Nietzsche’s concept of the Ubermensch or overhuman is easily one of the most recognized ideas in his thought. However, it actually plays a small and somewhat vague role in the entirety of his philosophy. Nietzsche’s definition and characterization of the overhuman is also very limited. The overhuman is discussed with any depth only in Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
The overhuman is a problematic concept for understanding of Stirner and his influence, because it has been associated with the unique one. The same body of literature that intends to establish Stirner as Nietzsche’s predecessor, also tends to see the overhuman as a poetic restatement of the unique one. In addition, a significant number of the scholars who argue that there are profound differences between Stirner and Nietzsche, also see parallels between the unique one and the overhuman, arguing that the concepts are similar egoist reactions to both humanism and modernity.
But these efforts are specious, even with the scant and ambiguous information Nietzsche provides about the overhuman. About all that Nietzsche says about the overhuman is that it
(a) is a collective concept, not a reference to an individual;
(b) is devoid of the timidity, cowardice, and pettiness that frequently characterizes modern human beings, especially those in leadership positions;
(c) aspires to warrior values of greatness and nobility;
and (d) acknowledges and relishes the fact that life is risky and adventurous. What appears to matter more than the specific qualities of the overhuman is the rationale for its coming, and what humans must do to prepare for it.
In Ecce Homo, Nietzsche discusses the inspirations and frustrations he experienced as he wrote Thus Spoke Zarathustra, thus creating the concept of the overhuman . When his health permitted in the spring and winter of 1 881, Nietzsche woul d walk in the mornings from Rapallo on the Italian Riviera, where he was living, to Zoagli amid the pine trees . In the afternoon he would walk along the bay from Santa Margherita to Portofino. It was on these walks that the concept of Zarathustra “as a type” came to him, or, as he put it, ” overtook me.” To understand Zarathustra as the prophet of a great change, he suggests that one must review his concept of “great health,” which he initially elaborated in The Gay Science. “Great health” is an acknowledgement, an appreciation, and a frustration with the intellectual journey toward discovering new goal s, new values, new means, and new idea ls, particularly those pertaining to human beings and their actions. The beautiful views of the Mediterranean contrasted sharply with his ill health, shaking Nietzsche with a profound agony that became a metaphor for his disgust with the values and archetypes of modernity.
Nietzsche claims insight because he suffers deeply but still appreciates beauty and majesty.
After such vistas and with burning hunger in our science and conscience, how could we still be satisfied with present-day man? It may be too hard but it is inevitable that we find it difficult to remain serious when we look at his worthiest goals and hopes, and perhaps we do not even bother to look anymore.
Nevertheless, Nietzsche looks at “modern man.” He finds the values, hopes, and lives of modern humans inadequate. When we first meet the hero in the early pages of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, he has emerged from the cave in the mountains where he has spent the past decade in isolation. He is now a transformed human, overburdened with the wisdom that he wants to bestow and distribute until the wise are once again “glad of their folly” and the poor are once again “glad of their riches.” He encounters a holy man as he descends but he soon parts company, astonished to l earn that the holy man has not heard that “god is dead.” He comes to a crowded market in a town and dramatically announces the coming of the overhuman, telling the crowd that the overhuman is to the human what the human is to the ape. His appeal to the mob in the market is that the greatness in humanity, or in themselves, is found in the efforts of persons to lay the foundation for the arrival of this being, or ideal, that transcends the human.
“What is great in the human is that it is a bridge and not a goal: what can be loved in the human is that it is a going-over and a going-ullder.” Zarathustra says that he loves the humans who sacrifice themselves for the earth so that it will one day belong to the overhuman. He loves those who “will” their “going under” so that the overhuman may live, and those who prepare a home with animals and plants so that the overhuman will have a home with the resources needed to live. Zarathustra’s initial message is not only to announce the coming of the overhuman, and the overcoming of the human, but to instruct his audience in what they need to do to prepare the way for the life of the overhuman and the death of the human. This preparation involves both a “going-over” the bridge that is humanity and a “going-under” so that the human will “live no more.” Individual human beings are not the overhuman and neither is Zarathustra. Zarathustra is the “herald of the lightning from the dark cloud of the human,” and the lightning is the overhuman. Zarathustra’s task is to rally the humans to be m ore than themselves by contributing to the arrival of the overhumcm. Nietzsche tells us directly that Zarathustra is the promoter of a cause, which is the arrival of the overhuman, and he demands the sacrifice of the thoughts, feelings, and activity of individuals to the cause, so that they can be part of something that is more than themselves. Their purpose, the m eaning of their lives, the goal they should set for hum anity is to assist in the creation of something better than themselves.
As the “herald of the lightning,” Nietzsche speaks through Zarathustra about the failures, limitations, and inadequacies of human beings, encouraging and applauding their “going under,” their sacrifice, in favor of the overhuman. He counterposes the overhuman with “the last human,” and warns his audience about the final, most despicable humans. The last humans are despicable because they have abandoned all interest in transcending the human. They no longer understand or seek to understand love or creation. They have made the earth small and petty. They have contrived happiness. They no longer challenge themselves, but seek only comfort, warmth, and a little pleasure. They do not even realize how despicable they are. But there is still some “chaos” within the souls of humans and Zarathustra will exploit this chaos, work with the “higher humans” to bring about the overhuman. To make way for the overhuman, the human and all of the products of human folly must be overcome.
Zarathustra critiques the “new idols,” but this is not the critique of dialectical egoism.
The state is especially singled out for Zarathustra’s wrath because i t is the implacable enemy, not of the unique one, but of “peoples and herds” who have a faith and serve the cause of life. The state is the annihilator of peoples; it rules by the sword and generates a “hundred desires” in people, while “moderate poverty” should be praised. Where peoples, tribes, cultures still exist, they despise the state as an abomination against customs and morality. The state creates its own concepts of good and evil, and undermines traditional notions of customs and rights. The state generates superfluous, unnecessary persons who clamor for equality, rights, and material desiderata . It separates people from nobler values of duty, honor, and struggle because its reason for being is to provide security, rights, equality, and freedom from material deprivation. Only where the state ends is where the overhuman begins. Zarathustra assails the political products of equality and individual rights in a similar manner.
Humans are not equal and never will be. The deception of equality generates nothing but petty resentment and a desire for revenge; the deception of equality represses nobility. The overhuman will not bring equality nor individual rights, but a clash of rich and poor, the high and low so that life can overcome itself again and again. “And because it needs the heights it needs steps and opposition among steps and climbers! To climb is what life wills, and in climbing to overcome itself.”
Nietzsche’s critique of politics and society is not oriented toward the overcoming of the individual’s alienation from self, nor toward the individual’s assertion of ownership of thought, behavior, and property. His critique is oriented toward the coming of the overhuman. Nietzsche’s assault on the state, culture, religion, and science does not establish any sort of compatibility with Stirner either in form, content, or purpose. Nor does it make him an anarchist or atheist. Nietzsche attacks authority in order to recreate it. Nietzsche attacks the human abstraction, the human essence, in order to make way for the overhuman, a new abstraction, a new essence. The state, culture, religion, and science must go so that there is no competitor for the attention, trust, loyalty, and adulation due to the overhuman.
Nietzsche’s Zarathustra wants to rally the mob so that they can sacrifice themselves, effecting the transition to the overhuman. He is not rousing the rabble so they can make the internal and external changes needed to appropriate and consume their own lives. God and the state must die, and so must the human, but this is so the overhuman can live. It is significant that Stirner not only counterposed the state in the abstract to the egoism, the “I,” of the unique one, but he attacked the state in its specific historical and ideological manifestations: the Greek, Roman, Christian Germanic, liberal, socialist, and humanist. In each case, he outlined the specific form of opposition of the state to the egoism of the individual, extracting from each form the antagonism between the “cause” of the state and the “ownness” of the person. Stirner’s critique of culture, virtue, religion, and science has a similar trajectory: the historical and ideological facts are opposed to egoism, the ” I,” and the unique one. They are eventually related back to the opposition between the external “cause” and the ownness of the person. Stirner’s critique of the abstraction – god, state, and humanity – was based on an objection that the essence supplanted the real, concrete individual. The overhuman is a n abstraction, an essence, a spiritual ideal . It is another cause that is “more to m e than myself.” Zarathustra proclaims the downfall of modernity, conventional values, and the birth of a new era with a new morality and a new view of greatness that ordinary humans cannot envision, much less achieve.