The story of the only human being living on the face of the earth is probably as old as stories. In Genesis, Adam finds himself alone for a time, existing in a world created for him for no clear reason. Later, the tale of Noah would show us a family responsible for starting over after the rest of humanity was righteously wiped out. The film “Omega Man” dealt with this idea in the 1970s, and more recently, in “I am Legend,” Will Smith’s character struggled with the implications of being the last man. In the classic American tradition, our latest version is a smart, funny sitcom called “The Last Man On Earth.”
Created by and starring former Saturday Night Live cast member Will Forte, “The Last Man On Earth” depicts a bumbling guy in the year 2020 who survives a virus that wipes out humanity. But this isn’t exactly what we think of as survival of the fittest. Or, perhaps it is. There is no virtuous nature like Noah’s that saves Forte’s character, Phil, from annihilation. He just got lucky—which is basically how science tells us all of this works.
In watching the show, it wasn’t the canonical representations of the last man from the Bible or recent films that came to my mind. Rather, it was the concept of the last man posited by an enigmatic and still-controversial late nineteenth-century German philosopher.
In his masterpiece, “Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” Fredrick Nietzsche introduces his concept of the last man. This is not in a literal sense the last man living on earth, but rather the final iteration of humanity as we know it prior to the introduction of the ubermensch, or superman. For Nietzsche, the last man is the culmination of Western decadence, a figure who is weak and refuses to accept his unique position as the true G-d of creation. Nietzsche describes him in this way through his prophet Zarathustra:
Lo! I show you THE LAST MAN…
The Earth hath then become small, and on it there hoppeth the last man who maketh everything small. His species is ineradicable like that of the ground flea; the last man livith longest…They have left the regions where it is hard to live; for they need warmth…
A little poison now and then: that maketh pleasant dreams. And much poison at last for a pleasant death…One still worketh, for work is a pastime. But one is careful lest the pastime should hurt one…One no longer becometh poor or rich; both are too burdensome. Who still wanteth to rule? Who still wanteth to obey? Both are too burdensome…
No Shepard, and one herd.
As a reviewer of the television show “The Last Man On Earth,” Nietzsche does a pretty good job here. Phil is small and ineradicable, even when he attempts to commit suicide he is suddenly saved. He heads towards the warm climate of Tucson. He drinks and bathes in margaritas. He lives in a mansion, but can’t make it work; he is neither rich nor poor. And he doesn’t desire burdens in the least. Phil is as full an embodiment of this despicable last man as one can find.
Yet, much like the people who mock Zarathustra in the novel, like this last man, we like this character. The creator’s name notwithstanding, Forte’s character does not embody the will to power. He represents accepting the smallness of our lives, the small struggles that exist at the core of modern Western man. The small steps we take as we climb our mountains. We are fed, we are housed. Now what?
How America Rebuked Nietzche
In many ways, the twentieth-century American was the fatal foil to Nietzsche’s philosophy. His vision of the impotence of democracy and bourgeois free markets carried the day in Europe in the first decades of that century. Perhaps its culmination came in Vichy France, where the population accepted the weakness and femininity of a system that did not give the strongest their due.
In his seminal book, “Vichy France,” Robert O. Paxton describes how by the early twentieth century the (classical) liberal model of England had come to be derided as an acceptance of weakness and a refusal to accept justified power. Why, after all, should men like Phil, with their beards and lackadaisical attitudes, hold any sway in the furtherance of humanities’ power?
But something happened on the way to the Third Reich, something Nietzsche never considered. A backwoods nation that felt embarrassed and in awe of European knowledge and history rose to be the greatest power on earth. Not so much through the will to power of its great Roosevelts, but through the small-minded tenacity of its businessmen and workers. The private and arguably selfish desires of simple individuals came to the fore, framing and shaping post-modernity, just as Phil creates his new world according to his own private and selfish desires. And that is exactly where a new influence emerges in “The Last Man On Earth,” one that Nietzsche, a famous misogynist, could never have fathomed. The influence of women.
What Women Do to Men
A great American writer from the second half of the nineteenth century was better able to understand women’s influence on a last/first man story. In his “Diary of Eve,” Mark Twain gives us this impression by the first woman of the first man:
Sunday: It is up there yet. Resting, apparently. But that is a subterfuge: Sunday isn’t the day of rest; Saturday is appointed for that. It looks to me like a creature that is more interested in resting than in anything else. It would tire me to rest so much. It tires me just to sit around and watch the tree. I do wonder what it is for; I never see it do anything.
This could not track closer to the introduction of “The Last Man On Earth’s” first female character. She stresses the importance of repopulating and recreating civilization. She works to animate Phil. Even in this age of the destruction of gender roles, this feels very real to many men and women who watch and enjoy the show. Women make men do things, or at least they try.
In what should have been a controversial choice by Forte, a more beautiful, seductive woman is necessary to make Phil shave and play ball. This, for me, is the aspect of the show that rings the least true. Phil’s first woman would have been enough. The profound influence of women is not, at the end of the day, based on their beauty, but on their sense of the practical. It’s something quite natural to those who cannot easily forgo the responsibilities of sex.
But Forte may be zeroing in on a consistent flaw of the modern West. For all of women’s advancements, we still focus on their beauty, their sexual appeal, as the hallmark of their importance. I hope Forte is mocking this flaw. Either way, he makes it quite clear that, unlike many societies on earth, ours can and will no longer view women as a mere accoutrement.
A big part of the charm of “The Last Man on Earth” is that it invites us to wonder how we would react to such circumstances. Where would we go? What would we do? While that may fall into the trap of the one-trick pony, thus far the show seems to have chops that can sustain its story. A favorite quote of mine from Zarathustra is, “The shortest way across the mountains is peak to peak, but one must have very long legs.” It’s not clear yet how long Forte’s legs are, but he’s having fun, and so far it’s fun to watch.