Peter Wessel Zapffe

Peter Wessel Zapffe (December 18 1899-October 12 1990) was a Norwegian author and philosopher. He was born in Tromsø and was well known for his somewhat pessimistic view of human existence. His basic thoughts about the error of human existence are presented in the essay, The Last Messiah (original: Den sidste Messias, 1933). This essay is a shorter version of his best-known work, the philosophical treatise, On the tragic (original: Om det tragiske 1941). He called his brand of thought, biosophy, which he defined as "thinking on life".


Zapffe's theory 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 provide satisfaction for. 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".
  • Anchoring is the "fixation of points within, or construction of walls around, the liquid fray of consciousness". The anchoring mechanism provides individuals a value or an ideal that allows them to focus their attentions in a consistent manner. Zapffe also applied the anchoring principle to society, and stated "God, the Church, the State, morality, fate, the laws of life, the people, the future" are all examples of collective primary anchoring firmaments.
  • Distraction is when "one limits attention to the critical bounds by constantly enthralling it with impressions". 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 individual distances him / herself and looks at their existence from an aesthetic point of view (eg, writers, poets, painters.) Zapffe himself pointed out that his produced works were the product of sublimation.

Zapffe was a prolific mountain climber and author of many humorous short stories about climbing and other adventures in nature, taking a very early interest in environmentalism.

Greater works

  • 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

  • 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.

Other works

  • Vett og uvett. Stubber fra Troms og Nordland (En: Wit and whimsy: small stories from Troms and Nordland) by Einar K. Aas and P.W Zapffe, Trondheim 1942.


  • "Each new generation asks – What is the meaning of life? A more fertile way of putting the question would be – Why does man need a meaning to life?"
  • "Man is a tragic animal. Not because of his smallness, but because he is too well endowed. Man has longings and spiritual demands that reality cannot fulfill. We have expectations of a just and moral world. Man requires meaning in a meaningless world".
  • "The seed of a metaphysical or religious defeat is in us all. For the honest questioner, however, who doesn’t seek refuge in some faith or fantasy, there will never be an answer".
  • "We come from an inconceivable nothingness. We stay a while in something which seems equally inconceivable, only to vanish again into the inconceivable nothingness".
  • "The immediate facts are what we must relate to. Darkness and light, beginning and end".
  • "Death is a terrible provocation. It appears almost everywhere, presenting a stern but effective scale for both values and ethical standards".
  • "Death is the most certain and the most uncertain event there is".
  • "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 begger, whereas a child is flung out into the cosmic brutality without hesitation".
  • "Mankind ought to end its existence of its own will".
  • "I myself am no longer very much afflicted by the thought of my own death. The synthesis, Peter Wessel Zapffe, did not originate until 1899. It was spared from immediate participation in the horrors of the previous years, and it will not miss what awaits mankind at the end of its vertiginous madness".
  • "If one regards life and death as natural processes, the metaphysical dread vanishes, and one obtains "peace of mind"".

From To be a Human Being – the philosopher Peter Wessel Zapffe in his 90th year (Documentary, 1989-90).


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