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The Overman, The Child, and Oskar Schindler

The Overman, The Child, and Oskar Schindler

We’re excited that you’ve joined the conversation! At HMU, we want to continue the great authors’ conversations in a contemporary context, and this blog will help us do that. We look back to Aristotle and the early philosophers who used reason and discourse to gain wisdom and now we endeavor to do the same every day.


September 18, 2020

Thanks to Dean Coslovi, a 2020 HMU Fellow in Ideas, for today’s post.

You must wish to consume yourself in your own flame: how could you wish to become new unless you had first become ashes! – Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Friedrich Nietzsche

In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Friedrich Nietzsche’s enlightened sage, “Zarathustra”, declares that there are “three metamorphoses” of the human spirit: the camel, the lion, and the child.(1) Nietzsche’s use of the word “metamorphoses” is calculated – the process of transformation that Nietzsche has in mind is conspicuous. In the same way that a caterpillar physically develops into a butterfly, Nietzsche believed that the spirit can also change into a higher and more beautiful form. However, not all human beings will undergo this journey.

In fact, it is uncertain whether any human being has undergone all three metamorphoses and reached the state of the overman. This is because the normal human spirit is overly burdened by external circumstances; we often take the weight of the world upon ourselves. While we do our best to bear these burdens, our spirits “like the camel” wander the desert with our heavy burdens looking for the next oasis to offer us momentary relief from the blistering heat and sand.(2)

The only way out of this hopeless nihilism is for the spirit to take on the form of the lion. The lion is “the creation of freedom within oneself and a sacred ‘No’ even to duty.”(3) In this way, the lion-spirited individual is able to free themselves from the external burdens of society by rejecting the world around them. This separation from society must be complete because the lion must reject those things that they previously held to be sacred and to which they felt duty bound. After all, the lion is a predatory pack hunter: it isn’t exactly a “nice” animal.

Fortunately, for those of a higher spirit, the lion is only an intermediary stage on the spirit’s journey towards a higher form – the form of a child. As Nietzsche anticipates, the obvious question becomes “what can the child do that even the lion could not do?”(4) Nietzsche answers this question thusly: “create new values.”(5) While the lion can adopt new values, these values are parasitic upon being a rejection, or antithesis of sorts, to the widely accepted cultural values that had previously burdened the lion’s spirit. The lion does not create, the lion rejects. The blatant rejection of the widely shared cultural values requires a spirit that is both awesome and terrible. Truly, what would that look like? Unfortunately, human nature being what it is, we don’t have to search very hard to find examples in history to reaffirm homo homini lupus. But it is also in these demonstrations of man’s inhumanity to man, that we must look for those lions who were able transcend to the form of children and create new values for themselves. I present Oskar Schindler.

The events of Oskar Schindler’s life are widely known, and for good reason. It is not often that one can state that an individual was both a Nazi war profiteer who utilized Jewish slave labour and one of the greatest heroes of history. Consider what sort of life decisions an individual would have to make in order to find themselves in a situation like Schindler’s. It is truly awesome and terrible. However, unlike the lions Schindler found himself in company with, he was able to reject the values that viewed life in terms of a predator-prey relationship. Because of this, Schindler’s spirit took on the attributes of the child, namely, “innocence and forgetting.”(6) These attributes allow for “a new beginning.”(7) This “new beginning” is precisely what Schindler exhibited once he made the realization that he would value life above all else. At the risk of his personal safety, and at the cost of his ill-begotten gains, Schindler was able to use his connections with Nazi officials to directly save the lives of 1,200 Jewish concentration camp victims.

In this regard, Schindler stands apart as a recognizably higher sort of being – the overman. This transformation occurred for the same reason as the transformation of camel to the lion: a rejection of old values. After adopting the values of the Nazi ideology in his “lion” stage, Schindler was able to able to see the world through fresh eyes and develop a new beginning. Schindler had become the child, and thus the closest example we have to the overman. However, this conclusion leaves us with an interesting question: is it possible to become Nietzsche’s overman without first becoming terrible?

(1) Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. Walter Kauffmann (New York: Penguin Books, 1976), p 137.

(2) Yup, it certainly feels like that somedays Nietzsche.

(3) Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, p 139.

(4-7) Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, p 139.

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