In the beginning, he was cherubic as most babies tend to be. At eight, he started singing lessons, sang in the church choir and contemplated becoming a priest. When he was eighteen, he went to study fine art in Vienna; pursuing a growing passion for architecture and music. He loved Wagner so much that he attended ten performances of Lohengrin. He was 25 years old when Austria-Hungary and the German Empire entered the First World War and he requested permission to serve in the Bavarian Army. By the end of Hitler’s sordid life, historian Ian Kershaw had this to say about him: “Never in history has such ruination—physical and moral—been associated with the name of one man.”
Is merely becoming someone else a worthy end?
Ours is a culture that straddles the fine line between free will and flippant individualism. Many of us are on our own journeys of transformation, propped up by a litany of self-help gurus and life coaches. We lay claim to multiple identities because we like being all things simultaneously. It makes us feel quietly superior and it relieves us of the pressure of being any one thing. It means that we’re free to explore the avenues of our little multi-passionate hearts and enjoy the journey, wherever it takes us. This was the spirit in which Foucault uttered his famous statement, so easily a mantra for self-evolution. When asked by an interviewer about his many identities—philosopher, historian, structuralist, Marxist, Professor of the History of Systems of Thought—Foucault bucked the notion that he had to be constrained by any one label. The game is worthwhile insofar as we don’t know what will be the end, he said. Taken in its context, we see the value of his statement.
Outside of that context, the idea that our narrative is fluid—open to construction, flexible in interpretation—becomes dangerously seductive. At best, it gives us hope. If our start was poor, we find ourselves motivated to reinvent new versions of ourselves. Even if we begin at Point A, we know that we can carve a path to point Z. After all, who knows what will be the end of our excursions in thought and deed? We’re free to adopt ideologies, release allegiances, create new schools of thought, shape generations. At worst, it gives us free rein to be whatever we want to be, even if the ‘someone else’ we become is the very embodiment of moral destitution. This is both the crest and trough of human agency.
It’s the promise of liberty in Foucault’s statement that tempts us initially. We like statements like these because they give us permission to do what we want to do. Never mind that we were always going to do it anyway. We still like marshalling evidence for our point of view.
But if we think about it, what merit does this statement really have? If the main interest in life and work is to merely become someone else that you were not in the beginning—well, that happens anyway. None of us stay the same. As we journey from birth to death, our limbs extend, our faces morph, our thoughts change, our teeth fall out. Even as we journey from generation to generation, variation is the biological imperative of our species.
Becoming someone else happens whether we choose it or not. Why else do we find ourselves wrestling with thoughts and ideas that are not our own? Why else are we destined, as Freud theorized, to spend our adult lives trying to come to terms with traumas inherited in childhood? Why else did Nelson Mandela argue, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate…”? Whether through a conscious act of the will, or through the subconscious assimilation of experiences, or through the dictates of biology, we all become someone else that we were not in the beginning.
The greater question, then, is who are we becoming? What is our transformation in service of?
Knowing exactly what you are isn’t the antidote. Hitler knew what he stood for. For decades, scholars have been parsing Mein Kampf to understand his journey into depravity. It’s proof positive that you can ‘know yourself’ and yet be utterly blind. Metacognition without conscience, without respect for difference, only leads to confirmation bias. It is not that it isn’t necessary to know exactly what you are—it’s just that it’s not enough.
The same goes for the rest of Foucault’s statement. To merely become someone else is a weak aspiration. If we don’t harness our free will in service of becoming someone who actively champions the cause of the marginalized, who serves the poor and the hungry, who binds the wounds of the downtrodden, who strengthens the weak, who edifies the bigot, who encourages the broken-hearted—well, then what is the point of all our ‘becoming’?
In the fullness of time, we shall all become someone else that we were not in the beginning. But will our families, our friends, our societies, the world, be better off for us having become these people? That’s what we need to ask ourselves.