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Existential Compatibilism Part II: Nietzsche & Camus

October 15, 2011 1 comment

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.

Existential Compatibilism Part I: Sartre and Freedom

October 13, 2011 10 comments

In “Existentialism,”, published in the wake of some of the greatest works in Existentialist literature, F.C. Copleston makes two claims. First, (1) that the uniting feature of existentialist thought is the focus on man as a “free, self-creating, self-transcending subject,” and (2) 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.[1] While (1) is fairly unproblematic, I argue that the philosophies of both Nietzsche and Camus contain elements of, and responses to, the problem of Free Will in the Theory of Determinism. These elements placate the metaphysical necessities required for a robust philosophical system, necessities which Sartre ignores in favor of ontological considerations. In this first post, I would like to begin by setting the stage for the discussion at hand, expound upon Sartre’s concept of “existence-precedes-essence,” and demonstrate how the subjectivity of this viewpoint grants freedom but leaves traditional metaphysical concerns of causality vs. free will unanswered. First, though, a brief discussion of the manner in which I shall approach such a compatibilism.

The compatibilist who accepts determinism seeks a way to both affirm causality but also avoid the meaninglessness that accompanies it as well as finding some sort of freedom contained within it, however thin a conception it might be. Moral responsibility is also a strong concern of the compatibilists, but is sadly beyond the scope of this post. In this post I make use of the terms determinism, compatibilism, and freedom. For the current purposes, I treat these terms fairly loosely for the sake of space. Here I use ‘determinism’ merely to refer to the basic theory, capable of being explained numerous ways, that given the fixed state of the universe at any given moment and all the laws of this universe, any event which occurs is the only event which could have occurred.[2] This entails, therefore, that there are no “could have done otherwise” scenarios.

There are many compatibilist theories, some attempting to offer “could have done otherwise” scenarios, and some attempting to redefine what freedom means. My use of the word ‘compatibilism’ refers only to a theory that recognizes that (1) determinism is true (2) there is some sense of freedom to be had within such a deterministic world and (3) the sense of freedom outlined in (2) does not undermine (1). Given this loose definition, one of the goals of this two-part post is to analyze the way in which Sartre, Nietzsche, and Camus utilize the concept of freedom in their philosophies and whether any of their theories can constitute the type of compatibilism outlined above. With this brief set-up, I shall now discuss Sartre’s concept of “existence-precedes-essence” and how this factors into his theory of complete freedom.

Sartre: “Existence Precedes Essence” and Freedom


The basis for Sartre’s philosophy, in fact what he sees as the primary tenet of existentialism itself, is the belief that, for man, our existence precedes our essence. This concept is in direct contrast to what Aristotle named the “formal” and “final” causes i.e. an artisan conceiving of the intended purpose or “essence” of an object.[3] In this way, the essence of any created object is pre-determined before it even comes into existence. Sartre says in Existentialism is a Humanism, “Let us say, then, of the paper-knife [or any manufactured object] that its essence, that is to say the sum of the formulae and the qualities which made its production and its definition possible, precedes its existence. The presence of such-and-such a paper-knife or book is thus determined before my eyes.”[4] The existence of an object, then, is determined by its purpose, its essence; a paper-knife exists to open letters and so on, and this essence is present long before the paper-knife comes into existence. Sartre believes similarly that conceptions of God as the creator of man also lead to a view that essence precedes existence, since God must have known what he was creating prior to creating it, i.e. the essence of man would be present before man existed.[5]

However, one must not believe in a deity to attempt to provide man with an essence prior to his existence; any conception of human nature (rational being, etc.) also attempts to prescribe man’s essence before he exists. Rather, for Sartre, existence precedes essence:

What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards… Man simply is. Not that he is simply what he conceives himself to be, but he is what he wills, and as he conceives himself after already existing – as he wills to be after that leap towards existence. Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself.[6]

Man creates his own essence, and this is the source of his freedom. Rather than being rooted in rationalizations, Sartre’s treatment of freedom on focuses on ontological questions of being and identity.[7] This is reflected quite strongly in his treatment of freedom and choice in “The Flies” where choices give freedom and essence to human life.

At the opening of “The Flies,” the hero Orestes has returned home to Argos, having followed a myriad of different roads, and finds himself lost, without an identity or essence. There he finds the populace enslaved by Zeus and Aegisthus under a yolk of guilt. As the narrative progresses, Orestes wrestles with his identity, failing to find it in any set of memories or even his identity as heir to the kingdom of Argos.[8] However, Orestes finds his freedom in a choice, and also creates his own essence based on this choice:

Orestes: I am free, Electra. Freedom has crashed down on me like a thunderbolt…I have done my deed, Electra, and that deed was good…Only yesterday I walked the earth haphazard; thousands of roads I tramped that brought me nowhere, for they were other men’s roads. Yes, I tried them all: the hauler’s tracks along the riverside, the mule-paths in the mountains, and the broad, flagged highways of the charioteers. But none of these was mine. Today I have one path only, and heaven knows where it leads. But it is my path.[9]

The content of this freedom is distinct from the freedom important for Compatibilists, since it has no considerations for any deterministic elements. Rather, Orestes’ freedom comes from embracing a choice as his own and thereby creating his own essence rather than lying on a pre-ordained or determined essence set out for him by nature, God, or the order of the cosmos.

Orestes proclamation of freedom is representative of Sartre’s rebellion against a metaphysical worldview of universal laws and metaphysical explanations. Having been rebuked by Zeus for his actions, Orestes responds, “I am doomed to have no other law but mine. Nor shall I come back to nature, the nature you found good; in it are a thousand beaten paths all leading up to you – but I must blaze my trail. For I, Zeus, am a man, and every man must find out his own way.”[10] Similarly, metaphysical considerations represented by the world of Zeus are seen as phantoms and shadow figures unable to harm the one who has become free.

As Zeus tells Aegisthus, “Orestes knows that he is free…Once freedom lights its beacon in a man’s heart, the gods are powerless against him.”[11] But Sartre’s rejection of metaphysics goes further than just considerations of freedom and extends to existence itself. In Nausea, Roquentin reels from an experience of seeing existence absent of the essences he had formerly been applying, focusing his insight on a tree root. As with “existence-precedes-essence”, the name ‘root’, its function, and biology cannot explain its existence. The root simply is. For Sartre, existence goes beyond any metaphysical musings or rationalizations:  “Evidently I did not know everything [about the root], I had not seen the seeds sprout, or the tree grow. But faced with this great wrinkled paw, neither ignorance nor knowledge was important: the world of explanations and reasons is not the world of existence.”[12] This passage is especially indicative of Sartre’s skepticism of metaphysic explanations of reality.

Despite building a robust conception of essence and personal choice creating meaning and freedom, Sartre’s antithetical existence-precedes-essence philosophy is perhaps overly subjective and leaves many metaphysical questions unanswered, many nauseating stones unturned. For example, there is no reference to or defense against the traditional deterministic argument against freedom with respect to Orestes’ actions. Rather than Orestes being free simply from feeling as though he made a choice, it is entirely conceivable that due to the state of the world at that moment, and given the fixed laws of the universe, Orestes could not have made any other choice than to slaughter his mother and her lover. In this instance, Orestes would not be free since his essence would have preceded his existence due to the determined nature of the universe. Indeed, Sartre seems almost recalcitrant to address what appear to be fundamental metaphysical issues, instead focusing on ontological discussions of being.  In contrast, Nietzsche recognizes determinism as a legitimate metaphysical mode of thought and attempts to formulate a manner of freedom within a deterministic worldview.

In part II, I shall introduce how Nietzsche maintains a deterministic viewpoint but allows for the development of free will, and how this concept of freedom despite limitations is continued in a different sense by Camus in The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus. Lastly, I shall discuss how Camus’ sense of freedom offers a thin ledge from which a form of existential compatibilism might be developed, and coagulate a sense of meaning and purpose of which determinist theory has hitherto been devoid.

**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] “It is actually true of all the existentialists, therefore, including Heidegger that they take man as the central theme of philosophy, and that by man they mean the free, self-creating, self-transcending subject. Looked at under this aspect existentialism may be regarded as a revolt against absolute idealism…and as a revolt against positivism, materialistic determinism and psychological determinism, against any form of philosophy which would reduce man to an item in the physical cosmos, so far as this would imply determinism.”

F. C. Copleston, “Existentialism,” Philosophy, pg 22.

[2] As will be discussed later, Nietzsche gives a concise exposition of such determinism in Human, All Too Human (57).

[3] Andrea Falcon, “Aristotle on Causality,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[4] Jean-Paul Sartre, “Existentialism is a Humanism.”

[5] Sartre, “Existentialism is a Humanism.”

[6] Ibid.

[7] For the purposes of this post I shall use ‘identity’ and ‘essence’ interchangeably with regards to Sartre.

[8]Jean-Paul Sartre, “The Flies,” 58.

[9] Sartre, “The Flies,”105.

[10]Sartre, “The Flies,”119.

[11]Sartre, “The Flies,” 102.

[12] Sartre, Nausea, 129.