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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The Übermensch is a concept in the Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. It is frequently translated as Superman or Overman, though there are problems with both of these. Nietzsche posited the Übermensch as a goal for humanity to set for itself in his 1883 book Thus Spoke Zarathustra (German: Also Sprach Zarathustra).

The book's protagonist, Zarathustra, contends that "man is something which ought to be overcome":

All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man? What is the ape to man? A laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. And man shall be just that for the overman: a laughingstock or a painful embarrassment…

There is no consensus regarding the precise meaning of the Übermensch, or even the overall importance of the concept in Nietzsche's thought.


Übermensch in English

The first translation of Thus Spoke Zarathustra into English, done by Thomas Common in 1909, rendered Übermensch as "Superman;" Common was anticipated in this by George Bernard Shaw, who did the same in his 1905 Man and Superman. Walter Kaufmann slammed this translation in the 1950s for failing to capture the nuance of the German über and for promoting a puerile identification with the comic-book character Superman. His preference was to translate Übermensch as "overman." Scholars continue to employ both superman and overman, some opting to simply reproduce the German word.

The German prefix über can have connotations of superiority, transcendence, excessiveness, or intensity, depending on the words to which it is appended. Mensch refers to members of the human race, rather than to men emphatically. The adjective übermenschliches means superhuman, in the sense of beyond human strength or out of proportion to humanity.

The Übermensch and the Nazis

The term Übermensch was used frequently by Hitler and the Nazi regime to describe their idea of a biologically superior "Aryan" or Germanic master race; a form of Nietzsche's Übermensch became a philosophical foundation for the National Socialist ideas. Their conception of the Übermensch, however, was racial in nature. The Nazi notion of the master race also spawned the idea of "inferior humans" (Untermenschen) which could be dominated and enslaved; this term does not originate with Nietzsche. Nietzsche himself was critical of both antisemitism and German nationalism. In defiance of these doctrines, he claimed that he and Germany were great only because of "Polish blood in their veins", and that he would be "having all anti-semites shot" as an answer to his stance on anti-semitism. To his friend Franz Overbeck he confided that “I am just now having all anti-Semites shot.” After conferring with Burckhardt, Overbeck came and removed Nietzsche to a clinic in Basel. Some of Nietzsche’s friends claimed to suspect that his madness was just one more mask, one more bit of feigning; in fact his situation was hopeless. After the attentions of various specialists, Nietzsche was released in the care of his mother. He had moments of relative lucidity, but he never regained his faculties.


Nietzsche introduces the concept of the Übermensch in contrast to the other-worldliness of Christianity: Zarathustra proclaims the Übermensch to be the meaning of the earth and admonishes his audience to ignore those who promise other-worldly hopes in order to draw them away from the earth. The turn away from the earth is prompted, he says, by a dissatisfaction with life, a dissatisfaction that causes one to create another world in which those who made one unhappy in this life are tormented. The Übermensch is not driven into other worlds away from this one.

The Christian escape from this world also required the invention of a soul which would be separate from the body and survive the body's death. Part of other-worldliness, then, was the denigration and mortification of the body, or asceticism. Zarathustra further links the Übermensch to the body and to interpreting the soul as simply an aspect of the body.

As the drama of Thus Spoke Zarathustra progresses, the turn to metaphysics in philosophy and Platonism in general come to light as manifestations of other-worldiness, as well. Truth and nature are inventions by means of which men escape from this world. The Übermensch is also free from these failings.

The Death of God and the Creation of New Values

Zarathustra ties the Übermensch to the death of God, meaning specifically the Christian God. While this God was the ultimate expression of other-worldly values and the instincts that gave birth to those values, belief in that God nevertheless did give life meaning for a time. The time has come when serious human beings can no longer believe in God, however — God is dead, meaning that the idea of God can no longer provide values. With the sole source of values no longer capable of providing those values, there is a real danger of nihilism.

Zarathustra presents the Übermensch as the creator of new values. In this way, it appears as a solution to the problem of the death of God and nihilism. Because the Übermensch acts to create new values within the moral vacuum of nihilism, there is nothing that this creative act would not justify. Alternatively, in the absence of this creation, there are no grounds upon which to criticize or justify any action, including the particular values created and the means by which they are promulgated.

In order to avoid a relapse into Platonic Idealism or asceticism, the creation of these new values cannot be motivated by the same instincts that gave birth to those tables of values. Instead, they must be motivated by a love of this world and of life. Whereas Nietzsche diagnosed every value-system hitherto known as a reaction against life and hence destructive in a sense, the new values which the Übermensch will be responsible for will be life-affirming and creative.

Übermensch as Goal

Zarathustra first announces the Übermensch as a goal humanity can set for itself. All human life would be given meaning by how it advanced the generation of this higher, transhuman type. The highest aspiration of a woman would be to give birth to an Übermensch, for example; her relationships with men would be judged by this standard.

This aspect of the Übermensch has reminded some of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer. But whereas evolution via natural selection or survival of the fittest proceeds without being intended by any member of the species, the transition from humanity to Übermensch must be willed.

Zarathustra contrasts the Übermensch with the last man, an alternative goal which humanity might set for itself. The last man appears only in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and is presented as a condition that would render the creation of the Übermensch impossible.

Nietzsche associates the Übermensch with a program of eugenics. This is most pronounced when considered in the aspect of a goal that humanity sets for itself. The reduction of all psychology to physiology and even physiognomy implies that human beings can be bred for cultural traits. This aspect of Nietzsche's doctrine focuses more on the future of humanity than on a single cataclysmic individual. There is no consensus regarding how this aspect of the Übermensch relates to the creation of new values.

Relation to the Eternal Recurrence

The Übermensch shares a place of prominence in Thus Spoke Zarathustra with another of Nietzsche's key concepts: the eternal recurrence of the same. Over the course of the drama, the latter waxes as the former wanes. Several interpretations for this fact have been offered.

Laurence Lampert suggests that the eternal recurrence replaces the Übermensch as the object of serious aspiration. This is in part due to the fact that even the Übermensch can appear like an other-worldly hope. The Übermensch lies in the future — no historical figures have ever been Übermenschen — and so still represents a sort of eschatological redemption in some future time.

Stanley Rosen, on the other hand, suggests that the doctrine of eternal return is an esoteric ruse meant to save the concept of the Übermensch from the charge of Idealism. Rather than positing an as-yet unexperienced perfection, Nietzsche would be the prophet of something that has occurred an infinite number of times in the past.

Others maintain that willing the eternal recurrence of the same is a necessary step if the Übermensch is to create new values, untainted by the spirit of gravity or asceticism. Values involve a rank-ordering of things, and so are inseparable from approval and disapproval; yet it was dissatisfaction that prompted men to seek refuge in other-worldliness and embrace other-worldly values. Therefore, it could seem that the Übermensch, in being devoted to any values at all, would necessarily fail to create values that did not share some bit of asceticism. Willing the eternal recurrence is presented as accepting the existence of the low while still recognizing it as the low, and thus as overcoming the spirit of gravity or asceticism.

Still others suggest that one must have the strength of the Übermensch in order to will the eternal recurrence of the same. This action nearly kills Zarathustra, for example, and most human beings cannot avoid other-worldliness because they really are sick, not because of any choice they made.

In popular culture

  • George Bernard Shaw's 1903 play Man and Superman is a reference to the archetype; its main character considers himself an untameable revolutionary, above the normal concerns of humanity.
  • The comic-book hero Superman was originally a villain modeled on Nietzsche's idea. He was re-invented as a hero, bearing little resembleance to the previous character, though still one with a dubious morality. Only as the series progressed did Superman become the wholesome, all-American boy from the Midwest, who just happened to possess immeasurable powers.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Übermensch" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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