Hiking with Nietzsche: Can the answers to life be found on an Alpine peak?

John Kaag went to Switzerland to walk in the footsteps of the bad boy of philosophy, Friedrich Nietzsche

Twenty years ago, at the end of Michaelmas Term, my university professor handed me an unmarked envelope. I’d survived 12 weeks of a gruelling course on European existentialism: maybe it was a letter of apology. Instead it was a cheque for $3,000. “You should go hiking with Nietzsche,” my teacher said with a knowing smile.

I was brought up in a rural, extremely conservative, household so this suggestion was only slightly less insane than hiking on Mars. But like so many repressed teenagers, I’d fallen in love with Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy; his jarring proclamation that “God is dead,” but also his invigorating hope that “what does not kill you makes you stronger”.

I planned to write a thesis on his “will to power” in the college library the following summer, but this plan was jettisoned in lieu of another: my cheque would cover a trip to Switzerland, to the hamlet of Sils Maria on the Italian border, the onetime summer home of Europe’s philosophical bad boy. I’d spend nine weeks trailing Nietzsche, exploring the limits of my own will to power.

If he didn’t coin the term ‘free spirit’ he certainly popularised it,

Nietzsche’s entire philosophy is a protest made against the deadening forces of modern life: the doldrums of your daily commute, the anxiety of your dead-end job, the pointless monotony of lectures, the nagging of parents, the meaninglessness of the rat race. If he didn’t coin the term ‘free spirit’ he certainly popularised it: “He is called a free spirit,” Nietzsche explained, “who thinks differently from what, on the basis of his origin, environment, his class and profession, or on the basis of the dominant views of the age, would have been expected of him.”

According to Nietzsche, one thinks most freely, most differently, while on the move in the mountains, high above everyday life. “All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking,” he once wrote. To a 19-year-old the obvious correlate followed: the more walking the better. I hiked the summer away, trekking for 10 to 15 hours a day. With no experience, no companion, and no gear, I tried – and only occasionally succeeded – to summit the peaks surrounding Sils Maria.

Instead of getting enlightenment, I got frostbite.

I was in search of my true, most authentic self. Maybe it was up there on the next mountain. Or maybe not. Instead of getting enlightenment, I got frostbite. I lost my way, my toenails, most of my friends, and nearly my mind. Often what doesn’t kill you just makes you stupider. On my first trip to the mountains – hiking with Nietzsche – I discovered a kind of radical freedom, but also found it frequently precludes happiness, companionship, and sanity. 

This is, however, only half of the story. Nietzsche’s philosophy is usually pooh-poohed as juvenile – the product of a megalomaniac that is well suited to the self-absorption of the teenage years but best outgrown when one reaches adulthood. And there is something to this. What would it mean for a person to hike with Nietzsche into middle age? Would it be meaningful, ill-advised, suicidal? All of the above? At the age of 37, with a wife and child as companions, I returned to Sils Maria in search of answers. 

As it turns out, many Nietzschean lessons are lost on the young. Teenagers have no idea how easy it is to be satisfied with mediocrity or how difficult it is to stay alert to life. Having entered my sixth year of marriage, having dedicated no small amount of life to diaper-changing and morning feedings, I had a much clearer idea.

Nietzsche gives a reader – regardless of age – the permission to temporarily “take a hike”. Hopefully this does not involve wholly abandoning your responsible life, but it might mean taking a risk. It’s possible to exercise your individual will to power even in later life, even in the midst of togetherness. The dangers are real but so too are the rewards. 

Hiking with Nietzsche into adulthood necessitates being brutally honest with yourself about the balance you want to strike between the wildness of individual freedom and the reasonable constraints of one’s family and community. It is also a matter of embracing not only the “will to power” but also what Nietzsche calls the “amor fati,” or the love of fate. Most of adult life consists in moments when the will to power fails us, or when we exercise our wills in ways that hurt others or hurt ourselves. Nietzsche knew this all too well. How can one live an affirming life in light of this fact? In the love of fate, we must come to not only endure but even love those aspects of our lives that have been the most painful or humiliating. This is a radical adjustment of perspective that takes no small amount of strength.

Becoming who you are is not a matter of finding your “true self” at the top of a mountain, but rather becoming well-adjusted to yourself. Something happens not at the top, but on the way. And even slipping and falling can be instructive.

Hiking with Nietzsche: On Becoming Who You Are by John Kaag is out now (Granta £14.99)