Mankind's Struggle for Lasting Peace by Vela Zanetti
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Paul Rée, Nietzsche, and the Myth of Libertas

In 1878 Nietzsche wrote a letter to Paul Rée (1849-1901) in which he declared: ‘All my friends are now agreed that my book [Human, All-Too-Human] comes from and is written by you: so I congratulate you on this new authorship … Long live Réealism and my good friend!’ Although this friendship was not to last, many commentators agree that Rée had a profound, if temporary, influence on both Nietzsche’s thought and his method of philosophical expression. Arguably, this broad consensus gives weight to the idea that Rée helped to shape the trajectory of modern continental philosophy, albeit from the intellectual side-lines.

However, Rée was a radical philosopher in his own right. He was a hard-nosed empiricist who rejected appeals to metaphysics, religion and the notion of freewill. Via an appeal to Darwin’s theory of natural selection, he also repudiated a priori moral principles, going so far as to proclaim that we should abandon the notion of moral responsibility not merely in theory, but in practice as well. As he put it, ‘someone who has recognized the nonfreedom of the will no longer holds anyone responsible’.

Paul Ludwig Carl Heinrich Rée was born in Bartelshagen, a village in Pomerania close to the Baltic coast. His parents were both from assimilated Jewish families, a lineage that was later exploited by the anti-Semitic Wagnerian circle as they tried to distance themselves from Nietzsche. In 1869, Rée embarked on a study of philosophy and law at the University of Leipzig. Following an interval in which he fought in the Franco-Prussian war, he devoted himself to the study of philosophy at the University of Halle; his doctoral dissertation interrogated the notion of nobility within the context of Aristotelian ethics.

Rée and Nietzsche first met in Basel in the summer of 1873. As their friendship developed, Nietzsche began to laud Rée, likening him to a skilful marksman adept at hitting the bullseye of human nature time and again. In 1882 Rée introduced Nietzsche to the young Russian bohemian, Lou Salomé (later Lou Andreas-Salomé.) Within days of meeting, the three thinkers were travelling together in Italy. In Lucerne they posed for the now infamous photograph in which Nietzsche and Rée appear tethered to a cart whilst Lou Salomé stoops behind them wielding a whip in her right hand. With a ‘pathological aversion to the reproduction of his features’, Rée strongly objected to the pose, but Nietzsche insisted. Regretfully, it is within this context that Rée is often remembered today.

Yet Rée’s thought warrants serious academic attention, especially within the context of the freewill and determinism debate. According to Rée, every act of the will is preceded by what he terms a ‘sufficient cause.’ As he points out, without such a cause the act of willing cannot itself occur. Drawing out this thread of reason, Rée stipulates that if the sufficient cause is present the act of willing must occur sub specie necessitatis (under the aspect of necessity). The conclusion is that the notion of freewill entails a departure from the causal laws which govern the universe—as he puts it, each act of willing would be an absolute beginning or first cause of and by itself. For Rée this is patent nonsense, and hence he is able to conclude that freewill is a manifest illusion. Rée accounts for the power of this ever-present illusion by suggesting that we do not perceive the causes by which our choices and desires are determined, and hence it is that we labour under the false impression that our volition is free from causal necessity. Focusing on the notion of pity, he gives voice to this micro-macro dialectic thus:

Suppose, for example, that I am stirred by a feeling of pity at this moment. To what causes is it to be attributed? Let us go back as far as possible. An infinite amount of time has elapsed up to this moment. Time was never empty; objects have filled all eternity. These objects … have continually undergone change. All these changes were governed by the law of causality; not one of them took place without a sufficient cause. […] We need not consider what else may have characterised these changes. Only their formal aspect, only this one point is of concern to us: no change occurred without a [deterministic] cause.

Numerous other philosophers have drawn similar conclusions. Yet what is radical about Rée is his uncompromising nerve when it comes to drawing out the logical consequences of this deterministic picture of the self. As he makes plain, moral responsibility is based on the error of supposing that humans possess freewill—when ‘we have understood the necessity of all human actions, we no longer hold anyone responsible’.

Rée concedes that as with the onetime believer who has managed to shake off the fetters of religion, the yoke of moral responsibility might still weigh heavy in the mind like an absent God: ‘is it really possible to shake off feelings of guilt so easily? Do they disappear, like a spook, when the magic word effect is pronounced?’ To offset this atavism Rée suggests that whenever someone involuntarily wants to ascribe blame or praise to an action, they should ascend to what he terms the ‘point of view of eternity and necessity’. From such an intellectual vantage point, from a macro-cosmic perspective, the ‘instinctual association between the action and the judgement will be severed, if not for the first time, then perhaps for the thousandth’. With reference to Sophocles, Simon Critchley argues that in what appears to be our ‘free, volitional action there is an experience of being acted upon by a curse’. As Oedipus puts it,‘all the events that have thrust themselves upon me […] The Gods so willed it—doubtless an ancient grudge / Against our house’. Rée replaces the Theban curse with the cold indifference of a universal causality that serves to negate all freedom and responsibility.

Moreover, Critchley has recently argued that many of the characters portrayed in Greek tragedies occupy a space within which they are neither free nor causally determined. Ostensibly, they dwell in a performative locus set ‘between freedom and necessity, where both are present, deeply interdependent, yet quite district’. As he argues, it is perhaps pre-Platonic Greek drama which can harbour the incongruities of lived experience shaped by the play of such opposed forces. By virtue of this play of opposites, such drama can posit (but not answer) the intractable and multivalent Aeschylean question: ti draso? (‘What should I do?’)—a question which is arguably ‘not the beginning of an experience of rational argumentation, but reasoning’s terminus’.

Before reaching this terminus, numerous philosophical attempts have been made to mix the oil and water of freedom and necessity. Yet despite the labours of such luminaries as Hobbes and Hume, this mix appears to be stubbornly immiscible when stirred by the logic of hardnosed empirical philosophy. Could it be the case that rather than being a traumatic awakening to freedom and moral responsibility, ti draso? can be reconfigured as a moment wherein one becomes conscious of the seeming tragedy of necessity and the attendant vacuity of all ethical deliberation? In other words, given the play of universal necessity, must the question ‘What should I do?’ always be asked with a mind to the redundancy of real choice and ultimate responsibility? Rendering libertas a myth, the work of the Rée would have it so.

Rée’s position could not be further removed from that of later existential thinkers such as Sartre. For Sartre, determinism is false: ‘there is no determinism—man [sic] is free, man is freedom’. In stark contrast to Rée, such liberty entails total responsibility. As Sartre puts it, the first principle of existentialism ‘is that it puts every man [sic] in possession of himself as he is, and places the entire responsibility for his existence squarely upon his own shoulders’. In Rée’s uncompromising estimation, such responsibility is a chimera which stalks the conscience of those who are not bold enough to apply the deterministic laws of nature to themselves.

At the turn of the century, Rée spent a year retracing his former travels with Lou Salomé. He stayed in Celerina in Switzerland for over a year—it was one of the last places he and Lou Salomé had visited on their travels together. Whilst walking above the Charnadüre Gorge near Celerina, Rée apparently slipped and then fell to his death. Rée had once argued that the decision to kill oneself arises from an excess of rationality. Although the Swiss authorities returned a verdict of accidental death, there has been much speculation as to the true nature of Rée’s tragic end—by the light of his own logic, an end set whilst ‘Unborn […] Nay, unbegotten, unconceived.’



Andreas-Salomé, L. (1990) Looking Back: Memoirs. Trans. Breon Mitchell. Ed Ernst Pfeiffer. New York: Paragon House.

Critchley, S. (2020) Tragedy, the Greeks and Us. London: Profile Books.

Rée, P. (2003) Basic Writings. Trans. Robin Small. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

——— (1973) ‘Determinism and the Illusion of Moral Responsibility’. Trans. Stefan Bauer-Mengelberg. In Edwards, P. & Pap, A. (eds.) A Modern Introduction to Philosophy: Readings from Classical and Contemporary Sources. London: Freedom Press, pp. 10-27.

Sartre, J-P. (1993) Existentialism & Humanism. Trans. Philip Mairet. London: Methuen.

Small, R. (2005) Nietzsche and Rée: A Star Friendship. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sophocles. (1974) The Theban Plays: King Oedipus, Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone. Trans. E. F. Watling. London: Penguin Books.

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