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Nietzsche, Friedrich (1844–1900)

DOI
10.4324/9780415249126-DC057-1
DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC057-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 24, 2019, from https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/biographical/nietzsche-friedrich-1844-1900/v-1

10. The overhuman (Übermensch)

Nietzsche’s apparent alternative to ‘herd-animal morality’ is his most notorious idea, the Übermensch. (There is no really suitable English translation for this term: ‘overhuman’ has been chosen instead of ‘superman’ or ‘overman’ because it seems best able to bring out the idea of a being who overcomes in itself what has defined us as human.) The idea actually belongs to the protagonist of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche’s work of philosophical fiction, and it can never be assumed that Zarathustra’s ideas are the same as those of Nietzsche. As the story opens, Zarathustra is returning from ten years of solitude in the wilderness, bringing human beings a gift: his teaching that humanity is not an end or goal, but only a stage and bridge to a higher type of being, the overhuman. He teaches that now that God is dead, it is time for humanity to establish this higher type as the goal and meaning of human life, a goal that can be reached only if human beings overcome what they now are, overcome the merely human.

The idea of becoming a higher kind of being by overcoming one’s humanity can seem frightening. For some, it calls up images of Nazi stormtroopers seeking out ‘inferior’ human beings to annihilate. However, Zarathustra suggests that Nietzsche has something very different in mind. ‘Zarathustra’ is another name for Zoroaster, the founder of Zoroastrianism (see Zoroastrianism). Nietzsche claims that the historical Zarathustra ‘created the most calamitous error, morality’, because his doctrine first projected ethical distinctions into the metaphysical realm (as a cosmic fight between good and evil forces). Nietzsche bases his character on Zarathustra because the creator of the error ‘must also be the first to recognize it’ ( Ecce Homo IV §3 [ Werke VI.3: 365]).

Zarathustra is thus the story of a religious leader, the inventor of one of the world’s oldest religions, who comes to recognize the ‘error’ of traditional (moralized) religions. Far from turning against every aspect of traditional religion, however, Zarathustra commits himself to its central task: urging human beings to raise their sights above their usual immersion in materialistic pursuits to recognize the outlines of a higher form of being that calls them to go beyond themselves, to become something more than they are. Zarathustra’s overhuman can thus be seen as a successor to the images of ‘higher humanity’ offered by traditional religions. His teaching is not intended to encourage human beings to throw off the constraints and shackles of morality (something Nietzsche sees as well underway without his help). Its point is, rather, to combat the forces of barbarism by encouraging us to take on a more demanding ethical task than modern morality requires: that of becoming what Nietzsche had earlier called a ‘true human being’. When he used that phrase, however, Nietzsche believed it applied only to ‘those no-longer animals, the philosophers, artists, and saints’. Animal (purely natural) existence was a senseless cycle of becoming and desire, and only those who escape it by extinguishing egoistic desire counted as truly human. The saint in particular counted as ‘that ultimate and supreme becoming human’, in which ‘life no longer appears senseless but appears, rather, in its metaphysical meaningfulness’ ( Unfashionable Observations III §5 [ Werke III.1: 371–9]). From the viewpoint of his later philosophy, early Nietzsche’s conception of true humanity is an obvious expression of the ascetic ideal; it devalues natural existence relative to something that is its opposite. Once one recognizes this opposite as unattainable (as Nietzsche did in Human), the conception can be seen for what it really is: a devaluation and condemnation of human life.

Nietzsche never abandoned his early belief that the modern world is threatened by forces of both conformism and barbarism and that our great need is therefore for educators who will inspire human self-overcoming by the force of a lofty ideal. But since he rejects the ascetic ideal, he must abandon his earlier image of a true human being. At the end of Genealogy’s second essay, Nietzsche suggests that what the overhuman overcomes is not the ‘natural’ inclinations against which the ascetic ideal has been directed, those that make apparent our connection to other animals, but rather the ‘unnatural’ inclinations, the aspirations to a form of existence that transcends nature and animality. In other words, the overhuman must overcome all the impulses that led human beings to accept the ascetic ideal, an ideal that has so far defined what counts as ‘human’. As we will see in §2, however, Zarathustra’s call for the overcoming of the human is still too bound up with the old ideal.

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Citing this article:
Clark, Maudemarie. The overhuman (Übermensch). Nietzsche, Friedrich (1844–1900), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC057-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/biographical/nietzsche-friedrich-1844-1900/v-1/sections/the-overhuman-ubermensch.
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