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. 

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Comments (4)
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  • Rene Brauer says:

    Whilst I have no big qualms with Freddie’s problem description, his solution of “create your own values” seems to me to have some serious flaws:

    Firstly, due to the shortness of human life the experiential base that you are drawing upon can only ever be one life time. As such, you are bound by your own irrationality, in combination with your own ignorance….what other than your own will to power is convincing you that you are right? [when everyone around you is behaving in a sheepish fashion?]

    Secondly, if you reject contemporary values what becomes your frame of reference other than your own base desires, i.e. your own animal nature? The animal nature that selects for the survival of propagating as many copies of itself, NOT how to live a harmonious life with your fellow men. The sheep use the pretense of compassion to validate their thinly veiled ambitions as well….

    Last but not least, by forsaking the mitigating effect that civilization has on us we return back to animal animosity. The rationality still recognizes patterns, even if they are none…this is separate from it becoming the raison detre for the insurrection. Furthermore, women seem to only care about success, not so much about how a man got to that particular position

  • Will Peck says:

    How can you rebut a interpretation of N. Without reading N? What if she is wrong? Then you are wrong. If I rebut you then I am wrong a thread that never ends Rene you don’t seem very bright. I suggest you read Nietzsche is really doesn’t leave himself open like that

  • Dante Battaglua says:

    This philosopher needs to be inspected starting from his personal life. If you find that he was not such happy fellow in the way that his humanity was severely affected by his lack of a healthy morality, therefore even his plagiarism of world religion as far as his reference to the overman, when in his attacks on christianity seem hollow when he made references to himself as the crucified one, really showed a very confused individual.Nature at its core is all good, but man needs to obey to fulfill his purpose, and this should be to live in harmony.

  • Elsdon Ward says:

    There are the obvious drawbacks to being happy and these are largely things that are beyond our control. There is not much point in being unhappy because there are clouds in the sky. Better to be happy that we can see these clouds.

    Therefore to be happy we should ignore the things that are beyond our control. We should find contentment in the way that we do things and not the end result of them. Why be afraid to get out of bed because it is raining. Just stand in the rain and be happy.

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