What it means to be a Free Spirit

Become master over yourself, master of your own good qualities… acquire power over your aye and no and learn to hold and withhold them in accordance with your higher aims…

By Maria Popova

No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life, Friedrich Nietzsche (October 15, 1844–August 25, 1900) wrote in his magnificent meditation on how to find yourself. But building that bridge requires a special kind of willingness, a singular capacity for self-liberation — something Nietzsche explores in his 1879 masterpiece Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits, which he aptly describes as a “discouraging-encouraging work” dedicated to the romantic ideal of the free spirit.

More than a century before modern psychologists came to pinpoint how our beliefs about human nature shape human nature, Nietzsche writes:

Such “free spirits” do not really exist and never did exist. But I stood in need of them, as I have pointed out, in order that some good might be mixed with my evils (illness, loneliness, strangeness, acedia, incapacity): to serve as gay spirits and comrades, with whom one may talk and laugh when one is disposed to talk and laugh, and whom one may send to the devil when they grow wearisome… [And] I see them already coming, slowly, slowly. May it not be that I am doing a little something to expedite their coming when I describe in advance the influences under which I see them evolving and the ways along which they travel?

Nietzsche considers how such spirits are born:

A soul in which the type of “free spirit” can attain maturity and completeness had its decisive and deciding event in the form of a great emancipation or unbinding, and that prior to that event it seemed only the more firmly and forever chained to its place and pillar… The great liberation comes suddenly to such prisoners, like an earthquake: the young soul is all at once shaken, torn apart, cast forth — it comprehends not itself what is taking place. An involuntary onward impulse rules them with the mastery of command; a will, a wish are developed to go forward… a mutinous, willful, volcanic-like longing for a far away journey…

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