Est. Reading time: 6 minutes
Humans are creatures who continually strive for progress; within ourselves we feel the need to continually grow or surpass ourselves, lest we feel stagnant. Simone de Beauvoir wrote in “Pyrrhus and Cineas”, once we reach a goal, we fall back into the past “leaving [a] constant emptiness of the future” (98). Thomas Hobbes was onto something himself when he wrote in the Leviathan, “felicity <happiness> is a continual progress of the desire from one object to another, the attaining of the former being still but the way to the latter” (47). The point is that humanity is not fulfilled with reaching goals, we’re like an unfillable vessel, and we must reach constantly towards new goals to have happiness or we fall into “pure ennui of living” (Simone de Beauvoir 97). Humans must surpass themselves in some way or another, as this seems to be in our nature to do so.
This writing will look at two ways a person may surpass themselves. First, we can surpass ourselves by building on a prior foundation; second, we can scrap the old foundation and rebuild a new foundation. I will look at teach in turn, expressing how it can be done, the strengths and weaknesses of each, and present some examples.
Surpassing oneself means to “go beyond oneself”. To grow, to move forward, to “pass over” what is. It is the changing of what once was into what will be. It denotes upward change, becoming, movement. All things change, but not all things surpass, we might now like the color orange over the color green, and if these colors are deemed equivalent then a change has occurred but there is no movement forward, only laterally. Surpassing involves upward momentum towards a new goal and a more valuable state of self. Whether physically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, etc.. And value is relative to the situation a person is in.
There are two main ways one might say a person is to surpass themselves:
- By building upon the current foundation
- By rejecting the prior foundation and assuming a new foundational form (destroying some of the foundation and building anew)
In this writing, I will use the analogy of a building or castle and the act of building up from the foundation as the act of surpassing. By analogy, we might see the foundation as our identity or self we base ourselves and move forward from. Each brick is like a belief, skill, or part of us that is mortared in place to create the solid base of ourselves. We continually build up from the base using bricks towards the sort of functional structure we desire, and it is within this analogy I like to use in surpassing oneself. The type of building we build and the structure or “form” will give rise to the functional use of it based on the structure, and is limited by said structure. A room 2′ x 3′ cannot fit a 4′ couch into it, and a room without plumbing cannot become a bathroom.
In the first case of surpassing, we simply acquire new knowledge, skills, behaviors, practices, or experience that is directly superfoundational on prior foundation. For instance, I might know how to play piano and learn a new piano song. I might use my physical fitness to learn a new sport or martial art. I might improve my run times. I might pursue a master’s degree in my field of study. It is the continual improvement of the self in terms of the identity we have given ourselves. It is slower, less radical, and more precise, balanced, and coordinated. We use this method when we are satisfied in ourselves, want to stay in the same domain, and have a strong foundation to build on. It requires a strong identity, stable foundation, and built ego. We can also use this to more firmly secure our foundation. It is an elongation, stretching, or reinforcement.
Like a half-built castle with a good foundation we can build outwards, but this growth limited by the foundation itself. We can build up, change the building material, make protrusion or outcrops, but the resulting “form” is limited by the foundation. We cannot create a 25 meter wide outcropping over a 5m wide base (or at least not very well). Thus we are limited in the ways to surpass oneself by the foundations it is built upon.
The second case is much more radical and extreme. Here, we transmute what once was into something new. The foundation can be completely, or at least partially destroyed and this requires relinquishing some or all of the form that was. What existed is to be perished, so radically new form can be created. The foundational bricks are removed so that a different foundation to support the kind of surpassing we want is viable. This can occur through intentional or unintentional and always through strong cognitive dissonance. It can arise from trauma, from wanting something we just aren’t built or suited for.
For instance, some people’s values don’t align and they may never be good partners. If one loves the other, they may relinquish their old values in order to change for the other. They change their foundational values so that they may build themselves up closer and around the one they love. Though this not only concerns love, when someone wants to be in a group, club, organization, place, they may destroy their old values to fit in. It requires cognitive dissonance. It is like destroying the castle’s foundation so the castle may be built in a more wanted land.
A Royal or nobleman who falls in love or lust with a peasant may renounce their beliefs and practices in order to be more suitable for the object of his affection. They destroy the foundation in order to be able to build in the Peasant’s land. An example is Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Prince Harry is a member of the Royal Family, while Meghan was a simple actress. The two fell in love and Prince Harry had to renounce some of his family values in order to pursue his love.
This type of surpassing is more extreme, and requires losing foundation and becoming unstable for a time in order to build the proper structure needed. We move backwards in order to move forwards. We scrap the blueprints and create new ones. This is intense, and difficult, for we must weather the storms, lose our inventory, stability, homeliness, and comfort in the hopes of building a more suitable structure.
There is a hybrid sort of surpassing one can do when they want to grow. One can remove several bricks if they deem them unstable or want to take back one belief, value, or state they once deemed valuable but now see it as not conducive to the superfoundaitional structure form they wish to create. For instance, if it was my belief that drinking snake oil each morning would lead to my goals, and I found out snake oil was useless, then I might renounce that belief and create a new belief in its place. We don’t move backwards very much, but simply remove a brick or two.
Surpassing oneself means to go beyond one’s means. To grow, to become what is not now. Becoming. We can do this methodically and safely using prior foundation, though this requires we live in our castles and we are unable to move freely. We can destroy our foundation to gain mobility, but we lose ourselves in the process. During this time, anything can happen, and major difficulty ensues. We relinquish our possessions for another cause we deem more worthy than our prior position. Like a castle building, we can maintain our land or nomad our way into uncharted territory to build a new foundation.
Beauvoir, Simone de. “Pyrrhus and Cineas”. In Simone de Beauvoir: Philosohical Writings, edited by Margaret A. Simons, translated by Marybeth Timmerman, University of Illinois Press, 2004, 89-115. Accessed 6 Mar. 2021.
Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. “The First Part”, Chapter 11, 1651, p. 47.
Featured image credit: Copyright Rodoto Arguedas