In Thus Spake Zarathustra, the most popular work from Nietzsche’s philosophical canon, the author (via the sage, Zarathustra) introduces the concept of last man: the most refined manifestation of man’s complacence and intellectual marginalization. Last man has no inquisitive nature, whether reactionary or revolutionary, within him: he is devoid of yearning, unrest – in short, devoid of that unstable element which strengthens men, they are driven to innovative action. Last man is content with mediocrity and half-truths, content with the most egregious distortions of reason, because challenge, for him, requires too much exertion.
The continual inclination of society (in the abstract) toward this state is a trend which I have long feared, if only intuitively. I thought such fear would be allayed upon my entering an institution at the forefront of the academic world, and indeed, I see much here that runs contrary to rational indolence. But I’ve become increasingly aware of the ridiculousness of certain aspects of academic and social life at Williams.
It must be clarified, at this point, that I’m not concerned with purely intellectual potential, or even ambition/academic drive in the traditional sense. Rather, I’m concerned with subtlety of thought (perhaps Nietzsche’s greatest attribute) – cerebral discipline – one’s ability, regardless of innate potential, to attain intellectual autonomy. Obviously, this doesn’t entail questioningÂ those matters which have been proven beyond a reasonable doubt, so to speak. But it does necessitate prolonged reflection, the critical digestion and ravenous pursuit of knowledge, a matter of one’s own volition. I find these qualities in short supply, even on this campus.
For example, many students who consider themselves wise and well educated discourse on the most superficial of subjects and engage continually in speaking before marshalling their thoughts. Also, many adhere strictly to the most shallow, paltry matters of custom, such as giving hugs to every other goddamn acquaintance, and so forth. On a more substantial note, political thought, “debate” on campus is intensely one-sided: ideologies are instilled (if ever so finely) into students from the moment they enter Williams. Any attempt to challenge the existing trends of political thinking within the institution must be confined to private discourse, for fear of adverse consequences if otherwise undertaken.
As regards the student body, I cannot help but marvel at the excessive and irresponsible consumption of alcohol on a weekly basis; the repeated (and not infrequent) attempts of students to “hook up” with one another; worst of all, the prevailing notion that these things are just necessities of life, symptoms of youthful exuberance. On the contrary, such behavior is nothing other than perpetuated high school foolishness. Honestly, I have absolutely nothing against drinking in moderation: nobody enjoys a dry chianti as much as Yours Truly, but I detest hearing students shouting obscenities and deprave sexual remarks in the streets, every Friday and Saturday night. Who among us chooses to read Kant or Aquinas on a Saturday night, rather than attend some sketchy party? Precious few. Why? Because it takes extraordinary discipline, and can only be accomplished by those so enraptured by the pursuit of erudition, that they have the courage to rebuke that which does not lend itself to reason?those who view learning not merely as a means to doing well academically, but as an end in and of itself.Â Without challenge, without discomfort prodding men to advance, Nietzsche’s words will undoubtedly ring true:Â “Alas, the time is coming when man will no longer shoot the arrow of his longing beyond man, and the string of his bow will have forgotten how to whir!”