Human consciousness: a tragic misstep

Cosmic nihilism, existential joy

The human need for meaning, in what can appear a meaningless world, is a cause for extreme pessimism, argued Norwegian philosopher Peter Wessel Zapffe. The little-known thinker and mountaineer gives voice to the darkest, most despairing of human feelings – and despite the heartache at the core of that voice, it is outstandingly beautiful. Sam Woolfe argues, what Zapffe forgets, is that human consciousness, although giving rise to the tragic in life, also gives birth to existential joy.


The Norwegian philosopher Peter Wessel Zapffe is little-known to most Anglophone readers. He was greatly inspired by Arthur Schopenhauer and has been called one of the “bleakest thinkers of all times and places”. Zapffe was also an avid mountaineer and a friend of fellow Norwegian philosopher – and originator of deep ecology – Arne Næss. His only major work is his doctoral dissertation On the Tragic (1941), which has still never been translated into any other language. Fortunately, though, we can familiarise ourselves with some of the themes and ideas expressed in this work through a short essay that Zapffe wrote, one of his few works to ever be translated into English.

The Last Messiah is a 1933 essay that encapsulates Zapffe’s view on the human condition and stands out as an important work in the sphere of philosophical pessimism. The views expressed can be classed as a kind of evolutionary existentialism, in that Zapffe propounds a view on the nature of human existence that incorporates an evolutionary perspective. The Last Messiah summarises the thoughts that Zapffe would later express in On the Tragic. The horror writer Thomas Ligotti also frequently references Zapffe’s essay in his non-fiction, pessimistic work The Conspiracy Against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror (2010).

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Zapffe’s Analysis of the Human Condition

For Zapffe, existential angst, despair, and depression are due to our overly evolved intellect. He believed – as he argues in The Last Messiah – that we have an overabundance of consciousness, we essentially think too much for our own good. He refers to the human being as “a biological paradox, an abomination, an absurdity, an exaggeration of disastrous nature.” Rust Cohle, a nihilistic character in the series True Detective, expresses the same view: “I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution.”

In his essay, Zapffe goes on to say that we are a species that “had been armed too heavily” – for after all, what animal needs to be aware of its own mortality, or needs to be so prone to anxiety? For Zapffe, our becoming mentally over-equipped has resulted in us becoming “fearful of life itself”, of our “very being”. The degree to which we are conscious of reality, which is unlike any other species, also means that we have become acutely aware of the suffering of billions of people and sentient life on the planet. As Aldous Huxley observed in his novel Chrome Yellow (1921):

If one had an imagination vivid enough and a sympathy sufficiently sensitive really to comprehend and to feel the sufferings of other people, one would never have a moment’s peace of mind.

Zapffe’s point is that our imagination is this vivid naturally; we can’t help but let “the suffering of human billions” enter into our awareness through the “gateway of compassion”. And such a clear-eyed view of reality is overwhelming. In a rather evocative passage, Zapffe writes:

The tragedy of a species becoming unfit for life by over-evolving one ability is not confined to humankind. Thus it is thought, for instance, that certain deer in paleontological times succumbed as they acquired overly-heavy horns. The mutations must be considered blind, they work, are thrown forth, without any contact of interest with their environment. In depressive states, the mind may be seen in the image of such an antler, in all its fantastic splendour pinning its bearer to the ground.

The species of deer that Zapffe has in mind is the Irish elk (Megaloceros giganteus), which thrived throughout Eurasia during the ecological epoch known as the Pleistocene (2.6 million to 11,700 years ago). The Irish elk had the largest antlers of any known deer, with a maximum span of 3.65m. Historically, the explanation given for the extinction of the Irish elk was that its antlers grew too large: the animals could no longer hold up their heads or feed properly – their antlers, according to this explanation, would also get entangled in trees, such as when trying to flee human hunters through forests. However, according to some researchers, the large antlers of the Irish elk may have had little to do with the extinction of the species. Yet regardless of whether the Irish elk’s antlers did indeed weigh these creatures down, Zapffe’s analogy is still illuminating in its own right.


Nietzsche, for instance, maintained that “To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.”


A surplus of consciousness and intellect is the default state of affairs for the human species, although unlike the case of the deer that Zapffe alludes to, we have been able to save ourselves from going extinct. Zapffe posits that humans have come to cope and survive by repressing this surplus of consciousness. Without restricting our consciousness, Zapffe believed the human being will fall into “a state of relentless panic” or a ‘feeling of cosmic panic’, as he puts it. This follows a person’s realisation that “[h]e is the universe’s helpless captive”; it comes from truly understanding the human predicament. In the 1990 documentary To Be a Human Being, he stated:

Man is a tragic animal. Not because of his smallness, but because he is too well endowed. Man has longings and spiritual demands that reality cannot fulfill. We have expectations of a just and moral world. Man requires meaning in a meaningless world.

Coping Mechanisms

In The Last Messiah, Zapffe postulates four main methods humans have used for limiting the contents of their consciousness, including:

  1. Isolation, which involves “a fully arbitrary dismissal from consciousness of all disturbing and destructive thought and feeling.” It is an avoidance of thinking about the human condition and the terrible truths that Zapffe believes this entails. He also describes the technique of isolation by quoting a certain ‘Engstrom’, whose identity remains uncertain: “One should not think, it is just confusing.”
  2. Anchoring, which involves the “fixation of points within, or construction of walls around, the liquid fray of consciousness.” This requires that we consistently focus our attention on a value or ideal (the examples Zapffe gives include “God, the Church, the State, morality, fate, the laws of life, the people, the future”).
  3. Distraction, which is when “one limits attention to the critical bounds by constantly enthralling it with impressions” – this prevents the mind from examining itself and becoming aware of the tragedy of human existence. It is easy to think of how we, in modern times, incessantly distract ourselves with external stimulation; some examples Zapffe gives include entertainment, sport, and radio.
  4. Sublimation, which Zapffe calls “a matter of transformation rather than repression”. It involves turning “the very pain of living” into “valuable experiences”. He continues: “Positive impulses engage the evil and put it to their own ends, fastening onto its pictorial, dramatic, heroic, lyric or even comic aspects.” He also notes that the essay The Last Messiah itself is an attempt at such sublimation. For Zapffe, sublimation is “the rarest of protective mechanisms”. Most people can limit the contents of their consciousness using the previous three mechanisms, staving off existential angst and world-weariness. But when these forms of repression fail and the tragic cannot be ignored, sublimation offers a remedy, a way of turning the unignorable “pain of living” into creative, positive, aesthetically valuable works.

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Is There No Room for Meaning?

Comparisons have been made
between Zapffe’s views on the human condition and sublimation to the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche. In The Gay Science (1882), Nietzsche writes: “Higher human beings distinguish themselves from the lower by seeing and hearing, and thoughtfully seeing and hearing, immeasurably more”. But this higher degree of sensitivity, of looking deeply into life, results in suffering. In The Birth of Tragedy (1872), Nietzsche, like Zapffe, defends the remedial effects of art: “The truly serious task of art…[is] to save the eye from gazing into the horrors of night and to deliver the subject by the healing balm of illusion from the spasms of the agitations of the will”.

When the first three repression techniques outlined by Zapffe fail, which they do for a minority of people, then creative expression may be the only available means of coping with the “horrors of night”, as Nietzsche put it. To save oneself from becoming overwhelmed, panicked, and despondent, creative work acts as a protective mechanism, as Zapffe argues, although such creative expression may be regarded as more valuable than simply protection against consciousness; it can be thought of as providing the very meaning that people yearn for, which Zapffe believes is unobtainable. Nietzsche, for instance, maintained that “To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.” The psychiatrist Viktor Frankl also echoed the view that meaning can be found in our relationship with suffering. It is possible to transcend the sense of meaningless and hopelessness we have by creating something genuinely valuable and meaningful.

Here we can make a distinction between cosmic nihilism, which paints the universe as inherently meaningless, and terrestrial nihilism, which treats all of human life and activity as meaningless. Even pessimistic philosophers such as David Benatar concede that human life can be meaningful. We don’t have to fall into terrestrial nihilism, as well as cosmic nihilism. 


Without restricting our consciousness, Zapffe believed the human being will fall into “a state of relentless panic” or a ‘feeling of cosmic panic’, as he puts it


By advancing meaning in terrestrial, human affairs, the panic that Zapffe alludes to may only hold true when we take the cosmic perspective. Furthermore, if meaning can be found in transforming one’s own suffering or that of others, then this could entail actions that go beyond sublimation. There seems to be discoverable meaning for people – such as being of service to others or serving something bigger than oneself – that could be defined as an intrinsic part of the human condition, rather than a way of escaping the human condition.

On Zapffe’s Evolutionary Existentialism

While the argument could be made that Zapffe is perhaps unduly pessimistic, it seems clear that our biological, evolutionary imperatives do not always closely align with human well-being and, at least on some accounts, such imperatives seem diametrically opposed to our happiness. For example, in Buddhism, craving is cast as the root of human suffering, yet craving serves a crucial biological and evolutionary function; it makes us constantly feel unsatisfied with what is, projecting satisfaction on what could be, causing us to constantly strive, but never gaining lasting satisfaction, only temporary satisfaction. This treadmill of desire is what keeps us motivated to survive and reproduce.

Zapffe refers to the human organism as a “biological paradox”. But while his analysis of the human condition may hold true, it is not so hard to see why the human intellect is as it is, even if it leads to the unique human experience of existential angst. Evolutionary trade-offs are commonplace. There are countless examples of where an advantageous change in one trait leads to a disadvantageous change in another trait. In the case of humans, we can easily see that our degree of intellect is advantageous in a strictly biological context, but at the same time we can say that we have too much intellect and awareness, that it makes us prone to a wide spectrum of negative states, from rumination to horrific despair.

However, in evolutionary terms, we might posit that the benefits of our highly (or overly) evolved intellect outweigh the downsides, even if experientially, for the individual, those downsides entail existential panic and an indefatigable kind of discomfort. Zapffe notes, nevertheless, that most people avoid the real horrors of seeing the human predicament clearly, with “[p]ure example of life-panic [being] presumably rare”. This is because “the protective mechanisms are refined and automatic and to some extent unremitting.” 

Evolution is not a perfect system of design, so even if the protective mechanisms don’t successfully work for all individuals or don’t work all the time, with life-panic sometimes rising to the surface, our overly evolved intellect is nevertheless beneficial overall, within a strictly evolutionary framework. So long as we have the four repressional techniques in place, working for most people most of the time, it seems the human species can avoid extinction.

Thus, the human situation is unique, undoubtedly, but perhaps not paradoxical from an evolutionary perspective. It may, nonetheless, be paradoxical in the sense that, as a consequence of biological evolution, we have the intellectual capacity to question life itself and even reject it, a capacity absent from members of any other species, who we presume are merely directed by biological impulses, without protest or question.

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Zapffe, as we have seen, takes a bleak view of the human condition. It may, in many people’s eyes, be too pessimistic to be considered realistic, which is what most philosophical pessimists aim for in their thought. Zapffe’s evolutionary existentialism could also be true, yet still narrow in its exclusion of the terrestrial meaning that is available to all of us. Moreover, it could be equally claimed that our surplus of consciousness also enables feelings of existential joy. Reflecting on the fundamentals of human existence can be a cause for joy. Specifically, this joy can relate to the basic fact of being alive and sentient. This includes having the ability to think, perceive, feel, imagine, create, and connect with others; in other words, to have experiences and so many varieties of experience.

The above is a shortened version of a longer piece you can find here.

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