A Bizzarre Individualism: A Cartography of Nietzsche’s Existential Rendering of the Individual By Adam T. Kingsmith

The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself. –Friedrich Nietzsche, Untimely Mediations, but also titled as Unfashionable Observations, (1876).


What is Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of the individual? This is no simple question. After all, Nietzsche is infamously ambiguous. His work displaces binaries, rejects normativity, is in a constant state of flux. Nietzsche is not concerned with telling us whether specific contemporary indulgences are ‘bad,’ while certain ascetic states that predate modernity are ‘good’—his aim is to open new perspectives, to help us to see theoretical catchalls such as morality, the self, justice, and society in unusual ways. If one thinks in binaries, we might say that Nietzsche tries to expose the sinister underbelly of a pervasive moral, phenomenological, or idealistic phenomenon such as good and evil—ordinarily we see only the foreground, Nietzsche seeks to show us the background. To do so, Nietzsche slashes through the misanthropic exterior of human life under modernity to ask some of the most disquieting and penetrating questions. “Under what conditions did man devise the value judgments good and evil? And what value do they themselves possess? Have they hindered or furthered human possibility? Are they a sign of a distress, of an impoverishment, of the degeneration of a life? Or is there revealed in them, on the contrary, the plenitude of force, and will to life, its courage, certainty, future?” (1887: 17).

‘Will’ is a vital aspect of the Nietzschean oeuvre. For Nietzsche (1901), ‘will,’ or ‘the will to power,’ is the psychological presupposition that people will always attempt to express their desires and drives—every action stems from deeply immanent aspirations to bring a situation under one’s power. In other words, whether someone is giving a gift, falling in love, offering praise, or even doing physical violence, the psychological motive is the same: to exert one’s will. However, this principle does not necessarily mean that the ‘will’ wants power or wishes to dominate. For as long as Nietzsche’s will to power is interpreted as a ‘desire to dominate,’ it inevitably becomes dependent on established values, and this makes us unable to recognize the nature of the will to power as both an elastic principle of all our evaluations and as a hidden principle for the creation of new values not yet recognized. For Nietzsche (1901), a will to power is not to covet or even to take, but to create and to give. In the words of Gilles Deleuze: “the will to power is the differential element from which derive the forces at work, as well as their respective quality in a complex whole,” (2005: 73). Thus Nietzsche always represents the will as a mobile, aerial, multiplicitious element—it is by the will to power that a force commands and breaks forth, but it is also by the will to power that a force obeys and is controlled.

Two façades correspond to these two types of power. To command a force is to act, to affirm, to embrace difference. To obey a force is to react, to negate, to limit the other. Affirmation and negation are thus the qualia of the will to power, just as action and reaction are the qualities of forces. It is between the spaces of affirmation and negation that this paper will situate Nietzsche’s conception of the individual. However, this is not to reduce Nietzsche’s thought down to a simple dualism—while reaction is intrinsically relational and retorted, creation is inherently multiplicitious, pluralistic, hence the titling of this exploration of Nietzsche’s individual subject as ‘bizarre.’ This Overhuman seems at times to be existential, at times liberal, postmodern, even premodern—it does not neatly fit into any unitary classification of political theory.[1] Instead, the Nietzschean individual represents a transvaluation of all values—an exaltation of life rather than an exaltation of suffering, an attempt to move beyond the scope of moral condemnation through the acceptance of every instinct or lust as organic and therefore valid. In other words, what we desire would be merely what we desire, rather than either sinful or pious. To further this bizarre transvaluation, this paper precedes in five short sections. First, it moves to situate Nietzsche’s piercing critiques of morality. Second, it introduces the vital concept of ‘no doer behind the deed.’ Third, it discusses ‘the origin of a thing as its utility.’ Fourth, it probes the rise of what Nietzsche calls ‘bad conscience.’ Fifth, it concludes with closing reflections on bizarre individuals in relation to process philosophy and the will to power.[2]

Piercing the Armor of Morality

Startlingly early in On The Genealogy of Morals Nietzsche asks: “We take moral values as given, as factual, as beyond all question, one has never hesitated in supposing ‘the good man’ to be of greater value than ‘the evil man.’ But what if the reverse were true?” (1887: 20). What if our sense of the ‘good’ is an inherently regressive seduction, a fiercely addictive and furious narcotic through which the present flourishes at the expense of the future? Would morality then be precisely to blame if the highest human brilliance was never in fact attained? If so, would morality then be danger of all dangers? Herein lies one of Nietzsche’s central projects: “to traverse with quite novel questions, and as though with new eyes, the enormous, distant, and so well hidden land of morality,” (1887: 21). To do so, we need to call into question moral values, as well as the values of these values. For this we need knowledge of both the conditions and the circumstances in which morality has grown and evolved. “Morality as consequence, as symptom, as mask, as tartufferie, as illness, as misunderstanding; but also morality as cause, as remedy, as stimulant, as restraint, as poison,” (1887: 20); both the affirmation and negation of power are required to uncover the values of these values. Only through this Nietzschean confrontation can we face the most violent offence of morality: we, the bizarre individuals, no longer know anything about ourselves—“We have misunderstood ourselves, for us the law ‘Each is furthest from himself’ applies to all eternity,” (1887: 15).

According to Nietzsche, the moral philosophy of English psychologists,[3] which has informed much of modernity’s morals, mistakenly assumes that ‘good’ originates in those whom ‘goodness’ is shown through utilitarian acts. This observation captures one of Nietzsche’s (1887) most central problems with morality—we have built a society that assumes ‘goodness’ to be based upon the habitual action of ‘good’ individuals. But for Nietzsche it is not the good individual who determines morality. Rather, it is in fact ‘the good’ themselves, that is to say, “the noble, rich, powerful, high-stationed and high-minded, who felt and established themselves and their actions as good, that is, of the first rank, in contradistinction to all the low, low-minded, common and plebeian,” (1887: 26). Thus the ‘moral’ grounding of the ‘good’ rests not upon un-egotistical acts—as the English psychologists would lead us to believe—but upon aristocratic value judgments that determinedly manipulate language as an expression of power—a way of sealing up social values in order to take possession of the means by which people reach normative conclusions such as good or bad. Moreover, forgetting this aristocratic power over what constitutes morality is nearly impossible as the utilization of morality as a normative tool becomes an everyday experience, something constantly re-entrenched: “Consequently, instead of fading from consciousness, instead of becoming easily forgotten, it continues to be impressed on the consciousness more and more clearly,” (Nietzsche, 1887: 27).

There is No Doer Behind the Deed

In exposing the aristocratic underpinnings of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ Nietzsche is asking: “What does the study of linguistics, and especially the study of etymology, throw on the history of the evolution of our moral concepts?” (1887: 55). After all, most of the etymological designations coined for ‘good’ lead back to the same conceptual transformation—“That everywhere ‘noble,’ in the social sense, from which ‘good,’ in the sense of ‘a soul with a higher order,’ necessarily developed,” (1887: 28). We can see a fundamental turn in the ways in which the individual constructs an identity through language—‘good as power’ becomes ‘truth as power’ as a trustworthy noble juxtaposes themselves with a deceitful commoner. Thus a hierarchy is established that differentiates between the open civility of noble morality—framed as the creative and triumphant affirmation of the individual—and the closed ressentiment of slave morality—represented as a reactive and inversive negation of self.[4] Such a hierarchical apposition gives nobility the power to constitute truth, and by extension, dictate culture—a culture which, for Nietzsche (1887), demands of strength that it expresses itself as weakness, and in the process reduces the beast of prey—this bizarre individual—down to a tame and civilized animal, a domestic animal.

According to Nietzsche, “a quantum of force is equivalent to a quantum of drive, will, effect—it is nothing other than precisely this very driving, willing, effecting, and only owning to the seduction of language…which conceives and misconceives all effects as conditioned by something that causes effects, by a ‘subject,’ can it appear otherwise,” (1887: 45). In other words, popular morality as constructed by nobility maintains power by separating strength out from the expressions of strength, by reacting as if there was a neutral substratum running beneath a strong man that was free to express its strength or not. In actuality, “there is no ‘being’ behind doing, effecting, becoming; ‘the doer’ is merely a fiction added to the deed—the deed is everything,” (Nietzsche, 1887: 45). Yet as a result of selective etymological constructions of the ‘good,’ ‘truth,’ and ‘culture,’ the popular mind removes the active will to power from the self. We self-deprecate, and in the process, construct fictional gaps between our actions and ourselves. Scientists do no better when they say force ‘moves’ or ‘causes’ something—such examples are akin to, for Nietzsche, separating lightening from its flash. From atomic theory down to the infamous Kantian thing-in-itself,[5] we have yet to dispose of the ‘subject,’ as a result, it should come as no surprise that for Nietzsche (1887: 45), the nobility and their “submerged, darkly, glowering emotions of vengefulness,” maintain this separation of doer and the deed solely for their own ends.

The Origin of a ‘Thing’ and its Utility

Building from critiques of morality, truth, culture, and science as substrata of control centered on a system of aristocratic value judgments, Nietzsche turns his gaze to the problem of justice and the law—an imperative declaration of what is permitted and what is forbidden. For Nietzsche, “to speak of just or unjust in itself is quite senseless; in itself, of course, no injury, assault, exploitation, destruction can be ‘unjust,’ since life operates essentially,” (1887: 76). In other words, as legal conditions constitute a partial restriction of the will to life that is subordinated to the means of creating power, they are nothing more than exceptional circumstances. A legal order thought of as sovereign or universal—not as a means of struggle, but as a means of preventing it—is a reactive principle hostile to life; “an agent of the dissolution and destruction of man, an attempt to assassinate the future of man, a secret path to nothingness,” (Nietzsche, 1887: 76). We have arrived upon a major point in historical methodology. English psychologists search for the origins of justice by seeking out some sort of ‘purpose’ for punishment. However, the ‘purpose of law’ is the last thing to employ when creating a history of the origins of law. To do so would be to conflate an origin of a thing in its utility. For Nietzsche, such a move problematically conflates “the cause of the origin of a thing and its eventual utility, its actual employment and place in a system of purposes lie worlds apart,” (1887: 77).

Whatever exists, having come into being somehow, is perpetually reinterpreted and transformed for new ends, taken over, redirected by some superior power; “all events in the organic world are a subduing, a becoming master, and all subduing and becoming master involve a fresh interpretation, an adaptation through which previous ‘meaning’ and ‘purpose’ are necessarily obscured or even obliterated,” (Nietzsche, 1887: 77). [6] Thus we must not equate the origin of a thing and its utility—and however well one understands the utility of a physiological organ, political institution, form of art, or social custom, this means nothing regarding its origin. The human eye was not simply ‘made’ for seeing, the hand for grasping. The entire history of a ‘thing’ is but a continuous sign-chain of ever new interpretations and adaptations whose causes do not even have to be related, but in some cases, simply succeed and alternate each other in a purely chance fashion. Thus purposes and utilities are only signs that a will to power has become the master of something less powerful. Contra Hegel’s (1835) teleology,[7] the evolution of a thing or custom is not a move towards an end, rather: “a succession of more or less profound and independent processes of subduing, plus the resistances they encounter, the attempts at transformation and the results of successful counteractions,” (1887: 78).

The Rise of a Bad Conscience

To simply equate origins to things is to rob subjectivity of the concept of activity. It is to overlook the essential priority of the spontaneous, aggressive, expansive, form-giving forces that enable the affirmation of a will to power. In other words, to equate the origin of a thing and its utility is to embrace negation, and thus (re)act in bad conscience—“the serious illness that man was bound to contract under the stress of the most fundamental change he ever experienced—that change which occurred when he found himself finally enclosed within the walls of society,” (Nietzsche, 1887: 84). Every growth in the whole changes the meaning of the individual. Thus for Nietzsche, the wielding of a free flowing and nomadic populace into a firm form represents the first instituted act of violence. By its utility, the oldest state is a fearful tyranny, a repressive and remorseless machine that goes on working until all the raw materials of activity, process, and potentiality are thoroughly kneaded, pliant and formed.[8] Thus the history of a state is a long narration of man’s submissions and the reasons we give for legitimizing them. Instead of linking an active life and affirmative thinking, the consequences of equating origins to things is that thought becomes negative, life deprecates—reduced to its weakest forms it ceases to be active. As a result, living within these static systems has reduced the individuals’ regulating, unconscious, and infallible drives down to thinking, inferring, reckoning, and coordinating cause and effect—“these unfortunate creatures reduced to their modesty through a ‘consciousness,’ their weakest and most fallible organ,” (Nietzsche, 1887: 87).

The demands of the old instincts of affirmation, however, do not cease. It has just become considerably more difficult to satisfy them—“all instincts that do not discharge themselves outwardly turn inward”—this is what Nietzsche (1887: 85) refers to as the internationalization of man—a process in which our inner world expands and extends, acquiring depth and height, but also turning those instincts of wild, free, and prowling (hu)man backward against ourselves. Thus bad conscience appropriates the soul of the individual, and as a result, we confront “the gravest illness, from which humanity has not yet recovered, man’s suffering of man, of himself—the result of a forcible sundering from his animal past, a leap, plunge into new surroundings and conditions of existence, a declaration of war against old instincts upon which his strength, joy, and terribleness had rested,” (Nietzsche, 85: 1887). In other words, bad conscience is the self-alienating deprecation the results from the forcible repression and incarceration of the individual’s instinct for freedom. For Nietzsche, however, nothing can really be simply one thing, one perspective, or one interpretation. We must guard against thinking of bad conscience merely on account of its initial painfulness and ugliness. Fundamentally, it is the same active force that places structures on other men directed inwards. Thus the uncanny dreadfulness of an individual’s soul involuntarily at odds with itself has also: “brought to light an abundance of strange new beauty and affirmation, and perhaps beauty itself—after all, what would be beautiful if the contradiction had first not become conscious of itself, if the ugly had not first said to itself: ‘I am ugly?’” (Nietzsche, 1887: 88).

Reflections on the Bizarre Individual

In his reading of Nietzsche, Deleuze (1962: 40) emphasizes that Nietzsche’s ontology is monist, a monism of force: “there is no quantity of reality, all reality is already a quantity of force.”[9] Since this force expresses itself only to its fullest, such a force is solely a force of affirmation, that is, a force that says ‘yes’ to itself. This fundamental affirmation—as expressed by Nietzsche in, for example, his discussion of bad conscience as both an uncanny dreadfulness as well as an abundance of strange new beauty—underpins the whole of Nietzsche’s critical typology. In other words, all of the Nietzschean negations, reactive forces, sadness, and ressentiment are merely parts of the process of moving towards creative and affirmative life. There is not one force, but many—the play and interaction of which forms the basis of individual existence. Thus the many antagonistic metaphors in Nietzsche’s writing should be interpreted in light of this pluralistic ontology, and not as an indication of some sort of psychosomatic aggression—“if a temple is to be erected a temple must be destroyed: that is the law—let anyone who can show me a case in which it is not fulfilled!” (1887: 95). Nietzsche’s ferocity is not fixated upon human life, rather, upon dogmatic images of thought that imagine a natural harmony between thinker, truth, and the act of contemplation. For Nietzsche, thought does not naturally relate to truth; instead, it is a creative act, an act of affect, a force of other forces. This does not mean truth is merely an abstract generality, rather, following from on Deleuze (1968), it means that truths are a part of our regimes of force, they are a matter of value that must not be innately enforced but individually assessed, judged, and affirmed.

“The masters according to Nietzsche are untimely, those who create, those who destroy in order to create, not to preserve,” (Deleuze, 2004: 130). In order to grasp such a paradox, we must return to our initial question: what does Nietzsche’s individual—the so-called master—look like? Enter the bizarre—Nietzsche fervently critiques all notions of morality and utilitarianism, folds in all distinctions between the doer and deed, draws out the origin of a thing and its utility, and both laments and liberates the rise of a bad conscience. In other words, Nietzsche’s individual is not so much contradictory, as it is uncanny—an immanent recognition of the self preceded by its own destruction so that it can be created. This self is not a liberal self.[10] Throughout his work, Nietzsche’s sense of individualism is accompanied by a lively critique of the notions of subject and self—what Deleuze calls (1969) ‘life’—this is exemplified when Nietzsche critiques ‘the weak,’ which, stimulated by their deep obsession with self-preservation, “desire to believe in a neutral, independent subject, self, and soul,” (1887: 46). To say that Nietzsche values an individual above all—due to his infamous critiques of mass psychology via ‘the herd’—would be a gross oversimplification. After all, through his challenge to the Kantian ‘thing-in-itself, Nietzsche repeatedly criticizes the concept of the subject, of atomism. Instead, Nietzsche views the individual subject as a complex of instincts and wills to power—just as he conceptualizes other organisations from states and organs to arts and customs.

Nietzsche’s bizarre individualism is a kind of dissolution of the self—the reaction against oppressive structures is no longer done in the name of a ‘self’ or an ‘I’—for ‘I’ and ‘self’ are accomplices of those structures—but in the name of an anti-metaphysics, a process philosophy that guards against the snares of contradictory concepts such as ‘pure reason’ and ‘knowledge-in-itself.’ Such concepts demand that we think that which is completely unthinkable—“like an eye that can be turned in no particular direction yet still focus in on a single truth,” (Nietzsche, 1887: 119). Thus this bizarre individualism is a sort of Nietzschean perspectivism—there is only a perspective seeing, a perspective ‘knowing,’ the more eyes, different eyes, which can observe a thing, the more complete the concept. By emphasizing a process of self-affirmation as opposed to actualization, Nietzsche inserts his corpus in a dimension that is neither historical, even if understood dialectically, nor eternal—an experimental calling into question the value of truth. What Nietzsche (1895) labels this new dimension, which operates both in time and against time, is, as Deleuze reminds us, the untimely—a dimension that is distinct from classical philosophy in its ‘timeless’ enterprise, and dialectical philosophy in its understanding of history as a singular element of upheaval. Thus the Nietzschean ‘individual’ is rendered as bizarre, a different kind of spirit, the redemption of both great love and contempt that is victorious over the ascetic ideal and knee-jerk reactionary of nothingness. Subjectivity holds no single authority here—to interpret is merely to interpret interpretations—the ultimate authority for such Overhuman is creation via destruction: “All great things bring about their own destruction through an act of self-overcoming,” (Nietzsche, 1887: 161).

Works Cited

—Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics, translated by Terence Irwin, Hackett Publishing Company, 1985.
—Bentham, Jeremy, and John Stuart Mill. Utilitarianism and Other Essays, translated by Alan Ryan, Penguin Press, 1987.
—Deleuze, Gilles. Nietzsche and Philosophy, translated by Hugh Tomlinson, Columbia University Press, [first ed. 1962], 2006.
—Deleuze, Gilles. Desert Islands and Other Texts, edited by David Lapoujade, Semiotext(e), 2004.
—Deleuze, Gilles. Pure Immanence: Essays on A Life, translated by Anne Boyman, Zone Books, 2005.
—Descartes, René. Discourse on the Method for Rightly Constructing One’s Reason and for Seeking Truth in the Sciences, translated by Donald Cress, Hackett Publishing Company, [first ed. 1637], 1980.
—Hegel, G.W.F. Elements of the Philosophy of Right, edited by Allen W. Wood, Cambridge University Press, [first ed. 1835], 1991.
—Heraclitus. Fragments: The Collected Wisdom of Heraclitus, translated by Brooks Haxton, Viking Books, 2001.
—Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason, translated by Marcus Weigelt, Penguin Classics, [first ed. 1781], 2008.
—Nietzsche, Friedrich. Untimely Mediations, or Unfashionable Observations, translated by R.J. Hollingdale, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, [first ed.1876], 1997.
—Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science: With a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix in Songs, translated by Walter Kaufman, Vintage, [first ed. 1882], 1974.
—Nietzsche, Friedrich. On The Genealogy of Morals, translated by Walter Kaufman,Vintage, [first ed. 1887], 1989.
—Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Anti-Christ, Ecce Homo, Twilight of the Idols: And Other Writings, translated by Judith Norman, Cambridge University Press, [first ed. 1895], 2005).
—Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Will to Power, translated by Walter Kaufman, Knopf      Doubleday Publishing Group, [first ed. 1901], 2011.
—Spinoza, Benedict de. Ethics, translated by Edwin Curley, Penguin Classics, [first ed.1677], 2006).

[1] Nietzsche (1901) presents the Übermensch or Overhuman as the creator of new values. In this way, it is his solution to the problem of the death of God and nihilism. If the Overhuman acts to create new values within the moral vacuum of nihilism, there is nothing that this creative act would not justify. In order to avoid a relapse into asceticism, these new values cannot be motivated by the same instincts that gave birth to previous ones—they must be motivated by a love of this world and of life. Whereas Nietzsche saw Christian value systems as destructive reactions against life, he sees the values of the Overhuman as life affirming and creative.

[2] Following from Deleuze, I trace process philosophy back to Heraclitus’s Fragments, in which he posits that the underlying basis of all reality is change. In opposition to the Aristotelian model of change as accidental, an ontology of process regards change as the cornerstone of reality.

[3] According to Nietzsche scholar Walter Kaufman (1989), by English psychologists Nietzsche is referring to classical utilitarians such as Jeremy Bentham and J.S. Mill. Nietzsche (1887) tended to target utilitarianism for a number of reasons: First, it places far too high a role of happiness—for Nietzsche, great people do things as a means of constant self-overcoming even if it creates lots of unhappiness. Second, it is psychologically unrealistic—people do not rationally sit back and pursue happiness as much as they are pushed and pulled by various conflicting drives and later rationalize some story about freely choosing among a set of alternatives. Third, it places too important a role on masses—for Nietzsche, it is more important that individuals overcome themselves and live truthfully. Fourth, utilitarianism is a totalizing moral theory that states there is some ‘objective’ moral right and wrong—Nietzsche disagrees and thinks right and wrong are terms humans use to interpret phenomena, and are not part of the phenomena themselves.

[4] For Nietzsche (1887), ressentiment is a reassignment of the pain that accompanies a sense of one’s own inferiority. Man creates the illusion of an enemy, a cause that can be ‘blamed’ for one’s own failure. Thus, one was thwarted not by a failure in oneself, but by an external ‘evil.’

[5] From Kant’s (1781) perspective, humans can make sense out of phenomena in various ways, but can never directly know the noumena, or “things-in-themselves’—the actual objects and dynamics of the natural world. In other words, by Kant’s critique, our minds may attempt to correlate in useful ways, perhaps even closely accurate ways, with the structure and order of the various aspects of the universe, but cannot know these “things-in-themselves” directly. Thus Kant retains the subject as the extent to which thoughts correspond with things-in-themselves is determined entirely by our observations of the manifestations of things that can be sensed.

[6] Nietzsche’s (1901) concept of being is inextricably linked to his notion of the will to power, which again describes what Nietzsche believes to be the essential driving force in individuals—namely, achievement, ambition, and the striving to reach the highest possible position in life.

[7] Through his teleological conception of history, Hegel (1835) folds in the origin of a thing and its utility by presuming that an account of a given thing is also an account of that thing’s purpose.

[8] Nietzsche (1882) does not mean ‘the oldest state’ in a modern sense of an organized political community living under one government, rather he is referring to the first institutionalized polity that forcefully centralized and flattened a population by imposing a fixed location and identity.

[9] Both Nietzsche and later Deleuze draw their understandings of monism from Spinoza, whose radical accounts of the nature of reality treat the physical and mental worlds as intertwined, causally related, and deriving from the same. In the Ethics, Spinoza (1677) describes how the human mind is affected by both mental and physical factors, directly contesting all Cartesian dualities. For Spinoza, the universal substance emanates both body and mind—while they are different attributes, there is no fundamental difference between these aspects. This formulation is a historically significant solution to the mind-body problem and is called neutral monism.

[10] While liberalism is, of course, a pluralistic a multifaceted field of political theory, Nietzsche’s repeated critiques of utilitarianism as a psychologically unrealistic moral totality speak to the fact that while there may be some overlaps, Nietzsche is alluding to a different notion of the self.