As in the pattern of many western prophets, Friedrich Nietzsche’s infamous protagonist Zarathustra—from his apocalyptic novel Thus Spoke Zarathustra—scales a great mountain to find himself alone and in direct dialogue with the eternal. He traces the life of Moses whom Nietzsche channels in his quasi-prophetic-postmodern text.
The great Hebrew Sage ascended Mount Sinai, had a 40-day dialogue with God, and then descended back to his people with the Eternal Law in hand. Jesus would echo this act in his own time, but as the Incarnated Word of God, following this blueprint by taking his place on the mount to preach the Beatitudes.
This was the effect of which Nietzsche aimed his rhetorical arrows in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. His hero would ascend a mountain and achieve transcendence, and descend back upon society to impose his received wisdom—in the motif of the ancient prophets.
However, make no mistake, Zarathustra’s revelation was an acrimonious divorce from traditional wisdom. In Nietzsche’s rebranding, Zarathustra descends from the mountaintops and announces to the unwitting world below that God was dead.
Nietzsche sought a “trans valuation of all values” in Zarathustra—whose divine revelation is diabolical indeed. Nietzsche had concluded the Enlightenment had effectively cascaded upon the neatly ordered and metaphysically rich world of the previous age. The German philosopher believed the final outcome of this social realignment would leave mankind bereft of the cosmic meaning that is imbued into reality.
Zarathustra comes with his message of creative evolution, inspired by Nietzsche’s contemporary Charles Darwin, in which man inherits a thoroughly disenchanted world, and must re-enchant it for himself. Nietzsche’s proposition then is reconfiguring the world as a blank canvas awaiting a bold artist.
At this point, Zarathustra is introduced to his antagonist—the aimless Last Man. The Last Man enters the scene with an expansive appetite for novelty and transgression to Nietzsche’s mind, this is the Everyman of post-Enlightenment culture, a true connoisseur of bread and circuses, who only really produces desire and the near infinite pleas of liberation.
Such examples of the of the Last Man abound in our culture today. Given just a short list of current events we find:
- The New Yorker lambasting Texas as a hotbed for transphobia by seeking to prevent synthetic hormone experiments waged on pre-pubescent children.
- The American Mind arguing that our pornography soaked culture is nearing the full-desensitization of the erotic.
- Vogue Magazine’s triumphalist declaration of the end of monogamy.
- Whatever corporate/governmental insanity that Rod Dreher illuminates any given day on his blog.
What Nietzsche Gets Right
In the culture of the Last Man, beauty is stripped of its other-worldliness and reduced to its bestial form. The high-culture of the Italian Renaissance feasted its eyes upon the Birth of Venus, a work of both erotic intrigue and subtlety, masterfully capturing the incomparable allure of femininity. The culture of the Last Man feasts upon the masturbatory and banal.
The Counter-Reformation produced Shakespeare while our Post-Protestant era offers an explosion of third rate mythology that indulges both our narcissism and our nearly absurd identification with victims. The culture of the last man, far from transcending the pieties of past generations, redirects it’s quasi-religious fervor into unserious, though existentially consequential, political terrain.
For instance, the uncatechized in the woke regime witnessed a snap-necked transition from Covid theatre, where the mainstream framed narratives—like who should be made to wear masks? Or why we must force an impotent vaccine in minimizing viral spread on the entire globe?—and thus choked out all capacity to think clearly on matters of mass importance, to “we must stand up to Russian bullies even if it causes nuclear war.”
As a deracinated pseudo-religion, this political theater plays out daily in American news rooms. The new priestly class of journalists feed the tribal appetites of its consumers who are now bereft of particularities such as family or faith. For the Last Man, the pearls of truth, goodness, and beauty are fed to the swine of the propagandist’s pen.
What Nietzsche Gets Wrong
Promptly, Zarathustra’s cutting edge vision of creative evolution is mocked by the crowd he wishes to convert. Even the Last Man seems distantly aware of a buried memory that evades Nietzsche. We are made whole in those little Burkean platoons of church, neighborhood, and family. Nothing is more able to thoroughly undermine such communities as the exercise of the will to power.
No man who desires camaraderie will steal a freshly caught fish from his son and call it the transvaluation of values. Neither will he seek to reconfigure the demands of morality onto his neighbor if true friendship is his desire. Nor has he ever cajoled a hand in marriage through a persistent promise of spousal domination. Even a man ignorant of the classical virtues will conform his will towards those Aristotelian beauties in pursuit of the true goods of life.
What Comes Next
Nietzsche correctly prophesied a future where the Last Man was practically omnipresent, but he was far too optimistic that his will to power could meaningfully replace the classical goods of antiquity. It should be axiomatic by now that a culture with the competence to foster greatness in its citizenry is one that has placed the highest standard on the virtues, producing art that appeals to man’s longing for transcendence, and one that strives towards aligning itself with the demands of truth.
Furthermore, it seems only now that the contours of a culture with the tools at its disposal to produce Nietzsche’s mythological Übermensch is one steeped in the Christian moral universe that he emphatically loathed. However, his significant short-sightedness is probably to be anticipated. It is, in fact, the model of the modern skeptic—from Bertrand Russell to Richard Dawkins—to over calculate the extent to which the prevalence of hard-won virtues might exist beyond the Christians themselves.
The mythological allusion of scaling a grand mountain, where our hero visionary may discern some special knowledge to unlock the meaning of the cosmos, is the format par excellence of any storyteller who dares imagine his era’s call to greatness. Perhaps it is the case because the moral paradigm with which mankind has always ironed out these terms was discerned in precisely such a manner.
That our civilization’s great heroines once extracted the hidden truths of eternity from mountainous heights still has much to offer those of us rooted on the planet earth. Longing to redefine the terms of civilization, nineteenth century philosophers had a habit of weaponizing these great stories as totems to progress but ultimately pulled the rug from the concept of greatness itself. In turn its progeny inherited a world lacking its own path of ascension.
Nietzsche’s postmodern reformulation of our magisterial inheritance reads much like a retelling of the Divine Comedy that’s dispossessed of that purgative median between the Inferno and Paradise. Using the ascent of the mountain as a literary device to frame his Revolution of values, the late philosopher simply short-circuited the long hard road from the lower appetites of base existence to the transcendent realm of participation in the good.
In this way, we have inherited a world where the last man is inevitable and even necessary. A world without a concrete conception of the good is one that is trapped in its own contrived hell. Lacking the tools to transcend upward, the last man wallows in the hell of his own vice.
While we most certainly live in the Bread and Circus Pantheon of Nietzsche’s grand antagonist the last man; the path of ascent the German Philosopher depended upon for Zarathustra was destroyed with his own hammer. Far from liberating the strong from the bonds of slavery, he simply ensured everyone would don their own chains.
The only way out now may be a new Moses, a new Exodus, and a Mount Sinai truly worthy of dialogue with the Eternal. For we are too deep in it by now to solely depend upon the wit and tools of a truly finite mind.
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