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. 

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.