Becoming

Weighing up whether
someone could be our exemplar,

initiates the question,
“How do we want to be in the world?”

What is important?
How we should live?

Considering an exemplar
helps us to see ourselves.

We’re not fixed and finished,
but always in the state of becoming.

When examining Friedrich Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality, David Owen rather neatly unpacks the text into three key questions:

  1. What are we?
  2. How have we become what we are?
  3. Given what we are, what can we become?

Owen’s third question is where the standard, or simplistic, interpretation of Nietzsche arises, in that he is seen to value “some development of capacities or some achievement of excellence.” However, this ‘standard interpretation’ is not always one that shows Nietzsche in a positive light. (The misinterpretation, of course, echoes the manufactured misuse by Nietzsche’s anti-Semitic sister who caused severe problems after his death). The stem of misinterpretation comes from a passage in in the sixth section of Schopenhauer as Educator, where Nietzsche wrote how one might live their life with the greatest value. The misinterpretation arose due to Nietzsche’s phrase “Gewiss nur dadurch, dass du zum Vorteile der seltensten und wertvollsten Exemplare lebst” being translated as “Only by your living for the good of the rarest and most valuable specimens.”[1] This instantly places a hierarchy to human life, where some people are deemed superior to others.

James Conant rejects this translation and puts forward his preferred where ‘Exemplare’ becomes ‘exemplar’, which brings the focus of the passage to a purely individual basis:

“It becomes clear, that you, the reader, are asked to ask yourself a question. The question you should ask yourself is: how can your life, the individual life, attain the highest value and the deepest significance? That’s a question Nietzsche says you must ask yourself in solitude; and if you pursue it, you will find that your answer to that question will force upon you the notion of an exemplar.”[2]

Conant then turns to the obvious question of what Nietzsche meant by an ‘exemplar’ by going to Nietzsche’s work, Schopenhauer as Educator:

“I sensed that in him, Schopenhauer, I had discovered that educator and philosopher I had sought for so long… I strove… to see through the book and to imagine the living man…who promised to make his heirs only those who would and could be more than merely his readers.”[3]

By examining this quote, like Conant, we can see that Nietzsche was not interested hero-worship. Instead, there is a requirement to be more than merely a reader. This point is given as a personal example, but in Thus Spoke Zarathustra it is made universal: “One repays a teacher badly if one remains only a pupil.”[4] So, it seems that an exemplar requires emulation, but not copying.

Conant, in referring back to Schopenhauer as Educator, also recognises that there is more work to be done, especially around such statements as the following:

“Let him follow his conscience, which calls to him: Be yourself! All you are now doing, thinking, desiring is not you yourself.”[5]

Conant realises that Nietzsche was not trying to distinguish between two selves: one that you are at the moment, and your ‘true’ self. Instead, what Nietzsche was hammering towards was something more along the lines of personal evolution:

“Becoming who you are is not something one is ever finished doing.”[6]

Thinking in this manner, and drawing threads together, leads Conant to the realisation that one can outgrow a particular exemplar and move on to another. The difficulty is how should we choose? And this is precisely the point. Weighing up whether someone could be our exemplar is quite possibly the best way of getting ourselves to think about ethics and discovering what is important in our lives and how we should lead them. In this way, we can begin to see ourselves, not as fixed and finished, but rather always in the state of becoming.

[1] Conant, J. ‘Nietzsche’s Perfectionism: A Reading of  “Schopenhauer as Educator”‘, included in Nietzsche’s Postmoralism: Essays on Nietzsche’s Prelude to Philosophy’s Future. Edited by Richard Schacht, Cambridge University Press, 2011, 191.

[2] Ibid., 195.

[3] Nietzsche, F. ‘Schopenhauer as Educator’, included in Untimely Meditations. Translated by R. J. Hollingdale, Cambridge University Press, 1997,136, and reproduced in James Conant, ‘Nietzsche’s Perfectionism: A Reading of  “Schopenhauer as Educator”‘, included in Nietzsche’s Postmoralism: Essays on Nietzsche’s Prelude to Philosophy’s Future edited by Richard Schacht, 208.

[4] Nietzsche, F. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Translated by R. J. Hollingdale, Penguin, 1961103.

[5] Nietzsche, F. ‘Schopenhauer as Educator’, included in Untimely Meditations. Translated by R. J. Hollingdale, Cambridge University Press, 1997, 127 and reproduced in James Conant, ‘Nietzsche’s Perfectionism: A Reading of  “Schopenhauer as Educator”‘, included in Nietzsche’s Postmoralism: Essays on Nietzsche’s Prelude to Philosophy’s Future edited by Richard Schacht, 197.

[6] Conant, J. ‘Nietzsche’s Perfectionism: A Reading of  “Schopenhauer as Educator”‘, included in Nietzsche’s Postmoralism: Essays on Nietzsche’s Prelude to Philosophy’s Future. Edited by Richard Schacht, Cambridge University Press, 2011, 234.

Published by Dr Jim Walsh

CEO of Conway Hall Ethical Society and author of 'Ethics Starts With You'.

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