The Nietzschean idea of “the overman”

Golly, I’m really pumping out the blog posts. Anyway, a few days ago my good friend posted a link on my facebook to Sarah Kay, a skillful and amazing performance poet. It reminded me very fondly of my Year 10 English teacher, Mr John Watson, who was a drama enthusiast and life-ful man. After looking him up on facebook, I found his website was still operational and I flung him an email with the link. He responded, we got talking, and now we’re meeting up for coffee (well, vegan hot chocolate or tea in my case)! It’s really interesting how we’re all still connected.

One of the things we got talking about was Nietzsche and the idea of “I can, I will!”. John linked me to this article, and after reading it, I simply have to write about it otherwise all the thoughts will leak out of my head and be forgotten on the sidewalk. Be warned, the article is difficult to read and takes a while to get into, but if you persist, suddenly you’ll find it all very interesting and comprehensible. Like Shakespeare, you probably won’t care for or understand any of it for a few minutes, then all of a sudden it will make perfect sense and astound you. Please note that these are my thoughts for my sake, and I’m posting them here so that I can find them in the future, and for the off chance that someone might  find them remotely interesting. I am not really adding anything to what is already written in the article, merely translating it into a way that is easier for me to understand.

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The Nietzschean idea of “the overman” (“ubermensch“, which might be better translated as “the super man”) is very profound, but mentioned only briefly in his works. At its core, it is the idea that there is a “better man”, the concept that the Red Skull endorsed in the Captain America movie. Not everyone can be this “super man”- not all people are equal, and some people are inherently smarter, stronger and more talented than others. But what separates a good man from a super man?

One of the attributes of the ubermensch is the willingness to put the good of humanity ahead of one’s own selfish desires. Aristotle believed contemplation was the most important characteristic of man, but Nietzsche believed that a philosopher needed to be part of the world, and to affect it rather than hiding away on mountain tops and in caves, hoarding their wisdom. A true overman would overcome the inherently selfish, even violent nature of being human. He would stop struggling with other men to get the best resources for himself, put his own desires aside, and strive to improve life for all mankind.

Another attribute is the ability to forge one’s own values for oneself, realising that one doesn’t have to accept the current cultural and social values as inherent. That is to say, a super man says “To hell with what society thinks, I don’t have to conform to you just because you all follow each other like sheep.” He believes in his own values and does what he believes is best, even if no one else agrees with him.

Something else that defines an overman is the ability to impact history indefinitely. Nietzsche considered Napoleon an ubermensch for the way he changed the fate of Europe forever. I suspect he would have felt the same about Hitler. Using the “will-to-power”, a highly ambiguous term, a super man would not waste his energy squabbling for personal gain but use it to influence and dominate the thoughts of others from generation to generation. In this way, he and his legacy can live on indefinitely. As an example, the ideas of Hippocrates continue to dominate the field of Western medicine.

The overman is also aware of the inherent suffering of life. He knows that it is easy to see life as painful, meaningless and repetitive (something which resonates with me at the moment). But he does not despair at all this misery: he holds the belief that in his life (this same life of suffering), there will be a moment which redeems all the negativity. That every action and experience he has ever had (wise or foolish, destructive or constructive, good or bad etc.) was necessary in order for him to become the man he is today. Knowing this, he embraces all that life is and is still able to say “life is good”. One might even go so far as to say “it was, and thus I willed it”. I take this to mean that “it happened to me because it was meant to happen to me“.

Nietzsche also explores the idea of the Apollonion and the Dionysian- the two approaches men have to thinking. The Apollonian is likened to light, rationality and order, where the Dionysian is associated with darkness, irrationality and disorder. Essentially, they compare logic with emotion, rational thought with intuition. Nietzsche believed that Socrates put too much stock in the Apollonion principle and the defence of rationality; imagine what this world would be like without emotion, without passion, without art! We would lose a crucial part of what makes us human! Yet Socrates’ ideas still pervade the modern sciences- as a species we tend to believe that we can improve upon the problems inherent in nature through logic, and that we can make life better for everyone through scientific innovation. This is a dangerous and misguided line of thought.

The Dionysian principle is not inherently evil by virtue of being chaotic- it is very much a part of all human beings.  Emotion is a natural part of being human- it should not be repressed in favour of logic! This is psychologically disastrous (something I should note for myself in the future when I feel deadpan), and will ultimately lead to the expression of the Dionysian principle in a way that is destructive. For example, it is possible that repressing feelings around sexual assault can eventually develop into cancer of the genitalia. Rather than trying to overcome our Dionysian nature, we must embrace it and express it appropriately. All people have the capacity to create art, and a good artist should be able to combine creatively with his perception of the world (i.e. embrace both the Apollonion and Dioynsian parts of himself) and express it well in his work. This  leads to beauty, to richness; the parts of life that make life worth living.

Finally, Nietzsche concedes that everyone has different values and ideals. This means that his idea of an overman may not be everyone else’s. He consequently urges for the revaluation of traditional values such as the supression of emotion and the devotion to rationalism. An overman, in his view, should not be restricted by tradition nor bounded by convention, but has independent values of his own. Ultimately, the overman spends each day of his life creating beauty, which affects the minds of others throughout time, knowing that his life has value and meaning since his willed experiences will live on indefinitely.

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