German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche is regarded as one of the first existentialists. In 1879, at the age of thirty-four, he retired from his post as professor of classical philology and for the next ten years led a nomadic existence, living in cheap boarding houses in the Alps and along the Italian seaboard. He wrote his best-known works during this period, including Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Beyond Good and Evil, and On the Genealogy of Morals, all while suffering poor health, experiencing nearly constant pain, and having limited human contact — conditions he saw as necessary to his work. In 1889 he suffered a mental collapse in the streets of Turin, Italy, reputedly upon seeing a horse being whipped. He never recovered, spending the last eleven years of his life in a semiconscious state. He died in 1900. The following is from Untimely Meditations, 2nd edition, by Friedrich Nietzsche. Edited by Daniel Breazeale; translated by R.J. Hollingdale. Copyright © 1997 Cambridge University Press. Reprinted with permission.
A traveler who had seen many lands and peoples and several of the earth’s continents was asked what quality in men he had discovered everywhere he had gone. He replied, “They have the tendency to laziness.” To many it will seem that he ought rather to have said, “They are all timid. They hide themselves behind customs and opinions.” In his heart every man knows quite well that, being unique, he will be in the world only once and that no imaginable chance will for a second time gather together into a unity so strangely variegated an assortment as he is: he knows it but he hides it like a bad conscience — why? From fear of his neighbor, who demands conventionality and cloaks himself with it. But what is it that constrains the individual to fear his neighbor, to think and act like a member of a herd, and to have no joy in himself? Modesty, perhaps, in a few rare cases. With the great majority it is indolence, inertia: in short, that tendency to laziness of which the traveler spoke. He is right: men are even lazier than they are timid, and fear most of all the inconveniences with which unconditional honesty and nakedness would burden them. Artists alone hate this sluggish promenading in borrowed fashions and appropriated opinions, and they reveal everyone’s secret bad conscience, the law that every man is a unique miracle; they dare to show us man as he is, uniquely himself to the very last movement of his muscles; more, that in being thus strictly consistent in uniqueness he is beautiful, and worth regarding, and in no way tedious. When the great thinker despises mankind, he despises its laziness: for it is on account of their laziness that men seem like factory products, things of no consequence and unworthy to be associated with or instructed. The man who does not wish to belong to the mass needs only to cease taking himself easily; let him follow his conscience, which calls to him, “Be yourself! All you are now doing, thinking, desiring, is not you yourself.”
Every youthful soul hears this call day and night, and trembles when he hears it; for the idea of its liberation gives the soul a presentiment of the measure of happiness allotted it from all eternity — a happiness to which it can by no means attain so long as it lies fettered by the chains of fear and convention. And how dismal and senseless life can be without this liberation! There exists no more repulsive and desolate creature in the world than the man who has evaded his genius and who now looks furtively to left and right, behind him and all about him. In the end such a man becomes impossible to get hold of, since he is wholly exterior, without kernel: a tattered, painted bag of clothes; a decked-out ghost that cannot inspire even fear and certainly not pity. . . .
We are responsible to ourselves for our own existence. Consequently we want to be the true helmsman of this existence and refuse to allow our existence to resemble a mindless act of chance. One has to take a somewhat bold and dangerous line with this existence, especially as, whatever happens, we are bound to lose it. Why go on clinging to this clod of earth, this way of life, why pay heed to what your neighbor says? It is so parochial to bind oneself to views which are no longer binding even a couple of hundred miles away. Orient and Occident are chalk lines drawn before us to fool our timidity. I will make an attempt to attain freedom, the youthful soul says to itself; and is it to be hindered in this by the fact that two nations happen to hate and fight one another, or that two continents are separated by an ocean, or that all around it a religion is taught which did not yet exist a couple of thousand years ago? All that is not you, it says to itself. No one can construct for you the bridge upon which precisely you must cross the stream of life, no one but you yourself alone. There are, to be sure, countless paths and bridges and demigods which would bear you through this stream; but only at the cost of your self: you would put yourself in pawn and lose yourself. There exists in the world a single path along which no one can go except you. Whither does it lead? Do not ask, go along it. Who was it who said, “A man never rises higher than when he does not know whither his path can still lead him”?
But how can we find ourselves again? How can man know himself? He is a thing dark and veiled; and if the hare has seven skins, man can slough off seventy times seven and still not be able to say, “This is really me. This is no longer the outer shell.” Moreover, it is a painful and dangerous undertaking thus to tunnel into oneself and to force one’s way down into the shaft of one’s being by the nearest path. A man who does it can easily so hurt himself that no physician can cure him. And what need should there be for it, since everything bears witness to what we are: our friendships and enmities, our glance and the clasp of our hand, our memory and that which we do not remember, our books and our handwriting. This is the means by which an inquiry into the most important aspect can be initiated: let the youthful soul look back on life with the question “What have you truly loved up to now; what has drawn your soul aloft; what has mastered it and at the same time blessed it?” Set up these revered objects before you, and perhaps their nature and their sequence will give you a law, the fundamental law of your own true self. Compare these objects one with another; see how one completes, expands, surpasses, transfigures another, how they constitute a stepladder upon which you have clambered up to yourself as you are now; for your true nature lies not concealed deep within you, but immeasurably high above you, or at least above that which you usually take yourself to be.