Everyone has a will to power, but it’s up to you how you use it. Nietzsche posited that human beings each possess a will to power, an inherent driving force that moves them to do the things they do. While often construed negatively as a motivation to dominate others by force, will to power as conceived by Nietzsche is essentially neutral, a potential that may be expressed in a multitude of ways and can be channeled toward different ends. While some may use it as a destructive force, others may instead direct it toward creative and productive ends.
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Nietzsche and Will to Power
Friedrich Nietzsche believed we are all born with a will to power, but use it to different ends.
Our self-discipline can keep our will to power aligned with our higher goals if we are conscious and mindful of it.
We have a responsibility to create our own goals—and in the process, create ourselves.
Let’s continue and see what other, more modern philosophers have to say about self-discipline and how we can better achieve our dreams.
An idea closely related to akrasia is the concept of will, or more specifically, Nietzsche’s “will to power.” Our goal in this book is to learn as much as we can about self-discipline from as many sources as possible so we can develop the skills and knowledge needed to genuinely improve in life.
But let’s unwrap this idea a little: what are we really doing when we say, “I want to learn the violin,” or, “I’m going to be an entrepreneur.”? More abstractly, what is actually going on when we decide to do anything? What is it that makes a baby stand up and take its first steps, what makes people want to climb tall mountains, and what compels people to make art, invent, start businesses, have a family, or paint their living rooms green? You can probably think of a million things that you don’t care about achieving.
While you may have many life goals, there are probably some achievements you are more than happy to forego or simply don’t care about.
It’s not that you couldn’t, but rather that you choose not to.
What does this tell us about the nature of our desires and actions we take? The idea of a “will to power” began with philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who explained that there must be some sort of driving force in all human beings that motivated them to do the things they did.
This will can be channeled into any purpose, and is simultaneously a physiological, psychological, and metaphysical principle.
The philosopher Schopenhauer’s work served as an inspiration for Nietzsche; Schopenhauer argued that there was a fundamental essence he called a great “cosmic will” that expressed itself through individual beings as a will to life.
This he likened to a sexual instinct that permeated through the life of every living organism.
Schopenhauer saw this will to life both as insatiable and the root of suffering; his suggested approach was to take control of and moderate this innate impulse.
Nietzsche took this idea and ran with it.
Initially he saw unchecked libidinous impulses (that are largely irrational) as the root of the Greek tragedies—the image is of a dark, unconscious force that could threaten mankind’s higher functioning if left unmanaged.
You may recognize elements of Freud’s philosophy in this vision of human beings, or even see echoes of Aristotle’s distinction between passion and rationality.
Later, Nietzsche refined his idea to a more optimistic one—he still saw the underlying will inside every person as a potentially destructive force, but he also saw it as a source of powerful energy that could be shaped and directed toward something wonderful and beautiful.
He saw all of existence as consisting of an eternal, ever- renewing essence of will, a world made of nothing but will to power, expressed in an infinite number of ways.
A plant sending a root into the soil or an animal eating another animal are biological expressions of this cosmic quality.
The whole range of human interrelationships, from cruelty to compassion, is a psychological and spiritual expression of will to power.
It’s the drive that powers both the mugger in the alleyway and the person defending themselves.
The will to power is understood as an all- encompassing fuel for life itself, something like the engine in a car, or ink in a printer— it represents pure potential that can be channeled into many different ends, good or bad.
Nietzsche’s theory encompasses everything from our irrational sexual or aggressive impulses to our finest instincts for truth, beauty, and justice.
Nietzsche spoke about the human desire to have mastery and control over himself, others, and his environment.
A baby walks, he reasoned, because it possesses a strong drive to master its own limbs, dominate gravity, and exercise some control over its environment.
Nietzsche’s work is subtle and is sadly among the most misinterpreted in philosophy, primarily because this depiction of human beings can seem harsh and cruel.
The concept of “domination” here, however, is not at all different from the desire to control our lower impulses, as we explored in the previous chapter.
In other words, the will to power has a lot in common with self-discipline.
The “power” part of the concept comes from having mastery or control over a situation, but Nietzsche had a more nuanced idea of what this meant, saying that we have power over others both when we harm them and help them—both allow us to feel a sense of our own power and mastery.
Nietzsche’s work has often been used to justify atrocities and is associated with a nihilist perspective, but in reality, Nietzsche himself considered cruelty a poor option, since it could stem from a lack of power and mastery.
What’s important is that the will to power in each of us is neutral.
It’s neither good nor bad, although it can be directed toward any and all purposes.
We all possess this basic fuel of life, but we each express it differently.
An artist may have a will to create, a businessman the will to build wealth, a scientist the will to understand— but they are all subsets of the will to power.
Nietzsche suggested that we all find ways to express our will to power, consciously or unconsciously, covertly or underhandedly.
Devising a moral system and a set of rules that you impose on others is a form of will to power, whilst those who are less confident can still impose their values using guilt or passive aggression.
But whether “strong” or “weak,” we all find ways to satisfy and express our will to power.
This perspective on morality unfortunately allowed Nietzsche’s work to be misused and misrepresented, particularly by those who miss the essence of Nietzsche’s claim: that the will to power is one hundred percent neutral.
Nietzsche himself nevertheless thought that some avenues for expression were preferable, and favored sublimating the will to power into life-affirming creativity.
In particular, Nietzsche wrote about the concept of “self-overcoming,” which is the process of harnessing our inbuilt life energy and drive and focusing it on mastery of the ideal true self.
For Nietzsche, a person is made, not born—it is up to us to develop ourselves, to take control and responsibility of our drives, and to strive to create beauty, order, and wellbeing in the world.
How Does Will to Power Relate to Self- Discipline?
Does Nietzsche’s philosophy have any value for us today when it comes to developing greater self-discipline? Let’s return to the analogy of an engine in a car, or ink in a printer.
The engine and the ink are both what enable and power the function of either the car or the printer.
Without it, neither can do their job.
It’s the same with our will to power—we can imagine ourselves as invigorated and energized with a powerful but undirected inner force.
This force belongs to every person, as well as every living organism on our planet.
But where the car drives and what the printer prints is not set in stone.
It takes someone to get into the car to deliberately steer it toward a particular destination, just as it takes someone to instruct the printer exactly what to print.
Again, it’s the same with our will to power—it is unrealized until we direct it to some purposeful end.
In this analogy, the driver of the car and the person deciding what to print are acting as self-discipline.
The will to power can be directed toward horrific, useless, or confusing ends.
It could be ignored, wasted, refined, or developed.
What determines what you do with this fundamental will to power? You do.
Nietzsche’s principles remind us that we are in control—if we want to be.
A will to power is a force, but it has no direction or purpose.
It is up to us to be discerning, to give it shape and purpose, and to direct it.
It’s the easiest thing in the world to want something, but another thing entirely to adopt the mindset that allows you to take whatever action is required to realize that goal.
Each of us is blessed with a will, but what we fashion for ourselves out of that will comes down to our conscious, disciplined, and intelligent mastery of ourselves to create the things we most want to see in our world.
Nietzsche’s claim is a powerful one—that we are all imbued with an ability and desire to live, to thrive, and to express our inner being, take up space in the world, make a mark, and create what we want to create.
Some people will waste this potential; others will misuse it.
But there is always the possibility of channeling this force into good.