The Insatiable Need for Meaning

According to Nietzsche


Why are humans driven mad by meaning? “What a strange urge, the human need for purpose,” writes Nate Anderson (author of In Emergency, Break Glass).

As Nietzsche wrote in Human, All Too Human,

"In a journey, we commonly forget its goal. Almost every vocation is chosen and entered upon as means to an end, but is continued as the ultimate end. Forgetting our purpose is the most frequent form of folly."

Friedrich Nietzsche

In my interview with Nate Anderson (author of In Emergency, Break Glass), he explained, “For Nietzsche, ranking comfort too highly can dampen our desire to strive, to risk, and to create, these more difficult goals that matter to living a fully orbed human life.”

In the first section of The Gay Science (a book about how to live joyfully without metaphysical meaning), Nietzsche wrote: “Man has gradually become a visionary animal, who has to fulfill one more condition of existence than the other animals. Man must from time to time believe that he knows why he exists.”

Anderson writes,

"Nietzsche needed a goal, and he attributed some of his own sicknesses to the lack of direction he felt after he resigned from his post at Basel. Ill and jobless, his search for meaning took on a passion and intensity seen most often in the religious life that he disdained. What he needed most, he realized, was not an end to suffering; he needed a journey and a destination."

Friedrich Nietzsche

Similarly, the philosopher Seneca insisted, “If one does not know which port he sails, no wind is favorable.” We are faltering, observed Nietzsche, but we must not let it make us afraid and perhaps surrender the new things we have gained. We cannot return to the old. We have burned our boats; all that remains is for us to be brave and let happen what may.

“Let us only go forward, let us make a move!”

Friedrich Nietzsche

The notion of moving forward was a literal one for Nietzsche. He stressed that the best place to find our “why” is walking. “All great thoughts are conceived while walking,” insisted Nietzsche. In his book Ecce Homo, Nietzsche advised,

"Sit as little as possible; give no credence to any thought that was not born outdoors while one moved about freely — in which the muscles are not celebrating a feast, too: all prejudices come from the intestines. The sedentary life — as I have said once before — is the real sin against the holy spirit."

Friedrich Nietzsche

In a passage from one of his notebooks, published after his death, Nietzsche writes eloquently about this need for goals: If the “why” of one’s life is clear, then the “how” will take care of itself.



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