Whatever else it is—mordant self-mockery, summation of a life’s work in thought—Friedrich Nietzsche’s last published book, Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is, is a profoundly Romantic text, operating on the premise that an individual who suffers for philosophy, for art, for truth, is heroic, even (or especially) when anti-heroic, brooding, Byronic. Nietzsche states one of the purposes of his strange little book as an imprecation: Hear me! For I am such and such. Above all, do not mistake me for someone else!
Over a century after this work’s publication, a cry of pop culture with its love of simulacra might be: Please mistake me for someone else, especially someone wealthy and famous and prettier than I am! Maybe this ethos reached its zenith with Facebook’s celebrity look-alike day, which inspired a site called myheritage.com to use face recognition technology for users who didn’t look enough like anyone famous to figure out for themselves who they wanted to be. Silly harmless trend, yes, but a little sad too, since it shows how many people suffer from a sense that their identities are dwarfed into insignificance by a famous stranger who slightly resembles them. (Another, more humorous meme, goes something like “Always be yourself, unless you can be Batman. Always be Batman”).
I offer these pop-sociological ruminations as context for the great Neil deGrasse Tyson’s response above to a question he receives quite a bit: “What can I do to be you?” On the one hand, it must be very flattering to be asked this question, even though Tyson seems a pretty modest person. On the other hand, the question is pathetic, I believe, for the reasons I sketched out above. Why be Neil deGrasse Tyson when you can be yourself? Unless you don’t believe you’re worth becoming. Tyson’s answer is also Romantic; he says, “I think the greatest of people in society carve niches that represent a unique expression of their combination of talents.” For Tyson that has meant taking a set of academic and career accomplishments and using them as a platform for expressing a combination of talents that only he has, which is to say that no one can be Neil deGrasse Tyson but Neil deGrasse Tyson. He uses the example of Michael Jordan, who honed his superior talent from natural abilities, for sure, but who also created his own category through a talent for being himself, a combination of personal style, winning personality, leadership qualities, etc.
So what are we to conclude from this? Always be yourself, unless you can be Michael Jordan? Well, I think the gist of Tyson’s short talk is that there is no default or template for what you can become, or as he puts it, “what I do day-to-day is not the fulfillment of some pre-existing job description.” And while “just be yourself” may sound like trite advice to people struggling to find an identity, Tyson sets it out as a task, not a fait accompli. “The task,” he says, “is to find the unique combination of facts that apply to you. Then people will beat a path to your door.” It’s not a task to take on lightly, or in Nietzsche’s hyperbolic words, it is “the heaviest demand ever put on mankind.”
The video above is an excerpt from a longer interview Neil deGrasse Tyson did for Big Think. The full interview is available here.
Josh Jones is a writer and scholar currently completing a dissertation on land, literature, and labor.