September 11, 2020
Thanks to Dean Coslovi, a 2020 HMU Fellow in Ideas, for today’s post.
“Among my writings my Zarathustra stands by itself. With this book I have given mankind the greatest gift it has ever been given.” – Ecce Homo, Friedrich Nietzsche.
In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche has his enlightened character, Zarathustra, proclaim to a town of simple villagers, “I teach you the overman. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?” (124). Understandably, the villagers are a bit scared, but also intrigued, by the ravings of this excited mountain man (I didn’t make the character). What does Nietzsche mean by all this? What is this overman? And, what is the process through which man is able to overcome himself and become the overman? According to Nietzsche, the overman is a superior sort of human being. This is no slight superiority though. In fact, the superiority of the overman compared to a normal human being would be akin to that of apes and humans. And as Nietzsche states, “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” (124).
While quotations such as this may give us the magnitude of difference between the overman and human beings, these passages do not elucidate exactly how human beings reach this higher state. Rather, the only real specifics Nietzsche gives about this process is that it entails a transformation of an individual who succumbs to the influences of society – the “herd” – into a true individual who lives life solely driven by one’s own volition. In this regard, Zarathustra pronounces “the time has come for man to set himself a goal. The time has come for man to plant the seed of his highest hope. His soil is still rich enough” (129). In order to set such a lofty goal, it is necessary for an individual to overcome many internal and external obstacles. According to Zarathustra, the overman must be “[d]riven on by themselves, [and] they must overcome themselves again and again” (228). It is this process of self-overcoming which elevates an individual from a regular human being into the overman; one must overcome oneself in order to reach a higher state of being. However, such a process is necessarily a deeply personal psychological journey whereby an individual is able to overcome the unique circumstances preventing their accession to the overman. Because of this, it is impossible to deliberate about what sort of specific virtues an individual would employ to overcome themselves. Indeed, as Zarathustra pronounces, “[m]y brother, if you have a virtue and she is your virtue, then you have her in common with nobody” (148). According to Nietzsche, the virtue that one utilizes to overcome themselves should be regarded as “too exalted for the familiarity of names… if you must speak her… then speak and stammer ‘This is my good; this I love; it pleases me wholly; thus alone do I want the good. I do not want it was divine law; I do not want it as human statute and need” (148).
The point that Nietzsche is trying to highlight is that each individual’s path to the overman will be uniquely their own – the path to the overman is a solitary one. As such, both the challenges an individual faces, and the skills they have at their disposal, will vary in every case. There are, however, two important characteristics about the process of self-overcoming that would seem to be constant in every case: personal growth and the development of a new system of values. In order to overcome oneself, it necessitates that an individual develop or adapt in some way that allows them to overcome the unique challenges facing them. Put simply, self-overcoming requires a will strong enough to produce personal growth. And, it is from this exercise of will that an individual also begins to reassess what they value in life. In fact, it is precisely this process of developing one’s own value system that allows an individual to transform into the overman. In short, the overman reaches this higher state through an arduous process of utilizing their will to overcome challenges and deciding for themselves how best to live life.
It is important to recognize that Nietzsche thought of the overman as an individual who lives entirely in accordance with one’s own principles. However, what does this overman look like? Would we recognize the overman if he or she happened to be our close acquaintance? In order to shed light on these questions, it is necessary to determine what the overman would look like in real life. Fortunately, such an example exists: Oskar Schindler. In my next blog post, I will demonstrate why Oskar Schindler should serve as the paradigm case of an overman.
Nietzsche, Friedrich.Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. Walter Kauffmann. New York: Penguin Books, 1976.
To leave a comment, click on the title of the post and scroll down.