“We stumble on; the Übermensch plants a foot where there is no certain hold; and in the struggle that follows, the whole of us get dragged up.” – William James
Friedrich Nietzsche wrote some powerful and gripping philosophy in his day, from which he derived many prolific ideas. And there is probably no concept more perplexing, to both philosophers and laymen alike, than the concept of the Übermensch (which translates loosely to superman, and directly to overman).
In this article we will attempt to dissect this curious concept and try to bring some clarity to it so that we can use it as a tool toward our own self-development.
The interesting thing is that Nietzsche wasn’t the first person to write about the concept. The term first appeared in Goethe’s Faust (Part I, 1808), 40 years before Nietzsche was born, appearing only once in the entire play: “What vexes you, oh Übermensch!” says a spirit from Heaven responding to Faust’s desperate pleas for a glimpse of the Eternal. No doubt Nietzsche read this play and was so moved by it that he decided to dedicate an entire book to the idea: Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
It is Nietzsche’s magnum opus. The book’s single task and raison d’etre(reason for existence) consists in turning the human soul inside out. But it succeeds only if the reader is open enough to receive it.
And yet even in Zarathustra there was only one short passage that directly speaks to the concept, although the entire book alludes to it. For our purposes here, we will break down this brief passage and see what we can make out of it. The passage begins…
“…Behold, I teach you the overman. Man is something that shall 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 flood and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man? What is the ape to man? A laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. And man shall be just that for the overman: a laughingstock or a painful embarrassment…”
It seems as though Nietzsche is mocking mankind and its failure to evolve. He seems to be calling for a kind of aggressive evolution, one dependent not upon things being, but upon things becoming, upon things changing and transforming into what nature has in store for it. Similar to the way an acorn becomes a tree, or a caterpillar becomes a butterfly. Our unique chemistry, our primal core, is perhaps similarly transcendent.
Like the acorn and the caterpillar, we each have a natural, healthy, transformative process that only nature knows. Perhaps nature knows that just as the ape had to overcome itself to become a man, man must overcome itself to become the overman.
The caterpillar is to the butterfly as man is to overman. Maybe this is what Pema Chödrön meant when she wrote, “Only to the extent that we can expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible in us be found.”
“…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! 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…”
He is calling for devotion to the earth, saying the overman is literally the meaning of the earth itself. He’s beckoning us to lay siege to otherworldly hopes and embrace the world as it is, in all its earthly glory.
It’s almost like he’s trying to remind us to get back in touch with Mother Nature, to reconnect the severed umbilicus, and to quit poisoning her to no end. One can even imagine the overman with deep roots and long branches, pulling the sky down and lifting the earth up in order to reconnect our higher and lower selves.
He’s teaching us that in order to avoid self-abnegation we must dive into the primordial self: that place where nature and the human soul merge to become one continuous thing.
Otherwise, the modern romance with self-realization consumes itself and our wild self becomes disavowed, as is evident from the suffocating consumerist culture rampant in the world today. When we pull down the afterlife, we pull up the underworld. It is an existential upheaval of monumental proportions. Hence the urgent need for the overman.
“…Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman–a rope over an abyss. What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end: what can be loved in man is that he is an overture and a going under. I say unto you: one must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star. I say unto you: you still have chaos in yourselves. Alas, the time is coming when man will no longer give birth to a star. Alas, the time of the most despicable man is coming, he that is no longer able to despise himself…”
He’s basically informing us that man is a cocoon, a passage, a go-between; that man is just the gestation process between the caterpillar of the ape and the butterfly of the overman. We’re merely a bridge between beast and overman. And just as the chaos within a cocoon gives birth to a butterfly, so too will the chaos within ourselves give birth to the overman.
But he also warns us, forebodingly, of the despicable man: the result of not becoming a being that gains the ability to overcome itself. Lest we become this despicable man, we must discover the inner-overman, the primordial genius, the coalescent-self, the chameleon of the human condition, the epistemological elite longing to emerge.
Some might argue that it’s too late, that the “despicable
man” is too much the majority and overmen are too much the minority. Others might argue that’s always been the case.
Either way, the goal isn’t to change others. The goal is to reveal to everyone that change is possible and, at the end of the day, its inevitable anyway. So why fight it?
In German Überwindung means self-mastery, or self-overcoming. Überwinden means to overcome. Mensch means man, or human. So ‘Self-overcoming Human’ seems to be the most accurate translation of Übermensch. Nietzsche used the overman as a personification of potential eco-centric genius, demonstrating that Truth moves, and moving, demolishes thrones and altars. Indeed, self-overcoming is the life-task of man.
If we never discover this life-task, we limit ourselves to merely existing. “He who joyfully marches to music in rank and file has earned my contempt” Einstein wrote. “He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would fully suffice.”
Lest we inadvertently earn Einstein’s contempt we must discover a method of self-overcoming, of self-questioning, of self-capitulation that pushes us past our inadequate mental paradigms and too-comfortable comfort zones and forces us to brave the enriching storm of life. Nietzsche’s Overman is just such a force.