Last Updated on 2023-09-17 by Joop Beris
I recently came across an article which discusses the philosophy of Herbert Marcuse, a German philosopher of the Frankfurt school. Marcuse is surprisingly still very relevant today. In his book The One-Dimensional Man, he argues that modern, industrialized, democratic nations are actually totalitarian in nature. What struck me was the link I saw to the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. I thought I should explore that link a little further, which resulted in the following article.
The Last Man
Alas! There comes the time when man will no longer launch the arrow of his longing beyond man – and the string of his bow will have unlearned to whizz! […] Alas! There comes the time when man will no longer give birth to any star. Alas! There comes the time of the most despicable man, who can no longer despise himself. Lo! I show you The Last Man.Also Sprach Zarathustra, Friedrich Nietzsche
This is how Nietzsche introduces the pathetic figure he calls “The Last Man”. A figure who is thoroughly mediocre in all aspects, who lacks any ambition or vigor for life. The Last Man wants comfort and conformity above all else while avoiding risk, confrontation and hardship. The Last Man works but only to pass the time, not to achieve anything or earn respect or success. Above all, a pastime shouldn’t hurt or bother someone. In short, The Last Man exists but doesn’t live, while being as “ineradicable as the ground-flea”. This pitiable existence is called “happiness” by The Last Man.
Nietzsche saw that nations in Europe, by the 1870’s, moved to a more egalitarian structure. A distinct decline of common noble values such as strength, individuality and the pursuit of excellence, gave way to make room for comfort, security and even nihilism. This worried him and part of his life’s work is dedicated to showing humanity a path away from The Last Man. He was convinced there was still time to turn the tide. But what on Earth could push people to such a lethargic state, devoid of meaning?
In Marcuse’s description of the one-dimensional man, I saw a trajectory that potentially gives rise to a figure like The Last Man. Let’s have a look at this figure postulated by Herbert Marcuse.
First of all, Marcuse argues that in modern societies, people are manipulated and controlled through various means, such as advertising, mass media and technology. They are constantly distracted so they don’t have time to question the world around them. Over time, they no longer see the bigger picture because they themselves have become part of this “machine”. They lose their critical thinking skills.
In this one-dimensional society, people become passive consumers, focusing on material things and instant gratification. They are content with superficial pleasure in the short run instead of seeking personal growth and reward for long term. Since they started to believe that their desires can be satisfied by buying things and pursuing financial gain, they no longer realize the oppressive, totalitarian nature of the social system they are part of. They actually end up reinforcing the system of consumerism by conforming to it.
The path to The Last Man
Though Herbert Marcuse passed away in 1979, I think he saw a lot of the dangers looming on the horizon, as did Nietzsche. While both philosophers had a distinctly different approach, there are also some interesting parallels. I think I can make a case that the path of the one-dimensional man can give rise to Nietzsche’s Last Man. I’ll give you a couple of reasons why I think his could be the case.
- Conformity and Mediocrity: Technology and consumerism can promote conformity by encouraging people to adopt the latest trends and products. This can lead to a homogenized culture where individuals prioritize fitting in and following popular norms over pursuing unique and meaningful goals.
- Instant Gratification: Modern technology often provides instant gratification and convenience, which can discourage individuals from pursuing more challenging or meaningful endeavors. This can contribute to a culture of immediate satisfaction without a deeper sense of purpose.
- Social Media and Attention Economy: Social media platforms and the attention economy can incentivize people to seek validation and approval from others through likes, shares, and comments. This can lead to a superficial focus on public image and the accumulation of virtual social capital rather than authentic self-expression or self-improvement.
- Disengagement from Reality: Excessive screen time and virtual interactions can disconnect individuals from the physical world and reduce their engagement with real-life experiences, relationships, and activities. This detachment can contribute to a sense of apathy and detachment from the world.
- Loss of Critical Thinking: Information overload and echo chambers on the internet can hinder critical thinking and encourage the consumption of information that aligns with pre-existing beliefs. This can lead to intellectual passivity and a lack of willingness to engage in constructive debates or consider alternative viewpoints.
There are arguments for the case that aspects of modern society are putting us on the trajectory towards The Last Man. Fortunately, Nietzsche also shows us a way out but that requires us to overcome not only the values and morals of our society but also and more importantly: ourselves. That is the path towards the Übermensch but we’ll leave that for another article.
In this article I attempt to make a connection between the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, particularly his concept of “The Last Man,” and Herbert Marcuse’s idea of the one-dimensional man. I suggest that current society creates the one-dimensional man, characterized by conformity, a need for instant gratification, social media use, disengagement from reality, and a loss of critical thinking, which could lead to the emergence of Nietzsche’s Last Man. If you have any thoughts about this, please feel free to add them below!