Friedrich Nietzsche on the Meaning of Life & Humans

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Thus Spoke Zarathustra" by Friedrich Nietzsche. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

Like this article? Sign up for a free trial here.

Want to learn about Friedrich Nietzsche and the meaning of life? What is his philosophy of life and humans?

In the 1880s, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote Thus Spoke Zarathustra as a creative presentation of his views about the meaning of life and philosophy. The book is a fictitious, poetic story about a prophet named Zarathustra.

Read on to learn more about Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy on the meaning of life.

Friedrich Nietzsche: The Meaning of Life

In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Friedrich Nietzsche explores the meaning of life through his fictional character Zarathustra’s monologues. In the novel, Nietzsche makes extensive use of literary devices and symbolism (the meaning of which has caused much disagreement among experts). In this article, we’ll focus on the novel’s most prevalent themes of Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy on the meaning of life by examining Zarathustra’s teaching on what humans are and what they may eventually become.

What Are Humans?

To understand Friedrich Nietzsche’s views on the meaning of life, we’ll first examine Zarathustra’s arguments about what a human being is. Zarathustra argues that a human being is made up of a human body—not a body and soul, as some people believe. Zarathustra teaches that your soul, spirit, and consciousness are just parts or features of your body.

Zarathustra doesn’t believe in an afterlife in the usual sense, but he does believe in what he calls “eternal recurrence.” In his view, time is infinite in both directions: No matter when you live, there is always an infinite amount of time before and after you. He reasons that on this infinite timeline, everything that can happen eventually will happen. And eventually, it will all happen again. So after you die, someday in the eternal future, the same chain of events that led to your birth will happen again, and you will live again. 

(Shortform note: We can infer that, in Zarathustra’s teaching, when you ‘recur’ you have no memory of your previous lives. He doesn’t say this outright, but he never mentions memories of past lives. And if your memory is just part of your body, as he believes, then your memory would be destroyed when your body dies, so nothing would carry over to your next life.)

Eternal Recurrence and Quantum Space-Time

In A Brief History of Time, astrophysicist Stephen Hawking suggests a model of spacetime that, in essence, updates Zarathustra’s concept of eternal recurrence to agree with 21st-century physics.

In the 1800s, when Nietzsche wrote Thus Spoke Zarathustra, many scientists believed that the universe had always existed, so Zarathustra’s idea that time was infinite in both directions agreed with the science of the day. However, in the 20th century, scientists discovered that the universe had a finite beginning. According to Einstein’s theory of General Relativity, even time itself had come into existence at a finite point in the past. This undermined the idea of an infinite timeline—at least for a while. 

But while working to combine General Relativity with the theory of Quantum Mechanics, Hawking came up with his “no-boundary” model of spacetime. (Spacetime just refers to the unified concept of space and time, which are treated similarly in physics.) Hawking’s no-boundary model suggests that time is not a single, linear dimension, but rather a closed surface. So time could potentially follow a circular path, on which the same events would occur each time around. 

What Can Humans Become?

Friedrich Nietzsche also describes the meaning of life through Zarathustra’s beliefs about what humans can evolve to become. According to the novel, Zarathustra believes in ongoing human evolution and sees it as the ultimate solution to humans’ problems and weaknesses. He doesn’t think evolutionary progress is inevitable, though: The human race could either advance or stagnate and die off. Therefore he teaches that your highest purpose in life is to live in a way that contributes to the evolutionary progression of humans into superhumans—a future species as far superior to modern humans as humans are to animals.

Next, we’ll discuss Friedrich Nietzsche’s views on the meaning of life according to the kind of life that Zarathustra claims contributes to the advancement of the human race.

What Modern Science Says About the Evolution of Superhumans

In Nietzsche’s time, the only available mechanism to drive human evolution was natural selection. So if you wanted to expedite the process as part of pursuing your highest purpose, all you could do was to be the best specimen of the human species that you could and let nature do its work—as Zarathustra advises and as the advanced humans he meets illustrate. 

But today, or in the near future, other mechanisms may be available to accelerate human evolution. In Brief Answers to the Big Questions, scientist Stephen Hawking argues that because of recent advances in genetic engineering, humans will soon be able to rewrite their own genome. In theory, genetic engineering could create a superhuman race in just a few generations, rather than the eons required for Darwinian evolution.

Unlike Zarathustra, Hawking thinks that the rise of genetically engineered superhumans is inevitable. But, like Zarathustra, Hawking warns that humans—and even superhumans—could still end up coming to an evolutionary dead end if we’re not careful. On the one hand, he sees artificial intelligence as another form of life that could eventually out-compete humans if we don’t exercise enough control over its development. And on the other hand, if we don’t colonize outer space soon enough, we run the risk of going extinct due to climate change, war, meteor impact, or other disasters.

How Should Humans Act?

According to Zarathustra, unique individuals contribute the most to human progress. We can infer that this is based on Darwin’s theory that a combination of natural selection and random variation drives evolutionary progress: The more variation there is in a population, the more natural selection will favor the superior individuals and the more rapidly the species will evolve. Zarathustra never discusses this mechanism explicitly, but he does repeatedly assert that uniformity—especially compulsory conformity to social norms—hinders the evolution of humans into superhumans.

This leads Zarathustra to a kind of relative morality that we can apply to Friedrich Nietzsche’s meaning of life in terms of morality: As a unique individual, what’s good for someone else may not be good for you and vice versa. He denounces any objective distinction between good and evil as a concept that humans invented for the purpose of controlling others, usually in ways that promote conformity and thereby hinder progress.

For example, suppose someone is fascinated with stealing. If she cultivates this passion and becomes an expert thief, her children might become even better thieves because of what they learn from her and inherit genetically. So stealing would become an increasingly refined trait for natural selection to either favor or weed out. But if she suppresses her inclination to steal for fear of criminal punishment, that won’t happen, and natural selection will be less effective because the population will be more uniform.

(Shortform note: Zarathustra doesn’t seem to differentiate between genetic traits and learned behaviors when it comes to evolutionary progress. Biologists tend to view genetic traits as the primary driver in evolution because they are heritable. But the science of genetics didn’t really take off until a few decades after Nietzsche wrote Thus Spoke Zarathustra, so he wouldn’t have been as familiar with genetics as we are today. And humans can “inherit” non-genetic skills by learning them from their parents or from others who pass on information to them.)

Friedrich Nietzsche on the Meaning of Life & Humans

———End of Preview———

Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Friedrich Nietzsche's "Thus Spoke Zarathustra" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Thus Spoke Zarathustra summary:

  • Friedrich Nietzsche's views about life and philosophy
  • How you should live if you want to participate in the advancement of humankind
  • Why you should never let others do something for you that you can do yourself

Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.