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Friedrich Nietzsche On How To Find Your Best Self

02/23/2015 09:22 am ET | Updated Feb 23, 2015
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The following is an excerpt from Nietzsche: Great Thinkers on Modern Life, a new series published by The School of Life. In this particular chapter, author John Armstrong uses the philosopher's works to explain the best way to discern your true passions.

Sometimes we feel frustrated with "who we are". We yearn to be better than we are. But we are not quite sure what that means.

Nietzsche was very sympathetic to this kind of restlessness. He doesn’t chide us to count our blessings and remember that things could be a lot worse; or say that in the overall condition of the world we could ourselves terribly lucky, and that we should pull ourselves together. Instead, he invites us to get interested in what is going on when we feel dissatisfied with ourselves. He sees this as a sign of good psychological health. He wants us to get to know this dissatisfaction, take it seriously and do something about it.

Some first shots at imaging a better version of oneself might be: make more money, do more exciting things, get a job you love, move house, find an exit from an unsatisfactory relationship, make some new friends, get a masters degree. These could be very good goals. But notice that they are all external. They are about things we could do or have. What about what it is like to be us: who are we, really, in and of ourselves? And why don’t we set about it. Why don’t we become the people we want to be? Are we too lazy? This is the question Nietzsche asks in an essay called Schopenhauer as Educator:

A traveller, who has seen many countries, was asked what common attribute he found among people. He answered: "They have a tendency to sloth."

Many may think that the fuller truth would have been: "They are all timid." They hide themselves behind "manners" and "opinions".

At bottom every man knows that he is a unique being, the like of which can appear only once on this earth. By no extraordinary chance will such a marvelous piece of diversity in unity, as he is, ever be put together a second time. He knows this, but hides it like a guilty secret. Why? From fear of his neighbor, who looks only for the latest conventionalities in him, and is wrapped up in himself.

But what is it that forces man to fear his neighbor, to think and act with his herd, and not seek his own joy?

Shyness, perhaps, in a few rare cases. But in the majority it is idleness -- taking things easily. In a word, the ‘tendency to sloth’, of which the traveller spoke. He was right. People are more slothful than timid. Their greatest fear is the heavy burden that uncompromising honesty and nakedness of speech and action would lay on them.

It is only artists who hate this lazy wandering in borrowed manners and ill-fitting opinions. They discover the guilty secret of the bad conscience: the disowned truth that each human being is a unique marvel.

Artists show us how, even in very little movement of the muscles, a man is an individual self. And further -- as an analytical deduction from his individuality -- a beautiful and interesting object: a new and incredible phenomenon (as is every work of nature) that can never become tedious.

If a great thinker despises people, it is because they are lazy; they seem like broken bits of crockery, not worth mending.

The man who does not want to remain in the general mass, has only to stop "taking things easy". He needs to follow his conscience, which cries out: "Be yourself! The way you behave and think and desire at every moment -- that is not you!"

Every youthful soul hears this cry day and night, and thrills to hear it. The soul guesses at a special quota of happiness that has been from eternity destined for it -- if only he can find help to get there. But you cannot be helped towards your true happiness so long as you are bound by the chains of Opinion and Fear.

And how comfortless and unmeaning life is without this deliverance! There is no more desolate or outcast creature in nature than the man who has broken away from his true genius and does nothing but peer aimlessly about.

There is no reason to attack, or criticize, such a man. He is a husk without a kernel; a painted cloth, tattered and sagging; a scarecrow ghost, that can rouse no fear, and certainly no pity.

I mean that it will be blotted from life’s true History of Liberty. Later generations will be greatly disgusted, when they look back at a period ruled by shadow-men projected on the screen of public opinion. To some far posterity our age may well be the darkest chapter of history, the most unknown because the least human.

I have walked through the new streets of our cities, and thought of how of all the dreadful houses that these gentlemen with their public opinion have built for themselves not a stone will remain in a hundred years. And the opinions of these busy masons may well have fallen along with the buildings.

Yet how full of hope should anyone be who feels they are not a citizen of this age! If they were a citizen, they would have to help with the work of "killing their time", and they would -- as citizens -- perish with it. But someone who does not feel a citizen of this age might wish instead to bring to life a better time, and in that life themselves to live.

But even if the future offers us nothing to hope for, the wonderful fact of our existing at this present moment of time gives us the greatest encouragement to live after our own rules and measure. It is inexplicable that we could be living just today, though there has been an infinity of time in which we might have existed. We own nothing but a span’s length (a ‘today’) in this infinity; we must reveal why we exist.

We have to answer for our existence to ourselves and will therefore be our own true pilots, and not admit that our existence is random or pointless.

One must take a bold and reckless way with the riddle [of life]; especially as the key is apt to be lost, however things turn out.

Why cling to your bit of earth, or your little business, or listen to what your neighbor says? It is so provincial to bind oneself to views which are no longer binding a couple of hundred miles away. East and West are signs that somebody chalks up to fool cowards like us.

"I will make the attempt to gain freedom," says the youthful soul; "and I will be hindered, just because two nations happen to hate each other and go to war, or because there is a sea between two parts of the earth, or a religion is taught in the vicinity, which did not exist two thousand years ago."

"And this is not – you," the soul says. "No one can build the bridge, over which you must cross the river of life, except you alone. There are paths and bridges and demi-gods without number, that will gladly carry you over, but only at the price of losing your own self; your self would have to be mortgaged, and then lost."

"There is one road along which no one can go, except you. Do not ask where it leads; go forward. Who was it that spoke these true words: 'A man never rises higher than when he does not know where the road will take him'?"

How can we "find ourselves" again? How can man "know himself"? He is a thing obscure and veiled. If the hare has seven skins, man can cast from him seventy times seven skins, and not be able to say: "Here you truly are; there is skin no more."

Also this digging into oneself, this straight, violent descent into the pit of one’s being, is a troublesome and dangerous business to start. You may easily take such hurt, that no doctor can heal you. And what is the point: since everything bears witness to our essence -- our friendships and enmities, our looks and greetings, our memories and forgetfulnesses, our books and our writing!

This is the most effective way: let the growing soul look at life with the question: "What have you truly loved? What has drawn you upward, mastered and blessed you?"

Set up the things that you have honoured in front of you. Maybe they will reveal, in their being and their order, a law which is fundamental of your own self.

Compare these objects. Consider how one of them completes and broadens and transcends and explains another: how they form a ladder which all the time you have been climbing to find your true self.

For your true self does not lie deeply hidden within you. It is an infinite height above you -- at least, above what you commonly take to be yourself.

-Schopenhauer as Educator, 1874

What is the experience of finding something "higher" or "above" ourselves? One way of taking this is to think of people we admire. People who seem, in some way, to already be the kind of person we want to become. It’s not just that we admire them for their achievements -- as we might admire a great athlete or explorer of successful entrepreneur. It’s rather that there is something about this person’s way of being, their attitudes, their manner of existing, that speaks to us and entices us -- hints at our own good development.

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Nietzsche was most deeply impressed by the great German poet (and dramatist, civil servant, traveller, lover, collector, diplomat, dramatist, novelist...) Goethe:

Goethe -- not a German event but a European one: a grant attempt to return to overcome the eighteenth century [Goethe’s own times] through a return to nature, through a going-up to the naturalness of the Renaissance, a kind of self-over-coming on the part of that century. He bore within him its strongest instincts: sentimentality, nature-idolatry, the anti-historical, idealistic, the unreal, the revolutionary (the last is only a form of the unreal). He called to his aid history, the natural sciences, antiquity, likewise Spinoza, above all practical activity; he surrounded himself with nothing but closed horizons; he did not sever himself from life, he placed himself within it; nothing could discourage him and he took as much as possible upon himself, above himself, within himself. When he aspired to was totality; he strove against the separation of reason, sensuality, feeling, will; he disciplined himself to a whole; he created himself...

Goethe conceived of a strong, highly cultured human being, skilled in all physical accomplishments, who, keeping himself in check and having reverence for himself, dares to allow himself the whole compass and wealth of naturalness, who is strong enough for this freedom; a man of tolerance, not out of weakness, but out of strength, because he knows how to employ to his advantage what would destroy an average nature; a man to whom nothing is forbidden, except be it weakness, whether that virtue be called vice or virtue...

A spirit thus emancipated stands in the midst of the universe with a joyful and trusting fatalism, in the faith that only what is separate and individual may be rejected, that in the totality everything is redeemed and affirmed -- he no longer denies...

-Twilight of the Idols, 1889

The person you admire stands "above" you -- and excites admiration, and perhaps at times envy.

Nietzsche is not just looking at his hero with wordless admiration, or applause. He wants to fathom Goethe’s secret. He wants to know how that admirable man became the person he was. This is the key question: How are the impressive things actually accomplished? It’s not enough just to look on. We want to become more like the things we admire.

Worshipping the genius out of vanity. Because we think well of ourselves, but in no way expect that we could ever make the preparatory sketch for a painting by Raphael or a scene like one in a play by Shakespeare, we convince ourselves that the ability to do so is quite excessively wonderful, a quite uncommon incident, or if we still have a religious sensibility, a grace from above. Thus our vanity, our self-love, furthers the worship of the genius, for it does not hurt only if we think of it as very remote from ourselves, as a miracle (Goethe, who was without envy, called Shakespeare his "star of the furthest height", recalling to us that line "one does not cover the stars").

But those insinuations of our vanity aside, the activity of genius seems in no way fundamentally different form the activity of the mechanical inventor, or the scholar of astronomy or history, a master tactician. All these activities are explained when one imagines men whose thinking is active in one particular direction; who used everything to that end; who always observes eagerly their inner life and that of other people; who see models, simulation everywhere; who do not tire of rearranging their material.

The genius, too, does nothing other than first learn to place stones, then to build, always seeking material, always forming and reforming it. Every human activity is amazingly complicated, not only that of the genius: but none is a "miracle".

From where, then, the belief that there is genius only in the artist, orator or philosopher? That only they have "intuition" (thus attributing to them a kind of magical eye glass by which they can see directly into "being")? It is evident that people speak of genius only where they find the effects of the great intellect most agreeable to and, on the other hand, where the not want to feel envy. To call someone "divine" means "here we do not have to compete." Furthermore, everything that is complete and perfect is admired; everything evolved is underestimated. Now, no one can see in an artist’s work how it evolved: that is its advantage, for wherever we can see the evolution we grow somewhat cooler.

-Human, All Too Human, 1878

But to "grow cooler" is, really, a good thing. Because what it does is bring us closer to the sense that we too have it in our power to reach after great things. But not -- as we formerly imagined -- by some magnificent act of accomplishment. Rather by concentration of our efforts, slow mastery, the gradual accumulation of relevant insights, the painstaking sorting out of what is crucial from what is misleading, by practice and repetition.

Paradoxical as it might sound, Nietzsche warns that such recognition is heard as bad news. For if the great things are doable, then, indeed, we can compete. The great work is no longer "divine". It is no longer cast as something utterly distant.

In essence, what Nietzsche is saying is this: the things we long to do and accomplish -- the kind of person we might hope to become -- are in fact within reach. But the path to each of those goals has this difficulty to it: it is a path that involves suffering, annoyance with oneself, disappointment, envy and frustration. He is saying that it is always through such pains that good things emerge. They do not occur as a matter of spontaneous luck. Looking on from the outside of what we admire (a successful person) we see the effect. But we do not usually get the chance to closely observe the fears, the insecurity. Such insight, however, is strangely heartening. It helps us see that suffering is not a sign of failing to be the best version of oneself, but a necessary part of the process of becoming who want to -- and should -- be.

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