Reading Nietzsche: the Übermensch

Shaw has popularized the ironic word “superman,” which has since become associated with Nietzsche and the comics without ever losing its sarcastic tinge. In the present translation the older term, “overman,” has been reinstated: it may help to bring out the close relation between Nietzsche’s conceptions of the overman and self-overcoming, and to recapture something of its rhapsodical play on the words “over” and “under,” particularly marked throughout the Prologue. Of the many “under” words, the German untergehen poses the greatest problem for translation: it is the ordinary word for the setting of the sun, and it also means “to perish”; but Nietzsche almost always uses it with the accent on “under”—either by way of echoing another “under” in the same sentence or, more often, by way of contrast with an “over” word, usually overman….

“Over” words, some of them coinages, are common in this work, and Übermensch has to be understood in its context. Mensch means human being as opposed to animal, and what is called for is not a super-brute but a human being who has created for himself that unique position in the cosmos which the Bible considered his divine birthright. The meaning of life is thus found on earth, in this life, not as the inevitable outcome of evolution, which might well give us the “last man” instead, but in the few human beings who raise themselves above the all-too-human mass.

– Walter Kaufman, Editor’s Note to Thus Spoke Zarathustra: First Part, The Portable Nietzsche

As Kaufman explains above, the popularization of the term Übermensch has probably been more of a curse for Nietzsche than a blessing; the oversimplified cartoon image of the mistranslated “superman” perpetuates the notion that Nietzsche was some kind of eugenicist (or worse). The overman is singular: it’s an individual’s rational triumph over superfluous group-think, a self-improvement through a rejection of afterworlds and an assigning/embracing of human meaning.

While I’m not particularly pleased with the idea of a “human being as opposed to animal,” since, after all, we are animals—like our kindred species and ancestors—it’s nevertheless still probably safe to say that more self-reflection and criticism of conventions couldn’t hurt, especially as we hurle ourselves towards the carrying capacity of our only planet. Actually, in that regard, humans should probably strive to be more like other animals, in that they don’t completely destroy ecosystems in exchange for little pieces of paper that they then exchange for pieces of plastic made by other humans on the other side of the globe. It all seems pretty silly, except that most species will probably go extinct as a result.


7 thoughts on “Reading Nietzsche: the Übermensch

  1. “after all, we are animals”

    Nice blogg. As to animals and human beings. There are a few important differences. Max Scheler makes the important point that while animals have an environment (Umwelt) human beings have a world (Welt).

    The analogies between animals and people break down where the mind (Gk noos, Ger. Geist, Fr. esprit) comes into play. In human life it comes into play at every point.

    You might enjoy Scheler’s The Place of Man in the Cosmos. But there are some older authors too, like Aristotle and Plato. Not to forget Douglas Frame’s book on Homer: The Myth of Return in Early Greek Epic where he examines the root of the Greek word noos and finds it in the Sanskrit root nes. It means “to return home”.

    Homer’s Nes-tor is the wise person because he has the knowledge of how to return from death: asmenoi ek thanatoio.

    This is not “boilogical” death. Everyone knows the body dies. It is about noos/Geist/esprit. THis is why Socrates, after his neighbors condemned him to death, parts from them with the words: now you return to your business and I go to my death. Who has drawn the better lot, only God knows.

    But while Socrates’ neighbors have been dead for the last 2,500 years Socrates still “lives” in Plato’s dialogs. And he will continue to “live” after you and I are buried in the cemetary.

    Will we continue to “live” beyond our deaths? This is the question that opens into all the questions that concern the human as a human: religion, philosophy, art, science, politics etc.

    So, with all credit to the animals (and i never abused one, and I don’t harm insects if I can possibly help it), to your statement that “after all, we are animals”, I think human civilization replies: Well, yes AND no. And the differences ARE important.

  2. Pingback: Reading Nietzsche: Obviously Something the Guardian Staff Didn’t Do | Coming Soon: A Vast Desert

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