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Few philosophers were as anti-Nietzsche as Bertrand Russell as evidenced by the chapter on Nietzsche in his History of Western Philosophy. Yet, both seem to have taken a dim view of the bindingness of promises. Russell expressed a view of the self as subject to radical change so that a promise need not be binding on the promise-maker when they ceased to identify with the person they were at the time the promise was made, a recognition of which may come in an instant. To be bound by an earlier self is a form of stunting heteronomy, as immoral as promises made by you would be if they were taken to be binding on me. It is wrong to compromise other people. Who you are at one point in time can be *other* to who you are at another point in time. Thus, giving you license to disavow promises made.
One day in 1901, riding his bike, Russell writes, it dawned on him that he no longer loved his wife, Alys. He cited, then dismissed as reasons, her flaws, that he was no longer sexually attracted to her, that she was “impeccably virtuous,” perhaps annoyingly so, etc. But these weren’t the reasons why he no longer loved her, suggesting rather that he had become a different person and could not be held to promises made by an earlier self.
Russell might have cited Nietzsche in his defense. In the Genealogy of Morals Nietzsche comes down hard on the slavish habit of promise-keeping. Russell and Nietzsche viewed promises as external to the person. They are impositions born of accommodation and social interaction with others and could conflict with the freedom to be who one truly is or has willed to become. It becomes even virtuous to break them should they hamper development.
Throughout his work Nietzsche attacks the passive acceptance of conventional morality. He sets forth an ideal of volitional self-creation, active in its self-construction. We may ask whom in real life Nietzsche had in mind? Who was his Übermensch, who able to instantiate his ideal? Nowhere does Nietzsche suggest himself as exemplar. The passion in his exhortations to forgetfulness and against slave morality and sentimentality suggests his vision was aspirational. He was addressing as much himself and his vulnerabilities as anyone else’s. Forgetfulness at any cost – discarding the baggage of the past, of misguided compassion and human weakness, it seems, was not easy for Nietzsche. If not himself, then who? Who among the significant in his life could move through the muck of morality – shame, guilt, inhibition – toward willful self-realization with the virtuous forgetfulness he celebrated?
Russell, by contrast, was adept at convenient forgetfulness. It came naturally to him. Publicly playing the part of male-feminist, in his private life his credentials on that score did not impress. Nietzsche is famous for his unflattering portrait of women. How ironic, then, if Nietzsche’s model of amorality, his real-life Übermensch, the person of his acquaintance who most embodied his amoral ideal, was in fact a woman: Lou Andreas-Salomé, the most influential woman in his life. He proposed marriage three times. Each time rejecting him (as she had others), she offered friendship instead. She would be no wife/slave to any man, leaving a trail of wounded hearts. But she did so with grace and integrity, exacting grudging admiration from her lovers. She pulled off for real the self-possessed radical autonomy Nietzsche himself could only dream of. “Übermensch,” he was not. She was his muse, but a übermensch does not require a muse. He remained in her thrall to the end of his sane life. God died in the 19th Century but Lou Andreas-Salomé lived well into the twentieth, outliving all her admirers: Rée, Rilke, Nietzsche, Freud, even her celibate husband.
Russell gifted at compartmentalizing was a disjointed free-spirit, leaving victims by the wayside, poor Alys among them. Lou Andreas-Salomé, principled and clear about who she was and who she would not be, never played the promise game.