Art, ‘strength’ and necessity, or constraint, are thus brought together here, and in some potentially fruitful ways. But we seem to have lost sight of freedom. And to get it back into view, we need to return to Beyond Good and Evil; for there, in a very significant passage, things begin to crystallise. The passage in question—section 188—must be quoted at some length. It goes like this:
Nietzsche's point here can be summarised, crudely, in three related claims. The first is that fully effective agency—or ‘masterly sureness’, as he puts it—has, as one of its necessary conditions, the ‘tyranny of … capricious laws’. The second is that the artist—whose most characteristic laws ‘defy all formulation through concepts’—is exemplary of such agency. The third claim is that the exercise of fully effective agency, so conceived, equals ‘freedom’—that is, freedom in the ethical sense with which Nietzsche is concerned. I will try to say something about each of these claims in turn.
The first claim connects agency to the notion of ‘law’, or, as Nietzsche also terms it, ‘compulsion’. ‘Law’ or ‘compulsion’, here, can be regarded as equivalent for our purposes, as indeed for Nietzsche's, to the kinds of (normative) ‘constraint’ and ‘necessity’ that we have primarily been discussing so far. And submission to such laws or constraints is taken to be a (necessary) condition of ‘masterly sureness’.21 This is a highly significant move, which for the first time marks clearly the distinctive relation of Nietzsche's ‘strong’ characters to the forms of necessity that interest him. Rather than regarding such constraints or necessities as limits on their powers—as those ‘weak’ characters do, who ‘feel that if [these] bitterly evil compulsion[s] were to be imposed on them, they would be demeaned’—the ‘strong’ recognise such constraints as essential to the effective exercise of those powers. And it is reasonably easy to see that Nietzsche must be right about this. My quotation from section 188 picked it up at the point at which Nietzsche mentions language, and speaks of ‘the metrical compulsion of rhyme and rhythm’. But we needn't appeal to poetry to see what he means. A person who insisted, for example, that ‘submitting abjectly’ to the ‘capricious’ rules of grammar and punctuation inhibited or limited his powers of linguistic expression would show that he had no idea what linguistic expression was.22 Like Nietzsche's ‘weak’ characters, he would fail to recognise that it is only by working with and through those rules—by taking the ‘trouble’, as Nietzsche puts it—that effective linguistic expression is so much as possible. And as for linguistic agency, so for agency in general. Nietzsche's highly plausible thought, in other words, is that fully effective agency requires the acknowledgement, and indeed the internalisation, of the norms or necessities constitutive of the practices through which that agency is exercised; and on this picture, clearly enough, ‘constraint’, ‘law’ or ‘compulsion’ feature, not as limits on our powers of acting, but as their sine qua non.
Now it might be objected here that this is such a weak claim as to be barely worth making: of course one must play by the rules if one is to play the game at all. But this isn't a well-directed objection. Nietzsche's claim at this point is weak, deliberately so. He merely intends to steer off the ‘laisser aller’ conception of freedom—the thought that any and every constraint necessarily curtails one's power to act.23 Nor, by the way, is he concerned to distinguish here between admirable and despicable forms of agency. It may well be that some of the norms and constraints constitutive of our practices are unwelcome, or even offensive—as, for example, I might conclude when I find that I have to work with and through the rules of an appeals process that I think defective against a decision that I consider unjust. But the offensiveness of these norms does not preclude the possibility of ‘masterly sureness’ in the navigation of them, as the existence of certain kinds of lawyer attests. The shyster's powers are made possible, rather than limited, by the norms constitutive of our legal practices, however much we might deplore some of those norms and his sort of mastery. And Nietzsche's point at this stage requires no more than this. He is claiming only that the acknowledgement of ‘capricious laws’ is a necessary condition of engaging effectively in any human practice whatsoever, a point that the ‘laisser aller’ conception of freedom wholly obscures.
The second claim was that artists are exemplary of fully effective agency, so conceived, and that they are so, at least in part, because their ‘thousandfold laws … defy all formulation through concepts’. Nietzsche is clearly drawing, here, on the Kantian claim that genius gives the rule to art—or, more strictly, the claim that nature gives the rule to art, and does so via genius. Nietzsche modifies Kant's thought in one respect: for Nietzsche, the ultimate source of the rule that is given to art is not ‘nature’, in Kant's sense, but rather what we might term ‘second nature’, the ‘nature’ that is constituted by our practices and the ‘tyranny’ of the ‘capricious laws’ that constitute them.24 Otherwise, though, his claim about the ‘thousandfold laws’ of art is substantially the same as Kant's—namely, that since exemplary artistic activity is neither arbitrary nor chaotic, but rather appears law-like (to be a matter of ‘giving form’), and yet since the procedures for such activity cannot be codified, the ‘rule’ that is given to art cannot, in Kant's words, have ‘a concept for its determining ground’ (Kant 1952: §46): it cannot be taught, but must instead ‘be gathered from the performance, i.e. from the product, which others may use to put their own talent to the test, so as to let it serve as a model, not for imitation, but for following’ (Kant 1952: §47).
Why, then, does Nietzsche regard the exercise of a form of agency whose enabling necessities are not merely ‘capricious’ and numerous, but also unformulable, as exemplary of agency as such? There are a number of ways in which one might answer this question, but the most economical—for present purposes—is the following. The laws that are in operation here are, because unformulable, also inconceivable except as internal to what Kant calls the ‘performance’, that is, to the exemplary exercise of artistic agency itself; therefore those laws cannot be held up as a standard external to the exercise of that agency, and so cannot be chafed against, from the perspective of that agency, as any kind of limitation upon it. Artistic agency is exemplary for Nietzsche, then, because it is a form of agency that simply cannot be engaged in effectively by those ‘weak’ characters who construe every kind of necessity as a ‘demeaning’ constraint, as a threat to ‘their belief in themselves.’25 To exercise artistic agency at all, in other words, just is to acknowledge that necessity is a condition of (pointful, artistic) action. So, since necessity is integral to every type of agency, this kind of agency is exemplary of agency as such—or so Nietzsche concludes.
Again, though, an objection suggests itself, this time in the form of a dilemma. Either these ‘laws’ are indeed laws, it might be said, in which case they must be formulable and capable of being held up as an external standard; or else they really are unformulable, in which case they aren't laws at all, and can be said to be ‘internal’ only in the uninteresting sense that they refer to the whims or preferences of some individual agent.
But this is a false dilemma. As Aristotle argued, the fact of unformulability does not, by itself, indicate the absence of norms that transcend the idiosyncrasies of individual agents: the good man ‘perceives’ what a situation requires of him, even though there is no statable rule that allows him to do this.26 Now of course we might choose to withhold the name ‘law’ from what the good man is obedient to in seeing what is demanded of him. But this would be a merely terminological decision. It would not affect the fact that the good man's perception is independent of—and has a normative force that is independent of—his whims or preferences, despite the fact that there is no formulable procedure for perceiving what he perceives. And this, translated into an artistic register, is Nietzsche's point. When Beethoven saw, for example, how the coda to the finale of his C-minor symphony had to go, he was answerable to the demands of his material: he could have got it right, he could have got it wrong. But prior to his compositional act no one, himself included, could have stated a rule for arriving at what he arrived at. Rather, he ‘strictly’ and ‘subtly’ obeyed laws that emerged only in the course of his ‘performance’—that were, as I have put it, internal to the exercise of his agency.27 Now of course these laws might, in one sense, be stated ex post facto—which is to say, Beethoven's compositional acts can be made retrospectively intelligible in terms of musical logic (rather than in terms, merely, of his whims or preferences). But—so stated—such laws would provide material only for ‘imitation’, as Kant had it, not for ‘following’. When Beethoven followed them, those laws were unformulable.28
The third claim was that fully effective agency, conceived on the artistic model set out above, equals ‘freedom’. At one level this claim is now trivial, given what has been said: it is obviously true that to be ‘free’ is to be able to ‘act’. But the point goes deeper than this. Recall that the laws or necessities through which artistic agency is exercised are, as I have said, internal to the exercise of that agency, and so cannot be adduced as independently specifiable standards against which any given instance of that exercise can be assessed. We can now put the same point in a different way. We can say: in the exemplary exercise of agency, success is marked by the fact that the agent's will—his intention—becomes ‘determinate’in its realisation, and only there. This point, which is essentially Kant's,29 directs us to a picture of willing that culminates and crystallises only in the moment at which one can say ‘Yes!—that's what I was after’. One knows what one's intention is, determinately, only in realising it. And it is this kind of exercise of the will, which is also a process of self-discovery, which Nietzsche equates with freedom.30
Consider Beethoven and his coda again. Presumably he could have said before starting to compose it that he meant the coda to be as emphatic as possible and that he wanted to ram home the tonic as unignorably as he could. In this sense, he had a perfectly clearly formed intention before he began—and one which he indeed went on to realize in ‘the performance’. But his sketch-books show in a very vivid way how difficult he found it to arrive at such performances—how much labour and revision went into finally getting it right, into making the rather abstract intention with which he may be supposed to have begun into something concrete and determinate. As Stuart Hampshire helpfully puts it:
I may very easily make a mistake in the description or identification of my activity … without being confused in my practical intentions … [That this is so] would be shown when I recognised something as happening contrary to my intentions, or recognised it as happening in accordance with them. I might say truthfully ‘This is not what I intended,’ even though I point to something that accords precisely with my own declaration of my intentions … But it does not follow from this that I did not know what I was doing, in one familiar sense of this treacherous phrase. (Hampshire 1959: 95–96)
Beethoven knew what he was doing, all right. He was trying to compose an emphatic, tonic-heavy coda to his symphony. But he couldn't know what precisely would count as that—what would conclude this symphony in a satisfyingly emphatic, tonic-heavy way—until he found, or came up with, the coda that we all know, and recognized it as what he was after. He therefore discovered the determinate character of his intention only in (finally) realizing it. And in doing so he exercised—by Nietzsche's lights—free agency at its exemplary best.
Again one might ask, why? The obvious answer, which isn't wrong, is that to do as one intends is to be free. But I think that we can also say a little more than that. For a certain sort of metaphysician, the central question about freedom of the will is ‘Could I have done otherwise?’ For Nietzsche, by contrast, the central question is ‘Would I have done otherwise?’—or: ‘Would I will it otherwise?’ I am free, on this conception, if my answer is ‘No’. My exemplary exercise of agency results, ex hypothesi, in an action in which my intention is crystallised precisely in its realisation. Therefore—since my action simply is, exclusively and without remainder, the expression of my intention—there is no room, at this level, for my willing that the action were otherwise. The action is not only the action that I intend, but, in performing it, I discover exactly what my intention is.31 To call this ‘freedom’ seems to me to be entirely natural. My action is ‘mine’, as it were, all the way down; and, in acting thus, I find myself—realise and recognise myself—precisely in so acting.32 Nor, to reiterate, is this any sort of metaphysical view: freedom, as Nietzsche construes it, is consistent with any minimally plausible account of the relation between the causal order of nature and the human will.33 Rather, and again to reiterate, it is an ethical view, a normative conception of human agency at its best. And it is this conception of agency that Nietzsche repeatedly glosses, for reasons that should now be apparent, in terms of ‘becoming what one is’.34
Two final worries must be addressed, however. Perhaps the more serious of them, which concerns the scope of Nietzsche's account—that is, the applicability of his account to agency in general—I defer to the following section. The other worry is essentially a request for clarification. It is this: doesn't Nietzsche's conception of freedom-through-constraint—as one might put it—set up those constraints as so fundamentally independent of the agent (of his identity, preferences, etc.) that they really do function as limits on his action, even if they are, as a matter of fact, unformulable in advance? And, if so, mightn't this more plausibly be regarded as a model of unfreedom—of action curtailed rather than action enabled?
The answer to both questions is ‘No’. And both questions stem from the causa sui fantasy with which we began. Their grounding assumption is that freedom of willing and acting is possible only in a vacuum, only if what an agent chooses and does is explicable—exhaustively explicable—with reference to the agent's will alone. And this assumption, or so Nietzsche has given us reason to conclude, is absurd. Human agency requires a human world for its possibility.35 It requires Nietzsche's ‘tyranny of … capricious laws’. And this point is quite general. If anything can be described as free, after all, an intentional action can be; and one acts intentionally when one acts for a reason. One can only act for a reason, however, if one has the capacity to give and respond to reasons; and that capacity depends upon one's participation in a set of social practices whose norms are, in the relevant sense, wholly independent of one's own whims and preferences.36 The very possibility of intentional action, that is, requires a context made up precisely of factors such as the ‘ancestors’ and ‘society’ to which Nietzsche refers. So freedom presupposes an explanatory context to which the agent's will is essentially incidental, and to the norms constitutive of which the agent is answerable. Freedom is therefore acquired through, rather than eroded by, laws that are not of one's own making (even if they are laws that one can come to recognize and acknowledge as one's own).
This is, as I say, a general point, and it applies to formulable and unformulable laws alike. Many such norms can of course be formulated very easily. I have the freedom to castle my king, say, only in virtue of my acknowledgement of some readily statable rules of chess. These rules are conditions of, rather than limits upon, my freedom to do as I intend. But rules that are formulable in this way bring with them the danger of self-misunderstanding. For example, I might idly lament the fact that it is impossible to move my rook diagonally, or that my rook and my queen cannot both occupy the same square at the same time, and mistake this for an irritating restriction on my freedom. But what I would really be minding is the fact that I am playing chess, not that my freedom (to make chess moves) is curtailed. And this is why Nietzsche regards artistic agency as exemplary. For where (many of) the relevant norms are unformulable, this sort of self-misunderstanding is ruled out. I can't chafe in advance against the fact that this or that artistic act is impossible, since I could only know that it was impossible if the rule that it breached could be formulated. The most that I can do, therefore, is to lament the fact that there should be any constraints on my activity at all; and that, in a peculiarly direct way, would be simply to renounce my (real) freedom in favour of the fantasy of freedom in ‘the superlative metaphysical sense’. It is true, then, that the freedom-through-constraint account sets up those constraints as fundamentally independent of the agent. But it does not follow from this that they function as limits upon the agent's freedom to act. Rather, to say it once again, they function as conditions of that freedom.