In 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche published The Gay Science, a work he referred to as ‘the most personal of all my books’. It came after a series of setbacks in his life, including the weak reception of his previous work, a soured friendship, and his declining health, which caused severe migraines and vomiting, forcing him to resign from his professorial position. Yet it strikes a surprisingly cheerful tone.
It’s in this book that the philosopher first penned the phrase ‘become who you are’. Like much of his work, the phrase is cryptic and ambiguous. We are used to hearing that we should discover, find, or be ourselves. But becoming ourselves is a different, seemingly paradoxical proposition. How can I become who I already am? Nietzsche scatters clues for understanding this profound sentiment throughout his work.
One may be wary of taking life advice from a sickly iconoclast famous for assaulting cherished notions of morality and truth. But contrary to popular belief, Nietzsche was not a nihilist set on destroying human values. In fact, the unifying purpose behind his work was to fill the moral vacuum left by the decline of religion. His aversion to the legalistic and guilt-inducing ethical systems of his time stemmed from his fundamental goal of guiding individuals toward psychological health, personal excellence and virtue.
The concept of virtue has a rich philosophical history going back to the ancient Greeks in the West and Confucius in the East. A number of thinkers have converged on the idea that virtue and happiness are deeply intertwined, and Nietzsche was no exception. However, his version of virtue ethics was distinctive in its view that the cultivation of character was an individualistic enterprise, with each person’s path to virtue as unique as their fingerprint. In his allegorical work Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-85), he says: ‘My brother, when you have a virtue, and it is your own virtue, you have it in common with no one.’
Though we may choose to ignore them, Nietzsche thought that our innate strengths and values held the key to our fulfilment. The path toward developing these capacities could be treacherous, and only rare individuals could be expected to overcome the obstacles in their way. But for those who could make it past the perils of conformity and comfort, the highest peaks of flourishing awaited.
So how did he think you should go about developing this personal greatness? The first step was to cultivate self-knowledge. Because we all have self-serving narratives distorting our view, the first step to self-knowledge was to forget everything you think you know about yourself. You must recognise that what you think of as yourself is actually a chaotic multiplicity of drives competing for dominance. You must embrace an active role in shaping the dynamic process of becoming what you are. As the philosopher Paul Franco writes in Nietzsche’s Enlightenment (2011): ‘[W]e must creatively fashion something out of this formless chaos. The self we become is ultimately made, not found.’ [Continue reading…]