A Yes, a No, a Straight Line, a Goal
WHAT A STRANGE URGE, THIS HUMAN NEED FOR PURPOSE. Other animals lack it completely, while humans are driven mad by meaning. Nietzsche says little about how this need might have arisen in human prehistory, but he does speculate that religious leaders and philosophers who taught a larger meaning for our lives eventually kindled the concept within the broader human family. Now we can’t put their fire out.
“Human nature has on the whole been changed by the ever new appearance of those teachers of the design of existence,” Nietzsche writes in the very first section of The Gay Science, a book about how to live joyfully in the absence of metaphysical meaning. “Man has gradually become a visionary animal, who has to fulfil one more condition of existence than the other animals: man must from time to time believe that he knows why he exists.”
A key feature of Nietzsche’s project was finding a way to live in a world where divine purpose has been obliterated. We might assume that Nietzsche would try to clear the lingering underbrush of meaning that he found hiding everywhere—and that this project would end with him articulating a “post-purpose” way to live. But that’s not what happens.
Nietzsche, all too human like the rest of us, craves meaning, even if he must provide it for himself. Perhaps because his lifelong illness deprived him of so many common pleasures—sleep, sex, food, the simple feeling of robust good health—Nietzsche could not content himself with hedonism. If life’s meaning was pleasure, it remained out of reach; indeed, a life of mere ease becomes the hallmark of the “last man.”
Nietzsche needed a goal, and he attributed some of his own sickness to the lack of direction he felt after he resigned his post at Basel. Ill and jobless, his search for meaning took on a passion and intensity seen most often in the religious life that he disdained. What he needed most, he realized, was not an end to suffering; he needed a journey and a destination.
“We thirsted for lightning and action, of all things we kept ourselves furthest from the happiness of the weaklings, from ‘resignation,’ ” he writes of himself at this time. “There was a thunderstorm in our air, the nature which we are grew dark—for we had no road. Formula of our happiness: a Yes, a No, a straight line, a goal.”
The message here, expressed with all the drama of a teenager’s diary entry, might sound banal: meaning matters. But Nietzsche never claimed that his call to live a goal-oriented life was novel—only that we so easily lose sight of what matters.
As he wrote in Human, All Too Human, a book he later called his monument to crisis:
In a journey, we commonly forget its goal. Almost every vocation is chosen and entered upon as means to an end, but is continued as the ultimate end. Forgetting our purpose is the most frequent form of folly.
Nietzsche’s own experience as a prodigy, pushed into a career suited to his talents but not his deepest needs, made him keenly aware of how lesser goals impress themselves upon us. We may absorb them from our community without conscious reflection, even when they run against the grain of our deeper desires.
This is why a discussion about the role technology plays in our lives cannot begin with questions about screen time, too much “blue light” before bed, or how many text messages we send or receive daily. We start instead at the level of our fundamental life goals—and decide if they have been too influenced by the post–Industrial Revolution emphasis on safety, ease, control, leisure, abundance, connection, and health.
For Nietzsche, we have been so influenced, and the effects are both pernicious and invisible. We never filled out a card asking us if we wanted to watch 5 hours of video content a day; it just sort of . . . happened. And it felt good. We became the “last man” without any single decision to do so.
For Nietzsche, ranking comfort too highly can dampen our desire to strive, to risk, and to create, these more difficult goals that matter to living a fully orbed human life. The safety, the ease, the astonishing control we have over everything from our temperature to our TV programming, the leisure time that has become its own kind of performance, the information abundance, our global and instantaneous connections, and our long-lived healthiness—these should all be means, not ends.
This does not mean that Nietzsche values every kind of hard work or the striving that becomes mere workaholism or wealth-gathering. Nietzsche disliked work that saps the human spirit, that offers no creativity and no scope for skill, that offers us only the “small goals,” the easy life. This kind of work can numb the individual spirit. As Nietzsche writes in Daybreak:
For at the sight of work—that is to say, severe toil from morning till night—we have the feeling that it is the best police—that it holds every one in check and effectively hinders the development of reason, of greed, and of desire for independence. For work uses up an extraordinary proportion of nervous force, withdrawing it from reflection, meditation, dreams, cares, love, and hatred; it dangles unimportant aims before the eyes of the worker and affords easy and regular gratification.
Thus it happens that a society where work is continually being performed will enjoy greater security, and it is security that is now venerated as the supreme deity.
Such work leads only to exhaustion. As Stanford professor Robert McGinn puts it in an essay on Nietzsche’s technological views, “Leisure in the age of work is not a time of life-affirming creativity and renewal but one of ‘letting go’ and of crude stretching out ‘as long and wide and ungainly as one happens to be.’ ”
In our day, technology plays a key role in both workaholism and hedonism. Through email, texting, cell phones, and the Internet, we can work from anywhere at any time. The recent global pandemic showed many knowledge workers the freedom that can come from working at home, but it also reminded us of the burnout that arises from being always available for yet another videoconference. At the same time, every moment of downtime now has us reaching for our phones or our television remotes. Screens are how we work and how we relax.
This technological ubiquity explains why our digital tools so easily trigger those internal warnings that something is wrong. Existential crisis can provoke change, but we can’t hear the alarm if we constantly dampen the drumbeat of dissatisfaction.
As Nietzsche’s own case reminds us, the experience of “waking up” from your own life to realize that you aren’t living it as you want is a common one. No text messaging addiction or “lost weekends” of Netflix bingeing are required to keep us from thinking too hard about our situation—but they certainly work, because our technologies provide endless stimulation. And we crave that stimulation above all else.
Humans have long sought to be, in T.S. Eliot’s well-known phrase, “distracted from distraction by distraction / Filled with fancies and empty of meaning.” But our need to feel anything is now nearly pathological. We long for distraction so much that we would rather feel shocks over silence.
In a 2014 study, researchers from Harvard and the University of Virginia teamed up for an experiment in which participants experienced several stimuli, from pretty pictures to an electric shock. They were then asked how much money they would pay to have or to avoid that experience again. Those who said they would pay money to avoid being shocked more were placed in an unadorned room and left alone for 15 minutes. They were told to “entertain themselves with their thoughts.” If they wanted to do so, they were told, they could also zap themselves with an electric current; all it took was a button press. According to the study, “67 percent of men (12 of 18) gave themselves at least one shock during the thinking period,” though there was one outlier who “administered 190 shocks to himself.” Among women, 25 percent pressed the shock button.
The authors concluded: “What is striking is that simply being alone with their own thoughts for 15 min[utes] was apparently so aversive that it drove many participants to self-administer an electric shock that they had earlier said they would pay to avoid.”
To reflect wisely on our lives instead of just soaking up the values of a tech-driven society, we must reduce this need for stimulation. If we can find the time and space to reflect on the purpose and meaning of our lives, we can better control technology so that it will serve our goals rather than reinforce our frenzy.
But what exactly is a “Nietzschean” goal?
Truths That Cut into Our Flesh Like Knives
Nietzsche has nothing to say to the efficiency-minded self-help crowd; he has few practical ideas for ordering a day or a season or a year. This is just as well, given Nietzsche’s eccentricities; such tips from him would largely boil down to musings about avoiding electrical storms, finding a dry Italian climate that isn’t too cold in the winter, and dosing oneself with sleeping draughts and stimulants.
Nietzsche does like to talk about goals, though, and when he does so, he is talking about the most basic use of our vital energies. A well-lived life embraces unceasing creative struggle and acknowledges human limitation but still strives for excellence.
In a passage from one of his notebooks, published after his death, Nietzsche writes eloquently about this need for goals:
If the “why” of one’s life is clear, then the “how” will take care of itself. It is already a sign of doubt in the “why,” in the purpose and meaning of life, indeed, a sign of a lack of will, when the value of pleasure and pain come to the fore, when hedonistic and pessimistic teachings find a sympathetic ear. Renunciation, resignation, virtue, “objectivity”: these may be signs that the absence of the most important factor, the ability to set goals for oneself, is already beginning to be felt.
Here are five questions that help us think through what Nietzsche meant.
IS MY GOAL POSITIVE?
Nietzsche did not believe that negative goals—don’t do this, tear down that—were ultimate. He suspected that negative goals were too limited to be of much real good, so he demanded “positive” activity, a vision that calls us forward into a new reality.
“At bottom, I find those moral codes distasteful which say: ‘Do not do this! Renounce! Overcome yourself!’ ” he writes in The Gay Science. So far, so expected. But then comes this riff from the great “immoralist”:
On the other hand, I am in favor of those moral codes which urge me to do something again and again, from morning till evening, to dream of it at night, to think of nothing but: do this well, do this as only I can, and to the best of my ability.
In Zarathustra, writing in his faux-prophetic style, Nietzsche makes the same point about morality requiring positive, not negative, feelings. “Ever since there have been human beings, they have enjoyed themselves too little,” says Zarathustra. “That alone, my brothers, is our original sin! And if we learn to enjoy ourselves better, so do we best unlearn our hurting of others and our planning hurts for them.”
Nietzsche isn’t amoral—he simply believes that negative morality is, in a word, too easy. We need something that calls for our striving, not just our renunciation.
This attitude agrees with Nietzsche’s more general conception of “the will to power.” Even if you know nothing of Nietzsche, you have heard the phrase. It sounds like a totalitarian motto—and Nietzsche has been smeared as a proto-Nazi because of it. But Nietzsche is the great prophet of the individual, and what he has in mind with the “will to power” is not crude domination over others but the ascending vitality of life itself. The “will to power” is the evolutionary pressure to exert ourselves in the world, to leave a mark, to create and to reproduce.
Every creature, Nietzsche argues, “instinctively strives for an optimum of favorable conditions under which it can expend all its strength and achieve its maximal feeling of power; every animal abhors . . . every kind of intrusion or hindrance that obstructs or could obstruct this path to the optimum.” This “optimum” need not involve “pleasure”; in fact, Nietzsche claims that pursuit of the optimum often leads to unhappiness. The optimum is about the “path to power, to action, to the most powerful activity.”
This need to take positive action is more primal than pleasure. It is more primal than survival. That is because humans do not aim directly at life or at pleasure but “at the extension of power,” even though this “often enough calls in question self-preservation and sacrifices it.” This is precisely “the will to power, which is just the will to live.”
This will to power is neither good nor evil. (Remember that Nietzsche is the author of a book called Beyond Good and Evil; he wants to show how ideas work in the world, before we apply value labels.) Nietzsche’s excavations of human behavior are provocative and often fascinating, such as when he shows how the “will to power” might explain even the “powerless” phenomenon of asceticism; here the feeling of power is directed inward, with the goal of self-mastery or self-mortification. While our need to feel power might explain the pleasure human societies have taken in public executions, it also drives the skilled trades, the arts, and our inventors.
In his book The World Beyond Your Head, Matthew Crawford explores the link between this “will to power” and human skill. “Friedrich Nietzsche said that joy is the feeling of one’s power increasing,” Crawford writes.
It captures something important about the role that skill plays in a good life. When we become competent in some skilled action, the very elements of the world that were initially sources of frustration become elements of a self that has expanded, by analogy with the way a toddler expands into his own body and comes to inhabit it comfortably. And this feels good.
We can turn the “will to power” this way and that, inward and outward, toward cruelty or creativity, but we cannot turn it off. Turning it off is to embrace death. If we do, we will give in to the nihilism that ultimately leads to despair. Built for positive action, we must create positive goals.
IS MY GOAL CREATIVE?
Truly meaningful action in the world is, in Nietzsche’s view, creative action—and he grounds this assertion in biology.
Evolutionary thought dominated Nietzsche’s time. Though he disagreed with Darwin on certain fundamental interpretations of the evolutionary process, Nietzsche saw in evolution a powerful explanation for human behavior. And if life evolved through struggle, growing ever more prodigally diverse as the millennia ticked on, then creative struggle becomes not just a matter of “artistic temperament” but a bedrock principle of existence.
Does technology help or hinder such goals? Given that science and technology have radically remade the post-Enlightenment world, this is no idle question. Looking around at German and English society, in particular, Nietzsche had to concede that his age was one of creative mechanical invention. He is clear in Human, All Too Human that technology is “a product of the highest intellectual energies” and that it “releases a vast quantity of energy in general that would otherwise lie dormant.”
Machines can free us from drudgery, but these unlocked energies are always at risk of waste. When they don’t encourage human creativity, machines re-create humanity in their own image: active but uncreative, powerful but identical. Humans, and our work, become commodities.
Nietzsche already saw this happening around him, through factory work in particular. Too many of the “energies” unleashed by industrial machines are “the lower, unthinking forces” of our natures. Such work “does not communicate the impulse to climb higher, to improve, to become artistic. It creates activity and monotony, but this in the long-run produces a counter-effect, a despairing ennui of the soul, which through machinery has learnt to hanker after the variety of leisure.”
Nietzsche loved hard work but hated the cult of productivity. His critique of idleness here is not a call to work more; it is a call for creative labor and renewing rest. In the lifestyles of factory workers he saw long and boring work, which then turned leisure hours into a quest for simple relaxation or stimulation.
A leisure-work paradigm like this is not going to produce the übermensch. Nietzsche worries that “the proliferation of intriguing technological innovations will enhance the esteem of the merely novel while distracting attention from and diminishing respect for the truly creative,” McGinn writes. “Neither of these cultural changes will contribute to the enhancement of human development.” Thus we have the irony of humanity’s creations sapping humanity of creativity, turning us into the “last man.”
This doesn’t have to happen, though. Technology is an outcome of the “will to power,” and it distills human desire for skill, mastery, and invention into mechanical or digital form. Like the will to power, it is neither good nor bad.
We may use our technological tools to live more creatively. I look back with fondness at the many childhood hours I spent coding primitive computer games on an Atari 600XL. Simple as the final product was, the problem-solving, the logic, the memorization required to master a programming language mesmerized me. I was at once both a technology user (of the computer and the BASIC programming language) and a technology creator (my new piece of computer code, complete with inelegant subroutines and 8-bit graphics). And when the program ran successfully for the first time, I didn’t care to play it; I wanted immediately to improve it. This was technology experienced as a spur to creation and invention.
Nietzsche himself deeply loved the piano, which he played with real Sturm und Drang energy. Though we take it for granted, the modern piano is a complex invention stuffed with strings, pedals, hammers, and keys; it relies on tempered tuning systems developed over centuries and can, unlike the harpsichord, vary its volume dramatically. Building one requires wood- and metalworking skill, maintaining one requires regular tuning, and playing one demands two-handed mastery of complex polyphonic tones. It is a device only possible to build after the development of numerous underlying craft techniques and musical theorizing, and it is relatively new in human history. Nietzsche found great joy both in composing and playing on the instrument, and it was one of the important ways that he wove music into his life.
Because technology can empower so many human ends, from war to industrial production to science to art, Nietzsche was ultimately conflicted about it. “The development and use of certain technologies offer opportunities for strengthening the active, creative side of human nature, something vital to Nietzsche’s ideal of human life,” McGinn notes.
On the other hand, many technologies, especially in modern society, have effects which engender or reinforce inertial behavior in their users. Thus Nietzsche deplored the fact that factory work dissipated much of the energy of workers, some of which might, perhaps with the aid of other technologies, be liberated and utilized for creative ends.
The question for us to ask is whether the goals we set ourselves are both positive and creative—and if so, whether our technology usage patterns help us get there.
DOES MY GOAL MATTER?
It is not difficult to imagine a life spent in service of something positive, creative, but utterly trivial. (My conversations with former digital advertising execs suggest that the industry is rife with examples.) Nietzsche promotes goals that matter, and he sets the bar high for what this means. Ease and security are not enough. They may be adjuncts to various goals, but the goals themselves are things that we must seek or die in attempting. (So, not digital advertising campaigns.)
Here’s how Nietzsche talks about truths that matter in Daybreak:
We all live, comparatively speaking, in far too great security for us ever to acquire a sound knowledge of man: one person studies him from a desire to do so, another from boredom, a third from habit: it is never a case of: “study or perish!” As long as truths do not cut into our flesh with knives, we retain a secret contempt for them.
Isn’t this a bit . . . dramatic? Certainly. But Nietzsche’s own life goal was the discovery and creation of meaning in a world where metaphysical ideas about God and “purpose” had broken down. The result of this collapse, Nietzsche worried as he looked around the wreckage of his own life, was nihilism. (Note: Whenever you come across one of the many references to Nietzsche as a “nihilist,” you know that the author has no idea what he or she is talking about.) Humans require purpose. This was a truth that cut into Nietzsche’s own flesh like a blade; the pain of it was intolerable. In those passages where Nietzsche believes he has solved the problem of purpose, you can feel the joy radiating from the page. It was a drama that he lived.
Without taking time to face such questions about their goals, the “active” members of society may never find deserving targets for their vital energies. Instead, they get caught up in society’s goals, which do not necessarily mean anything.
“It is the misfortune of active men that their activity is almost always a bit irrational,” Nietzsche writes. “For example, one must not inquire of the money-gathering banker what the purpose for his restless activity is: it is irrational. Active people roll like a stone, conforming to the stupidity of mechanics.”
He goes on:
For lack of rest, our civilization is turning into a new barbarism. At no period have the active, that is, the restless, been of more importance. One of the necessary corrections, therefore, which must be undertaken in the character of humanity is to strengthen the contemplative element on a large scale.
This “contemplative element” may conjure up silent retreat weekends in a Catskills ashram, eating too much tempeh and meditating on The Meaning of Life. For some, this is indeed creative, renewing bliss. For others, it’s a recipe for dull earnestness.
And yet, so convinced of his own meaningful work that he could write an autobiographical chapter called “Why I Am a Destiny,” Nietzsche does not equate “meaning” with “seriousness.” He is not one of those world-changing visionaries who can never tell a joke. For Nietzsche, the person acting out a meaningful goal should have light feet, become a dancer, learn to defy gravity, and, most of all—learn to feel better joys.
IS MY GOAL EXCELLENCE?
Stay with me here: The idea that you should aim for “excellence” may not come across as life-altering advice from the mind of our mustachioed German. My mother, for instance, who never read a word of Nietzsche, repeatedly told me that “anything worth doing is worth doing well.” This applied especially to our gargantuan garden, where I spent many hours as a kid sitting on an overturned bucket and wondering just how badly I could weed the carrots and not be sent back to do it again.
But Nietzsche’s concern with excellence takes a somewhat different form. It is not quite “anything worth doing is worth doing well”; it is more like “a person living well does not settle for ease alone but struggles with the world in the pursuit of excellence.”
This is one reason Nietzsche hates cultural conformity. To him, it looks like a straitjacket that keeps people from embracing their own unique excellences. That attitude explains blistering quotes like this one, from Twilight of the Idols:
The man who has become free—and how much more the mind that is become free—spurns the contemptible sort of well-being dreamed of by shopkeepers, Christians, cows, women, Englishmen and other democrats. The free man is a warrior.
Nietzsche’s list of targets here is eclectic and objectionable, but his point is simple: Conformity, tradition, safety, and ease are “herd” virtues that can constrain the free spirit. That spirit is here described as a warrior, not because Nietzsche enjoyed war but because he admired the attitude of the ancient Greeks, who saw life as a constant struggle (agon) in the pursuit of excellence (arete).
It’s hard to convey how much this child of the nineteenth century saw his world through the lens of ancient Greece. It was, frankly, a little weird; Basel, Naumburg, and Schulpforta had about as much in common with Periclean Athens as I have with a naked mole rat.
Nietzsche marinated himself in a worldview that valued struggle above everything. To struggle—and to come out on top—was the mark of a winner. Those who avoid the agon are members of the “herd.” They have given up on excellence as a cardinal virtue in life, and they have traded it for ease. Humans need instead to become adventurers, even warriors.
“Nietzsche did not intend to prescribe warfare, or even individual combat, as the ‘healthiest’ human activity,” writes Princeton professor Paul Zweig. “He meant to offer combat as a model for the more complex activities of culture. . . . He meant to propose an agonistic vision of culture, and of life itself.”
This sheds more light on a quote from Zarathustra:
To modestly embrace a small happiness—that they call “resignation” and already they are squinting around modestly for a new small happiness. At bottom these simple ones want one simple thing: that no one harm them. . . . You are becoming smaller and smaller, you small people! You are crumbling, you contented ones! You will yet perish—of your many small virtues, of your many small abstentions, of your many small resignations! Too sparing, too yielding—that is your soil! But in order for a tree to grow tall, it needs to put down hard roots amid hard rock!
For Nietzsche, struggle is not incidental to excellence; it is absolutely necessary for it. This explains why his contempt for “ease” is tied to the idea of becoming great.
DOES MY GOAL OVERCOME ITSELF?
Continual struggle carries a final implication for Nietzschean goals—they are never static. Nietzsche, the great philosopher of flux and “becoming,” does not endorse a fixed version of excellence, a moment when one “arrives.” There are always mountains beyond mountains.
In Nietzschean terms, this is a continual overcoming. We see this clearly in art, where mastering a particular style is often the very moment at which an artist attempts something new. Nietzsche wants nothing to do with the static excellence of the painter who masters pictures of cozy winter chalets and spends the next 40 years churning out more for tourists. Instead, Nietzsche encourages a restless human urge to push through boundaries, to pause only long enough to gather energy for the next expedition. As Zarathustra puts it:
And this secret life itself spoke to me: “Behold,” it said, “I am that which must always overcome itself. . . . Whatever I may create and however I may love it—soon I must oppose it and my love, thus my will wants it.”
Excellence, for Nietzsche, always pushes further.
The Slopes of Vesuvius
This more adventurous and creative approach to life has a downside: danger.
Modern technology has given us such increased control—over travel, disease, temperature, the height of our grass, when we watch TV shows, who we encounter, how we arrange words—that we expect it. And modern regulatory states incrementally reduce risk, patching up aircraft vulnerabilities after every crash and issuing detailed guidelines about the distance between crib slats.
Lower risk and greater control intoxicate us. Together, they breed cultures of safety, where setbacks look more like failures of planning than unavoidable consequences of risking ourselves to an uncontrollable world. The recent global pandemic has reminded us all just how deeply such a feeling of safety runs in many parts of the world—especially when it comes to contagious disease. Thankfully, technology saved millions of lives by enabling remote work, videoconferencing, genetic sequencing, and vaccine development, but there were months in which the ephemeral nature of human life was brought home anew even to the powerful.
Safety through technology is no bad thing—Nietzsche himself sought doctors and medicines throughout his life—but it can become pathological. It too easily convinces us that such safety is an ultimate condition. Soon enough, relinquishing control so that we might take on risky ventures feels foolish or even impossible. Simply leaving our homes can become a challenge.
One does not have to read far in the literature on technology to find this point made in stark terms. Two recent examples could stand in for many more.
San Diego State University professor Jean Twenge has spent years researching young people’s technology habits. She calls those coming of age over the past decade “iGen,” because they grew up with digital tools such as the iPhone, and she has collected huge amounts of data on them. Her conclusion is clear:
The strongest legacy of iGen’ers’ involvement in the online world may be their increased physical safety. They are spending more time on their phones and computers and less time driving and seeing their friends in person, and as a result their physical safety has reached unprecedented levels. They are less willing to take chances, and their definition of safety has expanded to include their emotions as well as their bodies. The more they use words to communicate, the less they put their bodies at risk and the more they put their emotions at risk.
Sherry Turkle, the MIT researcher, has reached similar conclusions. Rather than take risks in the broader world, digital technology in particular has taught us to stay immobile, using our words and images to reach out through screens. Turkle writes movingly of ways in which teenagers and college students remain “tethered” to parents through near-constant texting and phone calls, which can make it harder to take the small daily risks that teach independence.
Our networked life allows us to hide from each other, even as we are tethered to each other. We’d rather text than talk. . . . Today, our machine dream is to be never alone but always in control. This can’t happen when one is face-to-face with a person.
These are hardly attitudes that encourage wild risk-taking. As a parent myself, I’m okay with this, but such attitudes can also discourage reasonable and necessary risk-taking.
Nietzsche saw this worship of safety in much of the middle- and upper-class life of Europe, and he assailed it. He does not go as far as Jesus, who said that one must lose one’s life in order to truly find it, but Nietzsche does think we must be willing to do so. In The Gay Science, published a few years after his decision to resign the only real job he would ever hold, he reflects on what he has learned:
For—believe me—the secret for harvesting from existence the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment is—to live dangerously! Build your cities on the slopes of Vesuvius! Send your ships into uncharted seas! Live at war with your peers and yourselves! Be robbers and conquerors as long as you cannot be rulers and possessors, you seekers of knowledge! Soon the time will be past in which you had to be content living hidden in forests like shy deer!
Given the uses to which Nietzsche has been put in the past, one cannot say too many times that this is not a call to become a thug, an invader, or a Jerky McJerkface. The “war” is directed at oneself; the robbing and conquering is addressed to “seekers of knowledge.” It is a call to freedom and fearlessness, not to petty larceny.
Such action is risky. We may anger others. We may fail ourselves. We might even lose our lives. But a risky death may be preferable to a drawn-out life, as Nietzsche says in Daybreak:
And if you must perish, then do so immediately and suddenly; for in that case you will perhaps leave proud ruins behind you! and not, as is now to be feared, merely molehills, covered with grass and weeds.
Nietzsche’s basic premise: Failure is an option. It is the necessary correlate of living the kind of life worth living, of having the kind of goal worth having.
For those raised in the religion of success, accepting this possible outcome can be difficult. Success appears as a matter of life and death. It is serious. But Nietzsche argues that the creative, meaningful, and successful life is ultimately a kind of game. In this vision, failure offers the chance to laugh, to reset the pieces, and to play another round.
Shy, ashamed, awkward, like the tiger whose spring has failed—thus, you higher men, have I often seen you slink aside. A cast which you made had failed. But what does it matter, you dice-players! You had not learned to play and joke as one must play and joke! Do we not ever sit at a great table of joking and playing? And if great things have been a failure with you, have you yourselves therefore—been a failure? . . . Be of good cheer; what does it matter? How much is still possible! Learn to laugh at yourselves, as you ought to laugh!
We have heard this theme before, in another key. Though safety, comfort, and ease are not bad things, they can keep us from the striving that Nietzsche prefers.
He who has always much indulged himself sickens at last by his over-indulgence. Praises on what makes hardy! I do not praise the land where butter and honey flow! To learn to look away from oneself is necessary in order to see many things:—this hardiness is needed by every mountain climber.
Or, to put it another way, the “last man” is not much of an adventurer.
For Nietzsche, adventure must be a lifestyle, not a weekend activity. We cannot actually know the world, nor can we know the passions that animate our own lives, by simply sitting and thinking. We cannot look inward, like Descartes, and find ground truth through mental activity alone. We gain the deep wisdom of life only through experience. As Paul Zweig puts it in a passage on Nietzsche and adventure:
Repeatedly [Nietzsche] insists that “knowledge” cannot be obtained through Cartesian detachment. The philosopher who shuts out all of his senses and meditates in the darkness of his intellect may discover that he thinks and therefore is. . . . But how much closer will he then be to understanding the drives of nature, and of human nature?
Consider for a moment Nietzsche’s style. For a philosopher, his writing is hyperbolic, colorful, and action-oriented—almost as though it comes from a comic book or an adventure novel. This can come across as juvenile. But the point of it seems to be that Nietzsche wants to enact through prose what his pen preaches.
“In order to make this point,” Zweig says, “Nietzsche was not content simply to argue, although he does so often and well.” Instead, “he created a stylistic medium, using the language of epic and high adventure, which the novel had relegated to the badlands of popular literature, in order to dramatize the agonistic quality of knowledge, his view that intelligence without courage or willpower was not attuned to the energies of life, and therefore could make only pale discoveries.”
If anything about this conception of life sounds right, then it may be time to take a personal inventory. Which of our devices and practices enable a life that experiences the world in ways and places not always engineered for our comfort? Which bits of technology do we need to strip away in order to risk ourselves in ways that can help us to grow?
A Vision for Everyone?
All this “eye of the tiger” stuff about grabbing life by the horns, launching from the couch to become an adventurer—it has a dark side. And we need to face up to it before deciding if we can proceed.
Nietzsche likes to look down on people. For a middle-class kid from a pastor’s family in an unremarkable German town, our philosopher imbibed a shocking level of aristocratic sentiment. You may have glimpsed it in his earlier dismissal of “women” and “democrats” and “shopkeepers” and “Christians” (and, um, the English).
In an aristocratic society, orders of rank exist everywhere, especially in human relations. Those higher on the scale of social value look down on their inferiors. For Nietzsche, this is no bad thing, and it is one reason why his metaphors so often involve altitude: living on the heights, dancing in the mountains, leaping from glacier to glacier.
For Nietzsche, looking down on people can teach us to feel a sensation of “distance” within our own souls—the gap between “us” and “them.” After identifying this sensation, we may want to increase it by boosting our own “height.” This process of recognizing hierarchies and leaping toward the top of them can create a certain kind of genius; that is, it can set people on the striving and struggling path to becoming the übermensch. (This is explicitly stated in section 257 of Beyond Good and Evil.)
Nietzsche’s ethics and politics are aristocratic rather than democratic because he believes that equality works as a leveling principle on human society. Nietzsche, arch-individualist, sees the cultivation of exceptional human specimens as more important than anything that might happen to the general “herd” of humanity.
Their song of “equal rights,” “free society,” “no longer either lords or slaves,” does not allure us! We do not by any means think it desirable that the kingdom of righteousness and peace should be established on earth (because under any circumstances it would be the kingdom of the profoundest mediocrity . . . ); we rejoice in all men, who, like ourselves, love danger, war, and adventure, who do not make compromises, nor let themselves be captured, conciliated, and stunted; we count ourselves among the conquerors.
If you think this sounds like a quote from the Jerkwad Manifesto, you’re not alone. Nietzsche does admit that not hurting and exploiting one another “may in a certain rough sense become good manners between individuals if the conditions for it are present (namely if their strength and value standards are in fact similar).” But to make even something so apparently unobjectionable into a basic social principle such as the Golden Rule is, in his view, to make your will equal to another’s. For Nietzsche, giving up one’s individual will is a great sin. It amounts to “the will to the denial of life, as the principle of dissolution and decay.”
These ideas about value, power, and will permeate Nietzsche’s work. They form the basis of his “master” and “slave” moralities, in which the powerful take affirmative actions and declare them good—while the powerless respond by creating virtues through resentment, subterfuge, and negation. Nietzsche doesn’t always take sides here—he claims to be explaining the origins of different value systems, not necessarily weighing them—but readers have long felt that he leans hard toward the “masters.” Certainly, master morality more easily maps the characteristics of Nietzschean goals.
The scholarly debate around these issues bangs and clatters on. It may never be settled. But Nietzsche says enough objectionable things about human value and equality that you can reasonably wonder if his most interesting ideas can be decoupled from his most retrograde.
Is Nietzsche’s “a Yes, a No, a straight line, a goal” rhetoric inspiration only for the powerful and privileged? Does it encompass more than the creative class—artists and coders—to include manual laborers, the poor, and those with disabilities? Does his “live like a robber!” rhetoric offer more than the sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll approach to life? Or is all this inspiring talk just a license for narcissists to leave children and spouses behind in order to “follow their dreams”?
There’s more to Nietzsche than this, but these are real dangers to keep in mind. Taking his points in their cheapest or most literal senses will not always increase human flourishing.
But we ought not dismiss Nietzsche’s interest in active creative excellence as something befitting only, say, “creatives.” Nietzsche’s examples throughout his books are often drawn from factory workers. I think we lack creativity of our own if we can’t see the ways his call toward goal-driven living might be possible for most of us.
These lives may not resemble what Nietzsche himself would have envisioned, but that seems fine when talking about a thinker who wanted no disciples. Active creative excellence isn’t just the province of artists such as Wagner; a truly creative family life, for instance, or making space for writing and music requires no higher station.
We can reject Nietzsche’s aristocratic rhetoric while still accepting the value in much of what he has to say, including his call to discover new and creative possibilities for being human. We can figure those possibilities in many ways. Nietzsche’s rhetoric skews violent, but nonviolent leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Desmond Tutu, and Mohandas Gandhi have arguably been some of the most creative, goal-driven, and effective leaders of the past hundred years.
Nietzsche may not have meant to include everyone, but even those he might have excluded can still learn from him.
Do We Really Know Ourselves?
Perhaps our discussion so far has triggered an itch at the back of your brain.
“Life is not just about ease,” you might think with approval. “Life is instead about difficult but joyful work in the service of creative, active, meaningful, excellent, and self-overcoming goals. Absolutely! Where can I subscribe to this man’s newsletter?”
But after spending 10 minutes blissed out in the bathtub, pondering these creative goals while listening to Survivor’s greatest hits on repeat, that niggling itch might return. Can we really conjure up Nietzschean life goals by simply thinking about them with some quality 1980s hair metal playing in the background?
After all, knowing ourselves is difficult, and we can never peer inward unshaped by the world in which we have been raised. In societies that have become relentlessly technological, this shaping is significant—and it goes well beyond individual ideas and choices. We are shaped not just by evolution and by family, but by a relentlessly technological culture.
Karl Marx saw that technologies, though they may be bent to individual uses, also exert broader social effects. “The windmill gives you society with the feudal lord,” he wrote in The Poverty of Philosophy. “The steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist.”
In Technopoly, Neil Postman echoes Marx’s point. “Embedded in every tool is an ideological bias,” he writes, “a predisposition to construct the world as one thing rather than another, to value one thing over another, to amplify one sense or skill or attitude more loudly than another.”
Or as Nietzsche himself puts it: “The press, the machine, the railway, the telegraph are premises whose thousand-year conclusion no one has yet dared to draw.”
Technology does not simply alter the societies in which we live; it makes certain life possibilities easier to imagine—and others much harder to entertain. When we try to craft goals for our own lives, we do so from within a society that has already sketched its preferences on the canvas of our lives.
Yes, “technology” writ large is a tool, and tools can be put to many ends. Give someone a shovel and they can either dig a basement or commit a murder; give someone a smartphone and they can connect with family members five states away or drown themselves in the most dehumanizing forms of pornography.
But saying that technology can be turned to many ends is not the same as saying that it turns toward all ends with the same ease. A new technology often interacts with human desires to produce unintended consequences.
When I was in college, a friend of mine spent his evenings logged into our campus Unix server, where he ran the text-based program called “ychat” that allowed him to have type-written but real-time conversations with a girlfriend in Arizona. (Though it may be hard to remember now, this was important because long-distance phone calls were expensive.) They eventually got married.
Meanwhile, I was looking for love in all the wrong places—specifically, in IT data closets. There, I could snatch an hourly respite from my actual campus computing job and fire up a dumb terminal to check my text-based Unix email client “pine” for messages from A Woman I Fancied But Who Did Not Like Me In “That Way” (AWIFBWDNLMITW). I and AWIFBWDNLMITW did not get married.
We used these Unix-based chat and email clients because they tapped into the basic human desire for connection, making it easier, cheaper, and faster than before. The goals behind these early programs were collaborative, research-oriented, and noncommercial. Their creators did not want to soak up our attention, nor did anyone want to sell you anything. The code itself was free.
Yet email and chat quickly escaped academia and invaded the corporate campus, eventually turning many knowledge workers into “email answering services” who could only get more tangible work done when they stopped replying to messages. With the rise of home Internet access and then the smartphone, these tools followed employees out of the office, then colonized their homes and tagged along on vacation.
Email and chat are largely the same products they were 30 years ago. They did not need to be specially engineered to hook our attention; they simply accelerated the connective possibilities of older inventions such as the telephone and the postal service. We loved them, and we used them—and eventually, they changed how and where we work. This can be hugely positive, enabling remote work during the recent pandemic and cutting down on all the time spent and pollution emitted by commuting. They can also be negative, making it simple to do even more work than before and making it difficult to ever be truly out of office. Our own goals may never have included “answering work emails on Sunday nights,” but here we are.
Other technologies, though, have the fully intended goal of ensnaring our attention. Many modern digital services want to monopolize human attention; making money, so the thinking goes, is simple once you have a billion people using your product.
People outside the technology world are often surprised to learn how much research and engineering goes into making modern digital technology compelling. It has literally become a science at places such as Stanford University’s Persuasive Tech Lab, where the goal is to engineer “machines designed to change humans.” And companies such as Netflix spend liberally on making their services addictive; in 2009, the company handed out a $1 million prize to an outside research team that improved the Netflix recommendation algorithm by only 10 percent. Cal Newport, the computer scientist, puts it this way: “People don’t succumb to screens because they’re lazy, but instead because billions of dollars have been invested to make this outcome inevitable.”
Through both unintended effects and intended goals, our technology does not simply sit silent, waiting to serve. It points us in various directions. It favors certain choices. It creates new possibilities. Taken together, technology’s total effects shape the kinds of lives we can imagine.
Yes, personal choices matter. We can use Facebook only in ways and for amounts of time that we think appropriate, but our exercise of choice takes place within the confines of a service engineered to exploit our evolutionary wiring. We can choose differently, but as repeated research has shown, exerting willpower wears us down over time. “Choosing against the defaults,” especially when those defaults tap into our desires for novelty, connection, or outrage, is fatiguing enough that eventually we give in.
“Giving in” is made easier by the fact that what we surrender to is so artfully designed. Tuned to our desires through sophisticated recommendation engines, our digital life is pleasant, addictive, endlessly binge-able.
Nietzsche is suspicious of anything that makes ease so . . . easy. The danger is not so much that ease will transform us into a race of weaklings; in fact, a world in which everyone had it easy might rid itself of much hate and war. No, the problem is that ease might succeed too well in the short term, producing a race of safe, secure, and comfortable people who are unwilling to risk their lives pushing forward the boundaries of humanity. In the long term, human greatness would be extinguished.
In his introduction to The Gay Science, Oxford professor Bernard Williams sums up Nietzsche’s concern about “ease” soaking up the greatest quantity of our attention:
The world might conceivably avoid destruction and overt hatred by organizing a pleasantly undemanding and unreflective way of life, a dazed but adequately efficient consumerism. Nietzsche probably did not think that such a society could survive in the long run, but in any case he could not reconcile himself to such a prospect or regard it as anything but loathsome. Contempt was one of his readier emotions, and nothing elicited it more than what he sometimes calls “the last man,” the contented, unadventurous, philistine product of such a culture.
If we step back enough from the current technological paradigm to make sure our goals align with our considered values, we need not be nudged so easily by these external forces. We will be in a better position to use technology as a tool that serves our interests rather than its own.
All of which gets back to the core question: Are we actually equipped to sit back, think our lives through, and pluck a fulfilling set of life goals from the creative ether? Or are we so shaped by our context that we can’t think beyond it?
The perennial search for meaning and happiness suggests that humans aren’t so great at knowing what we most deeply desire. It’s all well and good for Nietzsche to talk breezily about his joy-giving, self-overcoming, live-like-a-pirate life goals, but it’s harder for us to come up with our own Yes and No. If it were clear and easy, more of us would already be living out our own straight lines.
Not for nothing was “know thyself” one of the inscriptions carved into the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. In one of his early Untimely Meditations, Nietzsche admits that this is a “hard saying” because Apollo is a god who “conceals nothing and says nothing, but only indicates.” The responsibility for puzzling out the meaning of those hints falls ultimately upon us. “What does he indicate to you?” Nietzsche asks.
Still, Nietzsche thinks that we can gain some self-knowledge. He offers two main suggestions for doing so, which will provide the topics for our next two chapters. Both are at odds with the technical values of our day.
ONE: MANAGE INFORMATION FLOWS TO HEAR YOUR OWN VOICE.
This is a mental discipline, one focused explicitly on restricting words and ideas in healthy ways so that we do not gorge our minds to the detriment of our lives. One of Nietzsche’s recurrent themes is how little we are capable of thinking for ourselves when our days are filled with the ideas and “voices” of others.
“How can anyone become a thinker if he does not spend at least a third of the day without passions, people, and books?” he asks in Human, All Too Human. In Daybreak, he identifies “the most general defect in our methods of education and training: nobody learns, nobody teaches, nobody wishes, to endure solitude.”
Nietzsche wants space to reflect. It is not so much that, if we have enough peace and quiet, we can simply “think our way to meaningful goals” in some rational, Cartesian sense; it’s more that solitude is a prerequisite for listening to our own lives. Only when we turn down the volume of the voices blaring and bleating at us can we also hear what our bodies, our passions, and our memories tell us.
This does not mean ceasing to read, listen, or connect. It does mean finding a way to accept and even to love the idea of limits. It means letting go of the anxiety that comes with having to know it all, to watch it all. It embraces informational fasting and forgetting, personal curation and rereading, disconnection and even the dreaded prospect of mental silence.
In that silence, as we soothe our restless distractibility, Nietzsche thinks we have a better-than-even chance of finding out what matters to us.
TWO: NURTURE A DEEP CONNECTION TO THE EXTERNAL WORLD IN ORDER TO “REASON” WITH YOUR BODY AND YOUR EMOTIONS.
This is a physical discipline, one focused on experiencing the world through our senses rather than our thoughts. We may try to reason our way toward meaningful lives—a useful exercise, as discussed earlier—but Nietzsche argues that we think through the body as well.
“Behind your thoughts and feelings,” says Zarathustra, “stands a powerful commander, an unknown wise man—he is called self. He lives in your body, he is your body. There is more reason in your body than in your best wisdom.”
Nietzsche makes this point when drawing on his Lutheran heritage with a pithy remark about faith and works. This was one of the great Protestant issues, going back to Martin Luther. The dominant position was that faith was primary; only out of this trust in God flowed a person’s “good works” as a response to God’s goodness and grace.
But Nietzsche thinks that this gets human psychology exactly wrong.
“I say, let us first and foremost have works!” he bellows. “And this means practice! Practice! Practice! The necessary faith will come later—be certain of that.” Action in the world helps condition what and how we believe. We aren’t going to sit around thinking our way to enlightenment or to happiness.
The “powerful commander” of the body itself, working in and even against the world through exercise or art or skilled craftsmanship, offers a lesson in what matters. We ignore the pleasure of our muscles and our senses at our peril. Nietzsche thus advocates an experimental approach; engage in action and let the body itself speak to you about what it needs.
THESE APPROACHES TO self-knowledge shed light on our truest needs and deepest motivations. In periods of mental silence, those deep needs may become clearer, and we may find that they differ from the ones offered by our technological paradigm.
We simply cannot know, in advance of such reflection, how best to deploy our digital tools (or if we need them at all). Tips or “hacks” have little to offer us. Negative prescriptions fail to move us. But as we develop a positive creative vision, we can start to sense if our tech habits help or harm it, and we can reform practices that do not serve us well. Here’s how McGinn lays out the vision:
Inspired by the Nietzschean ideal of human excellence, the individual either would avoid traffic with technologies likely to engender in him inertial or dissipative behavior, e.g., the technology of the assembly line or technologies designed to make life “frictionless,” or, put positively, would use a particular technology only to the extent that he possessed the power of discrimination and it possessed the characteristics enabling him to turn it—directly or indirectly—to life-affirming and life-enhancing ends and effects.
In his response to suffering and alienation, in his focus on living as opposed to thinking, and in his refusal to let human creativity be trampled by the machine, Nietzsche remains electrifying despite his short circuits. In a world now dominated by technologies of ease, he reminds us of the limits of frictionless digital hedonism—and of the merits of having a Yes, a No, a straight line, a goal.