The Sovereign Individual

In Nietzsche’s laminated trading card folder of ideal and non-ideal types, special attention is devoted to what he calls the Sovereign Individual: the person who decides what his own values are, who stretches his will out over his own life and molds himself into the kind of person he ought to be. The Sovereign Individual is the person who through sustained effort becomes “what he already is”. What should we make of this ideal?

According to Nietzsche, our ‘identity’, the ‘thing that wills’, is a fiction; when I say ‘I feel’, the ‘I’ denotes a myriad of competing urges and forces. According to this view, to exercise self-control is not to control your forces but for one (or a group) of the forces within you to dominate all the others. So the Sovereign Individual is the individual with no internal conflict – not because everything works harmoniously in his mind, but because there is a ruthless internal tyranny of a few forces over the rest.

This psychological model is surprisingly intuitive. We speak of ‘making bargains with ourselves’ in order to, say, go to work or spend an hour riding a bike instead of watching TV. When we ‘force ourselves’ to go for a bike ride, isn’t that just our desire to be fit and healthy wrestling down our desire to relax and avoid effort? It’s a little harder to accept Nietzsche’s idea that our feeling of having made a decision is not the cause but the result of this inner conflict, but I see no reason to disagree with Nietzsche on this point.

So how do we pick values that are not determined by the values of society? Well, we begin by thinking about which drives are conducive to our flourishing and which aren’t. This weakens the undesirable drives and helps the stronger ones dominate them. Nietzsche (roughly) calls the desirable drives ‘active’ drives and the undesirable ones ‘reactive’ drives. It’s in this sense that we “become what we are”: by letting the active part of us dominate the passive, we ideally shed our drab social-conformist skin and shine forth as the crazy diamond we all are underneath.

You might wonder how anybody can really decide what their own values are. Aren’t our values conditioned by the society we live in? Don’t we need some kind of value-system in order to choose which social values to discard and which to keep? And if we choose a set of values that are totally distinct from the values of society, will anybody be able to understand them as ‘values’ at all? Nietzsche has answers to this, but I don’t think they’re ultimately convincing.


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