Is Modern Society Stealing What Makes Us Human?: A Glimpse Into Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra by The Partially Examined Life

Image by Genevieve Arnold

The prologue of Friedrich Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883) introduced his notion of the "last man," who is no longer creative, no longer exploring, no longer risk taking. He took this to be the implicit aim of efforts to "discover happiness" by figuring out human nature and engineering society to fulfill human needs. If needs are met, no suffering occurs, no effort is needed to counter the suffering, and we all stagnate. Is our technology-enhanced consumer culture well on its way to delivering us up to such a fate?

In the clip below, Mark Linsenmayer from the Partially Examined Life philosophy podcast considers this possibility, explores Nietzsche's picture of ethics, and concludes that the potential mistake by potential social engineers lies in underestimating the complexity of human needs. As Nietzsche argued, we're all idiosyncratic, and our needs are not just for peace, warmth, food, exercise and entertainment, but (once these are satisfied, per Maslow's hierarchy of needs) self-actualization, which is an individual pursuit, and so is impossible to mass engineer. Having our more basic needs fulfilled without life-filling effort (i.e. full time jobs) would not leave us complacent but actually free to entertain these "higher needs," and so to pursue the creative pursuits that Nietzsche thought were the pinnacle of human achievement.

Nietzsche's target is utilitarianism, which urges individuals and policy-makers to maximize happiness, and the more this is pursued scientifically, the more that "happiness" needs to be reduced to something potentially measurable, like pleasure, but clearly pleasure does not add up to a meaningful life. While we may not be able to quantify meaningfulness and aim public policy in that direction, it should be easier to identify clear obstacles to pursuing meaningful activity, such as illness, poverty, drudgery and servitude. We should be glad that choosing the most ethical path is not a matter of mere calculation, because on Nietzsche's view, we thrive as "creators of values," and figuring out for ourselves what makes each us truly happy (what we find valuable) is itself a meaningful activity.

The Partially Examined Life episodes 213 and 214 (forthcoming) provide a 4-man walkthrough of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, exploring the Last Man, the Overman, Will to Power, the declaration that "God Is Dead," and other notorious ideas.

Episode 213 Part One:

Episode 213 Part Two: 

Mark Linsenmayer is the host of The Partially Examined Life and Nakedly Examined Music podcasts. 

Should Literature Be Political? A Glimpse into Sartre by The Partially Examined Life

Image by Solomon Gundry

Jean-Paul Sartre produced plays and novels like The Respectful Prostitute (1946), which explored racism in the American South. These works were criticized as too polemical to count as good literature. What might in the present day culminate only in a Twitter fight led Sartre to publish a whole book defending his practices, called What Is Literature? (1946).

In the clip below, Mark Linsenmayer from the Partially Examined Life Philosophy Podcast explains Sartre's view, outlining both how strange it is and why you might want to take it seriously anyway. In short, Sartre sees the act of writing fiction as an ethical appeal to his reader's freedom. The reader is challenged to hear the truths the work expresses, to understand and take action on them. More directly, the reader is challenged to read the work, which involves a demand on the reader's attention and imagination to "flesh out" the situations the book describes. The reader takes an active role in completing the work, and this role can be abandoned freely at any time. If a writer creates an escapist fantasy, the reader is invited to escape. If the writer produces a piece of lying propaganda, then the reader is being invited to collaborate in that fundamentally corrupt work.

So if writing is always an ethical, political act, then Sartre shouldn't be blamed for producing overtly political work. In fact, writers who deny that their work is political are dodging their own responsibility for playing haphazardly with this potentially dangerous tool. Their work will produce political effects whether they like it or not.

The Partially Examined Life episode 212 (Sartre on Literature) is a two-part treatment of the first two chapters of this text, weighing Sartre's words to try to understand them and determine whether they ultimately make sense. Listen to the full episode below or go subscribe to The Partially Examined Life Philosophy Podcast at partiallyexaminedlife.com.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Mark Linsenmayer is the host of The Partially Examined Life and Nakedly Examined Music podcasts. 

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How Political Commitment Led Lucy Lawless (AKA Xena, the Warrior Princess) to Study Philosophy

It's certainly not uncommon for celebrities to take up political causes, though this does not usually lead to them getting arrested for holing up in a high tower oil-drilling ship for four days. What's less common is for this interest to burgeon into a full-on obsession with all things philosophical, but that's exactly what happened to Lucy Lawless (best known as Xena, the Warrior Princess).

"I went to the UN summit on sustainable development after getting involved in the whole... big oil protest... and I saw all of these people working very hard but seemingly at cross-purposes about how do we create a just society." On a full two-hour episode of The Partially Examined Life Philosophy Podcast (which she claims was largely responsible for turning her on to philosophy), she describes how this political interest drove her to look at the foundations and histories of theories of justice, and eventually decide to go back to school to study philosophy, which she's now doing in New Zealand between flights to the states to film TV spots such as her recent appearance on NBC's Parks and Recreation.

The Partially Examined Life interview with Lawless is a five-person, roundtable discussion of Tom Payne's 2010 book, Fame: What the Classics Tell Us About Our Cult of Celebrity. You can listen here:

The thesis of the book is that celebrities serve as an outlet for society's aggressive instincts. Drawing on canonical texts about religious anthropology like James Frazer's The Golden Bough, the author compares the treatment of modern celebrities to ancient rites where young maidens were lavishly bestowed with fineries and then sacrified. Lucy thinks this well matches her own experiences, and talks about the existential weirdness involved with being and dealing with the famous.

The Partially Examined Life has also covered related topics of Freud's Civilization and its Discontents and Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals. You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes.

Mark Linsenmayer runs the Partially Examined Life philosophy podcast and blog

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