A blog post published last week by Psychology Today compared the beliefs of the nineteenth century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche with the way of life of the Batek. The author, Matthew J. Rossano, a professor of psychology at Southeastern Louisiana University, made it clear that many people would profit from gaining a greater understanding of the Batek.

A portrait photo of Friedrich Nietzsche by Gustav Adolf Schultze
A portrait photo of Friedrich Nietzsche by Gustav Adolf Schultze (In Wikipedia in the public domain)

The author deftly described the beliefs of Nietzsche. The philosopher rejected all religious faiths and beliefs in God, who is, he famously declared, quite dead. More to the point, Nietzsche taught that humans could reach a state of perfection by becoming an Übermensch, usually referred to in English as a “superman.” (Rossano provided a less gendered alternative translation of the German word: an “exceptional one.”)

The superman is a person who strives for mastery in any subject he or she undertakes. Perfection is an all-consuming goal. The individual is forever seeking to do more and to do better by taking greater risks and by testing the limits of the self. That testing should be all-consuming, not just for one’s intellectual or physical abilities. Personal growth, therefore, must be ceaseless and as a result the superman finds meaning and truth from the quest for perfection.

The superman only yields to his or her own constructed principles, Rosanno explained. He provided, as an example, the movie characters portrayed by the famous American actor Clint Eastwood. One might interject that many business leaders and politicians also appear to have adopted an Übermensch as as their ideal. Rosanno summarized the philosophy of Nietzsche as “hyper-individualistic,” but it was also “fit for a modern era.” His philosophy was based on individual achievements and the supposed need for personal power.

Four Batek people relax in their village
Four Batek people relax in their village (Photo by Cleffairy on the blog “Over a Cuppa Tea;” Creative Commons license)

The interest for the study of peaceful societies, and the point of Rosanno’s essay, was his comparison of Nietzsche’s philosophy with the way of life of the Batek. He began by introducing the Batek to his Psychology Today readers. They still engage in their traditional hunting and gathering lifestyle, the men using their blowpipes to harvest monkeys from the forest canopy, the women gathering forest foods such as fruits, tubers, and mushrooms from the forest floor and the understory. The Batek also collect rattan and trade it with nearby villagers. Rosanno described briefly the fact that the Batek are of interest to anthropologists because of the peacefulness and nonviolence of their society. He wondered how they do it.

He found an answer by looking at their basic image of the perfect human being—which contrasts so sharply with that of Nietzsche, who appeals in many ways to people in  modern societies. For the Batek, the perfect person is both completely cooperative and also autonomous and self-reliant. The Batek do not expect others to do things for them—you cook your own dinner or repair your own blowpipe. Those tasks of daily life are not difficult, however—they are enjoyable, in fact. But the major point is that for the Batek, cooperation, sharing, and equality are essential values. The competence of the individual is always seen within the context of the society, its bonds and its needs, Rosanno wrote. The hyper-individualism espoused by Nietzsche is not possible for the Batek.

If Nietzsche’s ideas were to be adopted by the Batek, the author observed, any value of exceptionalism would have to function within the context of human inter-dependence. Overcoming the limits of the self and constructing meanings for oneself would have to conform to the needs of the broader human society. “Needing others in order to grow, achieve, and realize our full potential is not an extrinsic, socially-imposed dogma. It is simply a human fact,” Rosanno concluded. Learning about the Batek provides a way of freeing people from dogmas such as those of Nietzsche.