We have explored the ideas of the will to power and the eternal recurrence in-depth in previous posts. Now we will be doing the same here with the übermensch.
Translation and Origins of “Übermensch”
Let’s first start with the word itself, “ubermensch”. The first English translation rendered it as “Beyond-Man”, and later it was named “Superman”, however this promoted its misidentification with the comic-book character Superman. It has also been called the “Super-human” and “Über-man”.
Walter Kaufmann, one of the most important Nietzschean scholars, explains that the closest to the German translation is “overman”. We will be using this term, although it can also be used in its original German form as well.
Nietzsche was a profound admirer of Emerson. He wrote in his notes:
“Emerson. – Never have I felt so much at home in a book and in my home, as – I may not praise it, it is too close to me”
– Volume XI Musarion edition.
Emerson had coined the term “The Over-soul” (the title of one of his essays), which may have influenced Nietzsche’s choice of the term übermensch, making the translation “overman” doubly appropriate. Nietzsche had translated the original English word of “over-soul” as “the higher soul”, which also may have influenced his phrase, “the higher man.”
The Overman and The Free Spirit
Nietzsche had not come up with the concept of the overman until his later period in life. However, he had spoken of “free spirits”, which is to evolve in his later works into the sage Zarathustra, who paves the way for the overman.
In one of his early books, Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits, Nietzsche dedicates it to the “free spirits” who did not exist yet, but he saw them coming slowly. He spent time with these imagined “free spirits” to be of good cheer in the midst of illness, isolation and inactivity, to chat and laugh with. The free spirit challenges the conventional ways of living and promotes the growth of society.
The Overman and The Final Metamorphosis
In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the overman is linked with the final metamorphosis of the child. Nietzsche tells us that there are three metamorphoses for self-overcoming: the camel, the lion and the child.
Not everyone, however, can become a camel. One must first become a free spirit and be willing to step outside of one’s comfort zone to carry heavy weights and sacrifice oneself. To debase oneself in order to injure one’s pride, to let one’s folly shine out in order to mock one’s wisdom. In other words, Nietzsche suggests that when we feel proud of ourselves, we are to take on even more weight to show that we are not that great after all, we need to humble ourselves.
The lion is the next transformation, he is one who wants to take on freedom and must utter the “sacred No” to all tradition and rules that previously kept it “fettered”. The final transformation, characterised by play and creativity, is the child. Having uttered the “Sacred No” to reject everything that came before, the child shouts the “sacred Yes” that affirms life. It is a new beginning, without any burdens or “spirit of heaviness”.
After achieving the final metamorphosis, one can become “who one is”. The mind of the child is one who is immersed in the moment and filled with wonder and playfulness, giving way to pure creativity, one can create one’s own values and one’s own reality, one can now become an overman.
What is the Overman?
The overman is the ultimate form of man, it is one who overcomes nihilism by creating his own values and focusing on this life, not the afterlife. He puts all his faith in himself as an autonomous creator and relies on nothing else. He is the pinnacle of self-overcoming, to rise above the human norm and above all difficulties, embracing whatever life throws at you. He is one who overcomes mediocrity and is not afraid to live dangerously. “The overman shall be the meaning of the earth”.
To be master of oneself is the hardest of all tasks and requires the greatest increase in power over oneself, not over others. This is tied with his concept of the will to power, symbolising self-overcoming. Happiness is the feeling that power increases, that a resistance is overcome. The overman will thus be the happiest man and, as such, the meaning and justification of existence.
First Appearance of The Overman
The first appearance of the “overman” does not first occur in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, as many believe. Nietzsche, in fact, mentions it once in an aphorism of The Gay Science:
“The invention of gods, heroes, and overmen of all kinds, as well as near-men and undermen, dwarfs, fairies, centaurs, satyrs, demons and devils was the inestimable preliminary exercise for the justification of the egoism and sovereignty of the individual: the freedom that one conceded to a god in his relation to other gods – one eventually also granted oneself in relation to laws, customs, and neighbours.”
The Gay Science, §143
The overmen of this aphorism seem to be the gods, the demigods, and heroes of the ancient Greeks. To Nietzsche these overmen appear as symbols of the repudiation of any conformity to a single norm: antitheses to mediocrity and stagnation.
To realise one’s true self means not to envisage the self which lies deeply concealed within you, but rather the self that is immeasurably high over you. This aphorism is significant because it contains one of the few references to the overman before Thus Spoke Zarathustra and was written just before that work.
The Overman and Thus Spoke Zarathustra
In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the overman makes his most important public appearance – together with the eternal recurrence and the will to power, which had not been fully developed either before Zarathustra expounded them. After Zarathustra’s descent from the mountains he arrives at a town, where he found a crowd assembled in the market square, for it had been announced that a tightrope walker would be appearing. And Zarathustra spoke thus to the people:
“I teach you the overman. Man is something that should be overcome. What have you done to overcome him? All beings so far have created something beyond themselves: and do you want to be the ebb of this great tide, and return to the beasts rather than overcome man? What is the ape to man? A laughing-stock or a painful embarrassment. And man shall be just that for the overman: a laughing-stock or a painful embarrassment. You have made your way from worm to man, and much in you is still worm. Once you were apes, and even now, too, man is more ape than any ape. Behold, I teach you the overman. The overman is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: The overman shall be the meaning of the earth! … Where is the lightning to lick you with its tongue? Where is the madness, with which you should be cleansed? Behold, I teach you the overman: he is this lightning, he is this madness!”
Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Zarathustra’s Prologue
The people, however, fail to understand him and burst out in laughter. They incorrectly assume that he is the tightrope walker that they have all gathered around to see and tell him that he should get to work. But the tightrope walker, who thought that the words applied to him, set to work.
Zarathustra looked at the people and marvelled. Then he spoke thus:
“Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman – a rope over an abyss. A dangerous going-across, a dangerous on-the-way, a dangerous looking-back, a dangerous shuddering and staying-still. What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end: what is lovable in man is that he is an over-going and a down-going.”
The original text in German of Thus Spoke Zarathustra contains a great deal of wordplay which is lost in translation. Zarathustra’s descent from the mountains as the solitary wanderer symbolises his “down-going” or “untergang”, as he wishes to share his wisdom with humanity after remaining in solitude for 10 years. However, this descent is also contrasted with his over-going “übergang”, and overcoming “überwindung”, both of which evoke the overman “übermensch”
In other words, one’s self-overcoming (selbstüberwindung) necessarily involves a going under. The overman cannot be dissociated from the conception of overcoming. It is repeated again and again throughout the book that “man is something that should be overcome” – and the man who has overcome himself has become the overman.
The Overman and The Last Man
The crowd still do not understand him, they just laugh at him. They symbolise the opposite of the overman – the “Last Man”. Those who strive for conformity, those who are all alike and enjoy mediocrity, afraid of doing anything too dangerous. They are perfectly happy to be virtually the same as everyone else. They think they have discovered happiness and blink.
Zarathustra starts to speak about this “Last Man” and when he finishes they shout:
“Give us this Last Man, O Zarathustra” – so they cried – make us into this Last Man! You can have the Overman! And all the people laughed and shouted. But Zarathustra grew sad and said to his heart: “They do not understand me: I am not the mouth for these ears.”
The Tightrope Walker
In the meantime, the crowd is fixated on the tightrope walker who has just reached the middle of the course of his dangerous crossing, symbolising mankind’s progress between beast and overman.
Suddenly, a jester comes out behind him and teases him, he eventually emits a cry like a devil and springs over the tightrope walker standing in his path. The latter who saw his rival thus triumph, lost his footing and he threw away his pole and fell.
Zarathustra rushes to the badly injured but not yet dead man:
“I’ve known for a long time that the Devil would trip me up. Now he’s dragging me to Hell: are you trying to prevent him? – ‘On my honour, friend’, answered Zarathustra, ‘all you have spoken of does not exist: there is no Devil and no Hell. Your soul will be dead even before your body: therefore fear nothing anymore!’ The man looked up mistrustfully. ‘If you are speaking the truth’, he said then, ‘I leave nothing when I leave life. I am not much more than an animal…’ ‘Not so’, said Zarathustra. ‘You have made danger your calling, there is nothing in that to despise. Now you perish through your calling: so I will bury you with my own hands.’ When Zarathustra had said this the dying man replied no more; but he motioned with his hand, as if he sought Zarathustra’s hand to thank him.”
Nietzsche indicates that the tightrope walker who risked his life, contrary to the mediocrity of the last man, had lived an admirable life. In fact, one of the characteristics of the overman is the ability to confront danger.
“I love those who do not know how to live except their lives be a down-going, for they are those who are over-going”
This danger is the bridge to the overman. In one of Nietzsche’s most popular phrases, he says:
“For believe me! — the secret for harvesting from existence the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment is: to live dangerously!”
The Gay Science, §283
Nietzsche evokes the figure of man as that of a tightrope walker. In man there is both creator and creature, the human and the all-too-human, but also the “human, superhuman”, this is, of course, a variation of the earlier “human, all-too-human” which Nietzsche had intended to brand our animal nature. The “human, superhuman” then refers to our true self and the “overman” is the one who has acquired self-mastery.
The Overman: “The Meaning of The Earth”
When Nietzsche says that “The overman is the meaning of the earth. The overman shall be the meaning of the earth”. He tries to bring the focus on this life, instead of devaluing it in favour of an afterlife.
“I beseech you, my brothers, remain faithful to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of otherworldly hopes! Poison-mixers are they, whether they know it or not. Despisers of life are they, decaying and poisoned themselves, of whom the earth is weary: so let them go. Once the sin against God was the greatest sin; but God died, and these sinners died with him. To sin against the earth is now the most dreadful thing, and to esteem the entrails of the unknowable higher than the meaning of the earth.”
Nietzsche believes that focusing on an afterlife is a symptom of dissatisfaction with life that causes the suffering to imagine another world which will fulfil his revenge. This required an invention of an immortal soul separate from the earthly body, leading to the abnegation of the body or asceticism. For Nietzsche, the soul and body cannot be separated.
The Overman and The Death of God
Nietzsche saw the decline of Christianity in society as devastatingly dangerous as it would give way to nihilism. He speaks of the “parable of the madman” who proclaims the death of God. His proclamation has tragic overtones.
Christianity had focused primarily on the afterlife, devaluing this life – as well as an over-appreciation of truth and the impossibility of criticising it. Nietzsche considered that Christianity developed a self-destructive tool which ended up destroying itself, he calls it a “will to nothingness”, a will opposed to life, but it is and remains a will. In other words, man will wish nothingness rather than not wish at all, it brought, however, a new and more venomous poison into life that devalues this life. The death of God symbolises the opening of the gap of nihilism.
He saw humanity as facing an unprecedented crisis which would require a transformation or evolution of humankind. The evolution Nietzsche has in mind is philosophical rather than physical. It will require a questioning of the entire Western philosophical tradition and a completely different attitude toward life. The source of the crisis for Nietzsche lies in the longing for the afterworld, the desire which has shaped the Western tradition since Socrates to be liberated from the prison of the body and of earthly existence. In contrast to this longing, Zarathustra emphasises that one should “remain faithful to the earth.” The further evolution of humankind thus requires overcoming the mind/body, spirit/nature dualism that has shaped much of Western thought.
Nietzsche intended the monumental task of a “Revaluation of All Values”, through the overman, the eternal recurrence and the will to power. He seeks to offer an alternative to traditional values in the absence of a divine order so human beings might stop turning their eyes toward a supernatural realm and bring the attention to this world.
The overman is meant to be the solution to nihilism, by conquering it, he is the meaning we should give to our lives. The overman overflows with strength and well-being, so much so that he has to bestow gifts onto others.
Nietzsche not only refers to the death of Christianity but states at the end of Zarathustra’s prologue that:
“Dead are all gods, now we want the overman to live – let this be our last will one day at the great noontide!”
The Overman and The Higher Man
Nietzsche also talks about “the higher men”, great human beings who serve as examples of people who would follow his philosophical ideas. Those who use their own legs to rise high up and not let themselves be carried up. For man must grow to the height where the lightning can strike and shatter him: high enough for the lightning.
Nietzsche also calls them “free spirits”, “philosophers of the future” and “creative geniuses”, those with both an intellectual conscience and with a feeling for art. Nietzsche recommends the artistic style of life that he considers his own life to be an example of. As well as a philosopher, he counts himself among the poets and artists.
In Part IV of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the sage Zarathustra contemplates the folly of hermits he made when he went to men for the first time: he had gone to the marketplace. And when he spoke to everyone, he spoke to no one.
Nietzsche does not write for everyone. In fact, the subtitle for Thus Spoke Zarathustra is A Book for All and None. He writes for that small percentage of people who are willing to take risks in order to get true fulfilment and happiness out of life.
“You Higher Men, learn this from me: in the marketplace no one believes in Higher Men… the mob blink and say…there are no Higher Men, we are all equal, man is but man, before God – we are all equal! Before God! But now this God has died.”
Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Part IV “Of the Higher Man”
However, the higher men are not overmen – as a consequence of Zarathustra’s instruction, they become conscious of their inadequacy. Zarathustra says:
“You may all be Higher Men… but for me – you are not high and strong enough.”
Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Part IV “Of the Higher Man”
Zarathustra declared earlier that:
“Never yet has there been an overman. Naked saw I both the greatest and the smallest man. They are still all-too-similar to each other. Verily even the greatest I found all-too-human.”
Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Part II “Of The Priests”.
The question is merely whether a higher man became truly perfect, or whether even he was, in some respects, “all-too-human”. This consideration, however, does not affect the interpretation of the overman as the man who has to overcome himself.
The Overman, The Eternal Recurrence, The Will to Power
The overman is closely tied to his notion of eternal recurrence and the will to power.
The eternal recurrence supposes that you’d have to experience the same life, with every struggle and every victory, every event and every experience, repeated for eternity.
The eternal recurrence was to Nietzsche less an idea than an experience – the supreme experience of a life unusually rich in suffering, pain and agony.
In Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche proclaims that he is the last disciple of the philosopher Dionysus and the teacher of the eternal recurrence.
“You higher men, do learn this, joy wants eternity. Joy wants eternity of all things, wants deep, wants deep eternity!”
Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Part IV, The Intoxicated Song
The weak, who are able to stand life only by hoping for kingdom, power, and glory in another life, would be crushed by this terrifying doctrine of the eternal recurrence, which he considered as “the heaviest weight”, while the strong would find in it the last incentive to achieve perfection.
The eternal recurrence is the ultimate affirmation of life, an eternal repetition of what constitutes existence in the present world. Nietzsche says that one would require the most impassioned love of life:
“… to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal.”
– The Gay Science, §341
Self-overcoming is expressed in terms of a will to power. That is, power over oneself, becoming who one is, it manifests itself in the encounter with obstacles. Both pain and pleasure are inextricably connected together, with intense pain comes a feeling of joy worthy of gods. This constitutes the progress towards the overman, who will ultimately accept the eternal recurrence with great joy, as he is the highest life-affirmer.
“My formula for the greatness of a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different – not forward, not backward, not in all eternity.”
Ecce Homo, II, 10
One’s character is in constant becoming, as one tries the seemingly impossible task of reaching the stars, one aspires to the highest possible goal. This self-overcoming is the concept that ties together the will to power, the overman and the eternal recurrence. It is indeed one of the most important aspects of Nietzsche’s whole philosophy.
NIETZSCHE: The Übermensch (Overman)
Nietzsche’s Übermensch (Overman) is among the most important of his teachings, along with the eternal recurrence and the will to power.