Nietzsche, Liberalism, and the Paradox of Choice

What Nietzche got wrong was that freedom is a thing the derives from boundaries.

One of Nietzsche’s core principles was based on the parable of the Three Metamorphoses of the Spirit: Camel-Lion-Child.  The basic idea was that an individual lives duty-bound (the camel), only to come to question the purpose of duty forcing him to tear down the traditions that bound him to those duties (the lion), which opens up the possibility of seeking their full potential in a world without any traditions or boundaries (the child).

However, modern psychological research has shown repeatedly that the Paradox of Choice is a very real phenomenon in humans, which counterintuitively makes us less happy.  When we have too many choices, we merely become confused and stressed, and more prone to making poor decisions.  The key to reaching our full potential is knowing where the lines are, the boundaries.  Filtering and screening out bad options, leaving less to choose from, but higher quality.

Thus it is not the lion that should follow the camel, but the fox. Clever and cunning, a fox’s approach.  It is not recklessly tearing down all the boundaries and traditions (or “slaying the dragon” in Nietzsche’s terms), but carefully evaluating those boundaries based upon their own merit.  Not all that is old is wrong.

Indeed, there is a reason traditions came about in the first place … they had utility.

And most of that utility was about establishing boundaries.  For when we are free to do anything, we lack the focus, safety, and security to excel.  Boundaries prevent other people from murdering us.  They permit us to enjoy the fruits of our labor, without someone else later stealing them.  To build communities and cities, without fear that later immigrants will move in and exploit our efforts.  To focus on our strengths and opportunities, without being paralyzed by the Paradox of Choice.

All of these things give us the incentive, the freedom, to invest in ourselves and our communities.  A freedom which derives from boundaries.  That freedom, and the boundaries they derive from, are a hallmark of classic liberalism and liberal societies.


Recklessly tearing down boundaries and tradition, as Nietzsche argued (e.g. God is dead) is an affront to liberal principles.  It ignores the realities of human nature, and the boundaries necessary to allow individuals to flourish in a liberal society.  Boundaries which are often rooted in traditions.

It is not the Camel-Lion-Child paradox, but the Camel-Fox-Child, that is necessary to preserve the liberal ideal.

That is not to say traditions should never change or be discarded.  Rather, that those changes should be the result of careful consideration of the consequences.  Wise choices, over reckless deconstructionism.

It is no surprise that later post-Modernists like Sarte as well as a whole range of “rebels” from Fascists to Feminists, Progressives, and other cultural Marxists seized upon Nietzsche’s ideas.  Nietzsche was a popular figure among those in the 20th and 21st century who would seek to tear down the old with little consideration for the consequences, or with perhaps unfettered optimism in their own utopian ideas.

Their problem, much like Nietzsche’s, was a poor understanding of where freedom comes from, the purpose of traditions, the Paradox of Choice, and the basic human nature behind individual endeavor.  They were all the “lion” in various forms from Nietzsche’s paradigm.  They destroyed, or at least sought to.  And much like Nietzsche went crazy in the end (suffering a mental breakdown in 1889 and spending the last decade of his life insane), the result has arguably been a sort of “societal madness” … the ever-present growth of Outrage Culture.

It could be contended that Nietzsche tried to mitigate that reckless deconstructionism, in a way, with his concept of Ubermensch (a.k.a. the Nietzsche “superman” or overman). The idea was that only certain individuals would be able to transcend the normal rules of human behavior and society.  Of course, Nietzsche failed to foresee the rise of rampant Narcissism and Egotism in Western society in the latter half of the 20th century and 21st century.  In essence, we ALL now think we are UbermenschSpecial snowflakes, who feel entitled to cross any line.  One might also suggest it was Nietzsche’s ideas themselves, through modern Feminists and Progressives and cultural Marxists, that actually brought about the narcissistic phenomena … unintended consequences perhaps, the seeds we sow.

Too many lions, not enough foxes.  It is knowing where the line is, that sets us free as individuals to reach our highest potential.  Freedom is a thing that derives from boundaries.

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9 Responses to Nietzsche, Liberalism, and the Paradox of Choice

  1. Yoda says:

    Almost as wise as I am you are

  2. Yoda says:

    Choose the Dark Side one should not

  3. So true. While many only see the limits and constrains ts of cultural and social boundaries, wishing to break free of them, they forget these social agreements evolved over many, many generations. While not perfect, they mostly reduced conflict and created a stable, peaceful society. Stealing led to bad things. Lying led to bad things. Adultery led to bad things. Murder led to bad things. And so on. These boundaries protect everyone, especially the weakest and most vulnerable, from harm. There’s a lot of room to color within those lines and craft one’s life, but coloring outside those lines creates conflict and the need for regulation by external powers, which is the opposite of freedom. Self regulation, being free while not encroaching on the freedoms of others in order to have it, leads to a free and functional society. Without an agreed upon set of basic ground rules freedom is lost, not gained.

    It is interesting to me that Western society tends to collapse at its epoch every time. And as far as historic accounts go, it seems to be caused by individual freedom superscedding collective freedom. This leads to the collapse, as individual freedom cannot exist without the rights of all also being protected at the same time.

    It’s the thinking that MY rights matter more that trouble begins…

  4. Or perhaps it’s better said not that MY rights matter more, but that MY rights are ALL that matters.

  5. For example, I have seen in real life how other people coloring outside the lines in business or in persist of personal financial gain leads to regulation of everyone. Ironically the ones who always played the rules are impacted and those who weren’t following the rules anyway don’t follow the new rules either. Of course enforcing existing rules on those truly coloring outside the lines somehow doesn’t seem to happen, rather more and more rules are made.

    Not sure if I am explaining that right, but it’s going outside the bounds that leads to less freedoms for all, not more. And while I love the ideals of true libertarianism, there always seems to be those who can’t color inside the lines. Not sure what the solution is…

  6. CopperFox3c says:

    @RedPillGirl … indeed, it is unfortunate that so many young people today do not pause and ask “why does this thing exist in the first place?” You shouldn’t destroy something unless you understand the underlying reason for its existence in the first place.

    As we say over at the Red Pill subreddit: Learn the rules first. Understand them, and why they work. Only then can you prepared to know when and when not to break them.

  7. Ame says:

    well thought out and written.

    years ago when it first came out i read the book: Boundaries Updated and Expanded Edition: When to Say Yes, How to Say No To Take Control of Your Life by Cloud and Townsend. it was truly liberating for me as a person and as a Christian. God has very defined boundaries – who He is, who He is not; what He will and will not allow; what He expects and consequences for our choices. and He always remains within the boundaries He has set for Himself and all of His creation. it always amazes me that we humans, the created, think we know more than the Creator.

    i’m often reminded of these verses in Job 38:
    Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said:

    2 “Who is this who darkens counsel
    By words without knowledge?
    3 Now prepare yourself like a man;
    I will question you, and you shall answer Me.
    4 “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?
    Tell Me, if you have understanding.
    5 Who determined its measurements?
    Surely you know!
    Or who stretched the line upon it?
    6 To what were its foundations fastened?
    Or who laid its cornerstone,
    7 When the morning stars sang together,
    And all the sons of God shouted for joy?
    8 “Or who shut in the sea with doors,
    When it burst forth and issued from the womb;
    9 When I made the clouds its garment,
    And thick darkness its swaddling band;
    10 When I fixed My limit for it,
    And set bars and doors;
    11 When I said,
    ‘This far you may come, but no farther,
    And here your proud waves must stop!’

    God continues through chapter 40 verses 1 and 2 where He, God, says:

    Moreover the Lord answered Job, and said:

    2 “Shall the one who contends with the Almighty correct Him?
    He who rebukes God, let him answer it.”

    Job wisely answers:

    3 Then Job answered the Lord and said:

    4 “Behold, I am vile;
    What shall I answer You?
    I lay my hand over my mouth.
    5 Once I have spoken, but I will not answer;
    Yes, twice, but I will proceed no further.”

    what’s interesting about this is that God is responding to Job’s (whining) exhortation of himself in chapters 26-31 where he extols his own virtues. he *was* a good man who had done a *lot* of good things, including loving and honoring God. so, as he whined, what did he do to deserve this that God had allowed?

    i find it intriguing that God allowed Job to work through all of this. it’s human. we all would do/have done the same. the process always intrigues me.

    anyway … even evil has its boundaries (Job 1:6-12; Job 2:1-7), and Satan being the ultimate deceiver has effectively brainwashed this culture (and many in all of history beginning with Eve) into believing there should be no boundaries, that boundaries are confining and prevent one from truly expressing and fulfilling all they are and are meant to be in whatever ways they deem to be best at any given time for no other reason than because they want to or feel it to be best. we are deluded in the lies we choose to believe.

  8. RichardP says:

    An adequate response to the subjects raised in this post would result in a book or three. Instead, I’ll offer a few thoughts.

    I’m told that Nietzsche’s father died when he was a four-year-old boy. Wikipedia contains this quote “… and [Nietzsche] became increasingly preoccupied with the creative powers of the individual to overcome social, cultural, and moral contexts in pursuit of new values and aesthetic health.”

    The creative powers of the individual to overcome … to recreate or create again after having cast off the old ways of thinking (those old ways that hold us back, those old ways that keep insisting that the dead stay dead). Perhaps one could ultimately become creative enough to bring one’s long-lost father back to life …

    Grief is profound, and alters one’s life in ways that those unacquainted with grief can never understand. That is as true for Nietzsche as it is for everybody who passes through an event that triggers grief. (My mother died from a ruptured brain aneurysm when I was born. My father remarried and had other children. At a family gathering when I was middle aged, my aunt whispered in my ear ‘he never recovered you know’ while we both listened to my father tell a story. That one simple line put so many things into perspective for me. While I always suspected that, her words made it real for me.)

    From that perspective, I found these two articles to be compelling. The comments section is even more so. I know some of the ladies commenting here have had grief-inducing experiences of their own – so take this as a trigger warning. You might find something useful here. But you also might get triggered, so proceed in a prepared manner.

    What’s with these dark woods

    Trauma and Human Existance

    More specifically about the OP – we don’t respond to what is; we respond to what is perceived. When our ability to perceive is limited, we won’t perceive many choices available to us. We can cut out mountains of philosophy if we limit ourselves to that simple reality. Choices beyond our ability to perceive them do us no good. Being forced to decide about something we cannot perceive will create frustration beyond measure.

    Boundaries that limit choices to what can be perceived are a good thing. Unfortunately, many people cannot perceive that truth, and proceed to tear down things they will never understand. It is society’s responsibility to provide a defense against that. Ones that do, survive.

  9. CopperFox3c says:

    @Ame … I am not a religious man myself, but I have always thought it was intriguing how people starting from very different points can come to similar philosophical conclusions.

    @Richard … agree I think there is something to be said about “illusionary choices” in the modern world. Social media is a perfect example – it is not real socialization, nor are most of those people on there “your friends”.

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