre roundly rejects any form of determinism. Nietzsche’s philosophy offers a more significant development by incorporating determinism to a high degree, however his conception of freedom of the will is muddled and it appears as though, at the end of the day, even the sovereign individual fools himself into believing he possesses some robust sense of metaphysical freedom. In Camus’ Myth of Sisyphusand concept of absurd freedom, the compatibilist is given an uncompromised determinism coupled with a realistic, if not thin, conception of freedom. To be sure, absurd freedom does not offer the robust metaphysical “could have done otherwise” freedom , but this is not necessary. All that is necessary is that Camus has developed a sense of freedom that remains consistent with his philosophy of absurdity without undermining determinism. I believe this satisfies the question of whether existentialism and provide an acceptable form of compatibilism unique to existential concerns of being and meaning. This also shows that Copleston’s second claim (see Part I), that all existentialists revolt against any view of man as “an item in the physical cosmos” and therefore against any theory of materialistic or psychological determinism, is not entirely accurate since both Nietzsche and Camus attempt to address metaphysical concerns utilizing an existential approach.

I wonder, though, whether the freedom Camus discusses is truly useful, in that I am not sure it can pull enough metaphysical weight to give us other elements we require other than simple compatibility between determinism and some sense of freedom, e.g. moral responsibility. Is Sisyphus morally responsible for his task? Perhaps not. But is he morally responsible for the owning of his task? Perhaps, although this too leaves open the question of whether the determination of owning the absurdity of one’s decision it itself determined. I am inclined to say it is, but even so, we can still fall back on the absurd nature of such a situation. Determinism, as I find with each new musing, is a closed system. Any and all elements of a deterministic universe are (at the risk of stating the obvious) determined. All celestial motion, all  thoughts, feelings, perceptions, actions and reactions, etc. are the cause of some cause before that, and another before that, and another. The true question of what might be called ‘existential determinism’ is to ascertain what place meaning, freedom, and moral responsibility play in such a closed system. This is where Camus’ option gives hope, in that the absudity that freedom is determined is built into the notion of ‘absurd freedom’ itself.

**NOTE: In my ongoing effort to thwart would-be plagiarists from pilfering my pitiful writings, I have omitted publication information for my sources. Should you have a legitimate need for these sources, please do not hesitate to e-mail me and we can discuss. Thanks!**


[1] Ken Gemes and Christopher Janaway, “Nietzsche on Free Will, Autonomy and the Sovereign Individual II,” pg 339.

 [2] Kaufmann makes note of this in his footnotes to this section, actually quoting the same passage from Sartre’s Existentialism is a Humanism as my footnote #5.

[3] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Basic Writings of Nietzsche, 218.

[4] The quote continues, “The actor himself, to be sure, is fixed in the illusion of free will; if for one moment the wheel of the world were to stand still, and there were an all-knowing, calculating intelligence there to make use of this pause, it could narrate the future of every creature to the remotest ages and describe every track along which this wheel had yet to roll. The actor’s deception regarding himself, the assumption of free-will, is itself part of the mechanism it would have to compute.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, 57.

 [5] Friedrich Nietzsche, On The Genealogy of Morals, 59.

[6] “Zeus: You have [a secret]. The same as mine. The bane of gods and kings. The bitterness of knowing men are free. Yes, Aegistheus, they are free. But your subjects do not know it, and you do.” Sartre, “The Flies,” 100.

[7]This positive conception of free will, then, involves acting fully within one’s character, knowing its limits and capabilities and valuing oneself for what one is rather than for one’s conformity to an external standard or to what one ought to be.”

 Christopher Janaway, “Nietzsche on Free Will, Autonomy and the Sovereign Individual II,” 351.

[8] Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, 57.

[9] Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, trans. Justin O’Brien (New York: Vintage Books: Division of Random House, 1955), 41.

 [10] Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, 5.

[11] Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, 42.

[12] “But at the same time the absurd man realizes that hitherto he was bound to that postulate of freedom on the illusion of which he was living. In a certain sense, that hampered him. To the extent to which he imagined a purpose to his life, he adapted himself to the demands of a purpose to be achieved and became the slave of his liberty.” Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, 43.

[13] “The workman of today works every day in his life at the same tasks, and this fate is no less absurd [than Sisyphus’]. But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious.” Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, 90.

[14] Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, 89.

[15] Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, 41-42.

[16]Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, 90.

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  1. July 21, 2012 at 11:53 PM

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