I've recently watched the documentary about Nietzsche's life and philosophy Nietzsche: Beyond good and evil and I got that one of the main ideas in his philosophy is that people should spend their life enhancing their self-knowledge and self-cultivating. According to the documentary, this idea had been crucial for Freud's and Jung's philosophy so I believe it could have had much impact on the thinking of society.

Does the saying "be yourself" and everything that comes with it, come from the Nietzsche's philosophy from Human all too human?

  • 2
    i would be staggered if the sentiment didn't pre-exist nietszsche, fwiw
    – user6917
    Commented Jan 31, 2017 at 15:55
  • @MATHEMETICIAN You were right, see my answer for more info
    – Probably
    Commented Jan 31, 2017 at 17:53
  • 1
    – user39744
    Commented Jan 3, 2020 at 12:17

2 Answers 2


The reference is to Schopenhauer as Educator:

The man who will not belong to the general mass, has only to stop "taking himself easily"; to follow his conscience, which cries out to him, "Be thyself! all that thou doest and thinkest and desirest, is not thyself!"

The essay is the third of the Untimely Meditations (German: Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen), that consists of four works written between 1873 and 1876.

See also :

  • Thanks but the question is, wheter it was truly Nietzsche who had introduced this idea into the contemporary pop culture.
    – Probably
    Commented Jan 31, 2017 at 14:18
  • @Probably - at most in a very indirect way; N's philosophy was "read" in many ways: Heidegger , Nazi,... Commented Jan 31, 2017 at 14:26
  • I think the current understanding of "be yourself" pretty much corresponds what Nietzsche writes. In the context of other of his life approaches indicated in the documentary, he seemed to express we should fulfill the "function" or "mission" of our personality - what fulfills us (or as your paragraph states - what we naturally desire)
    – Probably
    Commented Jan 31, 2017 at 14:41
  • Anyway, what makes you think the saying really comes from Ultimely Meditations?
    – Probably
    Commented Jan 31, 2017 at 14:43

Probably not, even though Nietzsche might have had some kind of share for the idea to widespread and root deeply into the Western pop-culture.

First of all, I've realized that the saying "be yourself" substantially relate to the question of a person's identity. On one side, the urge to live authentically had become one of the main topics of decadence where the role of Nietzsche's thoughts is, indeed, undeniable. On the other hand, I guess his popularity might had been a consequence of the growing corresponding moods in the society. These growing moods might even have had their roots in the philosophy of naturalism.

I've searched through the Google books to find the oldest mention of the phrase "be yourself" and the first to actually relate to the context we understand it in today might be the Socratic dialogue between a "Christian" and a "Socianist" in Christianity and modern infidelity: their relative intellectual claims compared written by Morgan, W. (Williams) in 1854.

The two of the debaters invastigate how can our surrender to God be consistent with the urge to be free. At the same time, people were affected by the biological knowledge that had lead to naturalism - that we are determined by our biological predisposition (Hippolyte Taine). This might have lead to the urge to fulfill your predisposition which is pretty much what lies behind "being yourself". Here, the writer, dealing with the contradiction of having free will and surrendering to God had, in fact, captured the basic question of self-identification:

You yourself are thus the fact of a spirit incarnate ; which fact, nevertheless, being yourself, yourself cannot accept.

Note that the context of the debate (the new religious "fidelity" and critique of the stifling religious institutions) seems to be very similar to the context of Nietzsche's philosophy (this notion supports the consequence-hypothesis mentioned earlier).

The first definite mention of the phrase "be yourself" in the given context can be found in Ethics of Success written by William Makepeace Thayer (not to be confused with W. M. Thackeray) in 1893 (just five years before Nietzsche's Human all too​ human!). We can see Thayer has written a very clear formulation of the current understanding of the idea you should "be yourself" (in a chapter called "be yourself").

Thayer makes the point we should live honestly so we could always speak honestly, a point very similar to those that can be seen in contemporary psychological literature. Thayer even quotes the naturalist George Crabb (1754-1832):

The frank man is under no restraint, his thoughts and feelings are both set at ease and his lips are ever ready to give utterance to the dictates of his heart.

According to the Google NGram, it was about this time when the phrase started to be frequently used in literature.

So I guess that the origin of the phrase "be yourself" is so complex we can't really ascribe the authorship to a single philosopher, even though there's a good chance Thayer was the one to spread the phrase (even though he didn't have to be the first to come with the idea of meaning of life as cultivating and getting to know yourself).

EDIT: Similar sentiments have actually much older tradition, see Authenticity on Stanford encyclopedia or the Ancient Greek maxim Know Thyself.

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