Sovereign Individual vs Defiant Self

Nietzsche’s Sovereign Individual is pretty cool. The best objection to that ideal, strangely enough, comes from Kierkegaard, who wrote before Nietzsche. Kierkegaard anticipated lots of Nietzsche’s ideas (in fact, my understanding of both is greatly indebted to Either Kierkegaard/Or Nietzsche: Moral Philosophy in a New Key by Tom P.S. Angier). Angier argues that Kierkegaard’s concept of the ‘defiant self’ is pretty much the same as Nietzsche’s Sovereign Individual, and that Kierkegaard’s criticisms are decisive.

For Kierkegaard, the defiant self is the person who rejects all claims to authority, value, and dependence on other humans. She shapes herself into the person she wants to be (sound familiar?) and decides for herself what kind of person that is. Since this process is largely internal, it’s hard to pick modern examples, but you might see Ayn Rand as a few steps along this road.

What’s the problem? Well, how is the defiant self going to decide what kind of person to become? Because every option is going to be conditional, Kierkegaard thinks that she’ll never be able to maintain a “true seriousness” about the project. Worse, she’ll experience a constant shifting of the goal – one moment she’ll want to be more like this, the next moment more like that – leading to a divided will. Instead of Nietzsche’s ideal of a confident, sure sovereign individual, Kierkegaard argues she’s more likely to end up in inner turmoil, confused and unsure about who she is or what she wants.

It gets worse still. The defiant self/sovereign individual will, in the end, have to seek help, since nobody can flourish by themselves. The natural pride involved in her attitude, though, will painfully delay this process – and when it eventually happens, it’ll be a crushing humiliation.

The only way to avoid this trap, Kierkegaard (and Angier) argued, is to aim for “wholeheartedness”. Try to “will one thing”, in Kierkegaard’s words, and let a clear, coherent goal guide you instead of a mess of disconnected impulses. What could serve as this goal? Kierkegaard proposed a theological conception of Love. In future posts, I’d like to explore if there are any other potential goals, and if not, whether Kierkegaard’s goal of Love necessarily requires theism.


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