P. W. Zapffe’s Antinatalism

Zapffe, Peter Wessel (1899–1990)

The Norwegian antinatalist Zapffe found one important point of departure for his own thought in an aspect of the teachings of Jacob von Uexküll (1864–1944) on human beings and our relation to our environment: in non-human animals, taught von Uexküll, there exists a significant degree of harmony between organic endowment, environment, and way of life.  For this reason, animals move, as it were, with the confidence of sleepwalkers through their respective environments, perceiving in these environments only structures that bear meanings peculiar to their respective species. Nature has accorded to them only those sense-organs which are absolutely indispensable for their specific forms of existence and has thus assigned to them firm and fixed worlds of perception and affection. In Man’s case, however, this restriction has been shattered. He has been dismissed from this harmonious world and now has an unquenchable need: the need for sense and meaning.


The Antinatalism of Meaninglessness in “The Last Messiah” (1933)

Speaking very generally, our species’ dying out by way of natal abstinence appears to Zapffe to be an imperative because it represents the only rational way of dealing with that self-awareness with which Nature provided us in order then immediately to dismiss us from its bosom as thenceforth eternal strangers to it. As a self-aware entity, the human being has a need for meaning which the essentially indifferent cosmos is unable to quench. Zapffe first formulated his thoughts on this issue in “The Last Messiah”, a short essay of 1933, written in a highly poetic language. Below, we present some passages from this work, culminating in an exhortation to allow humanity to ebb away: “One night, in time long past, Man awoke and saw himself as he is. He saw that he was naked amidst the cosmos, homeless in his own body. His thought, which dug and questioned back behind all that is, cast everything into dissolution and disintegration, confronting him always with new riddles and causing, over and over again, dismay and consternation to burgeon in his brain.” [1]

“What had happened? There had occurred a breach in the former unity of life and all that lives: a biological paradox, something monstrous, absurd, a catastrophic hypertrophy. Life had overshot its own goal and broken its own banks. It had equipped one of the species brought forth by it with a weapon – namely, “mind” in this term’s full self-reflective sense – that had proven all too powerful. Mind not only endowed this species with omnipotence over its external environment; it also represented a great danger for this species’ own wellbeing.” [2]

“He enters Nature like an uninvited guest; he stretches out his arms and pleads to be led back to that which brought him forth. But Nature no longer answers. In Man, it performed a miracle; but ever since it did so, it no longer knows or recognizes the miracle it performed.” [3] “Know yourselves, be unfruitful, and let the earth, when you are gone from it, lapse into stillness and silence.” [4]


Om det tragiske (On the Tragic) (1941)

In his voluminous magnum opus “On the Tragic” Zapffe portrays Man’s mode of existence (in accord here with Josef Körner[5]) as structurally and thereby irremediably tragic. Man, however, has the capacity to rebel against that Nature and that life which enslaved him – a truth the antinatalistic consequences of which Zapffe develops only at very few points in his body of work. He does so, however, in the following passage, framed in the poetic language which he had favoured in “The Last Messiah” but which is quite untypical of the otherwise sober style of the magnum opus:

„You got me. But my son you will not get. You made a fateful error when you subjected even procreation to my will. And you did not do this out of love…, but rather to burden me with the heaviest of all responsibilities…: Am I to perpetuate this species or not? And from now on I will no longer ask what you want; rather you shall ask what I want. And I will no longer offer sacrifices to the God of life. I will punish you with the ability that you bequeathed to me in order to torment me; I will turn my clairvoyance against you, thus robbing you of your victims. And the abused millions will stand behind me like a plough… And evermore will two human beings create one more of their kind… Thus you will feel your powerlessness and come begging to me, to Man, on bloody knees.“ [6]

The problem constituted by the existence of a humanity dismissed from the enfolding bosom of Nature – and reflectively aware of this dismissal, so that we find ourselves thirsting after meaning in a cosmos that is essentially meaningless – can only be solved by the cessation of the production of all further human beings:

„I will have to desist from the creation of all new stakeholders in this failed project. Such a decision would, indeed, usher in a terminal epoch in the development of humankind; […] But this renunciation, this ‘no’ opposed to all continuation of the human project, represents in fact the utmost cultural possibility of mankind.“ [7]

If Man is by his very nature a cultural being, then it is imperative that Man’s end too be an end informed by that reflection and volition that are constitutive of culture.


Antinatalism of Suffering

At least in the first half of his life the impetus for Zapffe’s call for an “ebbing away of humanity” appears to consist essentially in the conflict between a meaningless cosmos and a being which demands, by its very nature, that things have meaning and sense. But in interviews from the later years of his life Zapffe begins to speak of the inescapability of certain experiences of suffering which no potential parent with any sense of responsibility would ever think of expecting any child they may beget to put up with. A transitional phase here is represented, perhaps, by an interview given to the newspaper Aftenposten in 1959. Here Zapffe says:

“Above all, we must give ethical relevance to the issue of procreation. Before one gives a coin to a beggar one looks at both faces of it, carefully considering what one is about to do. A child, by contrast, is thrown into the brutality of the cosmos without hesitation.” [8]

More precisely, Zapffe proposes, in this interview – in contrast to his statements in “On the Tragic”, where he had proposed that every couple should have just one child – a “two-child policy” as a way for humanity to “ebb away” without suffering:

“The sooner Man dares to put himself into a harmonious relationship with the biological conditions of his existence the better. And this means withdrawing voluntarily in protest against his conditions of life in this world; just like other species of animal, for whom warmth was a vital need, passed into extinction when the temperature dropped. The moral climate of the universe is effectively unbearable for us and the withdrawal from it can be carried out painlessly by way of the two-child norm. Instead, we ‘go forth and multiply’, presenting ourselves everywhere as if we were conquerors, since extreme hardship has taught us to suppress this formula in our hearts. This hardening of our sensibility is perhaps most indecently reflected in the thesis that the individual has the “duty” to endure nameless suffering and a horrible death inasmuch as this saves or favours the rest of the group to which the individual in question belongs.”[9]

This passage combines a reminder of the “unbearable moral climate of the universe” with certain concrete thoughts regarding how the failed project of humanity might at last be wrapped up and also regarding that unacceptable imposition of death and of suffering in general which always necessarily goes hand in hand with the bringing of new human beings into existence, human beings who never expressed any desire to be begotten and born.

This aspect of the irresponsibility of all generative behaviour is particularly emphasized by Zapffe in an interview from 1984:

“To have children, to let a fate come into existence – perhaps a whole series of fates without any limitation in time – is a project so heavily burdened with inevitable evils and enormous risks (physically and psychologically) that potential parents endowed with a fully developed sense of responsibility will tend towards passivity or show themselves incapable of acting. Especially at a time when immense threats close off the horizon, silencing any potential ‘yes’ to life.” [10]

In a late interview from 1989/1990 Zapffe comes down unequivocally on the side of a rigorous “no” to life: “From the ‘no’ to life there directly follows a cessation of procreation. I do not want to participate in the creation of new life.” [11]

As indicated above, one does not perhaps go far wrong in reckoning Zapffe among those thinkers whose thought has undergone a certain transformation in the direction of antinatalism: one which begins with a certain advocacy of antinatalism in view of the intolerable meaninglessness of self-aware human existence and moves toward something like an antinatalism proper founded in the fact of this existence’s being so overwhelmingly full of suffering that no one can reasonably be expected to accept and bear it. Zapffe’s early “antinatalism of meaninglessness”, however, does not appear very convincing – and this for the following reasons: Zapffe, as we have seen, portrays Man as a being who has been, as it were, “dismissed from Nature” by reason of a certain “surplus of consciousness” – which latter, indeed, lies at the root of Man’s awareness of, and ability to reflect upon, himself – and who, therefore, finds himself in the midst of a meaningless cosmos and suffers terribly from this fact. In the first place the question arises of whether Zapffe does not, perhaps, overly romanticize the existence of human beings – at this point, as should be noted, only conscious, not yet genuinely self-conscious beings – “in the bosom of Nature”. Because it is true, after all, of the great majority of sentient animals that, after lifetimes filled with sicknesses, injuries, hunger and vicissitudes either as hunter or as prey, no easy or merciful death falls to their lot. And furthermore the course of events, in terms of the interface between Nature and history, within the transitional space between animal and Man is not as Zapffe suggests it to be: as far back as our knowledge of Man reaches, we see him “always already” accompanied by culture and by ritual actions from which we can conclude the existence of certain mythical world-images which prevented a sense of meaninglessness from ever arising. Zapffe conceives of Man as a biological “hiatus being” who is no longer, as the other animals were and remain, merely aware but rather becomes abruptly and immediately self-aware and proves unable to withstand the sudden onslaught of that meaninglessness which he nonetheless presupposes as a given. No such Man ever existed, however, in our species’ history or prehistory, since Man was “always already” an artist, at least as regards his anchoring of himself in the world by means of myth and religion. Zapffe fails to recognize this even though precisely such an “anchoring” forms one of his key themes: “anchoring” in the world as an unconscious precautionary measure aimed at precluding full exposure to the assault of meaninglessness – this is a topic which occupies him at great length throughout his major work “On the Tragic”.

It was only, in fact, after the implosion of that harmoniously ordered world-whole to which the Greeks gave the telling denomination “cosmos”, and after the subsequent collapse of that conception of the world as God’s Creation which had been this vision’s successor and inheritor, that Man found himself cheek by jowl with a universe bereft of meaning. No such confrontation as is described in Zapffe’s “The Last Messiah” – namely, that of a primitive Man, dismissed from the bosom of Nature and abruptly self-aware, with a tormenting, absolute nothingness – can ever really have occurred. This confrontation is rather something which was reserved for us, the “late humanity” of the present day.

In fact, however – and this much at least can be said in the defence of his early philosophical schema – Zapffe adduces, in “The Last Messiah”, no less than four distinct strategies or systems serving to keep at a distance the onslaught of a meaningless universe. These are: isolation, anchoring, distraction and sublimation. By “isolation” Zapffe understands the deliberate rejection of all those disturbing and destructive thoughts and feelings which may happen to come to an individual’s awareness. Regarding “anchoring” Zapffe notes:

“Every cultural unity is a large-scale system of anchoring, fully rounded-off in itself and constructed upon those supporting pillars that are the culture in question’s fundamental ideas.”[12]

These trust-building “anchoring mechanisms” – parents, home, even the life of the streets – exert their effects from earliest childhood on. “Distraction” is considered by Zapffe to be an extremely widely prevalent mechanism of self-protection: attention to the universe’s meaninglessness remains constantly below a certain critical threshold, inasmuch as our attentiveness is constantly fed by new distracting impressions. “Sublimation”, finally, designates rather a transformation than a repression. It is very telling that the US antinatalist Thomas Ligotti – on whom Zapffe’s work “The Last Messiah” exerted a great influence – chose to call his own work on “the conspiracy against the human race” the sublimation of his personal “cosmophobia”. If one reads these Zapffe’s four systems or strategies as strategies of “de-anxietization”, the connection becomes clear between his work and the work of Hans Blumenberg, who also accorded to mythical world-descriptions and mythical forms of life the function of “de-anxietization”.


[1] „En natt i lengst forsvunne tider våknet mennesket og så seg selv. Han så at han var naken under kosmos, hjemløs i sitt eget legeme. Allting oppløste seg for hans prøvende tanke, under over under, redsel over redsel sprang ut i hans sinn.“

[2] „Hva var skjedd? Et brudd på selve livs-enheten, et biologisk paradoks, en uhyrlighet, en absurditet, en hypertrofi av katastrofal natur. Livet hadde skutt over målet og sprengt seg selv. En art var blitt væpnet for sterkt, – ånden gjorde den ikke bare allmektig utad, den var like farlig for sin egen velferd.“

[3] „Han kommer til naturen som en ubuden gjest; forgjeves rekker han sine armer ut og bønnfaller om å bli gjenforenet med det som har skapt ham: Naturen svarer ikke mer, den gjorde et under med mennesket, men siden kjente den ham ikke.“

[4] „Kjenn Eder selv, vær ufruktbare og la jorden bli stille etter Eder.“

[5] Ders.: Tragik und Tragödie. Ein vorläufiger Versuch über Wesen und Gestaltwandel des Tragischen, in: Preußische Jahrbücher Bd. 225 (1931).

[6] „Mig fik du, men min søn skal du ikke faa! En skjæbnesvanger feil begik du, dengang du agsaa la avlen ind under min vilje. Og ikke av kjærlighet gjorde du det, men for at jeg skulde møte dette værste av alle konkrete ansvar…: Skal jeg føre denne slegt videre eller skal jeg ikke? Og nu spør jeg ikke længer hvad du vil, men du skal spørge havd jeg vil, og jeg vil ikke mere ofre til livets gud. Jeg skal ramme dig med den evne som du frigav for at pine mig, jeg skal bruke min indsigt imot dig og berøve / dig dit bytte. Og de misbrukte millioner skal staa bak mig som en plog… Og altid skal to avle én… Da skal du kjende din avmagt og tigge mig, mennesket, paa dine blodige knær.“ (Om det tragiske, S. 239f)

[7] „Jeg maa undlate aa skape nye interessebærere. Beslutningen vil danne en avsluttende epoke i menneskeslegtens utvikling […] I denne forsagelse, dette nei til fortsættelsen, ligger menneskeformens ytterste kulturelle mulighed.“(Zapffe, Om det tragiske, Pax Forlag 1996, S. 402).

[8] „Fremfor alt må vi gjøre forplantningsspørsmålet etisk relevant. Man endevender en mynt under valgets kvide, før man gir den til tiggeren. Men et barn slænger man ut i den kosmiske råskap uten å blunke.“

[9] „Jo snarere menneskeslekten våger å harmonere med sine biologiske forutsætninger, des bedre. Og det er å trække sig frivillig tilbake, av ringeakt for sine vilkår i verden, likesom varmehungrende dyrearter døde ut da temperaturen sank. Det er altets moralske klima vi egentlig ikke kan tåle, og avviklingen kan ske smertefritt gjennem to-barns-normen. Isteden utbreder vi oss og seirer overalt, fordi vi av nøden har lært å lemlæste formelen i vore hjerter. Det urimeligste utslag av denne styrkende forgrovning har vi kanske i tesen om, at den enkelte har “plikt” til å bære navnløse lidelser og den værste død, dersom det redder eller gavner resten av den gruppe han tilhører.“ Der norwegische Text wurde uns von „Planet Zapffe“ (http://www.knunst.com/planetzapffe/) zur Verfügung gestellt.

[10] „…å avle barn, å starte en skjæbne, evt. en vifte av skjæbner uten begrænsning i tid – er et foretagande så ladet med både sikre onder og svimlende risker – fysisk, psykisk og sjælelig sett – att potensielle forældre med moden ansvarsbevissthet vil være disponert for passivitet eller handlingslammelse på dette punkt, især i en tid som vor, der overvældende truende aspekter fylder horizonten og lammer vort Ja til livet.“ (Zapffe im Interview mit Geir T.H. Eriksen, in: Gateavisa Nr. 102 (7/84), Seite 29–31, hier: S. 30).

[11] „Den givende handling som følger av et nei til livet, det er jo at man innstiller barneforplantningen. Jeg vil ikke være med på å skape nytt liv.“ (Zapffe interviewed by Av Bo Viuf, http://www.oslo.net/historie/MB/utg/9601/perspekt/1.html, consulted on 14.9.2014)

[12] Enhver kultur-enhet er et stort, avrundet forankringssystem, bygget over bærende grunnbjelker, de fundamentale kulturtanker. (Den siste messias)

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