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: