Nietzsche’s Übermensch

Shaping the Future of Mankind

The brilliant 19th-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche explored what it truly means to be the “best version” of oneself. He questioned whether being the best means being the fastest, strongest, kindest, smartest, most creative, or most disciplined. These questions form the core of his philosophy, especially in his concept of the Übermensch.

Nietzsche, c. 1875

Nietzsche, c. 1875

Translated as “Superman” or “Overman,” the Übermensch is a pivotal idea in Nietzsche’s philosophy. Contrary to popular belief that it promotes a superior human “race,” it actually advocates for personal self-discovery and self-overcoming.

I teach you the Übermensch. Man is something that should be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?

Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

To fully appreciate the significance of the Übermensch in Nietzsche’s philosophy, it is essential to understand the context of his thinking. Writing at the end of the 19th century, Nietzsche repeatedly warned that modernity was in crisis. Following the Enlightenment and the separation of church and state across Europe, Christianity lost its authoritative grip. Nietzsche famously declared that “God is dead,” signaling an impending collapse of the entire Western value system.

Nietzsche recognized the dangers of removing Christian values. Despite its flaws, Christianity provided structure and meaning to people’s lives. Without these values, humanity might face an abyss of meaninglessness, leading to a state of deep nihilism. In such a scenario, people might resort to deluding themselves with false beliefs, falling into irretrievable depression, or distracting themselves with trivial pursuits and meaningless entertainment.

In response to this existential crisis, Nietzsche introduced two contrasting concepts: the Übermensch and the Last Man, each representing a distinct path forward in the absence of traditional Christian values.

“We have invented happiness,” say the last men, and they blink.

Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

The path of the Last Man is one of comfort, pleasure, and an easy life. Imagine a society where everyone is content, conflict is nonexistent, and all life’s challenges are resolved. While this might seem appealing, Nietzsche critiques this very idea. The Last Man symbolizes such a society, characterized by a lack of ambition, an aversion to risk, and complacency. These individuals are satisfied with mere comfort and do not strive for anything beyond that. Nietzsche views this as a form of spiritual and existential death.

Nietzsche uses the concept of the Last Man to critique the trends he observed in modern society. He warns against a future where people prioritize comfort and security over the pursuit of struggle, creativity, and self-overcoming.

So, how do we avoid becoming the Last Man? How can we resist falling into nihilism without resorting to meaningless entertainment or deceiving ourselves with false religions and moral systems?

Nietzsche proposes the Übermensch as an alternative future for humanity, where we aren’t dependent on any external standards of value but rather on our own. This concept defies nihilism, serving as a template and vision for something greater.

Man is a rope, fastened between animal and Übermensch—a rope over an abyss.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

One of Nietzsche’s key criticisms of Christian values is their pursuit of what he terms the “ascetic ideal”—the denial of inherent desires such as those for food or sex in the name of “virtue.” He argues that this suppression and the resulting concept of “sin” are psychologically unhealthy, leading to never-ending guilt and self-loathing.

The Übermensch, in contrast, is the master of their own value system. They embrace their character and possess the strength to accept all of life’s joys and pains. By redefining their values, they strive to fully realize their true potential.

This journey is deeply personal and requires each individual to define and affirm their own values, transforming their unique inner drives into a complete and authentic self. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to this challenge.

Not everyone can become Shakespeare, Napoleon, or Wagner—individuals Nietzsche admired for their ability to focus their lives around a single purpose and make unique contributions to the advancement of humanity.

Photo of Nietzsche at 17 years old

Photo of Nietzsche at 17 years old

As a teenager, Nietzsche had already used the term Übermensch in reference to Manfred, the solitary Faustian character in Byron’s poem Manfred, who roams the Alps, haunted by some unspoken guilt. Having confronted all forms of authority, Manfred dies defying the religious path to redemption. Nietzsche felt a strong connection to Manfred, and this inspired him to compose a piano duet titled Manfred Meditation, which he sent to his musical idol, the conductor Hans von Bülow. The maestro’s assessment of the piece as “the most irritating musical extravagance” effectively ended Nietzsche’s aspirations as a music composer.

Painting by Thomas Cole, 1833, depicting a scene from Byron’s “Manfred”

Painting by Thomas Cole, 1833, depicting a scene from Byron’s “Manfred”

Nietzsche’s intentional ambiguity around the concept of the Übermensch has spawned a diverse spectrum of interpretations within literary and philosophical circles. R. J. Hollingdale viewed the Übermensch as someone who had mastered internal chaos; Walter Kaufmann saw it as a symbol of a person who created their own values; and Carl Jung perceived it as a new “God.” For Martin Heidegger, it represented humanity surpassing itself, while the Nazis notoriously misused it as an emblem of their doctrine of a master race.

However, the Übermensch concept fundamentally contradicts Nazi ideology. Nietzsche’s anti-Semitic sister Elisabeth misrepresented his philosophy when she invited Hitler to her brother’s memorial in Weimar in 1934. Hitler, who had never actually read Nietzsche’s works, embraced the selective excerpts Elisabeth provided, adopting the Übermensch as a symbol of a master race. Ironically, Nietzsche explicitly opposed anti-Semitism and nationalism, once proclaiming he “would have all anti-Semites shot” and consistently advocated for pan-European ideals. He even referred to himself as “the last anti-political German.”

Nietzsche being looked after by his sister, 1899

Nietzsche being looked after by his sister, 1899

In his youth, Nietzsche wrote, “We are pilgrims in this world: we have our homeland everywhere and nowhere: the same sun shines over us all. We are citizens of the world—the earth is our realm.” The true spirit of the Übermensch would never conform to herd mentality or dissolve into the anonymity of a monstrous super-state.

Living true to his philosophy, Nietzsche, after being appointed to the chair of classical philology in Basel, renounced his Prussian citizenship and remained stateless for the rest of his life. Retiring from his academic position at age 35, he spent ten years traveling across Europe, writing prolifically. Free from the constraints of national identity, he dedicated his life to the pursuit of philosophy, rather than merely making a living from it.

Words of wisdom

“My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.” —Dalai Lama XIV

“You look ridiculous if you dance, you look ridiculous if you don’t dance, so you might as well dance.” —Gertrude Stein, Three Lives

“Life’s single lesson: that there is more accident to it than a man can ever admit to in a lifetime and stay sane.” —Thomas Pynchon, V.

“What greater gift than the love of a cat.” —Charles Dickens


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