Friedrich Nietzsche is one of the most polarizing and misunderstood of modern philosophers. Dismissed by some and misinterpreted by others, the real philosophy of Nietzsche in fact holds some incredibly life-affirming truths for everyone, regardless of belief or age.
My guest today has spent much of both his personal and professional life tracking down those insights. At the age of 19 and then again at age 37, he traveled to the Swiss town where Nietzsche wrote his famous work, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and learned something different on each trip from the mustachioed philosopher about living a life of meaning and significance. His name is John Kaag, and he’s a professor of philosophy and the author of Hiking With Nietzsche: On Becoming Who You Are.
In this compelling conversation, John discusses what he learned about life hiking the same mountain Nietzsche hiked, including the role that walking itself played in Nietzsche’s approach to thinking. We begin with the biggest misconceptions about the philosopher, including what he really meant when he said “God is dead.” John then walks us through Nietzsche’s idea of the will to power, how this impulse should be balanced with amor fati — the love of fate — in order to achieve Nietzsche’s ideal of becoming who you are, and the different things his philosophy can mean to a young man and to one approaching middle age.
- Why Nietzsche is so misunderstood (and what those misconceptions are)
- What sort of philosophy Nietzsche was doing
- Similarities between Nietzsche and Emerson
- Why The Will to Power is so often misunderstood
- What drew John to Nietzsche as a young man
- What role did Basel, Switzerland play in Nietzsche’s life
- Nietzsche’s prodigious walking habit
- Why is walking so powerful? And especially when formulating new ideas?
- John’s extreme fasting while following in Nietzsche’s footsteps
- What value did Nietzsche see in the “ascetic ideal”?
- Why Nietzsche wants us to ask forbidden questions
- The radical thought experiment of “eternal return”
- What John hoped for in revisiting Switzerland as a middle-aged man with his family
- Why Nietzsche’s real brilliance is perhaps in leading us to middle age
- Nietzsche’s deep human-ness
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- John’s first book, American Philosophy: A Love Story
- A Primer on Nietzsche’s Life and Style
- Say Yes to Life: A Primer on Nietzsche’s Philosophy
- Harnessing the Life-Altering Power of Eternal Return
- Paul Ree
- The Will to Power
- Solvitur Ambulando: It Is Solved By Walking
- Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk Was a Spectator Sport
- Albert Camus
- Sources of Existential Angst
- 31 Journaling Prompts for Greater Self-Reliance
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
Recorded on ClearCast.io
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness Podcast. Friedrich Nietzsche is one of the most polarizing and misunderstood of modern philosophers, dismissed by some and misinterpreted by others. The real philosophy of Nietzsche in fact tells some incredibly life affirming truths for everyone, regardless of belief or age. Our guest today has spent much of both his personal and professional life tracking down those insights. At the age of 19 and then again at the age of 37 he traveled to the Swiss town where Nietzsche wrote his famous work, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and learned something different on each trip from the mustachio philosopher about living a life of meaning and significance.
His name is John Kaag, and he’s a professor of philosophy and the author of Hiking With Nietzsche: Becoming Who You Are. In this compelling conversation John discusses what he learned about life hiking the same mountain Nietzsche hiked, including the role that walking itself played in Nietzsche’s approach to thinking. We begin with the biggest misconceptions about the philosopher, including what he really meant when he said, “God is dead.” John then walks us through Nietzsche’s idea of the will of power, how this impulse should be balanced with the amor fati, the love of fate, in order to achieve Nietzsche’s ideal of becoming who you are, and the different things his philosophy can mean to a young man and to one approaching middle age. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at AOM.is/Kaag. That’s K-A-A-G. AOM.is/K-A-A-G. All right. John Kaag, welcome to the show.
John Kaag: Thanks so much for having me.
Brett McKay: So, you are a philosopher. What kind of philosophy do you specialize in?
John Kaag: So, my background is in American philosophy and 19th century European philosophy, two types of philosophy that actually, American pragmatism especially, says that philosophy should be judged on the basis of its practical consequences, in other words, how philosophy can matter to individuals and their communities, how basically philosophy can make a difference in life.
Brett McKay: Okay. So, that’s like William James was a pragmatist.
John Kaag: That’s right. Yeah. Basically, there was this sense in the second half of the 19th century that philosophy risked jeopardizing its own relevance basically by retreating to the ivory tower and that it needed to basically touch down again in the world.
Brett McKay: Okay. So, you wrote a book about the pragmatist, American philosophy, which is great, but you’ve got a new book out, called Hiking with Nietzsche. Now, Nietzsche’s an interesting character, because he was kind of doing something similar to the transcendentalists, the pragmatists, trying to make philosophy alive. Right? But before we get to your relationship with Nietzsche, let’s talk about this guy, because he’s a very controversial figure. He’s misunderstood. What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about Friedrich Nietzsche?
John Kaag: Yeah. No. That’s a great question. I’m glad that you asked. I mean, Nietzsche is probably the gateway for many, many mostly 19-year-old men into philosophy, and that was the case for me. He’s also the most misunderstood philosopher of the 19th and 20th century, maybe of all of philosophy. So, I mean, when we think about Nietzsche, we think about the bumper sticker slogans, God is dead, and also what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I think that one of the misapprehensions or the misunderstandings of Nietzsche is that when he says, “God is dead,” he’s rejoicing over this fact. He’s not.
In fact, he sees the fact that we can no longer believe in traditional forms of meaning, so religious, political, familial … He thinks that during the 19th century those forms of meaning have kind of gone down the toilet. That’s what he means when he says, “God is dead.” He’s not rejoicing. What he’s saying is in the absence of these forms of traditional meaning making what are we gonna do with our lives? He actually sees it as a crisis. So, he might be an atheist in a certain way, but he’s certainly not a rejoicing atheist.
The second sort of misunderstanding is that Nietzsche was an antisemite or is the darling of the alt right. Nietzsche was not an antisemite. His sister, Elizabeth, was, and that’s how he became acquainted so intimately with the Nazi party in the 1930s, and 1940s, and then in our collective memory today, but that wasn’t the case in Nietzsche’s day. In fact, he talks about nationalism and antisemitism as a type of bovine nationalism, a type of cow-ish nationalism, which he was not a fan of. So, I think those are the two sort of misunderstandings, but unfortunately that’s the way that many of us understand Nietzsche today.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I think he was a friend with Wagner, with the guy who wrote music, and he was an antisemite. Nietzsche, that’s kind of one of the reasons he ended his friendship with him. Right?
John Kaag: Right. I mean, the primary reason that Nietzsche ended his friendship with Wagner is that Nietzsche had a very close relationship with a man why the name of Paul Rée, and Paul Rée was a Jew, and Wagner spread a very nasty rumor about Nietzsche. He said that Nietzsche’s difficulty with his eyes could be attributed to masturbation, and his masturbation could be attributed to his fear of women, and that his fear of women could be traced to a homosexuality that he was sharing with Paul Rée. That was a rumor that basically Nietzsche never forgave, and that ended their relationship.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I probably wouldn’t forgive people spreading false rumors about you either. So, I mean, what kind of philosophy was Nietzsche doing? Because it’s different from say Plato, or Aristotle, or more analytic philosophers. You read his stuff and it’s sometimes very bizarre, these aphorisms, this very bold speaking about Zarathustra and things like that. So, how would you describe Nietzsche’s philosophy?
John Kaag: Sure. It’s a hard question. So, I think Nietzsche is trying to create a philosophy that can give us a sense of meaning in the absence of the traditions that I mentioned earlier. So, what he would like us to do is to understand that the death of God actually allows us to live, and living is not just an issue of reason. It’s an issue of passion. It’s an issue of art. So, that belief then comes through in his philosophy. His philosophy … Ralph Waldo Emerson says, “One day philosophy will be done by poets.” Nietzsche envisions that or is trying to embody that. So, when we think about the form of Nietzsche’s philosophy, we see poetry. We see aphorism. We see songs, drama. What Nietzsche is hoping is that we actually see it as a philosophy of life.
He says that the point of life is to make our lives like pieces of art, and he tried to embody that in his writing, so it doesn’t come across as a straight argument or as a rational discourse, because he says that, and Nietzsche suspects, that human beings don’t just live by rational discourse alone. They live by gut instinct, and they live by aesthetic or artistic experience. So, by forming a philosophy that is, as you say, unconventional, he’s trying to tap into those ways of understanding.
Brett McKay: Yeah. That irrational part, he uses the god, Dionysus. Right? Sort of that represents that irrational part of humanity.
John Kaag: That’s right. So, Nietzsche envisions a culture that balances the Dionysian and the Apollonian, the Apollonian being this cult order, and the Dionysian being this sort of darker, instinctual impulse. He says that the best cultures are those that can have a balance between the two. If we think and have a balance between the two in the same experience, that’s what he thinks is so unique about Greek tragedy, for example.
Brett McKay: So, you mentioned Ralph Waldo Emerson there. As I’ve read Nietzsche, I’ve found similarities between what he was doing, what the Transcendentalists were doing. What do you think were the similarities there?
John Kaag: Yeah. I mean, Nietzsche is reading Emerson through the 1860s, and he says that Emerson is his good friend, because of his deep what Nietzsche calls skepsis, the word that gives us skeptical. In other words, Emerson’s doubt about conventional forms of morality, his doubt about conventional or traditional ways of being. I think that’s a similarity. I also think there’s a similarity with Emerson’s sot of drive towards individualism and self-reliance, which we see in Nietzsche.
So, if you think about Nietzsche’s understanding of the will to power, the idea that we are most alive when we exercise our wills in sort of creative and meaningful ways, this was in Emerson as well. So, that’s another aspect. I also think that Nietzsche’s notion, he described it as the amor fati, the love of fate. I think that we see this in Emerson as well. We can talk about the love of fate a little later too. I’m sure we will.
Brett McKay: Sure. You just mentioned Will To Power. That’s one of the books that I feel like people associate … The reason why people associate Nietzsche with Nazism, because that was the book that all the soldiers, Nazis carried around. But people when they hear will to power, they often think, “Well, he’s talking about political power.” It sounds like there, you were just talking about it, Nietzsche wasn’t really talking about political power or just dominance. He was talking more of like a personal type of power.
John Kaag: Yeah. Nietzsche, he says this to us. I’m gonna be just as frank as I can about it. He says, “The young soul should look back on his life or her life and ask themselves, ‘What have you really loved up to this point?'” The will to power is one way of answering that question, like what we find about our lives that, you know, are the best parts of our lives, are times where we’re exercising the will to power, this creative force. You’re right. It is individual and not necessarily nationalistic or imperialistic. There is another way of answering that question, what have you loved up until now, but I think that the will to power is, one, is the tradition way that we understand Nietzsche as answering that question. So, what we love is moments in which we feel like our volition is exercised in active ways or in ways that we have authorship over. Nietzsche was very much attuned to the fact that human beings do feel good when they feel powerful.
Brett McKay: Right. Yeah. He said something like, “Joy is the feeling of power increasing,” something along that lines.
John Kaag: Yeah. He’s also coming out of this Darwinian legacy. Darwin published the Origin of Species in 1859, and Nietzsche is reading this and trying to figure out what a naturalized morality would look like. In other words, what would morality look like if we just think about humans as just another form of animal? That doesn’t mean that he’s reducing us to animals. Rather, he’s saying what are our natures actually like, and where do we find joy? Where do we find it? Well, one place we find it is power.
Brett McKay: So, you mentioned in the beginning that oftentimes Nietzsche is the gateway to philosophy for 19-year-old young men, and you were one of those young men. You started reading and writing about him when you were 19 years old, as a college student. What drew you to Nietzsche as a young man?
John Kaag: Sure. I mean, my background is fairly conservative. I grew up in the middle of Pennsylvania, Central Pennsylvania, and if you’ve ever been there, you probably know that Central Pennsylvania is not a place where people think … It’s not a bastion of philosophy. My mother, a fairly conservative woman, never envisioned her son becoming a philosophy professor. I grew up in a sort of strict, Calvinist, religious setting, which is not unlike Friedrich Nietzsche. He grew up a strict Lutheran. When I read Nietzsche’s Anti-Christ, a book that was published at the end of his life, it says, “One must have the courage to ask forbidden questions,” and I was hooked, because those forbidden questions were questions like is there a God? Do I have faith? What does it mean to be a man? Those are questions that Nietzsche invites us to ask, and he doesn’t give us answers, but rather he just says, “Go ahead. Take the risk.” So, I was hooked.
Thankfully, I bumped into a very good professor, two of them, Dan Conway and Doug Anderson, who encouraged me to write a thesis on Emerson and Nietzsche on the concepts of genius, insanity, and what’s known as the ascetic ideal, not the aesthetic, but the ascetic ideal, asceticism being the idea of self-deprivation or self-control. Anyway, they were the ones who said to me after my junior year … They handed me an envelope, and in that envelope was $3,000. They said, “You know what? You’ve never been outside of Central Pennsylvania. You should go to Switzerland. You should go,” quote, “hike with Nietzsche. That’s how the journey sort of began.
Brett McKay: So, you went on this hike. You went to Switzerland to dig deeper into Nietzsche. Let’s talk about Switzerland. What role did Switzerland play in Nietzsche’s life, or particular this town, I guess Basel or Basel?
John Kaag: Well, Basel was the town where Nietzsche became the youngest tenured professor in philology, the study of languages. Basel actually was a place that he escaped into the mountains in 1880, and then from 1881 to 1886 he spent his summers in a very small town, called Sils Maria, on the Italian border. He stayed at a boarding house, which is now a museum. My professors, Doug and Dan, had contacted the museum and had arranged for me to stay there on this first 19-year-old journey. I stayed there for nine weeks and hiked the trails that Nietzsche had hiked. It was also the place where Nietzsche, he basically escaped the sort of conventions of academic philosophy from Basel and began to write books that at the time seemed unconventional to the point of craziness, but really transformed contemporary philosophy, so books like Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Beyond Good and Evil. These books were penned not in an office, but in the hills outside of Sils Maria.
Brett McKay: So, you mentioned that Nietzsche went there to hike. He was a walker. He even wrote about walking. What did Nietzsche say about walking?
John Kaag: Yeah. He said many things, one of which was, “The only thoughts worth having are the ones that you have on your feet. I judge a thought on its ability to walk, in other words to carry its own weight.” Nietzsche, when he first got there, on many occasions through his early stay in Sils Maria, would hike seriously. He had a favorite mountain, Mount Corvatsch or Piz Corvatsch. But through his later life this walking became more of a way … It was more strolling, rather than hiking, because his health was so bad. He would take companions, many of whom were women and many of whom, or a couple of whom, were Jewish. Another sort of misconception about Nietzsche is that he’s a misogynist, straight misogynist, that he hates women, and that he’s an antisemite. Well, in the hills around Sils Maria he spent a lot of time with a feminist and with a Jewish woman.
I mean, he comes out of this long line of philosophers that, you know, thought on their feet, so Aristotle. Aristotle had a school of thought known as the peripatetics and the walkers. Rousseau said that his study was in fact his walking trail. Then there’s Thoreau. I mean, he was like this epic walker.
Brett McKay: There’s Kant too. Your wife I think is an expert in Kant. That guy, supposedly people would set their clocks to his walking schedule.
John Kaag: Yeah. That’s right. I mean, I’ve often poo-pood it. So, Immanuel Kant lived in Königsberg, a part of Prussia, and people would joke around in Königsberg that you could see the sort of philosopher stroll at the same time every day. I always thought that this was and Nietzsche thought that this was a reflection of a constipated mind, that you would never … like you would just do the same thing over and over again. But the more I get into adulthood, I think maybe this is the best that some of us can do, like we’re not going to the Alps. A lot of us are not going to the Alps. Right? Maybe we should just go for a little walk, like Kant.
Kant I think has … I mean, Carol has helped me see this, that Kant has the idea of what we calls a purposeless purpose on his walks. He thinks that we should embody a purposeless purpose when we’re trying to experience art, or beauty, or the sublime, because usually our life is filled with these purposes that, you know, we raise children, or we have a house, or we buy stuff. Those are real purposes. What’s rare about Kant’s walks is they give him just a little space to have a purposeless purpose, and I think that that’s something useful in our sort of rat race of a life.
Brett McKay: I mean, I’m curious. What do you think it is about walking, in your own experience? Right? We’re gonna get phenomenological here. Your own experience with walking, why do you think it lends itself well to philosophy or thinking through ideas?
John Kaag: That’s great. I mean, one thing is that walking is the most primary way of orienting ourselves in the world. So, I mean, when you walk through a woods or when you walk through a city, your feet are doing something for you. In other words, they’re allowing you to explore the world. We usually don’t even think about it, but when you go on a real walk, you realize you’re exploring the world, which is in fact what I think philosophy is meant to do as well. So, that’s one aspect. The other aspect is when you walk, you get to get away. In other words, we have so many habitual or mundane moments in our life. Philosophy, or rather walking allows us to escape, if for only a little while. Pedestrian is a word that we usually use to describe the most boring aspects of life, but maybe we should be pedestrians, like in other words maybe we should just walk a little bit more, get out of our in the house ruts. I think that’s another aspect.
Brett McKay: No. I like that. Yeah. There’s that Latin phrase, solvitur ambulando, like it is solved by walking. Sometimes if you’ve got a problem, you just go for a walk, and you might not get the answer there, but usually I do, because just your brain is sort of resting, and insights come.
John Kaag: Right. That’s right. I mean, it doesn’t have to be something … For a long time I thought that walking and hiking had to be this sort of heroic exercise of masculine power, and as I’ve gone gray, slowly gone gray, I realized that this is a sort of futile pursuit. You can push yourself, and I guess there is some sort of benefit to that, but I think the real difficulty is to come to terms with the ways that you can’t always exert yourself.
Brett McKay: Also, on that first trip to Switzerland, when you were hiking where Nietzsche hiked, you were also doing some extreme forms of fasting. What was going on there? What were you hoping to do with that?
John Kaag: Yeah. This is a moment in the book where I’m like, am I gonna write this? Am I really gonna write this? And I did. So, when I was 19, I was writing about the ascetic ideal. The ascetic ideal is the idea that we have the power to deprive ourselves of things, and in fact that this is a form of self-control. Fasting is like a perfect example of ascetic practice. Nietzsche has a criticism of the ascetic ideal when it’s placed in the context of Christianity. If you think about the priest or the one who fasts in Christianity, they’re typically thinking that they’re going to fast in order to, well, go to Heaven or in order to be sainted or something.
Nietzsche doesn’t believe that, and he thinks that that story is actually petty destructive, but what I noticed about Nietzsche’s life is that he did not have an un-vexed relationship with food. It was difficult for him to eat. He had stomach problems. So, when I went to Switzerland, I wanted to play around … Well, at first I was playing around with it, but it turns out that fasting is pretty addictive. We talk about men typically as fasting and women as having anorexia, but I think that’s a pretty stupid distinction. I mean, straight up I just had a pretty serious eating disorder, which I think many wrestlers and many swimmers, which I was one, end up with. I came back from Switzerland and had been struggling with an eating disorder the rest of my life.
Brett McKay: Wow. So, you mentioned Nietzsche wasn’t a fan of the ascetic ideal within in the context of Christianity, but he did see value. What value did he see in it then, if he didn’t think … well, you don’t do it to sanctify yourself?
John Kaag: Yeah. I mean, this idea of what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, I think that Nietzsche was suggesting that we come to understand our limits through forms of very extreme practice. This is the exercising of the will to power oftentimes. If you think about endurance athletes, or if you think about extreme sports, or if you think about forms of fasting, they’re all efforts to get ahold of yourself, to sort of see your limits, and to author something of your life, to own up to part of your life. I mean, I’m also a sort of long distance runner, and when you’re running long distances, for me anything over 10 miles, I want to stop. There’s a part of me that wants to stop, and just continuing to go is an exercise of the will. Nietzsche thought that we come to know ourselves through those sort of moments. That sort of is a quick answer to your question.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Also, while you were there it sounds like you were having some mental health issue. I mean, there was a moment that you’re on the cliff, and you stare down over a cliff, and you’re thinking, “What if I could jump?” I think everyone’s done that at some point, where like you’re driving and oncoming traffic, it’s like if I just swerve … but do you think something else was going on? Do you think you were kind of descending into abyss while you were hiking with Nietzsche?
John Kaag: I mean, when Nietzsche says to you, “You must have the strength to ask forbidden questions,” he’s also saying like the most forbidden question is the question of why. Why bother doing anything? Why bother getting up in the morning? Why? When he strips traditional answers away from you, that why can be very scary. For example, if my minister, or if my rabbi, or if my mother or father are no longer the guiding forces of my life, then what is? I mean, Camus, who sort of inherits the existential mantle from Nietzsche, Camus writing in the 1940s, says, “There is but one serious philosophical question, and that is suicide.” He doesn’t mean to bum you out. He’s just saying to you, “What’s the point of life? Is life worth living?” I think coming up with really good answers to that question is difficult, or at least it was for me. Sometimes it still is.
Brett McKay: No. Yeah. I think everyone has had those moments where they’re laying in bed at night, and you’re like what am I doing?
John Kaag: Yeah. What am I doing? It’s just like what the heck am I doing? I think that Nietzsche allows you to voice those concerns, which is good, but it can also be very disturbing. Well, you might ask yourself why is it good? I think Thoreau is better on this. He says, “I don’t wanna get to the end of my life and discover that I haven’t lived.” I think that the scariest part of death is getting to the end and discovering that you haven’t lived. One of the hardest parts is to get to the end and then look back and think, “Oh my god. What was I doing with all of my time? I didn’t have that much of it, and man, did I squander it.” I think Nietzsche wakes us up. When he asks us to ask forbidden questions, he’s trying to wake us up to help us avoid that end of life fright.
Brett McKay: Well, another thing you came up, sort of a thought experiment to get you thinking about that I eternal return …
John Kaag: Yeah. That’s right. So, he says to you, he says, “Imagine that in your loneliest of lonelies a demon comes to you and says that, “This moment, this very moment and all things you will have to live over not once, not twice, but an infinite number of times. Then he asks, the demon asks, ‘Would this idea crush you, or would it elevate your soul?'” Most of the time I think it crushes us. The idea that I’d have to redo this moment again exactly the same way an infinite number of times is terrifying.
Think about all the time you’re stuck in traffic or all the time that you’re in a bad relationship. You’d have to live that over infinitely? So, Nietzsche’s asking us to own up to life with a type of radical responsibility. In other words, can you live your life, as William Butler Yates says, and do it all again, play it again? Play it again, Sam. I think that that’s a challenge that many of us would do well to sort of face up to.
Brett McKay: Then you also talk about, you mentioned earlier amor fati, the love of fate. That kind of walks hand in hand with that idea as well.
John Kaag: Yeah. I mean, for a long period of time I thought the only way to answer the eternal return, to answer this demon is the exercise your power, to exercise the will to power, but I realized, especially on this second trip to Switzerland at the age of 37, I realized that adult life really doesn’t consist in exercising your will to power, or at least not primarily. It consists quite a bit in the times when your will to power fails you or you exercise the will to power in disastrous, or really embarrassing, or heinous ways. The question then is how are you going to embrace the eternal return and admit to yourself that you are deeply fallible, that your life is deeply fallible.
I think Nietzsche is coming to the end of his life and discovering something. He says, “We must embrace the amor fati, the love of fate. The love of fate says that we are to love, not just bare, but love the things that we find most despicable, embarrassing, or heinous about ourselves.” Like maybe the hardest part about the eternal return is the things that we do to ourselves and do to others that we’re not proud of. Coming to terms and owning up to those things I think part and parcel of the amor fati. I think it’s a really pretty mature way of thinking about adult life.
Brett McKay: Right. Yeah. I mean, you’re not being fatalistic or nihilistic, it’s like, well, I can’t do anything. You have will to power. You can exercise it, but there’s nothing you can do about it, so don’t beat yourself up too hard about it.
John Kaag: I mean, there’s this moment at the end of Nietzsche’s life where he says, “I must look back on my sickest years with deep gratitude. They have allowed me to become who I am, namely a philosopher.” But the idea that we would be able to look back on sort of the hardest years of our life and to say, “This too, like I would have that repeat infinitely,” I mean, that strength is not straightforwardly the will to power. It’s something a little different. But if you’ve been born into a family that sometimes you think to yourself, “Man, this was not of my choosing,” or into circumstances that were not of your choosing, maybe we have to exercise the amor fati, not the will to power.
Brett McKay: Well, maybe those two concepts combine in that idea that Nietzsche, you know, he quoted Pindar, “You gotta become who you are.” Isn’t that sort of a combination, a synthesis of will to power and amor fati?
John Kaag: I think so. I mean, If you think about the idea of becoming who you are, it sounds pretty paradoxical, because you already are who you are in one way, or if you become somebody else, then what has happened to the person that you once were? It’s kind of this cone-like riddle, but I think what Nietzsche is suggesting is that we have to think about ourselves as the process of becoming. In other words, being somebody is not becoming the person you always wanted to be, like the you does not exist out there somewhere for all time, and you discover it, and then you become it for all time. That’s not how human beings live or die. We just change. We’re transfigured. And to figure out a way where we’re both the authors of our lives, but also willing to own up to whatever happens, those are the two aspects, the will to power and the amor fati, I think that that’s Nietzsche’s point with become who you are.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I like that idea of becoming. That’s what Nietzsche was talking about. He says, “I am dynamite. I am dynamos. I am change. I am always becoming.”
John Kaag: Right. So, this idea, usually we think about dynamite, its roots being in the Greek power. I don’t think that that’s quite right. I think he meant to become who you are he says, “You must not have the slightest idea of who you are,” which is strange. In other words, you have to let yourself go. Many times who we are in life is we’re clinging to the self. We’re clinging to the ideas about what we think we should become or what we think we are. Nietzsche says, “let it go. See what else will happen. See what change will occur.” I think that that’s a pretty useful thought for those of us who are edging 40 or 50.
Brett McKay: Right. So, you mentioned you went back to Switzerland as a 37 year old man. This time you brought along your wife and your young daughter. What were you hoping to learn by going hiking with Nietzsche again in midlife?
John Kaag: I honestly didn’t know. I mean, honestly, I think I look back on the decision to go again, and my partner, Carol, still says to me, she goes, “You know, that was the smartest and dumbest thing we have ever done,” and she’s right. Because I think what I wanted to see when I initially went back was if I could sort of live as intensely as I did when I was 19. Could I still climb the same mountains? Could we still …? The answer is an unequivocal no. You can’t do that, especially when you have a wife and child. So, what I tried to come to terms with is growing up. In other words, I had to take the gondola to the top of the mountain with Becca and Carol, instead of hiking up by myself. Instead of being angry or resigned to this fact, the challenge is to own up to it, to see if you can love it, even the frustration of it. So, I didn’t know what I was gonna find, but what I found was honestly an appreciation for the amor fati, which I didn’t have as a 19-year-old.
Brett McKay: Right. You were becoming who you are, which now at this point you’re a middle aged guy with a wife and a kid.
John Kaag: Yeah. That’s right. Part of this is to give an interpretation of Nietzsche that allows one or allows a reader to see Nietzsche’s brilliance in leading us into middle age. Usually he’s regarded as the quintessential juvenile philosopher. 19-year-olds are drawn to him, but you’re supposed to get out of it when you turn 25 or 30, but I think Nietzsche provides resources for us to really think through our lives as we move toward death. I think that that’s what the book is about.
Brett McKay: No. Yeah. I’m 36. I’m approaching middle age, and you notice opportunities start closing down. Right? There’s some things you can no longer do, because of simply just time or you have responsibilities. For a lot of people they have that sort of moments like, oh my gosh. They have a midlife crisis. They do these crazy things. But Nietzsche would say, “No. Chill out. Yes. Things are closing in. Your opportunities are going down maybe a bit, but you still have a bit … you have to choice to love it and embrace it, but also there’s still wiggle room within those parameters.”
John Kaag: Yeah. That’s right. I mean, that wiggle room is especially important. I mean, Nietzsche talks a big game about being … he calls himself a hyperborean, or rather he says the hyperborean are these mythical creatures that live up at the top of mountain, like ice covered mountains. Nietzsche was never this person ever. He was generally pretty sickly, especially when he’s writing thee words, and it’s a hope that you have a little bit of wiggle room to be the hyperborean in your mundane life. In other words, see if you can wiggle yourself free, even within the sort of habitualness of your life. I think that’s a really interesting sort of value added to reading Nietzsche as a 40 year old. I’m just on the brink of 40.
We talk about Nietzsche’s Übermensch, this classic overman, this ideal of individual freedom, and it’s very appealing to a 19-year-old or to a 21-year-old. What is interesting is that it fits so well with their natural sense of vigor. Maybe the Übermensch is more useful to those of us who have forgotten their free impulses, in other words, who have hit 40 or 50. Maybe the Übermensch is a lingering promise that we can be otherwise than we currently are. I think that that’s what Nietzsche gives us.
Brett McKay: That’s an interesting point. Yeah. When you’re 21, it’s not really hard to strive.
John Kaag: Exactly.
Brett McKay: But when you’re 50, it becomes harder. So, it’s there. You’re like, “Oh. I can still do that.” There’s that possibility.
John Kaag: Right. Exactly. I think we forget about the mad possibilities of life as we get older, but we have to remember that the mad possibilities of life don’t necessarily involve the same types of actions as they did when you were 19. The mad possibilities could be, okay, my daughter has a snow day, in this polar vortex. Right? I can be pissed off about that and think, “Oh. Geez. I’m not gonna get work done,” or I can go out and do something beautiful with her. It is up to me. That’s the wiggle room I’m talking about. Do you wanna dig yourself an igloo with your daughter, or do you wanna be pissed off all day that you’re not getting the work done that you think you need to do?
Brett McKay: No. I love it. Yeah. Look for those wiggle rooms throughout life. That’s the thing. I think a lot of times people look at Nietzsche, and you think you have to do something grandiose, and giant, and big, because he talked like that. He talked a big game, but if you look at his life, I mean, he wrote some philosophy, some books that changed the way we think, but he read a lot. He walked. He didn’t do too much, but he still had that idea that was there that he strived for.
John Kaag: No. He’s deeply human. He’s deeply human. At the same time he’s striving after something deep and transcendent. I think that that’s what we need to remember, because oftentimes life is so mundane. It’s so boring. Nietzsche says we are wasting our lives if we just are satisfied with this, but you don’t necessarily need to go … I learned that you don’t need to go to the Alps in order to break out of that. I don’t think that I’m gonna be going to the Alps again.
Brett McKay: You can just build an igloo with your daughter.
John Kaag: Yeah. I mean, it sounds stupid, but it is true I think.
Brett McKay: Well, John, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
John Kaag: Well, the publisher is Farrar, Straus and Giroux, but honestly I think a lot of the pieces that I’ve written in the New York Times and in the Los Angeles Review of Books lately have resonated with these questions. The book is out in the UK next month, and I think that I’m gonna be posting a number of interviews through the BBC and ABC in the next couple months, but I really do appreciate the chance to talk to you.
Brett McKay: Thanks so much. It’s been a pleasure.
John Kaag: Thanks again.
Brett McKay: My guest there is John Kaag. He’s the author of the book, hiking With Nietzsche: Becoming Who You Are. It’s available on Amazon.com and book stores everywhere. You can also find out more information about his work at his website, JohnKaag.com. That’s John Kaag, that’s K-A-A-G, .com. Also, check out our show notes at AOM.is/Kaag, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps us another edition of the AOM Podcast. Check out our website, ArtOfManliness.com, where you can find our podcast archive. We’ve got over 400, almost 500 podcasts episodes there, also thousands of well-researched, articles, and just about anything, personal finance, barbell training, social skills. You name it, we’ve got it. If you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate it if you’d take one minute to give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. It helps out a lot. If you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for your continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, encouraging you to not only listen to the AOM Podcast, but put what you’ve learned into action.