Nietzsche’s idea of an overman and life from his point of view
Nietzsche's idea of "the overman" (Ubermensch) is one of the most significant concept in his thinking. Even though it is mentioned very briefly only in the prologue of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, it might be sensible to conceive that Nietzsche had something in his mind about how a man should be more than just human-all-too-human, regardless if he was one or not. All these ideas had been pondered on and developed though all his works. The concept then seems to reveal much about the way Nietzsche saw life. This essay will attempt on seeing through, as much as possible, the idea of overman by Nietzsche and life from the point of view of an overman.
An overman as described by Zarathustra, the main character in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, is the one who is willing to risk all for the sake of enhancement of humanity. In contrary to the “last man” whose sole desire is his own comfort and is incapable of creating anything beyond oneself in any form. This should suggest that an overman is someone who can establish his own values as the world in which others live their lives, often unaware that they are not pregiven. This means an overman can affect and influence the lives of others. In other words, an overman has his own values, independent of others, which affects and dominates others’ lives that may not have predetermined values but only herd instinct. An overman is then someone who has a life which is not merely to live each day with no meanings when nothing in the past and future is more important than the present, or more precisely, the pleasure and happiness in the present, but with the purpose for humanity.
In Nietzsche’s view, an overman should be able to affect history indefinitely. He will keep reentering the world through other people’s minds and affect their thoughts and values. Napolean who is highly admired by Nietzsche may be seen as an example here since he changed and created orders in Europe. What he did effects greatly in how Europe is today. This idea agrees with another of his most significant idea, the idea of the will-to-power. He asserts that life is the will-to-power. Although it is hard to say exactly what he meant by that term, it can be described as something, which underlies how human thinks, behaves and acts in all circumstances. He views that a human being is always in a constant struggle to quench his own desire. This is shown in the context of power used to exclude desires of others that is in conflict to his, power that is used to achieve what they desire. A living thing always seeks to discharge its strength, not only to survive but to power and this sometimes results in violent behaviour which is, allegedly by Nietzshce, intrinsic to the nature of men. However, the way to will can be different, constructive or destructive. My interpretation would then be that an overman uses the will-to-power to influence and dominate the thoughts of others creatively from generation to generation. In this way, his existence and power live on even after he dies.
Nietzsche also has the answer to life that seems suffering. His answer, which is expressed in the same book of Zarathustra, is an attitude towards life that helps one overcome the feeling of its meaninglessness. It starts with the idea that life is an eternal recurrence with no beginning and no end but a repetition of the very same life over and over again. With all sufferings, unhappiness and misdeeds in life, one may feel cursed and despaired if he inevitably were to repeat the same life with the same pain and joy. However, the most important point may not be whether life is really an eternal recurrence. Rather, although not explicitly stated, the important point is that an overman should view it differently such that in the very same life, there has been a moment that it redeems everything else. It then makes him content with and happy to repeat that very same life again and again. He has got the feeling of unity of creation and destruction, good and bad taste of life and is able to say that life is good even it may seem terrible and questionable. He views all the past actions, silly or wise, accidental or achieving, as necessity of becoming himself. Therefore he can redeem himself and thus be willing to repeat the same life again. Some may even say that “it was” and “thus I willed it” even though he knows well that one cannot will backward and there are many other limitations in life. It implies that living a life of an overman is to live with the knowledge of what has already happened and constant reinterpretation according to it. Clearly, an overman is then someone who can, with appreciation, face life that may seem so suffering and absurd, knowing that the basic conditions of life will not change even when he is in the ideal state of an overman.
In a sense, overman is about self-overcoming. It involves an attitude towards life when one may feel despaired and feel life is meaningless. It is about the way to deal with “truth” not in direct manner with straightforward rules as in rationalism, but more like a sensitive mix of trickier indirect approaches. As he compared this with winning a woman’s heart, those who approach clumsily and directly will bound to failure and hence left dispirited. When compared to Kantian view of truth, it can be seen that going straight into finding an absolute naked truth may leave one unsastisfied with questions that remain unanswered. Instead, Nietzsche suggested the way to tackle this by going along with it and take it as it is. One will then feel content and happy with the life that may be so questionable.
Another characteristic used to describe an overman originated in his earlier work, The Birth of Tragedy. In this book, the notion of Apollonion and Dionysian principles is used with respect to his analysis of the Greek tragedy. They are used to describe two principles men use in thinking which consequently determine actions. Apollonion principle is the principle of light, rationality, order and clear boundaries whereas Dionysian is the principle of the dark, irratioanality, the collapse of order and boundaries. The Apollonion views an individual as separate from other reality and hence can be viewed dispassionately with rationality. On the other hand, the Dionysian views things as a living whole where one is a part of a larger reality. The Apollonion therefore involves no passion or emotion but pure reasons with order whereas the Dionysian is passionate, dynamic and unpredictable. Nietzsche believes that a balance of the two principles is essential in order to have some meanings in life. He seems to be very fond of art and viewed that artistic works, paintings, plays, literature or music exhibit a great deal of Dionysian principle in the form of creativity. In his later work, the importance of the Dionysian principle in living a life with values and meanings is expressed clearly. He views that the highest state attainable by a man can be achieved when life is conceived in terms of the realisation of the Dionysian ideal of the overman. That means one must realise and accept his own Dionysian nature and use it appropriately.
From my point of view, Nietzsche must have treated art as something higher than ordinary, mass-conventional logic and rationality such as that in science for he admired creativity and beauty in art above all things. A person who will be viewed by Nietzsche as an overman is then more likely to be an artist who uses his Dionysian principle and way of thinking and feeling to create works that carry particular individual’s picture or interpretation of the world. His values may or may not be the same as any other but a good artist should be able to combine creativity with his perception of the world and life and express it well in his work. On comparison to Aristotle who views that the most desirable state of a person is a philosopher who contemplates, Nietzsche viewed traditional philosophers during his time as people who did not really affect the real world outside and usually their traditional philosophical works were merely self confession. It can then be seen that his value is highly placed upon the concept of Dionysus and therefore he praised the Greek civilisation where a lot of creativity took place even more than in present society. Nietzsche accepted that Socrates did affect the history greatly, which is the characteristic that Nietzsche valued. However, he blamed Socrates for the western society and culture that emphasised the Apollonion principle too much. Socrates was thought to have gone too far in defending rationality. He even viewed that we could use reasoning in everything so that the nature’s flaws can be corrected. It is then what the western dreams of and pursues up until now through science and technology. This is the view that does not accept human limitation, that men are powerless and have no control but always places men on the top of everything. In contrast, Nietzsche views that an overman must be able to accept these limitations and can face it in the eternal recurrence. Nietzsche must have felt that the western culture had put less and less significance on artistic creativity and passion that mental and spiritual power which create beauty in life have fewer and fewer places in the modern society.
Emotion is one of the attributes of Dionysus and is also one of the entities which Nietzsche defended. He views that emotion is natural. Its repression or suppression is psychologically disastrous. This also includes sexuality. He attacked Christianity for its traditional value that places bars on emotion and impulse and this is viewed by Nietzsche as self-denying. He disagrees on inhibiting and thwarting human own nature. Rather, an overman must accept his own nature and divert the energy of primitive impulses into a culturally, higher or socially more acceptable, activity. This is exactly what should happen to a good artist on creating his work of art. To him, the Dionysian is not completely dark and evil as opposite to the Apollonion which is associated with light and reason. The Dionysian is rather viewed as natural, both good and bad just like any ordinary human being. It is in every human nature. With a right balance with the Apollonion and with the right use, a burst of creativity is the result. However, it is usually the case that when the Apollonion principle mixes the Dionysian, it tends to suppress the Dionysian. As a result, the Dionysian principle is expressed in a destructive way. Basically, an overman must be able to control this and divert the Dionysian power into something creative. To Nietzsche, Dionysian is profoundly irrational rather than negatively or stubbornly irrational.
In the present age where science and rationality are highly valued, I realise that it is hard to accept the negative side of being rational since it seems to be the most reliable tool in treating others, living together and judging. Without it, society can be chaotic and too much disordered for no control is imposed on the irrational ones who do not use the Dionysian principle in a productive way. However, I agree with Nietzsche in the beauty of the product created out of Dionysian principle and feel that the right mix of Apollonion and Dionysian will make the world much nobler, not in the luxurious sense but aesthetic one. The world with no passion and emotion will be an unnatural one and this special property, among others, of human that differs from other animals will be lost.
Nietzsche might or might not consider himself an overman but he surely determined to be a means or bridge who brings closer to reality an emergence of an overman. In his view, men are not born equal. He always stresses on the difference of men and hence in contrast to Marx who includes everyone into his ideal society. For Nietzsche, there are only some capable and talented who qualifies to be an overman from his point of view. Therefore, he is usually perceived superficially as an elitist which might have brought down the value of his thinking. To me, it is a fact that is hard to swallow for all of us and quite sceptical on the ability of men. However, it is the case, at least throughout the history of mankind up to the present, for men are educated differently and experience different things. Nevertheless, Nietzsche’s thinking provides some space for this. He says that his ideal is not necessarily everyone’s universal ideal. Each of us values things differently and therefore his overman may not be the same as others’ overman. He consequently urges for revaluation of traditional values such as, the supression of emotion, the wholeheartedly devoted rationalism. An overman, in his view, should not be restricted by tradition nor bounded by convention but has independent values of his own.
From all that is shown above, we may say that Nietzsche’s overman must be able to affect history indefinitely, conceives life in terms of Dionysian realisation and is able to divert Dionysian principle into something creative. With this kind of attitude and the realisation of his own limitation in life, he would then be able to face life, look back with satisfaction, realising that all pasts make him what he is today, and hence feel happy if he were to repeat that very same life eternally. An overman should then be content with his own life and appreciate every bit of it even though some of them are painful and suffering. He spends each day of his life creating beauty, which affects the minds of others through out the time, knowing that his life has values and meanings since his existence of will-to-power will live on indefinitely.
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2) Nietzsche, Life As Literature, Alexander Nehamas, Havard University Press,1994.
3) Nietzsche for Beginners, M.Sautet, Writers and readers, 1990.
4) Nietzsche:A Critical Reader.
5) Philosophy II lecture handouts.