Hiking with Nietzsche: On Becoming Who You Are - by John Kaag

Walking is among the most life-affirming of human activities. It is the way we organize space and orient ourselves to the world at large. It is the living proof that repetition—placing one foot in front of the other—can in fact allow a person to make meaningful progress.

Walking is practically and physically beneficial, but it has also, for artists and thinkers like Nietzsche, been intimately tied to creation and philosophical thought. Letting one’s thoughts wander, thinking on one’s feet, arriving at a conclusion—these are no simple figures of speech but reflect a type of mental openness that can be achieved only on the move. In the words of the eighteenth-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “I never do anything but when walking, the countryside is my study.” The history of philosophy is largely the history of thought in transit.

When one spends time reading—and falls in love with—a particular philosopher, he gradually begins to confuse the world of objective fact with an imagined one of ideals and beliefs. This is one of the true joys of reading philosophy—its danger but also its redemptive possibility.

According to Nietzsche, there are two forms of health: the futile type that tries to keep death at bay as long as possible, and the affirming type that embraces life, even its deficiencies and excesses.

The “revaluation of values” is touted as one of Nietzsche’s greatest contributions to the history of philosophy. Instead of taking ethical norms—such as humility, pity, and self-sacrifice—at face value as guides to right action, Nietzsche asks the subversive question: Where did these values come from in the first place? What is their background? What is their forgotten history? The very intimation that morals came from somewhere, that they had an origin and were not given absolutely and for all time, is a radical philosophical move. It suggests that ethical life could be otherwise and that the fixity of social norms and mores is unshakably contingent. Revaluing life, according to Nietzsche, turns on one’s ability to live in the face of this reality.

The idea is a wonderful, awful one: What if some day or night a demon were to steal into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live and have lived it you will have to live once again and innumerable times again; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unspeakably small or great in your life must return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself…” Indeed, “what if?” Nietzsche’s demon is giving voice to an age-old metaphysical suggestion, namely that the movement of reality is best described in terms of cycles and epicycles, a snake devouring itself. Hinduism and Buddhism, each in its own varied way, express something similar in the doctrine of karma. Everything happens by way of repetition.

Nietzsche argues that despite all pleasant appearances, the history of the Western world is a silent story of suffering, that underneath the orderliness of modern life is a chronicle of pain that has been assiduously repressed. This is how the story goes: at the birthplace of European civilization, there were two types of people, the masters and the slaves, and hence two different kinds of morality arose.

Master morality, according to Nietzsche, developed by the lords of late antiquity, the Romans and the Greeks, was, by its very nature, straightforward. The “good” for the master is the power to advance, to assert oneself, to make progress. That which is “bad” is the opposite: weak, slow, cowardly, and indirect. Nietzsche gives the masterly or “aristocratic value equation”: to be good is to be noble; being noble necessarily means that one is powerful; power is beautiful (although it can also be terrible); and anything beautiful is both happy and loved by God. This equation gives the master a quick and accurate assessment of his or her self-worth. This is what Nietzsche means when he writes that the master “keeps himself in clear view.”

Slave morality is anything but straightforward. The slave gives the master a steady sidelong glance and lies in wait. In the ancient world, the Jews, according to Nietzsche, were the slaves par excellence. The Old Testament makes it perfectly clear: the Jews were the oppressed, and everyone else their masters. Slave morality, according to Nietzsche, begins in Jewish ressentiment, the hatred the Jews harbored for their oppressors. Masters are immune to ressentiment, but slaves transform the pain of their inferiority into a searing contempt for the powerful. Nietzsche, the therapist and patient, knew that there is something deeply understandable about the roots of ressentiment (this is, after all, the man who later admits that he attacks only those movements and ideas that have succeeded). But he holds that it needs to be held in some sort of check: “That lambs dislike predatory birds does not seem strange: only … it gives no ground for blaming these birds of prey for bearing off little lambs.” This is, however, precisely what sheep do: they blame the eagle for his carnivorous ways. Nietzsche imagines the town meeting of sheep who protest their captivity by formulating a new ethical order: “These birds of prey are evil; and whoever is least like a bird of prey, but rather its opposite, a lamb—would he not be good?” This is the point where natural values begin to be inverted, the moment when Augustus first becomes “a jerk.” The ruler is deemed “a jerk” when slave morality makes him accountable, makes him guilty—for his strength, that is—makes him blameworthy for not humbling himself or feigning weakness. The master is always free to give up his powers, to make himself as a lamb, to submit to the docility of the herd. That he is unwilling to do so is a symptom of his moral depravity—an arrogance bordering on hubris—which the society of slaves can never forgive.

Throughout the 1880s Nietzsche experimented with and theorized about what he termed “ascetic ideals.” Ascetic comes from the word for “monk,” but more directly from asketikos, meaning “rigorously self-disciplined.” This discipline has a long and storied history in the development of the human race. The man who would write for five hours, hike for three, and then write for another five—this man was fixated by the ascetic ideal. Any strenuous exercise or difficult trek reflects the ascetic. Painting, writing, exercising, studying, parenting: they all involve more than a little self-control.

But in 1887, as Nietzsche finished the Genealogy, he came to see something important about asceticism when it is first appropriated by and then grows out of control in our age of slave morality. When one’s life is completely controlled by powerful masters, the discipline of self-denial gives a slave something to do on his own terms. Indeed, it becomes the one thing a slave accomplishes on his own behalf. The slave has few options at his disposal: he can will nothing and be wholly controlled by his master, or he can set his will in motion in the ongoing process of self-negation. The slave has a choice between nonaction, which would eventually bring about his demise, and action, willful but self-abnegating, which would hasten this eventuality. Nietzsche thinks the decision is all too obvious: humans would rather destroy themselves than embody the passivity of willing nothing at all.

Decadent meals, decadent facades, decadent upholstery, decadent music—taken at face value, they are various signs of great wealth. But Nietzsche believes that these extravagances mask sickness and decay. The desire for a decadent meal, one meted out carefully over the course of hours, is a symptom of degeneracy, of one who cannot easily stomach normal food. A building needs a facade only when the supporting structure is ugly. Gaudy upholstery usually covers disproportionate furniture (who would think of covering a Shaker bench?) and is made for overly sensitive backs. Decadent music, bombastic and saccharine, is written for ears that have trouble hearing. Decadence arises out of weakness, as a shroud that covers a frailty on the brink of self-destruction, and in the cover-up, it quickens decay by allowing it to quietly fester and spread. It is life’s last, overdone flourish, a harbinger of death.

“Become who you are.” This is the command Nietzsche gives his readers in Thus Spoke Zarathustra and what serves as the motivating force in Ecce Homo. What does it mean to search for ourselves? For most of my life I’d thought that my authentic self was something “out there,” something beyond the quotidian, something on a mountain high in the Alps. I preferred to think of myself as existing somewhere else, in an unperturbed realm of transcendence. I was always secretly looking for this, resenting any person who might get in my way.

As it turns out, to “become who you are” is not about finding a “who” you have always been looking for. It is not about separating “you” off from everything else. And it is not about existing as you truly “are” for all time. The self does not lie passively in wait for us to discover it. Selfhood is made in the active, ongoing process, in the German verb werden, “to become.” The enduring nature of being human is to turn into something else, which should not be confused with going somewhere else. This may come as a great disappointment to one who goes in search of the self. What one is, essentially, is this active transformation, nothing more, nothing less. This is not a grand wisdom quest or hero’s journey, and it doesn’t require one to escape to the mountains.

Nietzsche’s point may be that the process of self-discovery requires an undoing of the self-knowledge that you assume you already have. Becoming is the ongoing process of losing and finding yourself.