Nietzsche and the omnipresent urge for self-optimisation

4 min read

Nietzsche is probably the philosopher with the most references in pop culture. On social media, you can find mostly highly abbreviated and often misattributed quotes from him. These usually have a strong motivational character, are easy to digest and can be interpreted immediately by the reader without prior knowledge. One could also say they are highly relatable, but this is usually only because every reader can immediately see himself reflected in the quotation. So there is not one interpretation of what is written, but much more likely countless misinterpretations of it.

What I'm really getting at, though, is that the drastic nature of Nietzsche's quotes is completely lost in our bubble of affluence. "What does not kill me makes me stronger," Nietzsche writes, and readers involuntarily agree (unless, of course, one immediately ponders extreme examples such as deliberately induced self-mutilation or the like).

But does Nietzsche really mean by this the much-invoked resilience? The defence mechanism of the accelerated century in which we live? I don't think so, because Nietzsche refers predominantly to active processes of will formation and not to stoic regurgitation of life's wisdoms. When he writes: "For believe me! – the secret for harvesting from existence the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment is: to live dangerously!", he really means it practically. It does not help to imagine dangers and adventures in one's head, one has to experience them in one's own body in order to actually draw something from them.

But that is anything but comfortable. The masses, on the other hand, want self-optimisation without effort - and certainly without danger to body and soul. You can look at this directly as an analogous development: to the extent that self-optimisation slogans on Instagram enjoy general popularity (what a subtle insult!) and self-help gurus push onto the market with their books, it is precisely to that extent that the "Verwüstung" (literally translated: becoming a desert) of the human being takes place. "The desert grows: woe to him who harbours desert...", writes Nietzsche himself, referring to the withering away of vital forces to the point of diagnosing the "last" human being, who already no longer recognises himself as a human being, but has instead internalised his own devolution. Nietzsches continues: 'We invented happiness', the last humans say and blink." After all, they are obviously betraying themselves, only the problem here is to be found precisely in the listener himself. The listener is looking for clumsy answers and lets the blinking pass as a child's prank.

So instead of fantasising about the superman, we should rather see at least if we take Nietzsche seriously that we first distance ourselves from the "last man". Of course, one can also strive for exactly the opposite and put forward arguments for it. Meme culture, after all, already depicts this under the motto "return to monkey", thus calling for precisely the counter-model of Nietzsche's heroic design of man: we have ultimately failed; we could neither overcome intercultural differences, nor end religious wars, nor stop climate change.

So when Nietzsche writes: "Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the Superman – a rope over an abyss. A dangerous crossing, a dangerous wayfaring, a dangerous looking-back, a dangerous trembling and halting. What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal: what is lovable in man is that he is an OVER-GOING and a DOWN-GOING", then precisely that dangerous looking back, the longing for the last man, for a simple life, for a life optimised for the most useful, is not pure hedonism, but nevertheless life as the "last man" as a transition back to the animal. After all, one could say that this could justify the theory of the eternal return of the same, at least as an evolutionary cycle, but that is just a side note

So I also conclude these reflections with a contentless but motivating aphorism: Today, society is riding the exciting wave of progress and apparent improvement. If we want to find something better in ourselves, we just have to look for it and develop it. This is what Nietzsche meant by his famous slogan "Become who you are".

Incidentally, the last three sentences were thrown out by an AI I asked about "Nietzsche and self-optimisation". This is just one of many current examples of what awaits us when the machine has overtaken us. We could still learn to keep up, but to do so we would have to switch our stomachs back to heavy reading fare. Away from the self-help books and towards the classics.

So who are you? And what do you want to be? A homo vulgaris or even a last man? That is still up to you, and we have also tried to capture this question humorously with our latest design (see below). What is certain, however, is that you and I are not superhumans. We couldn't be further from that thought alone. That's not even my opinion, because I fully share Nietzsche's cultural pessimism.

You have no idea what I'm actually writing here, but are looking for serious books? You still have cognitive resources to read? Congratulations! Not everyone has that for a long time! Well, first read Nietzsche's "Thus Spoke Zarathustra". My tip: even if you don't understand much, just keep reading. Don't get stuck on individual sentences. That's the way it is with many books that contain more than just platitudes, which have little or no application in real life anyway.

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