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The Prison: Nietzsche Philosophy on How to Be Yourself
The Schopenhauerean Man
I stole a glance at Daniel’s papers. It was study time, which meant only hushed whispering for the next hour, and pin drop silence if Mr. Dey was the supervisor. Daniel intrigued me; he was certainly an outlier among us jail inmates. No one quite knew the true story behind what landed him in prison, but here we were, about to spend the next two months together.
Daniel was reading about concave and convex mirrors. The images on his page took me back to Mrs. D. Roy’s Physics class in 8th grade. I felt stupid ruminating on my life prior to jail time and I picked up my pen to at least pretend to write. I had always wanted to write more but my corporate job wouldn’t spare me enough time. It wasn’t just the job though; every weekend in New York City came with birthday celebrations, parties at the Hamptons, and “catching-up” with friends.
“Albert, you have 2 months off, aren’t you excited?” Daniel beamed at me while we waited in line to step outside for exercise time. Convinced that he was one of those sociopaths who wanted to be in prison till death found him, I uncomfortably feigned a smile but chose to not respond.
As I jogged around the field and felt the wind lightly brushing against my face, Daniel’s question popped its way into my head. How would I spend my time if I had 2 months to myself, unperturbed by the work and social pressures of city life? Albert had devoted the last 7 years of his life after Law School to high-profile corporate cases in the “elite” world of Private Equity and Mergers & Acquisitions. His popularity and reputation soared after he became one of the youngest lawyers to spearhead one of the largest corporate mergers till date – that of ChemicalDow and PuDont. This fame resulted in bigger cases being brought his way, and his ego most certainly enjoyed the attention and the money. He worked with a maniacal drive, determined to win every battle, no matter how trivial. On one particular night, exhausted from working incessantly for the last 40 hours with only 2 thirty-minute naps in between, he passed out at his desk among a sea of papers, with the sharp pencil in his hand poking a hole through his shirt. He kept that shirt as a symbol of his work ethic.
Jogging along in the fresh air, he suddenly shook his head vigorously in an attempt to clear off those memories. He now wondered: what was the point of those long hours and days without seeing my family, only to end up in prison?
The sound of the bell interrupted his thoughts. Involuntarily, his hand slid into his pocket to reach for his phone. Feeling his empty pocket, it struck him for the first time as to how conditioned some of his responses were. His life was a chain of reactions. Carrying a sense of disgust and remorse, he quietly followed the others into the food hall.
The hollow sense in his heart found its way to the gut, leaving him with no appetite. Grabbing a very small portion of chicken and rice, he found his way to nearest chair on one of the corner tables. The attention he had craved and come to rejoice in all his life was what he detested the most now.
Daniel happened to be sitting at his table. His positive radiance exuded a light-hearted air to the table and everyone joked about their fantasies on life after prison.
“I’m racing to the ice-cream shop as soon as I step outside. Goodbye to rice and chicken!” exclaimed Rob
“Oh, I’m going for a run in Central Park. I’ll be free as a bird!” beamed Henry.
“You fool, you sit around here when it’s time to run on the fields. My foot you’re running in Central Park!” Peter responded in harmless jest.
Everyone crackled. With flushed acceptance, Henry threw a piece of bread at Peter, and joined the others in laughter. In an attempt to redirect the conversation, Peter asked Daniel, “How about you, Daniel? What would you do with your freedom days?”
“Well, I am free now as well. But to put it succinctly, I am striving to be Schopenhauerean man,” came the response from Daniel. Some looked at him quizzically while others sneered as they thought that this Schopenhauerean man was a historic fictional character and surely poor Daniel must be suffering from disillusionment.
Daniel proceeded to draw out some papers from his bag and started reading aloud:
A traveler who had seen many countries, peoples and several of the earth’s continents was asked what attribute he had found in men everywhere. He said: “They have a propensity for laziness.” To others, it seems that he should have said: “They are all fearful. 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 there will be no second chance for his oneness to coalesce from the strangely variegated assortment that he is: he knows it but hides it like a bad conscience—why? From fear of his neighbor, who demands conformity and cloaks himself with it. But what is it that forces 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. For the majority it is idleness, inertia, in short that propensity for laziness of which the traveler spoke. He is right: men are even lazier than they are fearful, and fear most of all the burdensome nuisance of absolute honesty and nakedness.
Noticing the look of deep engagement on the faces of his listeners, Daniel continued:
Human beings who do not want to belong to the mass need only to stop being comfortable; follow their conscience, which cries out: “Be yourself! All that you are now doing, thinking, and desiring is not really yourself.”
The Schopenhauerean man voluntarily takes upon himself the suffering involved in being truthful, and this suffering serves to destroy his own willfulness and to prepare that complete overturning and conversion of his being, which it is the real meaning of life to lead up to. The utterance or truth seems to other men a discharge of malice, for they regard the conservation of their inadequacies and humbug as a human duty and think that anyone who disrupts their child’s play in this way must be wicked.
The bell signaling the end of dinner time interrupted Daniel’s oration. Contemplatively, the table residents rose from their chairs and prepared for bedtime. Albert couldn’t shirk off Daniel’s words from his head as he robotically brushed his teeth. Who had he become? Were his legal pursuits influenced by societal expectations? He adored all that attention in those “golden days” but was he happy? Was he being true to himself? A sharp sting seemed to permeate his entire body as it occurred to him that he was no hero; rather he was a coward to have not resisted the temptations and trappings of the path laden by others. He soon restored his composure and was filled with a sense of fire as he recalled Meister Eckhart’s quote from one of his classes.
“The beast that bears you fastest to perfection is suffering.”
The following 2 months were the happiest that Albert had felt in years. It seemed as if he was transported back to his childhood days. He at last returned to his dream of writing profusely and thrived in the joy he felt when playing Basketball. Daniel, Peter, Rob and Henry became some of his closest friends as they held each other accountable to be their own versions of the Schopenhauerean man.
As Albert was discharged from prison and stepped out onto the streets of New York, he reflected, “It is ironical how I’ve learned what true freedom means in prison. In reality, the world outside with its societal confinements can feel like prison.”
Notes and Citations:
The quotes in large text come from Nietzsche’s writing Untimely Meditations (Third Part 1874) on Schopenhauer as Educator. Friedrich Nietzsche was a 19th century German philosopher whose work continues to inspire modern-day society. For more on him, read this NYT piece.
Nietzsche was heavily influenced by 18th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. Hence, the term Schopenhauerean man.
If you want an introduction to Nietzsche’s philosophy, pick up Professor John Kaag’s book: Hiking with Nietzsche: On Becoming Who You Are.