The calming repetition of putting one foot in front of the other innately lends itself to philosophical thought, particularly while experiencing the natural beauty of the great outdoors. In Hiking with Nietzsche: On Becoming Who You Are, John Kaag (American Philosophy: A Love Story) retraces the contemplative journeys through the Sils region of Switzerland he took as a 19-year-old and the return trip he made at 37 with his wife and young daughter in tow.
As a professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, Kaag has the perfect resume for this type of introspective blend of memoir and biography. As a young man, he was drawn to the Swiss village of Sils-Maria because it was a favorite spot of 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Kaag cleverly connects Nietzsche’s musings with his own experiences both past and present, detailing how his understanding of Nietzsche has evolved and changed over the 17 years between his trips to Switzerland. He pairs breathtaking descriptions of the Sils region with Nietzsche’s fascinating personal history, providing a unique, engaging narrative.
Kaag delves deep into his own past and his path to a philosophical profession, revealing painful details about his absent father and his brush with an eating disorder. Ultimately, Kaag discovers that it is OK to get out of one’s comfort zone, make mistakes and learn from them—in Nietzsche’s words, to “become who you are.”
As Kaag notes, philosophers “have always thought on their feet,” citing examples of “great wanderer-thinkers” such as Jesus, Rousseau, Wordsworth, Emerson and Thoreau. With Hiking with Nietzsche, Kaag can now add his own name to the list of thoughtful wanderers.