Why We Have to Overcome Ourselves
Nietzsche on Human Growth
“How can a man know himself? It is dark, mysterious business: if a hare has seven skins, a man may skin himself seventy times seven times without being able to say, ‘Now that is truly you; that is no longer your outside.’” — Nietzsche, Schopenhauer as Educator
It’d be a mistake to think that we understand ourselves — at least entirely. As Friedrich Nietzsche, a philosopher of the late-eighteenth century, would have it, we aren’t born knowing who we are; we have to become who we are.
And that means we have to power through laziness, rise above ignorance, and strive to reach our full potential. In a word, it means we have to overcome ourselves whenever we get in our own way. That’s how we see what we’re truly capable of — by continually pushing forward, by enduring what life throws our way.
That’s how Nietzsche understood personal development, as something inexorably linked to perseverance and transformation. It’s only when we endure challenges that we improve; the more seemingly unconquerable, the better. As Marcus Aurelius said, “The obstacle is the way.” Hardship isn’t the barrier to growth — it’s the source of it.
This notion lay at the heart of Nietzsche’s perspective on growth, permeating each of the three “transformations”, or stages, of personal development that he believes occur over our lifetimes.
We’ll cover each of them here. But, along the way, keep in mind that Nietzsche didn’t think we inevitably moved from one to the next. We can get “stuck”, and some people may even reach the end of life never having grown at all. Personal development is an active process. To grow, we have to overcome — and that takes a great deal of strength and persistence. But it’s also the only way we can give our lives value and meaning.
Transformation I: From Sheep to Camel
“All the sick and sickly instinctively strive after a herd organization as a means of shaking off their dull displeasure and feeling of weakness…For one should not overlook this fact: the strong are as naturally inclined to separate as the weak are to congregate.” — Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals
Before our first transformation, we start out as sheep. These are lazy, unambitious animals that want nothing more out of life than to scrape by. They accomplish nothing, blindly follow the herd, are terrified of taking even the slightest risk, and shirk off as much responsibility as they can — all to achieve the only goal they have: to exert as little effort as possible.
We’ve all been a bit sheepish — when life gets rough, sometimes the allure of a thoughtless, lazy existence gets the better of us. Everything looks like it would be so much easier if we just gave in, if we stopped trying to wander off on different paths and, instead, just fell in with the herd and did as they did.
Wandering off is dangerous, after all. And if our only ambition is to scrape by, then it might seem foolish and unnecessary. But the reward far outweighs the risk — walking our own path is the only way we can feel authentic and useful. It’s the only way we can prove to the world and to ourselves that we’re more than anonymous members of a herd. It’s the only way our lives can become meaningful.
When sheep realize this, they feel ashamed. And that’s a powerful thing, shame — it’s something we ought to listen to. It tells us when we’re selling ourselves short, when we aren’t living up to our true potential. It demands that we strive to be more, or else it’ll do its damnedest to make us suffer. And when we resolve to escape shame — the hard and admirable way — we go through our first transformation. We overcome ourselves for the first time, leaving the safety and comfort of the herd to become something better: camels.
If we’re camels, we’ve overcome the expendable, useless life of the sheep and have found a more constructive way to live. Now, we resolve to be useful, obedient, and hardworking. We fill our once empty days with as many obligations and responsibilities as we possibly can; we walk through the desert with the heaviest loads our backs can take. In short, we overcome the sheepish way of life by striving to become productive members of society. That’s how we fill our once meaningless lives with meaning — with labor and responsibility.
But our solution becomes our problem. In our pursuit of a meaningful life, we end up condemning ourselves to meaninglessness — we’ve made ourselves beasts of other people’s burdens. As camels, we live only for society, never for ourselves; we live only for the acceptance of others, never for own self-acceptance. Worse yet, we’ve baked and struggled in the sun for so long that we’ve come to think that that’s just how life is.
But it isn’t. Life isn’t just laboring away in the sun. It isn’t just living for others. The world becomes a dismal place when that’s all we have to live for. There’s no happiness out in the hot, lonely desert. There’s no meaning when we only live only for others. There’s just endless work and eternal worry. And when we realize this, we start to wonder why we’ve carried others’ burdens, why we’ve lived according to others’ principles, and why we’ve strived to meet others’ expectations. What about us — the individuals, the camels beneath the load?
If something doesn’t change, we’re going to break. If our bodies don’t give, our spirits surely will. We’re on a fast track to growing bitter, hopeless, submissive, and resentful, to falling back into the same meaningless abyss that we lived in as sheep — only now we’ve lost the ignorance that once made it so homely.
Once again, we have to overcome ourselves — to become something more.
Transformation II: From Camel to Lion
“No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life. There may be countless trails and bridges and demigods who would gladly carry you across; but only at the price of pawning and forgoing yourself. There is one path in the world that none can walk but you. Where does it lead? Don’t ask, walk!” — Nietzsche, Schopenhauer as Educator
So, the well-loaded camel can become a lion — a fierce creature, a king with nothing to bow down to. As lions, we see that the values, beliefs, and moral codes we once thoughtlessly upheld have no real basis — that truth isn’t the same as tradition, that in all of our work and worry and struggling through that desert, we never found the meaningful life we were promised.
We feel misled, maybe even betrayed. Now, we feel that we have reason to doubt everything. So we do just that — we live the lion’s life of deconstruction and resistance, fighting off the values that we once followed. Or as Nietzsche said, we live to slay the dragon named “Thou Shalt” — a massive, fiery embodiment of society, with thousands of demands written on its scales. We once tried to carry it on our backs, but now we know it can’t and shouldn’t be done. Now we live to fight it.
But that isn’t freedom — eternally wrestling with society. That’s just being bitter. That’s just another way to be a captive. Instead of living for society, we’re living to oppose it. Lions want to dismantle and disrupt, but they have no intentions to fix or rebuild. They want to bring out problems, but they care precious little about finding solutions.
And for this reason, when we finally slay that dragon, fighting tooth-and-claw for our freedom, we find that, once again, our lives have become meaningless.
Just like the sheep lived only to subsist, just like the camel lived only to conform, the lion lives only to fight. And with nothing left to battle, what is there to do? We’ve slain the dragon, but our victory was our defeat — by defeating the dragon, we defeated the only thing we had to live for: something to oppose. And now, we’re left with a profound nothingness, sitting alone in the dragon’s empty cave.
Once again, we’ll have to overcome ourselves if we’re to overcome this nothingness. We’ll have to become children.
Transformation III: From Lion to Child“What could still come to me that was not mine already? It returns, what finally comes home to me is my own self and what of myself has long been in strange lands and scattered among all things and accidents.” Nietzsche, Thus Spoke ZarathustraThe victorious lion becomes a child, something capable of making its own meaning, of living by its own values, and of, for the first time, living for itself. If we’re children, we can live without the lion’s hostility, the camel’s burdens, and the sheep’s uselessness. We aren’t just hauling or destroying. We aren’t just fixated on the past or present. We’re living fully in the moment, solving the problems that come our way, bettering the world for all of humanity.Life is no longer an endless struggle or an eternal battle. As children, Nietzsche believes we’ll find contentment, that life will be a celebration, a precious gift opened every second. That nothingness that tormented us in the past is now a blank canvas for our creativity. It’s level ground for our construction. And it’s the source of our freedom — real freedom this time — because, as children, we’ve completely overcome ourselves. Now, we know what we’re truly capable of. Now, we can become who we are.
Brian Geiger is a freelance writer. For more articles like this, join the Mental Life newsletter