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Become Who You Are With Nietzsche and Hesse

A journey of self-discovery.

Professor John Kaag set out on a journey of self-discovery at age 19 and again at age 36, both times hiking the mountains where Nietzsche wrote some of his most enduring and influential works. Kaag’s new book, Hiking with Nietzsche, thus serves as an autobiographical confession of confusion and an introduction to the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. Ultimately Kaag focuses on an enigmatic injunction that Nietzsche borrowed from the ancient Greek poet Pindar: Become who you are. What does this haunting phrase mean? What is Nietzsche commanding? And how can he help us to do it?

“Become who you are” is paradoxical in the sense that you already are who you are, and so there would seem to be no need to change. However, the change or becoming is a matter of growing into oneself, perhaps the way a caterpillar becomes a butterfly or a seed becomes a plant. In a sense, it already is what it will become, but in another sense, it is not yet that thing. Indeed, it must take action and undergo change.

To become who you are is to rise from the ashes, not as a phoenix yet again but as something new and different—transforming like David Bowie or Madonna or Lady Gaga. We become better and stronger by suffering and overcoming. We may appear to die or fade away, but we are really just gathering strength and reconstituting ourselves into a grander form.

author's photo
Source: author's photo

Kaag says, “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 yourself and finding yourself” (221). This is certainly the message of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, a novel that Kaag contemplates to make sense of Nietzsche.

In Siddhartha, the title character leaves home as a young man in search of his true self. Departing from his father’s house he joins a group of wandering monks. From there, the changes keep coming. As Kaag says, “The self does not lie passively in wait for us to discover it. Selfhood is made in the active, ongoing process … The enduring nature of being human is to turn into something else” (220).

Siddhartha undergoes a series of metaphorical deaths and rebirths. He dies to the life of a young Brahmin to become a wandering monk; he dies to the life of a wandering monk to become a worldly merchant who loves a courtesan; he dies to the worldly life to become an apprentice to a ferryman. Under the guidance of the ferryman, he learns to listen to the river and learns the unity of all things, discovering that his true self is not something separate and stable. Rather, like the river, his true self connects all in a perpetual process of change and becoming. The story fits well with Kaag’s interpretation of Nietzsche: “Die as soon as you can—so that you can come to life again, like a morning flash, or spring after a brutal winter. … Nietzsche would like us to die, to get out of our own way, so something else can take our place. So that we can become what we are” (228).

Perhaps we are all always works in progress. To become who you are does not mean that you reach a height where no more change is needed. Truly, you never arrive at a destination where you can simply be who you are. You must always be in the process of becoming. To be born is to begin dying. To become who you are is to always be in the process of dying to one way of being so that you can become something else. For this reason, the metaphorical deaths and rebirths throughout Siddhartha are resonant.

Not everyone becomes who they are, however. Instead, many people try to make something fixed and stable out of themselves—a doctor, an American, a mother, a father. But, as Sartre would argue, we are in essence, none of these things. Instead, our essence is in a constant state of self-creation and change. To pretend otherwise, to pretend that we have achieved the stability of a thing, is to be in what Sartre calls bad faith. To become static is to be rigid, to become like a corpse. By contrast, it is the essence of life to be dynamic and changing.

Nietzsche and Kaag do not offer themselves as models of ultimate success. At the end of Hiking with Nietzsche, Kaag’s journey has not reached a final destination. But he has pushed himself further along the path, dying to one way of life to be reborn to a new one. And the road leads ever onward. Unlike Nietzsche, Hesse seems to offer hope for the possibility of a conclusion. After many life changes, the title character of Siddhartha reaches enlightenment.

Perhaps Nietzsche would reject such a story as offering false metaphysical comfort, and maybe he would be right. But with no end in sight and only perpetual striving ahead, we face a fate not much better than Sisyphus, condemned to roll a rock to the top of a hill every day only to see it roll back down. Camus tells us, though, that the struggle to the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart—we must imagine Sisyphus happy.

If, unlike Sisyphus, the struggle to the heights is not enough to make us happy, we may look to our children. Nietzsche does not have much parenting advice to offer, but (as I've written about in another post) Hesse’s story of Siddhartha reflects on the love between fathers and sons. We want to protect our children and keep them from making the same mistakes we made. But ultimately, we must realize that each child must walk his or her own path to become who they are.

William Irwin is the author of Little Siddhartha: A Sequel.