Nietzsche: “Independence is a Privilege of the Strong”

In his book Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche argues that independence is for ‘very few’. With individualism being the order of the day, we tend to think of independence as a democratic institution — guaranteed as a right. But, for Nietzsche, independence is not for everyone. It is a ‘privilege of the strong’ — one that requires ‘daring to the point of recklessness’. To live independently is to enter ‘into a labyrinth’ and multiply ‘a thousandfold the dangers which life brings with it in any case’.

Nietzsche elaborates on this in his Genealogy of Morals. There he writes that ‘the strong are as naturally inclined to separate as the weak are to congregate’.

The anthropologist Ernest Gellner calls this sort of congregation the ‘tyranny of the cousins’ — referring to the phenomenon among primates in which beta males join forces to take out an alpha male. In his book, The Goodness Paradox, Richard Wrangham writes that these sorts of coalitions, which were heavily-reliant on the development of language, were self-domesticating, creating a more democratic and egalitarian species:

Language-based conspiracy was the key, because it gave whispering beta males the power to join forces to kill alpha-male bullies. As happens in small-scale societies today, language allowed underdogs to agree on a plan, and thereby to make predictably safe murders out of confrontations that could otherwise have been dangerous. Genetic selection against the propensity for reactive aggression was an unforeseen result of eliminating the would-be despots. The selection against alpha personalities led to males becoming, for the first time, egalitarian. Across some twelve thousand generations, the tenor of life became increasingly calm. Our species, though not ideally peaceful, is now more Rousseauian than it has ever been

Under these new conditions, being independent or a ‘nonconformist’ became, as Nietzsche would say, a ‘dangerous adventure’ (Wrangham).

If the alpha is despotic, the tyranny of the cousins is a force for good. But if the opposite is true, the strong can easily be outnumbered. As in the video below, a lone lion is no match for a pack of hyenas. But two lions…

As Nietzsche says in the Genealogy of Morals, when the weak congregate it is because they ‘enjoy precisely this coming together’, but when the strong congregate, they do so in spite of being ‘disquieted by organization’. The strong/ solitary only unite with the aim of ‘an aggressive collective action and collective satisfaction of their will to power’. This is the proverbial difference between a pack of hyenas and a pride of lions. The former congregate out of necessity, the latter congregate out of want.

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Eddie Ejjbair

‘Gradually it’s become clear to me what every great philosophy has been: a personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir’