40-somethings, the Last Man, and a tragic sense

I found Simon Kuper’s “Fortysomethings: A Midterm Report” (Financial Times, October 12, 2012) especially illuminating. He writes that 40-somethings are both producers and products of sheer busyness: they are mid-career, married, with young children and mortgage payments. He observes that they do not have time to think about their lives. Consequently, “Nowhere in my peer group have I witnessed a textbook midlife crisis.” The tone of the piece seemed to me most telling: a wry sense of humor, a quiet form of modesty, a comic sensibility.

Call it an espousal of the Last Man argument. After the Death of God, Nietzsche worries that the Last Man will have no reason to live–no higher reason, that is–save to maintain his comforts and to half-observe the tedium of things. Unable or unwilling to stake himself to anything higher, he merely persists in his own existence. He has forgotten what it means to ‘give an account of oneself'(logos) and thereby forgotten what could make life into a work of art.

In my philosophy practice, I’ve noticed something different, however. Those in their early 40s seem more willing and able than those in their 20s or 60s to put their life into question: the whole of it, I mean. The Last Man is but one notable comic response; another, born of a tragic sense, is an awakening to philosophical life. Hear Thoreau: “To be awake is to be alive.”