One of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s (d. 1900) most fascinating ideas was that of the Übermensch he conceptualized in several of his works including Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-85), The Antichrist (1895), Twilight of the Idols (1889), and in Ecce Homo (1908).
The concept emerged out of Nietzsche’s realization that one needed to fill the void of meaninglessness brought on by the rejection of transcendent values. Many scholars have debated how best to interpret the Übermensch, which is likely due to Nietzsche’s style of writing, and his penchant for aphorism and storytelling that can make interpretation somewhat challenging (1). Consider a few of Nietzsche’s descriptions (2),
“Behold, I teach you the Übermensch. Let the Übermensch be the sense of the earth! Behold, I teach you the Übermensch: it is this lightning, it is this madness! … Behold, I am a herald of the lightning and a heavy drop from the cloud: but this lightning is called Übermensch.”
“I want to teach humans the meaning of their Being: that is the Übermensch, the lightning from the dark cloud of the human.”
“I teach you the Übermensch. The human is something that shall be overcome.”
In order to understand the Übermensch, we need to acknowledge Nietzsche’s nihilism based on his conviction of the “death of God” and his rejection of the Christian religion. As we have briefly looked at before, Nietzsche’s rejected Christianity and called it a slave morality that is “essentially and fundamentally, life’s nausea and disgust with life, merely concealed behind, masked by, dressed up as, faith in “another” or “better” life.” However, Nietzsche’s also realized that by doing away with Christianity one fell into the ominous pit of nihilism. It was ultimately Christianity that was responsible for establishing a world of intrinsic value that offset the meaningless that accompanies nihilism. This existential nihilism posited there to be no meaning and purpose in life. It also meant that there is no such thing as moral standards against which humans can judge their behaviour. This belief can easily be one of great despair and it is certainly a conviction that interested later existentialists like Martin Heidegger and Simone de Beauvoir. According to James Garvey and Jeremy Stangroom, “Friedrich Nietzsche is one of very few philosophers to make widespread use of the term nihilism. In particular, he uses it to refer to the disintegration of the realm of (apparently) that occurs with the collapse of Christianity and the growing awareness that all our value systems are human creations” (3).
It was because of science and reason, thought Nietzsche, that Christianity had crumbled and had been proven to be little more than a human construct. Essentially Nihilism had become the only reasonable view to adopt; Nietzsche articulates: “One interpretation of existence has been overthrown, but since it was held to be the interpretation, it seems as though there were no meaning in existence at all, as though everything were in vain” (4). It is important to see this side-by-side with Nietzsche’s view of the death of God in which he famously claimed that “God is dead… and we have killed him.” The transcendent realm that was thought to once exist that gave human beings value and meaning was no more. This raised for Nietzsche the crucial question of how we should go about living in the face of having given up belief in absolutes. The answer to this is in the Übermensch, or the Superman. According to Nietzsche, “The noble type of man experiences itself as determining values… it knows itself to be that which first accords honour to things; it is value-creating.”
On this view, the Übermensch is the measure of all things and the creator of new values in the vacuum of nihilism. For Nietzsche, the Übermensch “is interpreted here not as a philosophical concept but as a personal symbol of a man in turmoil. It arose from the depth of Nietzsche’s psyche at a time of great personal disappointment, and it was designed, if unconsciously, to protect his vulnerable, wounded self. It gave, at least temporarily, a meaning to his existence” (5). The Übermensch does not embrace Christian herd mentality, but rather has the freedom to create new and better forms of being based on one’s life here on Earth. Important it is to understand that for Nietzsche, God’s death and the crumbling of transcendent values have opened up the possibility of a higher ethic based on the creative power of humanity. It seems that although Nietzsche was indeed an existential nihilist who rejected all intrinsic meaning to human life, he also had a slight positive bent as captured in his concept of the Übermensch. The Übermensch is a “testament to the belief that from the ashes of the destruction of the old forms of value, humanity might be reborn” (6). The Übermensch was thus not a figure of despair, but of the future of humanity and the “lightning out of the dark cloud of man.”
1. Cybulska, Eva. 2015. “Nietzsche’s Übermensch: A glance behind the mask of hardness.” Indo-Pacific Journal of Phenomenology 15(1).
2. Nietzsche, Friedrich. 2005. Thus spoke Zarathustra, translated by G. Parkes. Oxford University Press.
3. Garvey, James., and Stangroom, Jeremy. 2012. The Story of Philosophy: A History of Western Thought. London: Hachette UK. p. 319.
4. Garvey, James., and Stangroom, Jeremy. 2012. Ibid. p. 316-317.
5. Cybulska, Eva. 2015. Ibid.
6. Garvey, James., and Stangroom, Jeremy. 2012. Ibid. p. 319.