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From Ape to Man & Beyond

Henrik Schoeneberg contends that our next step is to learn to accept ourselves.

“The overman laughs at man, like man laughs at the ape.” Thus spoke Zarathustra in Frederich Nietzsche’s famous work of the same name when he came down from the mountains to convince humanity of a new and better way to be human.

Zarathustra was right.

Put in cognitive evolutionary terms, Nietzsche’s idea of the Ubermensch or ‘Overman’ is more than just utopian ideology. We have evolved from an unreflective state of being as small furry mammals to eventually become self-reflective Homo sapiens. Our ability to grasp our place in the world around us has continuously increased. To think that this evolutionary story will end here merely reflects our tendency to overestimate ourselves – such as when Hegel, many history books ago, proclaimed the end of history. But if we have yet to reach our full potential, what then will be the next step in the development of our conscious awareness?

The answer might very well be that life, which first began to sense itself through the emotional life of animals, later becoming self-conscious and capable of pondering its own existence, will finally come to reconcile itself with the fact that it exists.

We humans are not quite there yet; we have not quite reconciled ourselves with the idea that ‘this is where we belong’. We do not live as Nietzsche’s Zarathustra did, who felt one hundred percent at home in this world. On the contrary, we dream ourselves away to paradise or to brighter days, and spend considerable amounts of mental resources on being frustrated with our lives or with each other. We continuously act against our own actual interests through bad habits, procrastination, and the like, and we do not take full advantage of the opportunities that the world puts before us. This all indicates that we have not yet fully embraced or become accustomed to life itself. We seem to still be partly living in the unreflective dream-like state of our animal ancestors, unable to fully grasp our situation and its implications, and act accordingly.

You Don’t Know What You’ve Got Till It’s Gone

Our inherent lack of full life acceptance becomes especially clear when we turn our attention to a small group of people who have had a close brush with death and subsequently managed to make the transition to embracing life on its own terms. Consider for instance those who have suffered heart-attacks and have been just barely brought back from death’s door. The experience commonly triggers a profound transformation in people, inspiring much clarity in their perspectives on life.

According to numerous sources that have examined the phenomenon of psychological growth stemming from close brushes with death, including the Handbook of Experimental Existential Psychology (ed. by Greenberg, Koole and Pyszczynski, 2004), the experience leaves people acutely aware of their own mortality. A close brush with death is sometimes accompanied by disputable claims about having experienced an afterlife, but this is the different phenomenon of near death experience. What I want to discuss here are the rationally understandable ways in which our worldview can be deeply altered by a close confrontation with death. Such confrontations can leave people with an acceptance of the limitations of life and its fragile nature, and often with the realization that pain is something not fundamentally bad but part of what makes a beautiful life possible. Often, it is claimed, they no longer fear death; their tendency now is to care more intensely about life. They become less materialistic, and generally feel more closely connected to people and to nature. They no longer frivolously waste their time as it has now become much more precious, and instead take better advantage of opportunities for living well. They do not occupy themselves with what others may think of them, but instead live resolutely in accordance with their own values, and with clear altruistic goals in sight. In other words, human beings are by nature self-conscious, but the realization that one is mortal can make one life-conscious.

The Ascent of Mind
The Ascent of Mind © Woodrow Cowher 2019. Please visit woodrawspictures.com

Heidegger & Authentic Living

It’s quite interesting that one of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century, Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), theoretically deduced almost a century ago what it is about a close brush with death that catalyses such deep personal transformation. A brush with death was needed, thought Heidegger, in order to fully grasp the consequences of our own mortality. Experiences of dying were not much studied at this time, apart from through fiction such as Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886), which relates the thoughts the title character goes through on his deathbed. Heidegger references this novella in a note in his magnum opus, Being and Time (1927). He wrote an independent theory on how people can actualize themselves – which was later empirically verified through the testimony of people who had had brushes with death. Heidegger mused that to live life authentically, and therefore well, one must face the fact that death can sneak up on us at any moment. He reasoned that upon our realising that we may at any moment cease to exist, our awareness of being is enhanced. We have the tendency to overlook our mortality in our daily lives, where in order to forget our personal selves we act like everyone else in the persistent ‘they-world’, in an effort to subdue our fears of our own impending deaths. By confronting our looming non-existence, life becomes a settled matter that need not be reinterpreted from one day to the next according to the ever-changing they-world. Death ‘totalises’ our existence, and projects back onto us a particular identity or life story.

While we cannot ever know our complete identity, we can perhaps understand that we have the potential to fully achieve some certain fulfilling way of living our life. Of course, once we are dead it may not matter to us whether we have realised ourselves as such and such a person. But in order for us to even be able to say while we are alive that we are this or that person, we must first have our sights set on deciding who we want to be. As our deaths will reveal the totality of who we are, thoughts of our deaths must therefore be an ever-guiding influence in our lives. What do you want them to carve on your tombstone?

People who have had a close brush with death may become more conscientiously aware of the fragile nature of life, and accept this as a basic premise of their existence. This may enable them to refrain from constantly fleeing into the everyday conformist ‘they-world’, where life is dictated by trends and fashions and the opinions of others. In overcoming their fear of death, such people have resigned themselves to the fact that their life will indeed end. Having become acutely aware that their death will project back on to them the kind of person that they really were all along – for example, that they were someone who did not live fully, or did in fact take advantage of the opportunities presented to them by life – they own up to the responsibility of taking charge of their finite lives. This is a precursor to living life independently, resolutely, and authentically, with clarity and meaning, with an acceptance of life’s limitations, and hence, an understanding of its possibilities. Such people dwell in the they-world on their own terms instead of hiding in it. They can therefore care about others in a much more enthusiastic way, now that what matters is not how they appear in the eyes of other people from one moment to the next, but how they can live out their personal values against the backdrop of our collective world.

The average person may insist that they are well aware that life is finite and can end at any moment, but their conduct suggests that Heidegger is correct in thinking that this awareness is usually not very present from day to day. For instance, someone may say they have a goal to write a book; but does their life suggest they’re actually on a trajectory toward doing so? Accordingly Heidegger concluded that most human beings have not opened themselves up to their own mortality in the way necessary for them to live life fully, authentically, and on its own terms. [Heidegger’s own life story suggests he himself had some way to go in this department! Ed.] If a person had truly embraced the fact that life can be snatched away from them at any moment, this consideration would be a guiding influence on their actions, would it not?

Applying Lessons Learned

Nietzsche and Heidegger seem to share something in their thinking with those who have had a close encounter with death. They have reached an understanding that there is a better way of approaching life. Let’s be inspired by their thoughts, whether it be through studies, vividly imagining one’s own death or by other means. It is indeed paramount that we begin to develop a more life-conscious intelligence, so as to be better equipped to deal with the dangers of modern life: threats posed to our environment by our exploitation of natural resources; to our wellbeing by animosity and division between people; and of course the ever-menacing threat of weapons of mass destruction. Maybe we can survive such threats in much the same way that our ancestors previously survived the perils of nature, by raising their own level of intelligence and developing the sophisticated ability of self-conscious thought. The difference is that the lessons of life-consciousness can be taught, whereas self-consciousness evolved biologically. In this way life-consciousness can undergo cultural evolution.

Albert Einstein once said that “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” Fortunately for us, people who have had a close brush with death, as well as theoretical studies, show us that we do indeed have the potential to rise above our present, merely self-conscious level of existence. We can instead thrive to become life-conscious individuals, capable of embodying a profound appreciation for life in order to live out our best selves to a much greater extent than our previous selves may have allowed.

© Henrik Schoeneberg 2019

Henrik Schoeneberg lives in Copenhagen and has a masters degree in philosophy of science.

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