Nietzsche’s concept of the Übermensch (the “Overman” or “beyond human”) is widely known today. However, its antithesis, the Letzter Mensch (“Last Man”) is scarcely mentioned in both media and education, despite — or perhaps due to — its ever-increasing relevance to modern life.

This article is a paraphrased summary of the first sections of Nietzsche’s most famous work, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in which he introduces the concept of the Last Man. It was originally a short Twitter thread, but I thought it was worth archiving here, since it’s an important concept.


The Last Man

When the protagonist of Thus Spoke Zarathustra turns thirty years old, he retires from his home and ventures into the mountains, seeking enlightenment. Here, in isolation, he attains vast wisdom on life and the universe. A decade later, Zarathustra tires of his solitude and announces his departure to the morning sun.

“Great star, what would your happiness be, if not for those upon whom you shine? You have visited my cave for ten years, but you would have grown weary of your own light and of this journey, if not for me, my eagle, and my serpent. I am weary of my wisdom, like a bee that has gathered too much honey. I need hands outstretched to take it. I must descend to the depths, as you do at night when you disappear behind the ocean and bring light to the underworld.”

And so, Zarathustra retreats from the high peaks and begins his quest to enlighten humanity. On his descent, he encounters an old man in the forest.

“No stranger to me is this wanderer: Many years have passed by since you carried your ashes into the mountains. Will you now carry fire into the valleys? Do you not fear that it will be extinguished? Yes, I recognize you, Zarathustra: Pure and free of loathing, does he not go along like a dancer? Awakened Zarathustra, what will you do in the land of the sleepers?”

Zarathustra professes his love for mankind and explains that he is bringing humanity the gift of overflowing wisdom. The old man warns that humanity will not take kindly to Zarathustra’s teachings, that his words will be met with ridicule and hatred. Instead, the old man invites Zarathustra to live with him among the forest, where they can pray and sing hymns together. Zarathustra politely declines the old man’s offer and disregards his warnings, continuing on his journey unperturbed.

Eventually, Zarathustra strays across a small town, in which a large crowd has gathered, awaiting the performance of a tightrope walker. He takes this opportunity to impart some of his cosmic wisdom: The archetype of the Overman. Addressing the crowd, Zarathustra shouts:

“Behold: I teach you the Overman! Man is something that shall be overcome, what have you done to overcome him? All creatures hitherto have created something beyond themselves; do you want to be the ebb of this great tide and return to the animals? What is an ape to a man? A laughing-stock, a thing of shame, just as man shall be to the Overman.”

The crowd mistakes Zarathustra for the tightrope walker and lampoons his speech.

“We have heard enough of the rope-dancer, now let us see him!”

Upon hearing the crowd’s heckles, the real tightrope walker takes the stage, mistakenly believing that he was the object of their ire. Zarathustra continues his speech, using the tightrope walker’s performance as a metaphor.

“Man is a rope tied between beast and Overman, a rope over an abyss. A dangerous crossing, a dangerous wayfaring, a dangerous looking-back, a dangerous trembling, and a dangerous halting. What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end! […] I love all those who are like heavy drops falling one by one out of the dark cloud looming over humanity: They herald the coming of the lightning — Behold: I am a herald of the lightning and a heavy drop out of the cloud. The lightning, however, is the Overman.”

Once again, the crowd ridicules Zarathustra, laughing hysterically. Zarathustra questions his aspirational approach.

“There they stand… there they laugh. They do not understand me. I am not the mouth for these ears. Must one first batter their ears, that they may learn to hear with their eyes? Must one clatter like kettledrums and penitential preachers? Or do they only believe the stammerer? They have something of which they are proud… What do they call it? Culture: That which distinguishes them from the goat herders. They dislike, therefore, to hear ‘contempt’ of themselves. So, I will appeal to their pride. I will speak to them of the most contemptible thing: The Last Man.”

Zarathustra instead preaches a warning of their potential future: He explains that Western Culture is being decayed by a deep societal rot, spawned by poisonous values.

“It is time for man to plant the seed of his highest hope. His soil is still rich enough for it — but that soil will one day be poor and exhausted. There comes a time when no lofty trees shall grow, when no man will launch the arrow of his longing beyond himself. You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star. And I tell you: This chaos is still within you — but the time is coming when you will birth no more stars… Behold: I will show you the Last Man.”

Zarathustra explains that the Last Man is the final destination of their declining civilization: He is risk-averse, pacifistic, egalitarian, un-thinking, un-dreaming, concerned only with immediate base pleasures, comfort, and consumption. The Last Man is humanity leveled: There is no difference between ruler and ruled, strong or weak, beautiful and ugly. There is no more creativity, individuality, aspiration. No self-overcoming, no glory, no striving. The Last Man creates a “utopia” by dragging the entire world into the miserable gutter alongside himself. He represents the event horizon from which man cannot return.

“No shepherd but one herd… Everybody is equal: He who believes otherwise goes voluntarily into the madhouse. ‘Formerly, all of the world was insane,’ they say, ‘but we have discovered happiness.'”

The crowd erupts in raucous laughter, interrupting Zarathustra’s tale:

“Make us into these last men! You can keep the Overman!”

Zarathustra, disheartened, recalls the words of the old man of the forest.

“They do not understand me. I am not the mouth for these ears. Too long, perhaps, I have lived in the mountains; too much I have hearkened unto the brooks and the trees… My soul is calm and clear, like the mountains in the morning. Yet, they think of me as a cold mocker with terrible jests. And now they look at me and laugh, with ice and hatred in their voices.”


Fin

The prologue goes on to explain how Zarathustra deals with his rejection by the Last Men, and I recommend reading the entire section. The full book may be a little confusing for someone who is unfamiliar with Nietzsche’s other works, but the prologue is a nice read either way. If you are unfamiliar with Nietzsche, the best introductions to his work are Twilight of the Idols, Beyond Good and Evil, or the Genealogy of Morality.