Tag Archives: Sovereign Individual

The Politics of the Sovereign Individual

Building off of some of the discussions, comments and questions we’ve had in class, I’d like to look more at Nietzsche’s politics, more particularly what the politics of the Sovereign Individual would look like. As great as it is to take a text like the Genealogy and assess it in purely literary, rhetorical, or philosophical terms, there is always something to be gained still by asking of any text one is reading, “What of it? What does this mean? What does this look like in reality?” And especially with such a naturalistic thinker as Nietzsche I think it makes sense to take ourselves out of the ivory tower of theory and analysis and throw ourselves into the mud and muck of everyday life and politics to see how what Nietzsche has to say about morality and the Sovereign Individual might look beyond the pages of a book.

Picking up from our latest discussion on Treatise III, the Owen text, and the Gemes and Janaway article(s), I think it’s fair to say that so much of what makes an SI an SI is the significance of the source of one’s interests, desires, and actions, as well as how one relates to them. To be an SI one must stay disciplined and true to one’s innermost, own-most unique driving, interpreting, creative force in organizing the hierarchy of one’s desires and interests and not deny this creative aspect of oneself for any external ‘other’. Insofar as the ‘nobles’ give a blanket pass to all of their desires and interests, regardless of whether they are internally- or externally-motivated, and leave this hierarchy untouched, they are not SIs. And, insofar as the ‘slaves’ give a blanket denial to all of their desires and interests and seek to abnegate their own creative, ordering, interpreting drive, they too can never be SIs.

Teasing out the consequences of this, I think we can say that the ‘sovereignty’ of the Sovereign Individual depends very much so upon its not recognizing any external authorities to itself, be they moral, epistemological, or political. Now, as much as Nietzsche may have disparaged anarchists at various points, I can’t help but feel this deep rejection by the SI of any source of authority external to itself leads inexorably to some form of anarchism. Afterall, ‘anarchy’ at its etymological roots is simply the absence of a dominant authority or ruler: ‘an-‘ (not, or without) ‘arkhos’ (ruler, leader) or ‘arkhe’ (power, authority). Despite the strong contemporary conflation of ‘anarchy’, ‘anarchism’, and ‘anarchists’ with chaos, disorder, and destruction, anarchism as a political theory does offer itself as a means of positive organization, one that is based on consent, free association, and self-governance rather than force, oppression, and hierarchy. From everyone’s favourite ‘holy-shit-anyone-can-edit-this’ online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, to the open-source code underpinning this very blogging platform, we are in fact readily acquainted with ‘workable’ examples of anarchism.

Perhaps in understanding Nietzsche’s politics and the connection of the Sovereign Individual to anarchism it is again helpful to look at Max Stirner. As I suggested in my first blog post for this class, much of Nietzsche’s genealogy of nobles, slaves, knights, and priests sounds eerily similar to Stirner’s earlier genealogy of Ancients and Moderns, and Nietzsche’s Sovereign individual sounds very much so cut of the same cloth as Stirner’s egoistic ‘unique one’. Where Stirner does seem to go further than Nietzsche with these ideas, though, is in his application of them to politics. Throughout The Ego and Its Own, Stirner vehemently criticizes the state and all its institutions, and in the latter half of the book, in spelling out his description of the ‘unique one’ with its ‘egoistic future’, Stirner points to the mode of organizing of these ‘unique ones’ being a ‘union of egoists’. In short, this ‘union of egoists’ is the free, spontaneous, non-systematic association of such ‘egoists’, which is held together only by the continuous, freely given consent of its members based on their own, individual desires and interests. Insofar as one no longer wishes to be part of such a union, they may leave, and insofar as the original purposes of the union have been accomplished the union spontaneously dissolves.

For his work in The Ego and Its Own, Stirner is usually seen as an ardent egoist, or individualist, anarchist. However, when addressing the ‘union of egoists’ there does seem to be at least some room and possibility for more social forms of anarchism, such as anarcho-syndicalism. Regardless, insofar as we can understand Nietzsche’s Sovereign Individuals to be defined, at least politically, first and foremost by a rejection of imposed external authority, and insofar as the comparison between Nietzsche’s Sovereign Individuals with Stirner’s ‘unique ones’ and their ‘union of egoists’ is apt, then it is fair to say that at least some form or manner of anarchistic organization and principles would underlying the real-world politics of real-world Sovereign Individuals.

The SI and Promises

At the end of his Tracy Strong’s paper, he concludes with a question, which he doesn’t answer: what does it mean to be a person with the “right to promise?” I think we all have had a bit of trouble with the idea of the Sovereign Individual “laying hands on the future,” and the question has come up in class: what does it mean to promise “against fate?” My reading of promising for Nietzche is the following.


I personally find virtue ethics quite compelling as a way of moral explanation, and as I have mentioned in class, given Nietzsche’s familiarity with classical texts, I think it is not a stretch that some of the ideas of it may have seeped in to his thought. Promising, for Nietzsche is a statement of strength of character. A statement that something will happen, regardless of circumstances. Imagine the following:


You promise your friend that you will attend their gig at a local bar across town. In the morning of the gig, you experience acute depression, a regular condition for you, and can’t get out of bed. You spend sometime working through this and get up and go to work. At work you pull a muscle and end up sore and limping. You become irritated and want dearly to go home and soak in the tub. You clean up and head out. On the way to the gig the bus breaks down, and you are left a mile and a half from the bar where your friend is playing, in 15 minutes. You run for it, aching all the way and show up on time to watch your friend play his set.


This is a bit farcical, but events like these in the face of promises are a day-to-day fact. The ability to promise in our day-to-day lives then is inherently based on overcoming “fate.” (As Nietzsche seems to be a determinist, this may be a more serious assertion for him.) But the ability to overcome fate, the fortitude to keep going, and the power to control the circumstances to the greatest extent possible  are therefore qualities that come from a strength of character. What it means for a person to promise is for them to have a character and a situation from which one can promise: for one to be able to be sovereign over their selves and life. This is why the Sovereign Individual’s ability to promise is so important to the process of making consciousness instinct: he makes a statement about the state of his character and in fulfilling the actualizes his strength. Strong notes are what make the Sovereign Individual “Sovereign.” Promises, then, are inherently statements of strength.


I am puzzled however, what Nietzsche’s stronger individual looks like specifically. If any of you who have read Thus Spake have any input here it would be much appreciated.

The Sovereign Individual

I decided to take this course in order to look at things through the eyes of various philosophers, and use their worldview to reflect upon my own personal experiences and those of my parents and grandparents. In the context of Nietzsche writings, I wanted to explore the interesting succession of influences whereby Nietzsche influenced people like Frantz Fanon and Michel Foucault, who influenced, to a certain extent, people like Edward Said and Amartya Sen. And what I was specifically looking for is how did Nietzsche make contributions (directly or indirectly) to the idea of how in order for a person, or an entire people, to seek the decolonization of their lands, what they must do first is ‘decolonize their minds.’

In general terms, the idea of mind decolonization demands that the person, or the people, must first rid themselves (and their minds) of all the values that contributed to the colonization of their lands, and in the my own personal experience, this included the cultural colonization of the Arab world under the boots of French and British colonial soldiers. When the British and French colonized Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Egypt, they did not do so with the sole purpose of controlling the lands owned by the indigenous populations, they did so in order to strengthen a longstanding historical and imperialist project aimed at making the people of these lands (and other lands around the globe) “white” enough to ease domination over them.

So with that in mind, the question becomes how can one decolonize his mind? And I think the answer lays (to a certain extent) in Nietzsche’s idea of the ‘sovereign individual’ and ‘agency free will’ (with some modifications). Of course Nietzsche was speaking to a different crowd within a different cultural and intellectual context, but one can still make useful inferences.

For example, when Nietzsche speaks of the ‘sovereign individual’ as a a person who:

has his own 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 … [and who] is bound to reserve a kick for the feeble windbags who promise without the right to do so.

he makes pretty interesting demands that might be useful to look at. First the person has to have his own ‘protracted will’ and I think from Nietzsche’s perspective, anybody with the worldview that existed at and before his time does not have his own ‘protracted will,’ but rather a will that was imposed upon him by something external; a will that cannot be said to be ‘protracted.’ And if I can accord myself the liberty of of attributing such a characteristic to the colonized man of the Arab world (or any other area of that matter), I can make a somewhat defensible argument that relies on the premise that when the ‘white man’ colonized the non-white man, what he did was impose upon the newly colonized communities a systemic and systematic deprivation that stripped them from their cultural context and history that, arguably, the colonized man could have used in order to attain his own version of what a ‘protracted will’ may look like.

Further, the colonialist project ensured that this newly colonized man would be deprived from any opportunity to realize or attain a situation whereby he aspire to be a person with the ‘right to make promises’ and ‘has in him a proud consciousness’ which quivers in every muscle of his body, etc…

So what should this colonized man do? He must somehow reverse this colonial legacy that, also arguably, stripped him from his agency and ‘protracted will’ through a very difficult process of mind decolonization which is related directly to Nietzsche’s extremely aggressive criteria of what a ‘sovereign individual’ may look like.

Overcoming the Sovereign Individual

I was very sympathetic to Christa Davis Acampora’s argument in her paper on “Sovereignty and Overhumanity.” The thrust of the Genealogy is definitely not to advance any moral program or ideal, but to take away the moral program and ideals of modern European atheists – to perform a revaluation of all values and make room for something new.

I loved the simplicity of Acampora’s supporting argument – if Nietzsche wanted to write about the ‘sovereign individual’, why did he only mention it in this one section of his work? And, why was he so critical of our concepts of sovereignty and our notions of the individual in so many other passages from his work?

When Owen substitutes the ability to make ‘commitments’ for the ability to make ‘promises’ in his commentary, we should already be a little suspicious. A defining commitment (to borrow a term from Hubert Dreyfus that reads right into Owen) would fit so much more easily into Nietzsche’s system of eternal return than the ability to make promises. Our ability to commit to willing something in such a way that we would affirm its eternal recurrence sounds like something Nietzsche would be on board with, but it isn’t the language Nietzsche is using in this section, and it’s not as though Nietzsche would want us to will anything out of a sense of responsibility, duty, or obligation – or privilege any idea that would get in the way of overcoming/becoming/revaluation. The term “sovereign individual” fits onto those ideas a size too small and limits them unnecessarily.