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Hiking With Nietzsche

January 4, 2022 by Twan van de Kerkhof

In Hiking With Nietzsche the reader follows the footsteps of the great German philosopher and those of American philosopher John Kaag, who follows Nietzsche’s wanderings a century later. The book is a double biography: not only about the life and work of Nietzsche but also about how Kaag ponders about life’s challenges.

Kaag follows Nietzsche to boring Basel and to the beautiful Swiss Alps. First at the age of nineteen,“in search of a parent” and seemingly in search of some drama, something that makes him feel alive. The young Kaag stops eating and nearly dies when he gets stuck in a crevasse. A more adult Kaag returns to Sils-Maria at the age of 36 with his wife and small daughter, though still searching. He mentions “longing for the great and the impossible” as an important theme in Nietzsche’s work and this seems also his personal desire. I recognize it too, so maybe it is a general human desire.

We learn about Nietzsche’s private life and about his ideas, some of which have become classics. The Übermensch for example: “Free spirit, self-conquerer, non-conformist – Nietzche’s existential hero terrifies and inspires in equal measure. The Übermensch stands as a challenge to imagine ourselves otherwise, above the societal conventions and self-imposed constraints that quietly govern modern life.“

Nietzsche wrote that the transformation to an Übermensch occurs in a ‘sudden sentience and pre-science of the future’. That is similar to what leadership author Joseph Jaworski writes in his work: you go the bottom of the U, you perceive, sense and feel, and suddenly you know.

According to Kaag the Übermensch is a logical consequence of the death of God, announced in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. God has been dying for a long time, Kaag writes, as a consequence of the advancements of science, capitalism and the increasing role of the state. There is “no reason for celebration” though, “the vacuum needs to be filled”. “Self-overcoming remains one of the few remaining goals” after God fades into the background.

Self-overcoming has three stages. The first stage is the camel, a beast of burden, that carries the past. “To flourish in the present, one must first come to grips with the distant past.” In the second stage, the lion throws off the packs. This is the “creation of freedom for oneself and a sacred ‘No’ to duty”. It “kills the dragon of ‘Thou shalt’”. The third stage is the innocent child that creates new values, expressing the sacred ‘Yes’. “The limitation of the lion is that it is still tethered to the ways of the past, even if only to reject them. The child, according to Nietzsche, has the almost miraculous ability to forget and move forward.”

Kaag also discusses Nietzsche’s “eternal recurrence”: what if you should have to live this life over and again, including all small and large events? It leads to assuming absolute responsibility: if one’s choices are to be replayed endlessly, they’d better be the ‘right’ ones. Be aware that all your choices are yours and yours alone, make them solely because you chose them and are willing to own up to them, including “the tortures we create for ourselves”.

The main theme, and the subtitle, of the book is becoming who you are. “There exists in the world a single path along which no one can go except you.” You don’t know where it leads but you should take it. Becoming who you are is walking that path, not reaching a destination. “The self does not lie passively in wait for us to discover it. Selfhood is made in the active, ongoing process. What one is, essentially, is this active transformation, nothing more, nothing less.”

Kaag quotes Herman Hesse, a German writer who built on Nietzsche’s work, that the hard work of walking the path should be done with a light touch. Learning to laugh helps a lot. “The point of life was not to get a grip but to loosen one’s hold just enough to get a fleeting sense of release.” And he points to Dionysus, the God of wine and dance. Both drinking and dancing contribute to a loss of self-recognition, which implies a kind of dying. “Die as soon as you can, so you can come to life again and again. Nietzsche would like us to die, to get out of the way, to get out of our own way, so something else can take our place. So that we can become what we are.”

John Kaag. Hiking With Nietzsche. Becoming Who You Are. Granta, 2018