Steppenwolf: You Are What You Do

Who will I be today?

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Warning: Steppenwolf spoilers. If you don’t stop reading right now there’s a chance you’ll find out what happens towards the end of Steppenwolf without having read all the previous pages of Steppenwolf first. Think long and hard about whether you can live with that.


I recently finished Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf and it provoked roughly a million different thoughts about human nature, destiny, time, the afterlife, all that sort of stuff. One of the most interesting ideas in the book is that individuals aren’t really individuals, but collections of hundreds of different personalities, any of which can take the reins at any given moment.

This is probably a disconcerting idea to most of us, but the book’s protagonist Harry Haller finds it liberating. After all, for years he’s felt divided into two personalities that hate each other — the man and the wolf — so he doesn’t experience himself as a coherent person anyway. By adding other personalities into the mix he has a chance to free himself from the man and the wolf’s perennial deathmatch.

In the book’s final pages Harry meets a mysterious chess player who teaches him to treat all his potential Harrys like chess pieces. He can select whichever pieces he wants and lay them out on the board in whatever combination he wants, then watch as they grow, love, fight, marry, find friends, generally engage with their lives. Whenever he wants he can clear the pieces away and start afresh, with new combinations creating new stories and destinies. The possibilities are infinite.


All the existentialism fans in the house might be reminded of Sartre’s “existence precedes essence” maxim here. (Steppenwolf in general is like a 300-page essay on another existentialist quote, Camus’ ‘There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide’.) But Hesse’s book came out in 1927, long before existentialism came onto the scene. It draws on the proto-existentialist Nietzsche and possibly Schopenhauer as well, but more importantly on the ancient Indian ideas that did so much to fire Schopenhauer’s imagination.

As far as Hesse was concerned, the doctrine of reincarnation was Hinduism’s way of saying that there’s no such thing as a coherent, indivisible soul. He held that the ancient Indians didn’t believe in time, regarding it as part of the illusory world of maya that masks the timeless, unchanging nature of true reality. If I’m reading him right, his argument in Steppenwolf and Siddhartha is that if there’s no such thing as time, then all your past and future actions, moods, personalities and decisions exist simultaneously. How can you talk about a single “personality” when you exist as a composite of every contradictory thing you’ve ever thought or done?

My knowledge of Hinduism and early Buddhism is firmly at sub-beginner level, but from what I can tell Buddha just pushed de-individualisation a step further: if we don’t see what happens to the soul after death and our best guess is that it embarks on a completely different life with a completely different personality, why talk about the “soul” at all?

Even within the course of a single lifetime, all you see is flux: one day you’re young, the next you’re old, one day you believe something, the next you don’t, first you’re here and then you’re there. Better to stop grasping at the fake solidity of the “soul” idea and admit that there’s no certainty or stability in life. Once you let go of the need for a foundation you can just perceive the world directly, without constantly inserting yourself into the picture as a separate entity — there’s the world, and here’s me looking at it. And that’s what enlightenment feels like.

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Personally, I’m too much of a Westerner to abandon the idea of individual souls completely. But I do think the ancient Hindus and Buddhists were on to something. We’re so used to defining ourselves by our achievements, our life story and our personality (or the tip of the iceberg that we think is our personality) and regarding these things as unified, solid, irrefutable. But they’re not.

What have our achievements got to do with who we are today? How can we interpret our life story if we can’t remember it properly, the memories we do retain are highly fictionalised, we don’t know half the impact we’ve had and we don’t know how the story ends? And even given the best efforts of psychology, can we really talk about a single “personality” when we’re such a mass of conflicting desires, motivations and emotions?

Doubting Fred: ‘The counterargument is that our behaviour is surprisingly consistent and predictable, so that the people who know us well can often guess our reactions to things in advance. Even if we spend a lot of our time entertaining wild fantasies and fighting off severe temptations, we’re born with temperaments that ultimately skew us towards some patterns of behaviour more than others. So even if part of you wants to sleep with every attractive person who looks your way, if your temperament skews you towards faithfulness to your spouse and you never act on these impulses it’s fair to say you have a faithful personality.’

Fred, I can’t put into words how much I value your input so I won’t try.

I agree that it’s very hard for wild people to fully rein themselves in (‘Wait, you mean a strict routine?’) or for orderly people to fully let their hair down (‘What, you mean completely abandon control?’), and so on. Here’s where we get to the same old question that’s bothered us for thousands of years: ‘Do we have any real freedom of choice or is our behaviour completely determined by circumstance and temperament?’ Maybe science will give us a conclusive answer to this soon enough, but for now it’s still an open question.


And for now my answer is: ‘Does it matter?’ I used to care a lot more about whether I had free will or not, but lately I’ve been feeling more and more that the only thing that matters is whether or not I feel free. Do my core beliefs and subconscious scripts make me feel good or miserable, inhibited or functional? How much does fear dictate my actions or lack of action, and how strongly do cravings and attachments pressurise me to do things that aren’t good for me?

The freer we feel the more energetic we are, and the more we think in terms of inhibitions, constraints and frustrated desires the more miserable we get. I think that has less to do with the philosophical concept of free will and more to do with feeling free to move around, breathe the air and do what makes us feel alive.

So if Jack wakes up every day in a room he hates, has breakfast with a family he hates, drives in a car he hates to a job he hates with a boss he hates, all so he can contribute to an economy he hates in a country he hates, does it matter whether he believes in free will or not? Everything about his life suggests constraint and resentment.

Now take Jill, who lives in a hut near the beach, surrounded by a family and community she loves, free to spend her time painting and walking by the sea. Maybe she tells herself that she was 100% guided there by temperament, circumstance and God. Or maybe she views herself and God as partners, working together towards the best outcomes. Either way, she feels good.

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I think that to a large extent the stories we tell ourselves become true just because we’re telling them. That doesn’t apply to statements like ‘The sky is green’, but it does apply to statements like ‘I’m a failure at everything I ever do’ or ‘Things always seem to work out for me’. The statement ‘I have total freedom today’ may or may not be existentially true, but it’s a highly motivating way to think — just like telling a child they have personal responsibility gets better results than telling them they’re a rat in a maze. Whether or not we are rats in mazes doesn’t make a difference: children who believe in accountability behave better, and adults who feel free are free in the only sense that matters.

So now Jack visualises Harry’s chess game and tells himself ‘I can do anything I want today’. Actually, he has to get to work on time or he’ll be fired, he has to work because he has a family to feed, he has to get home quick so he can tend to his ailing mother, and then he has to cook dinner, wash up, put the kids to bed then hit the sack himself so he can do it all again the next day. But he can think about anything he wants in the car. He can put on any podcast he likes. He can talk to his partner about anything he chooses when he gets home. Most importantly, he can internally react to other people’s behaviour any way he wants.

Same goes for the constraints of our own “personalities”. It may be true that we only have a limited ability to act outside the parameters of our temperaments, but the scope becomes really limited if we keep reminding ourselves how limited it is. Whereas if we tell ourselves that we can choose our responses to life’s situations — that we have a bundle of personas to choose from, a store of chess pieces to deploy any way we see fit — we feel freer. The freer we feel, the happier we feel. The happier we feel, the more spontaneously and unselfconsciously we act. The statement ‘I am free’ creates the reality.

It seems to me that to the extent that there’s a “real you” at all, it’s the person who chooses between all these personas, the active will that decides which fragments of personality and memory to draw on in any given situation. (That’s why there’s no point being either proud or ashamed of your attributes: they’re not you, they’re raw material for the real you to make use of.) Whether this will is “free” or not, it can decide to take ownership of its choices rather than capitulating to fear or resentment. Easier said than done, naturally.

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Maybe this is how to rescue the saying ‘You are what you do’. Honestly, I’ve never liked the phrase. It’s always struck me as moralistic, shallow, full of the usual bias towards extroverts: ‘Isn’t being more important than doing? Can you judge me only by the words I say and the movements I make? You’ve no idea why I said or did any of those things, what inner processes led to them, what they signified. You can’t see into my inner world, you don’t know about all the thoughts I don’t act on, all the urges I suppress, all the thoughts that are just thoughts: ideas, daydreams, arguments, realisations…Reducing me to my actions erases all of that.’

But interpret the phrase as ‘You are the choices you make’ and enlarge “choices” to include “decisions about where to direct mental activity” and it makes a lot more sense. I can decide to daydream, to meditate or to pursue lines of inquiry about my hidden beliefs and motivations. Just because people can’t see what I’m thinking about when I sit and think doesn’t mean I’m not “doing” the thinking. It just means that I’m dedicating that chunk of time to private rather than public action. You could define the “real me” as attention as easily as will or decision: where do I choose to focus my attention at any given moment of the day? Will I look inside myself or out into the world, and what exact corner of the inner or outer world will I look at?

The “me” that makes all these decisions is the same me that rummages through my inner store looking for various personas to try on. The freer it feels to make the search, the more interesting things it finds.

Doubting Fred: ‘But isn’t life about relaxing into your true nature? Don’t you feel more peaceful when you go with the flow of your essence than when you’re constantly second-guessing and fighting it? Aren’t we always told it’s impossible to be someone you’re not? Maybe you think ‘I’m a million different people from one day to the next’ sounds liberating, but in reality it’s exhausting and destructive. Human beings just aren’t wired for total instability — even Buddhists pursue the security of enlightenment, don’t they?’

Thanks again, Fred. The only thing about you that causes me any pain is that you will never know just how deeply I value your input.

Actually, I agree that life is about relaxing into your true nature. But what is your true nature, if you don’t consist of an “essence” but of a will that picks between multiple essences? Another Hindu concept that crops up in Steppenwolf is the idea that your truest, deepest self is the part of you that’s one with the ultimate reality beyond maya. While your various moods, abilities and personalities belong to maya, there is that part of you that transcends life’s slideshow and belongs to the eternal realm. So ironically, your most authentic self isn’t an isolated “self” at all but a fully integrated, unselfish part of all-that-is.

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Taoists call this all-that-is, the Beyond that animates the universe, the Tao. When we act in accordance with the Tao we feel light, free, at peace. There are a couple of major paradoxes at work here: the more you boil yourself down to what conforms to the Tao, the more like yourself you feel. And the more you restrict your behaviour to the single course of action that fits best with the Tao, the freer and less encumbered you become. You define freedom not as “doing whatever I want”, but as “living in the way that makes me feel the most alive”.

‘So if we all partake in the ground of being and freedom means acting in accordance with that, then why bother with all this stuff about multiple personas and how to choose between them? Why not skip maya altogether?’

Because, Fred, we live in maya. Barring the occasional mystic who spends every hour of every day communing with God, we’re all destined to live communal lives dealing with practical situations and physical things. We need personas to help us navigate through our interactions with each other and sort out all the mundane details of our lives. Society forces various roles on us — parent, boss, friend — and we have to maintain those roles to keep the various systems functioning. If all these interrelationships break down the result is chaos, and it’s hard for people to focus on Ultimate Reality when they live in chaos.

More fundamentally than this, we’re not born knowing what our true nature — awareness manifesting itself through our specific strengths and gifts — feels like. Much too much confusion and trauma (or more precisely, our kneejerk reactions to trauma) in the way. Getting down to the core of ourselves takes a lifetime or more of work, and the way is often unclear.

So — particularly when we’re young — the idea is to experiment. Try a bit of everything. Explore different sides of yourself and see what they feel like. People say you never take a risk? Invest your savings in a bunch of recording equipment and make an album. They say you always hold a grudge? Try not holding one. See how it feels.

A lot of things that we confuse with our “true nature” are nothing of the kind: they’re half-truths, illusions, distortions. We don’t have to be jealous, aggressive and misanthropic. Our circumstances may have interacted with our fears to produce these habitual emotions in us, but that doesn’t mean we’re saddled with them for life. Patterns, habits and core beliefs can be changed. We have both less and more freedom than we think we do.

If anything holds us back and distorts our lives more than anything else it’s fear. So much of what we attribute to other sources is really fear: most of our morality, part of our sensible caution, half our stated beliefs (often very different to our real beliefs), a lot of our career choices, a good chunk of our opinions about the people we meet, the bulk of our decision-making. A lot of what people call the “wisdom of old age” comes down to finally realising we don’t need to be so terrified all the time. We relax into our true nature once we stop being so afraid of it.

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One of Harry Haller’s eureka moments in Steppenwolf is realising that he’s given up on life without sampling most of what it has to offer. He knows he’s bored of reading, drinking and his own company, but he looks down on people who like dancing and parties even though he never goes to parties and doesn’t know how to dance. If he hasn’t tried either, how can he know how much of his distaste for them stems from his true self and how much is just fear?

At the beginning of the book, Harry believes he has just two natures and hates them both. 300 pages later, he’s tapped potential he never knew he had and received strict instructions to spend the rest of his life tapping more. (And when Mozart’s ghost says jump, you jump.) He realises that he’ll never understand himself until he’s tried being ‘a million different people from one day to the next’.

So one day we’ll be what we are, but for now we are what we do. We have an infinity of Being-In-Itself to look forward to, but for now we live in the world of Becoming. Becoming means potential. And potential means going on internal treasure-hunts and having some fun with what you find.