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The worst ties are those we don’t notice. “None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free”, said Goethe. Although sometimes it frightens us so much to recognize that we prefer to look in another direction, so as not to notice the deep split between the desire for freedom of the “ego” and the oppressive chains that usually represent the “others”.
Nietzsche, who dedicated part of his work thinking about how to free ourselves from social tyranny, reflected on how a “free spirit” should be, a person who owns his actions, thinks and decides for himself without letting himself be conditioned by society. A person who is not a product of social engineering but takes the reins of his life and assumes responsibility for his actions.
How is the person with a free spirit?
Throughout the book “Beyond good and evil”, Nietzsche converts the self-affirmation of the will and the renounce to the influence of others on the fundamental pillars to become a free spirit, but also outlines other characteristics that, according to him, should have people who aspire to think and decide on their own.
1. Enjoy loneliness. “Every select man instinctively aspires to have his own castle and hiding place where he can redeem himself from the crowd, from the many, from the majority”, Nietzsche wrote. And it is no accident that it is one of the first characteristics of free spirits that he mentions since, according to the philosopher, the loneliness chosen is an essential condition for the freethinker. Loneliness is not only a sine qua non condition for instrospection but it also allows us assume the necessary psychological distance to find our true “ego” under so many social layers.
2. Listen with an open mind. Free spirits are not arrogant peolple, but runs away from the presumption of knowing everything and open their mind to new knowledge and perspectives. Nietzsche wrote: “The lover of knowledge must listen subtly and diligently, he must have his ears in all those places where they speak without indignation.” Although a part of the journey of the free spirit passes through inner paths, in the search for himself, another part takes place in the shared world, so these people must be willing to drink from all sources.
3. Be themselves. “We have to get rid of the bad habit of wanting to agree with everyone”, said Nietzsche. The need to seek approval and acceptance can take us away from ourselves, causing us to silence our true desires and aspirations. That is why the free spirit is freed from the mass mentality and from that private laziness that consists in being subject to public opinion. A free spirit listens, but then values and decides autonomously. That, on many occasions, can mean that the others will not agree with his ideas and decisions, which will attract a lot of criticism. And we have to be prepared to deal with that opposition.
4. Be strong and know how to deal with criticism. Being a free spirit in a society that does everything because people fit into pre-established molds, requires a lot of strength and courage. Nietzsche said “It is a matter of very few being independent: it is a privilege of the strong.” He thought that whoever tries to be so “Enters a labyrinth, multiplies by a thousand the dangers that life already entails in itself” and cannot even aspire to empathy since most people do not understand him, so they can qualify his ideas and decisions such as nonsense or heresy, depending on the level of alarm they cause and the extent to which they clash with established social norms. Nietzsche had foreseen it: “Our supreme intellections seem necessarily – and they must seem! – nonsense and, in certain circumstances, crimes, when they unduly reach the ears of those who are not made or predestined for them”.
5. Go beyond social stereotypes. The free spirit that Nietzsche describes has to be able to go beyond good and evil, avoid this “dangerous moral formula” since it would only make us “Brave lawyers of ‘modern ideas’”; that is, defenders of the system of the moment. For the philosopher, being a really free spirit is equal to getting rid of moral and social conditioning to determine our lives for ourselves, beyond what we are supposed to or should not do. Therefore, his is a call to subvert the old structure of values that, according to him, enslaves the human spirit. A value structure based on good or bad, labels that prevent us from seeing things in their vast complexity and make us bypass the full range of colors that exist between black and white.
6. Develop detachment. For Nietzsche, the free spirit “Cannot remain attached to any person: even the most beloved”, nor to a country, martyrdom and even science because that sick attachment would take away the objectivity and the possibility of moving forward in the path of discovery. He even states that we should not “Stick to our own dismay, to that voluptuous remoteness and alienity of the bird that flees farther and farther to the height, in order to see more and more things below itself […] We have to know how to preserve ourselves: This is the strongest proof of independence.” The practice of detachment consists of embracing uncertainty and having the flexibility to change ideas if we realize that we were wrong or that those ideas were damaging us because they had lost their reason for being.
From freethinker to free spirit
The characteristics of the free spirit that Nietzsche defines indicate that they are people who are not chained to customs, social conventions and stereotypes but, above all – and most importantly – who are not chained to prevailing thought patterns, not only in terms of ideas but of the thought process itself. They are people who question everything because they need to reach their own truth.
In fact, Nietzsche makes the distinction between a free thinker and a free spirit since, while the former runs the risk of sticking to his ideas, making them immovable, the free spirit continually seeks as it is immersed in a process of constant growth.
The freethinker is exposed to the temptation to change one God for another, as scientists have done, who have sacrificed religion on the altar of science to build a new altar on which established dogmas are poorely questioned. Nietzsche’s free spirit, on the contrary, is a tireless seeker, a tenacious questioner who tries to form his own image of the world without imposing it on others. In that search he is freed from the bonds and certainties to undertake the most exciting journey of all: the search for our own ideas.
Let us keep this idea of Alvin Toffler: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”
Acampora, C. (2014) “In What Senses are Free Spirits Free?” Pli: The Warwick Journal of Philosophy; 25: 13-33.
Nietzsche, F. (2007) Más allá del bien y del mal. Gradifco: Buenos Aires.