What do Beavis and Butthead Have in Common with Nietzsche?
Susan Neiman is a moral philosopher with an interest in exploring the persistence of Enlightenment thought and reinterpreting past thinkers for contemporary contexts. She is the current Director of the Einstein Forum, having previously taught at Yale University and Tel Aviv University. The Wall Street Journal called her 2008 Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists “an argument for re-engaging with the moral vocabulary of the country.” Her 2002 work, Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy, explains philosophy’s quest, touching on Kant, among others, as one perpetually in search of a perfect understanding of evil. Born in Atlanta, Neiman received her doctorate degree from Harvard University.
Neiman: Nietzsche talks about the last men and the last men are those for whom even the supposed news that God is dead creates no reaction. They don’t care about anything. They’ve lost a complete and total sense of reverence. I talk about Beavis and Butt-Head in my chapter on reverence, which I distinguish from religion. I don’t think reverence necessarily has to go along with established religion but I do think that without reverence, which entails first of all a sense of human limits-- We didn’t create the world. Whatever it-- Whatever you think-- Wherever you think the world came from, you didn’t create it and it’s a very important thing to remember about your own limits, and secondly, wherever it came from it’s something to be grateful for, and those are two elements of reverence that I think are crucial to a moral attitude and I think they’re crucial to living a good life. And those are attitudes that the last men in Nietzsche’s language simply have lost. When somebody comes in screaming and announcing, “Oh, my God. What are we going to do? God is dead,” they said, “Oh, so what? So what? Can I change the channel?” So when I ran across Beavis and Butt-Head in the ‘90s, I said, “This is incredible. This is-- These are Nietzsche’s last men,” and of course it’s a satire. It’s meant to satirize a set of contemporary attitudes but it’s- it gets something exactly right about postmodern culture that Nietzsche was pointing to. My kids roll their eyeballs and say, “Ah, Beavis and Butt-Head is so ‘90s, Ma. We’ve gone on to South Park.” So I-- My kids did make me watch South Park and I did but I think without Beavis and Butt-Head, which is in some sense a more complicated show, a certain postmodern-- It’s not even a cynical attitude anymore because it’s no longer even mourning the loss of a set of values. It’s simply taking that loss for granted.
Susan Neiman explains how Beavis and Butthead are perfect examples of Nietzsche’s "last men."
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