Peter Wessel Zapffe

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Peter Wessel Zapffe
Portrait of Peter Wessel Zapffe.jpg
BornDecember 18, 1899
Tromsø, Norway
DiedOctober 12, 1990(1990-10-12) (aged 90)
Asker, Norway
Alma materUniversity of Oslo
Bergliot Espolin Johnson
(m. 1935; div. 1941)

Berit Riis Christensen
(m. 1952)
AwardsFritt Ord Honorary Award (1987)[1]
Era20th-century philosophy
RegionWestern philosophy
SchoolContinental philosophy
Philosophical pessimism
Main interests
Metaphysics, nihilism
Notable ideas
Biosophy, antinatalism, "The Last Messiah", "remedies against panic"

Peter Wessel Zapffe (December 18, 1899 – October 12, 1990) was a Norwegian metaphysician, author, lawyer and mountaineer. He is often noted for his philosophically pessimistic and fatalistic view of human existence[2]—his system of philosophy in line with the work of the earlier philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, by whom he was inspired—as well as his firm advocacy of antinatalism.[3] His thoughts regarding the error of human life are presented in the essay "The Last Messiah" (Norwegian: "Den sidste Messias", 1933). This essay is a shorter version of his best-known and yet to be translated work, the philosophical treatise On the Tragic (Om det tragiske, 1941).[2]

Philosophical work[edit]

Zapffe's view is that humans are born with an overdeveloped skill (understanding, self-knowledge) which does not fit into nature's design. The human craving for justification on matters such as life and death cannot be satisfied, hence humanity has a need that nature cannot satisfy. The tragedy, following this theory, is that humans spend all their time trying not to be human. The human being, therefore, is a paradox.

In "The Last Messiah", Zapffe described four principal defense mechanisms that humankind uses to avoid facing this paradox:

  • Isolation is "a fully arbitrary dismissal from consciousness of all disturbing and destructive thought and feeling".[4]
  • Anchoring is the "fixation of points within, or construction of walls around, the liquid fray of consciousness".[4] The anchoring mechanism provides individuals with a value or an ideal to consistently focus their attention on. Zapffe also applied the anchoring principle to society and stated that "God, the Church, the State, morality, fate, the laws of life, the people, the future"[4] are all examples of collective primary anchoring firmaments.
  • Distraction is when "one limits attention to the critical bounds by constantly enthralling it with impressions".[4] Distraction focuses all of one's energy on a task or idea to prevent the mind from turning in on itself.
  • Sublimation is the refocusing of energy away from negative outlets, toward positive ones. The individuals distance themselves and look at their existence from an aesthetic point of view (e.g., writers, poets, painters). Zapffe himself pointed out that his produced works were the product of sublimation.

Other interests and works[edit]

Zapffe was a prolific mountaineer and took a very early interest in environmentalism; this form of nature conservationism sprung from the intent, not of protecting nature, but to avoid human culturalization of nature.[5]

Zapffe was the author of many humorous short stories about climbing and other adventures in nature.[6]

Personal life[edit]

Zapffe married Bergljot Espolin Johnsen in 1935; they divorced in 1941. He married Berit Riis Christensen in 1952, they remained together until his death in 1990; Berit died in May 2008.[7] Zapffe remained childless by choice.[8] He was lifelong friends with the Norwegian philosopher and fellow mountaineer, Arne Næss.[1]

Selected works[edit]

  • Om det tragiske (En: On the Tragic), Oslo, 1941 and 1983.
  • Den fortapte sønn. En dramatisk gjenfortælling (En: The Prodigal Son: A Dramatic Renarration), Oslo, 1951.
  • Indføring i litterær dramaturgi (En: Introduction to Literary Dramaturgy), Oslo, 1961.
  • Den logiske sandkasse. Elementær logikk for universitet og selvstudium (En: The Logical Sandpit: Elementary Logic for University and Individual Study), Oslo, 1965.
  • Lyksalig pinsefest. Fire samtaler med Jørgen (En: Blissful Pentecost: Four Dialogues with Jørgen), Oslo, 1972.
  • Hos doktor Wangel. En alvorlig spøk i fem akter (En: With Doctor Wangel: An Earnest Jest in Five Acts), by Ib Henriksen (pseudonym.), Oslo, 1974. Play.
  • Rikets hemmelighet. En kortfattet Jesus-biografi (En: The Secret of the Kingdom: A Short Biography of Jesus), Oslo, 1985.

Collections of his shorter writings[edit]

  • Essays og epistler (En: Essays and epistles), Oslo, 1967.
  • Barske glæder og andre temaer fra et liv under åpen himmel (En: Rough Joys, and other themes from a life lived under the open sky), Oslo 1969.
  • Spøk og alvor. Epistler og leilighetsvers (En: Jest and Earnest: epistles and occasional verse), Oslo, 1977.
  • Hvordan jeg blev så flink og andre tekster (En: How I Became So Clever, and other texts), Oslo, 1986.
  • Vett og uvett. Stubber fra Troms og Nordland (En: Sense and Nonsense: Short Stories from Troms and Nordland) by Einar K. Aas and P. W. Zapffe, Trondheim 1942. Illustrated by Kaare Espolin Johnson.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c "Biography of Peter Wessel Zapffe". Open Air Philosophy. Retrieved August 7, 2020.
  2. ^ a b Tangenes, Gisle R. (March–April 2004). "The View from Mount Zapffe". Philosophy Now. Retrieved April 12, 2020.
  3. ^ Zapffe remarked that children are brought into the world without consent or forethought:

    In accordance with my conception of life, I have chosen not to bring children into the world. A coin is examined, and only after careful deliberation, given to a beggar, whereas a child is flung out into the cosmic brutality without hesitation. (To Be a Human Being (1989–90); the philosopher Peter Wessel Zapffe in his 90th year (1990 documentary, Tromsø Norway: Original Film AS[permanent dead link])).

  4. ^ a b c d Zapffe, Peter Wessel (March–April 2004). "The Last Messiah". Philosophy Now. Retrieved April 12, 2020.
  5. ^ Zapffe, Peter Wessel (1969). "Parting with Gausta" (PDF). Open Air Philosophy.
  6. ^ Zapffe, Peter Wessel (1937). "Stetind" (PDF). Open Air Philosophy.
  7. ^ "Peter Wessel Zapffe". Hemneslekt. Retrieved August 7, 2020.
  8. ^ Reed, Peter; Rothenberg, David, eds. (1993). "Peter Wessel Zapffe". Wisdom in the Open Air: The Norwegian Roots of Deep Ecology. Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press. p. 56. ISBN 978-0-8166-2150-7.

External links[edit]