Free Will: Nietzsche’s Philosophy of the “Will to Power”

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Thus Spoke Zarathustra" by Friedrich Nietzsche. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is Friedrich Nietzsche’s free will philosophy? What does the “will to power” mean?

According to Friedrich Nietzsche, free will is the essence of life, driving animals and humans to compete and evolve. In the novel Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche creatively explains his philosophy of free will through the teachings of the novel’s protagonist Zarathustra.

Read on to learn about free will and Nietzsche’s “will to power,” according to Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

Free Will, According to Nietzsche

According to Friedrich Nietzsche, free will is what drives animals to compete with each other, making evolutionary progress possible. In humans, the same driving force produces a social hierarchy, as people compete with each other for power. In Nietzsche’s novel Thus Spoke Zarathustra, he calls this driving force the “will to power,” and he uses the teachings of the novel’s protagonist, Zarathustra, to explain his philosophy of human free will.

What Is the “Will to Power?”

Zarathustra’s “will to power” isn’t just about gaining authority over others—it has even more to do with having power over yourself. According to Nietzsche’s novel, human free will gives you the power to think for yourself and act according to your desires. Free will also makes creativity possible because you have to think for yourself to create anything new, writes Nietzsche. In particular, it enables you to create yourself—in other words, to be different and unique. This is essential for evolutionary progress because humankind cannot make progress if everyone is the same. 

(Shortform note: The question of whether creativity requires free will is a subject of debate. Some studies indicate that creativity enhances a person’s sense of freedom, implying a connection between free will and creativity that tends to corroborate Nietzsche’s perspective. However, since about 2022, computers have become very efficient at producing graphic artwork and other material traditionally thought to require human creativity. Computers, of course, have no free will, so this raises questions about the definition of creativity. If AI-generated content can truly be considered creative, then creativity doesn’t require free will.)

Furthermore, in Nietzsche’s novel, Zarathustra encourages you to take the initiative to think and act for yourself because exercising free will is what makes you feel free. Conversely, if you always submit to others’ ideas of what you should do and who you should be, or conform to social norms instead of thinking for yourself, then your life will feel empty because you’ve given up your free will, and with it your essence of life.

The Free Will Debate

Aside from Nietzsche’s philosophy of free will, there is an ongoing debate about the significance of free will—and even about its existence. Some, like Yuval Noah Harari, author of 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, argue that free will is an illusion. What you perceive as your will is produced by biochemical reactions in your brain, which in turn are triggered by stimuli in your environment. For example, if you sense danger, you’ll naturally want to run away.

So, according to Harari, your “free will” and the decisions you think you make aren’t really free at all. Instead, they’re constrained by your biological makeup. He goes on to predict that even the illusory significance of your decisions will likely diminish in the 21st century, as computer algorithms make more of our decisions for us.

Since, like Harari, Zarathustra believes that your soul—and thus also your will—are just part of your body, it might be difficult for him to refute Harari’s argument. This is arguably a point of inconsistency in Zarathustra’s teachings.

However, other studies indicate that deliberately exercising free will has an empowering effect on your life, which leads to greater success. In Smarter, Better, Faster, Charles Duhigg advises you to make a habit of choosing to do things that are against the rules or that challenge the status quo. He says these “subversive decisions” will give you a greater sense of control, which in turn will amplify your sense of motivation. And higher motivation will lead to greater success. Thus, Duhigg’s studies arguably refute Harari’s argument, or at least his conclusion that free will is unimportant, and support Zarathustra’s position.

When Free Will Is Lost

No matter how resolutely you take the initiative to direct your own life, sometimes things that you don’t want to happen still happen because other people cause them. In Nietzsche’s novel, Zarathustra observes that this tends to offend your free will or “will to power.” When something happens that you didn’t want, your free will becomes frustrated because, while it can shape the future, it can’t change the past. 

For example, suppose you decide to take a vacation at a beach-front resort in another country. But the taxi driver who’s supposed to take you from the airport to the resort instead takes you out into the jungle and robs you, taking your money, identification, and passport. After he disappears, you feel angry and frustrated—this is not what you had in mind when you planned your vacation. 

Zarathustra says that when this happens, the only way to truly resolve the problem is to convince yourself that what happened was what you wanted after all. You can’t change the past, but you can change what you want, both for the future and in the past. In our example, maybe you learned some jungle survival skills and made friends with some locals who helped you get home. In hindsight, you’re actually glad it happened because you ended up building valuable relationships, feeling more self-reliant, and having a much better story to tell your grandchildren than if your vacation had gone as planned.

Free Will: Nietzsche’s Philosophy of the “Will to Power”

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Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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