The Last Messiah

I stumbled upon a bleak work of Philosophy by the Norwegian Peter Wessel Zapffe: “The Last Messiah.” A deeply pessimistic, anti-humanist and  antinatalist work, described by one reviewer as “The human condition stripped naked, truthfully and painfully,” (Sven-are Bjerke) it is a fascinating read.

A strange book indeed, but I am attracted to the philosopher’s brooding Nordic thoughts. I found a helpful navigator through these pessimistic straits in a review by a 24-year old Norwegian, “Jakob” (also at Good Reads: who rescued me from complete dejection with his observation that “Camus… grappled with many of these themes and questions during the same period and came to a slightly different conclusion: yes, the universe is without any inherent meaning, and it isn’t capable of answering some of our most pressing questions. But perhaps the best we can do is to rebel, scoff at the fates and—like Sisyphus—keep rolling that stone.”

Jakob’s review in full:

In 1933, Peter Wessel Zapffe shook the philosophical circles up in his native country when he published this essay, Den sidste messias. In this essay he gives his account of the nature of the human life and how we typically deal with it, and he outlines the main themes that he would later develop more thoroughly in his phd thesis Om det tragiske (which I believe hasn’t been translated to English, somewhat surprisingly).

Safe to say, Zapffe’s account of humanity is a bleak one. The main tenet that runs through much of his philosophy is this belief: while most all other animals have developed biological tools that stand in proportion to their essential tasks in life, it is not so with modern man. We been vastly over-endowed with an advanced consciousness that allows us to reflect upon our selves, our transient nature, and pose questions about grander meaning in the universe. In fact, paradoxically, nature has given us a consciousness that writes checks (in form of metaphysical questions) that nature can’t cash (through answers to these questions).

Life had overshot its target, blowing itself apart. A species had been armed too heavily – by spirit made almighty without, but equally a menace to its own well-being.

This is what Zapffe views as the tragic element of human existence—the discrepancy between our potential and what nature allows for us.

Zapffe illustrates this point by asking us to picture a Paleolithic hunter. While hunting for prey, he suddenly becomes aware of his place in the universe, and ponders about the shared fate of all living creatures. His loss of practical focus ends fatally. Our consciousness has evolved so far that Zapffe imagines that it can become calamitous to our survival. Zapffe points out that this isn’t the first time that a species suffers from over-evolution of one’s ability. He references the giant Irish Elk, who through the games of evolution developed antlers of such size that it contributed to their own extinction. He powerfully suggests: in depressive states, the mind may be seen in the image of such an antler, in all its fantastic splendour pinning its bearer to the ground.

So why, then, do we go on living seemingly undisrupted, generation upon generation?
Zapffe claims it is mostly due to conscious and unconscious efforts to limit our own consciousness and keep the darkest impulses hidden away. In this sense, he echoes much of the Freudian thinking of his time. We use defense mechanisms such as isolation, which is simply to ignore and suppress such thoughts.
We may use anchoring, which is to invent our own arbitrary goals and overarching meaning (typically God, Church, State, or various idealistic ideas).
We also often use distraction (probably more relevant than ever in these ever more accelerating technological times—just give the children some iPads, and they won’t get the time to face themselves).
The last tactic he describes is the use of sublimation , which is a more conscious strategy which attempts to turn the dark and tragic realizations into art and other productive activities.

In his forecast of our species future, he proposes that we will eventually face a collective breakdown as we get more and more time to reflect upon such existential matters, and that new methods of anchoring at one point won’t convince us anymore as we continue to overthrow our old ones (demise of God etc). He famously consummates his text with the short parable of the “Last Messiah” who will come and cry out: Know yourselves – be infertile and let the earth be silent after ye

What to say about this philosophy? Well, it probably comes as a surprise to no one to hear that Zapffe was a deeply unhappy and troubled man for large parts of his life. He had a dreadful childhood, and on several occasion he openly spoke about being abused as a child. It’s hard not to think that this provides a relevant backdrop for the terribly grim philosophy he would develop. That said, perhaps he would argue that this corroborates his point: our staunch tendency to ascribe deeply pessimistic philosophies merely as results of horrible childhoods and troubled psyches could be yet another sign about our wish to deny and hide these impulses away, an attempt to disarm them in a way.

In the end, while Zapffe’s philosophy is certainly thought-provoking and remarkable in that it dares to voice the questions that are disturbingly taboo to this day, it’s still hard to join completely in his grim outlook. A universe without us would in a way be wasted. Humans are seemingly a once-in-history occurrence in the sense that we are the only ones who can truly and fully perceive the richness of the universe (albeit still within certain limits of our own). If what he deems defense-mechanisms are in fact things that can be perceived as making life subjectively meaningful for others, is that really so bad? I am somewhat sympathetic to the viewpoint of Camus, who grappled with many of these themes and questions during the same period and came to a slightly different conclusion: yes, the universe is without any inherent meaning, and it isn’t capable of answering some of our most pressing questions. But perhaps the best we can do is to rebel, scoff at the fates and—like Sisyphus—keep rolling that stone


6 thoughts on “The Last Messiah”

  1. >But perhaps the best we can do is to rebel, scoff at the fates and—like Sisyphus—keep rolling that stone

    Does that argument have the momentum of te average boulder-enough to cross-over into the next generation? Imagine:

    Dad, what’s life about? Why are we here?

    Life isn’t about anything, son. Your mother and I had you for no reason and the only purpose you have is to be a sensation seeking animal. The dangers and struggles should fill your heart. And if you stick it out to the bitter end, why, your balls will surely be boulders of their own.


    Sick sick semper, peebers and champers
    Tempted to put, Bieber in Pampers


  2. I seriously doubt if the argument has sufficient momentum, and the Dad’s argument seems thin to me, somehow. David Benatar would say so too I think. Cioran too, but why are both their positions to me seemingly unsatisfactory (and I’m suspicious of snarling Cioran who lived to a ripe old age even with his useful platitude that suicide always happens too late). I appreciate your challenge. Maybe Sisyphus was an idiot to keep rolling the boulder, or perhaps there is an answer beyond both Sisyphus and Zapffe, or would Zapffe just pity me for my senseless quest?


  3. I am sorry for the prodigious prolixity of my comment, but your post really activated my almonds….

    I suppose we antinatalists are always side-eyed and sidelined due to the effrontery of our continued existence. And it’s true. You are entitled to question Cioran’s resolve (look at nietzche; do these aphoristic philosophers *stand* for anything? Yall niggas takin’ a knee up in here!), bbut I view it as more ‘meta’. Antinatalism is a fairly cynical philosophy (I mean, the only scope for “Hope” is that it will be adopted by others-emphasis on ‘adopt’!!!) and he was cynical about even that, in its implications. An ergonomic,acedic (i.e from acedia) minimalism of implicit, fractal cynicism.

    Besides, clearly, antinatalism has no argument *against* suicde, given opportunity and testicular fortitutde. But if you really believe that we should suicide, you are saying ‘antinatalism is a logical, coherent belief that logically exhorts (though does not require) suicide.’, Fine, that means extending access to helium canisters and/or barbituates. Even given the barbarities of current methods, suic-ideation didn’t get Mitchell Heisman, Virginia Woolf etc serious treatment (I.e academic consideration, not freudulent therapy). Our continued existence is a cop-out, but our suicide is a cop-out for society, which can pretend we (and our ideas) never existed.
    There are only two circumstances when you can gamble with another sentience’s welfare:1) it’s a sure winner (they have complete control over their environment such that frustration is impossible) 2) there is an easy, dignified method for them to fold their hand, cuz “the best you can hope for is to die in your sleep”.

    And now I am rambling, and I haven’t even got to your most interesting arguments-of ontology/teleology and its deontological applications.. “Maybe there is an answer beyond both Sisyphus and Zapffe”. If you wanna talk about transcendence, this existence (including, but not limited to, the hard problem of consciousness; it’s the old paradox of larger fuel tanks require more thrust to escape, which requires more rocket fuel, you savvy? “if our brains were simple enough to understand, we would be too simple to understand them”) is beyond our understanding. In what set of circumstances shall we feel ‘at home’? Chesterton (I am an atheist with no bigotries against-indeed extensive sympathies with-religious doctrine couched in mysticism (gnostics/Bogomils/theraputae)scholasticism (Platonic apologia) and ascetism (Desert Fathers, mortification)) said (I paraphrase) that it is truly a mark of Man’s divinity that he considers this world strange, yet he knows of no other. More worrisome, as an atheist, I have to impute the ‘problem of evil’ upon parents, not gods- and even the religious are culpable for eternal hell and suchlike-after all, procreators are co-creators. Transcendence is the indulgence of the austere, the refuge of the rigorous. It is a reason to abandon Reason.

    . In the final analysis, the religious would have us believe that this plane of existence is a test of our virtue, when it’s really a test of our intelligence. The sooner we SMOD (M for ‘Missile’) the f-uh, check out, the smarter we will have proved ourselves to be. The unborn won’t thank us, but they would if they knew

    Sick Sick Semper, Dichter und Denker
    Styx styx hammer, sperging like Sprenger


    1. I appreciate your response Schopenhauer Pauer Sick Sick Six – food for thought indeed (as to how Cioran could live to a ripe old age, further clarity on the antinatalist position – and the double cop out dilemma you refer to). The rocket fuel analogy is apt too … “beyond Zapffe” is to become even more entangled in the reindeer’s antlers.
      It’s overcast and cold this morning, a few tentative birds singing, and the sigh of the wind. My exhausted, heavy antlers rest on the ground. Thomas Merton is in the background of my thoughts, his words written from the monastic austerity and simplicity of the Abbey of Gethsemane – and christian mysticism helps with my antlers a little, though many would consider that a cop out too(which it might be, but who can blame a tired reindeer?)


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