What grinds your gears? Stepping on gum when you bought new shoes? Your neighbour’s taste in music at 5am? Waking up to interesting aromas wafting gently into your bedroom from your cat’s litter box, like a sweet deathly wave of chemical weaponry?
Yes, those things grind my gears, too. But you know what else grinds my gears? When people with great ideas are misunderstood or, at least, when people do not take the time to try to truly understand their great ideas. Arguably, Nietzsche is one of the most controversial figures with respect of being misunderstood by so many. I do not claim to be Nietzsche’s soul sister or the only person who can preach his delightfully mad and joyful gospel to the world. Instead, I would like to muddle things some more by offering my interpretation on his concept that I think gets misunderstood the most: his concept of ubermensch, the overman. And, since it’s 2014, I’ve added superwomyn into the mix. Explanation on spelling to follow.
An aside is necessary here. If this is the first time you hear about Nietzsche, fear not. This can still be accessible to you. The Cole’s notes version is that Nietzsche was a philosopher who lived in the 19th century and it was him, not Kanye West, who wrote, “whatever does not kill you makes you stronger.”Back then, this saying was still profound and has not yet been cheapened by American Idol. Trying to sum up Nietzsche’s philosophy in a sentence or two will inevitably result in an epic fail, so I will just say that some of his work touched on themes of morals as in what it means to have morals that make you weak vs. morals that give you strength and values, as in what is means to create your own values vs. just following the herd off the cliff because someone else said you should; and many, many other things. More than a hundred years after his death, Nietzsche remains an iconoclast. Spark notes actually do a decent job of summarizing some of his ideas.
I’ll start off by my impression of the various misunderstandings of his concept of the over-man, which has also been translated as a superman. Here’s what the over-man is not (despite some earlier misinterpretations):
- A Nazi superhero
- A man in blue and red tights
- Rodion Raskolnikov, the hero (sort of) of Crime and Punishment who commits a murder just to see if he is above the moral law
- An anarchist with no respect for any authority
- A nihilist drifting in the meaningless smoke screen of life
- A narcissistic, self-indulgent combination of all of the above: A cape-wearing, Nazi supporting, eugenics advocate who believes in nothing and no one. That is not Nietzsche’s over-man.
Simply put (pun intended), the over-man is a person who has transcended the bondage of conventional morality, the type of morality that, to Nietzsche, exalts pity and weakness, the type of morality that creates sheep out of people. Among sheep, the over-man is a lion, but not in a sense of a creature of aggression and violence: more so, a creature with enough internal, psychological strength that he does not have to bend to the arbitrary rules of society. In his strength, the lion is not consumed with hunting; the lion also gives of himself to others.
Now, given our 2017 context, the “over-man” is not inclusive enough. There can also be an over-womyn or a super-womyn. If you are wondering about the spelling, a number of feminist philosophers spell the word that way to accentuate that the womyn does not need to have a “man” to be the root of the word in order for her to be whole. I thought this spelling was especially appropriate to a discussion of exploring shifts in values, as was Nietzsche’s habit. But beyond the man vs. womyn gender dichotomy, we are human creatures with many possible gender identities and sexual orientations, so let’s not stop with over-man and super-womyn. Let us be creatures beyond good and evil.
To Nietzsche, “beyond moral” does not mean “without morals.” That, to me, is the single most profound misunderstanding of his idea of over-man. Over-man does not destroy the morality only to let them go adrift in the sea of angst. The over-man goes beyond the old morality, the morality of the herd, and champions a morality of inner strength, will, and determination. If you are thinking of self-transcendence and a New Age type of scenario here, nirvana and serenity steeped in patchouli incense sticks and surrounded by a warm glow of a thousand candles, again, that is not quite Nietzsche’s vision. The over-man does not reach some sort of an enlightened state. The over-man creates new meanings, values, and morals, one that do not inherently oppress and belittle others, but ones that lift others up and help them overcome the weaknesses in themselves.
Most significantly, over-man overcomes himself, not other people: he overcomes the vestiges of arbitrary, petty, and power-hungry rules that he has internalized as a result of living in civilized society.
Nietzsche did not advocate nihilism, anarchy, or a world without rules. On the contrary, his writing warns us that we have destroyed the old values, but we have not created new ones. Over-men, over-womyn, and over-creatures are the ones who dare not just to destroy, but to create. Without a set of values, humanity will propel itself into nihilism and meaninglessness, such as when tweeting about an experience in order to get a tiny dose of human recognition becomes more important than being fully in the experience itself: can you be fully immersed in the sunset when you are busy typing about how beautiful it is? Nietzsche wanted to be that person, the over-man to give us such values. But this is a monumental task that is too big for any one individual. The over-man, over-womyn has to start with him or herself. Maybe your overcoming will be an overcoming of fear, or of shame, or of habitual apathy, or of a misguided sense of obligation. What parts inside of you do you need to overcome?
I invite all of you to be the creatures beyond good and evil, to look at the meaningless actions around and within you and, after taking a good look, say, “This is enough. We need more, we deserve more, and we can make something more happen. Instagram [or insert whatever is more appropriate here for you personally], you rule my world no more!”
I do not claim to have a list of fantastic values that we should all adopt. In fact, I am suspicious of any absolutist values or anyone who claims they have figured out The Meaning of Life (except for Monty Python, naturally). However, right now some of common values I see being enacted in society are: money, safety, conformity. We are living them out with our actions even though we may not believe in them. We are living them out at the expense of courage, authenticity, genuine relationships, passion, and spontaneity. How can we move beyond these to the values that we actually can be proud of? Beyond good and evil, beyond shame, beyond fear, beyond the perpetual angst of human condition, yet human, all too human: that is the over-man.