Human and political alienation: A study of P.W. Zapffe and Leo Strauss

Peter Wessel Zapffe
Leo Strauss









I will retire soon and have come up with a reasonable project for the next years, to finally write a dissertation in philosophy.  Comments are welcome:

March, 2023
Frillesås, Sweden


Peter W. Zapffe on the tragedy of life and Leo Strauss on the failure of liberalism


My thesis, which may be submitted as an independent PhD to Oslo University for a Dr.Philos degree, is that the loss of meaning in life and the aimlessness of modern liberal society go together.

The Norwegian philosopher Peter Wessel Zappfe (1899-1990) declared that mankind has not reason to exist, as his natural equipments, i.e. our brain and consciousness, do not find their uses easily in our habitat (expanding the thought of 19th century biologist Jakob von Uexküll).

We do not know why we exist and Zapffe dedicated his life and writings to enlighten his readers, e.g. with his volumnious PhD to Oslo University 1941, Om det tragiske.

He openly argued for anti-natalism and did not have any children, a choice he wanted more to adhere to so the intelligent but useless humankind could become extinct.

The German-Jewish philosopher Leo Strauss (1899-1973) found that modern liberalism from its beginning in Machiavelli, Hobbes and Locke up until the modern forms in American social science and progressive political thought, could not give citizens any direction for the societies they were a part of.

From antiquity in Greece and Rome until the Renaissance, men had a purpose in their individual and in their political lives: to adhere to the pagan Gods, the Christian God and to enhance their personal virtues.

The European 19th century thinkers Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche saw this early as did Heidegger later (and earlier the 18th century German philosopher F.C. Jacobi).

In 1941 when Peter W. Zapffe published his pessimistic-existentialist thesis in Norway, Leo Strauss held a speech in New York on the topic of ”German Nihilism”. He argued that the rise of Nazism, especially among the intellectual youth in Germany, was a reaction to the meningless of the modern age and its liberalism, which did not stand for anything apart from hedonism, individualism, historicism and materialism

Meaninglessness of personal life and of liberal democracy are what Zapffe and Strauss faced, albeit not as common features.
Zappfe was a conservative and had a very provocative mind, and wrote mostly the loss of raw nature in Norway (he disliked railways and highways that forced their way through the mountains and fjords).

Strauss did rarely mention the meaning of life as such but always went back to Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, and Xenophon, to find what gentlemen and philosophers should use their lives to, i.e. contemplation. Society had earlier organised classical liberal education (”liberal” understood as from the Greek ”enkýklios paideía” and Roman ”artes liberales”), understood, but this had been lost in the 20th century, as Strauss’ student Allan Bloom wrote 1987 in his The Closing of the American Mind.

My study will compare these two philosophical approaches to alienation, the personal and the political. Contemporary discussions of the failure of liberalism and modernity will briefly be included such as done by Patrick Deneen and a few others. Focus is on the similarities and differences between the two thinkers’ analyses of man and society.

In a liberal democracy, citizens are encouraged to live outside communal  and habitual life, to become ”anywheres”, something that the last decades has met opposition from ”somewheres” as it did earlier from the communitariansm (see my anthology Kommunitarism). To analyze personal and social meaninglessness in modern philosophical and political thought seems worthwhile and pertinent.

Norwegian and other comments on Zapffe are not that many but maybe my work will lead to a revival of this eccentric man, a humorous pessimist, daring mountaineer, a Jack-of-all-trades, self-taught scholar and sturdy brooder. A fellow Scandinavian uncle.

Jan Sjunnesson, BA (on Foucault) and MA (on Deleuze) in philosophy

Links to earlier writings and discussions  in Swedish on liberalism of which some will be published in Norwegian this year:


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