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'Hiking with Nietzsche' review: John Kaag searches for the philosopher in the Swiss Alps

John Kaag, author of

John Kaag, author of "Hiking with Nietzsche"  Photo Credit: Jill Goldman Photography

HIKING WITH NIETZSCHE: On Becoming Who You Are, by John Kaag. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 255 pp., $26.

By reputation Friedrich Nietzsche is the perfect philosopher for teenage boys. He tells them to throw off the conventional morality of their parents and become supermen, obeying no laws but the ones they give themselves. It’s all summed up in the exhortation to “become who you are.”

The philosopher John Kaag was once such a teenage boy. When he was 19 years old, he left his home in central Pennsylvania and ascended into the Swiss Alps, following the lofty path of his hero. There he found solitude and independence. He also got lost and nearly died of exposure.

Undaunted, Kaag returns to Switzerland in his new memoir. It artfully blends Nietzsche’s biography, an accessible yet subtle introduction to his big ideas, and Kaag’s own reminiscences. On the cusp of middle age, with a wife and young daughter in tow, Kaag can’t shake the feeling that Nietzsche offers more than adolescent self-aggrandizement. “I profit from a philosopher only insofar as he can be an example,” wrote Nietzsche. But if so, “how can we profit from him?” Kaag asks. “How can he be our example?”  

At first glance, he shouldn’t be. During Nietzsche’s life he threw away the promise of a brilliant academic career, fled into the mountains where he wrote books that almost nobody read, endured a disastrous love affair, contracted syphilis, went mad and died. In the face of so much failure and suffering, maybe it would have been better not to be born.  

No! cries Nietzsche. Making up your own rules is only half of becoming who you are. (In a society without strong religious strictures, it might even be the easy part.) Harder is to embrace the parts of life that hurt. “Many of life’s occurrences are not choices at all,” Kaag points out. “They happen suddenly and without warning — a great deluge, an accident that covers or drowns us.” These experiences define us, too, for better and for worse.

Over the course of the book, Kaag reckons with the charismatic, alcoholic father who abandoned him, his terrible first marriage and the depression that seems to have dogged, and at times even endangered, his life. Facing these experiences helps him understand who he is, but it also seems to prepare him to become someone else.  

In a funny and moving passage, Kaag spots alpine mountain goats racing along a ridge. He had always wanted to catch sight of these rare and noble beasts. He points them out to his wife, who takes a closer look and identifies them, correctly, as ordinary sheep. “Her laughter echoed through the hills. It was, I could later admit, somewhat humorous: we were hiking with Nietzsche, the archenemy of docility and domestication, yet at the same time we were being overtaken by the flock.”

But as Kaag and his wife follow the sheep and their shepherd home, he sees them in a new light. “There was, however, something untamed about the beasts’ movements,” he marvels. “They were still, on some hidden level, wild, and I no longer wished to deny that.” In an instant, he has changed, become someone slightly different than he was before. He has found himself, a new self. At least for now, until he finds another. It’s not the stuff of adolescent superman fantasies, but even small moments like this one hint at a larger, though paradoxical truth. “The enduring nature of being human,” Kaag concludes, “is to turn into something else.”    

Is a Nietzschean who learns to appreciate the herd still a Nietzschean? Maybe not, but then again, maybe so. As Nietzsche himself wrote, “one repays a teacher badly if one always remains a pupil.”

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