The existential philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche believed that humanity nedded to be overcome. He viewed humans as weak creatures and slaves to the Christian religion. In The Will to Power, Nietzsche asserts the poer of the overman– a creature beyond Christian good and evil– to replace the passive man.
To understand the book, it is first necessary to understand what Nietzsche means by ‘The Will to Power’. Denneson describes this as a ‘psychological presupposition’ which assumes that humans are always attempting to inflict their wills upon others (Denneson, 1). When considering the use of the term ‘ubermensch’ or ‘overman’ in this work, it is also necessary to understand exactly what Nietzsche means by this term. This is seen by many as the way in which he refers to a ‘superhuman’. In the past, many comparisons wre made between Nietzsche’s overman and the Nazi idea of the superior race. However, this has been re-evaluated by many scholars, and the comparison is no longer seen in the same light. The overman is seen as the next step up from normal humans; this creature could even be interpreted as the next step up the evolutionary ladder.
The overman is not isolated to just this work; we see Nietzsche talk about this creature in other works such as Thus Spoke Zarathustra and The Antichrist. The idea is not new, but at best, it is still controversial (Cross, 1). The Will to Power, which results from these two books, contains various metaphors and generalizations which display contradictions and tensions (Harman, 2). The philosophies which underlie all of Nietzsche’s writing are themselves contradictory; they both celebrate and embrace the humanity of man, whilst holding it in contempt and insulting it at the same time (Cross, 7).
The concept oof the overman appears to be a contradiction in itself, reflecting the views that Nietzsche himself expresses about the human condition. The creature is dichotomy, seeing himself as superior and a master of his environment, but simultaneously he hates his human self, seeing his weaknesses and flaws. In this manner of representation, one must question if this creature could ever become a reality. Cross argues that the overmanis a contradiction in terms of existence which cannot be resolved due to the constraints which Nietzsche applies to this hypothetical creature. Cross states, this creature can only succeed in negating himself, and, in essence, can never truly exist at all.
Nietzsche has the view that mankind as it exists is a disease of a ‘sickness’ which is destroying itself, reflecting the porr nature of a modern man and his lack of pro-activism, being seen as a purely passive creature unalbe to rebel and define his life. Nietzsche further argues that the passive reaction of the occurrences in society are the result of the Christian religion (Cross, 2). Nietzche’s view of man’s ‘sickness’ reveals itself very strongly in The Antichrist, but The Will to Power also displays his view. This book reflects Nietzsche’s belief that all creatures, whatever they are, have a requirement and a need to follow commands of some sort. The freedom of the overman is that the individual despises what he is and has been, and in this is able to learn to command himself. However, this is a difficult and self-destructive process.
The perception of the comand over power is an interesting one; it is not the straight forward meaning of control over others, but also the control over one’s self. In The Will to Power, Nietzsche sees those who look to improve themselves as looking to the ‘will to truth’. However, he argues that in doing this, they are not really seeking new values, but that htey are trying to find a way of bringing all men under the same code of understanding. In effect, they are bringing them all further to the weaknesses for which he blames Christianity.
Nietzsche says he believes that a man who acts out of laziness, or does not act for the same reason is bad, and this passive stance allows the weaknesses of society to become more entrenched and accepted, this becoming of a self-fulfilling prophecy– the more it happens, the more it will cause its continuation.
The passive man does not display obedience to himself, but to society. The overman is obedient to himself, arguably hte hardest type of obedience. Therefore, the will to power is the power to set one’s own values and one’s own goals. The power is therefore not any type of physical brute force, but a strong and enduring self-determination. This shows the dichotomy that Nietzsche puts forward– for how can a man full of self-loathing and sickness, aware of his own weaknesses, ever become this self-determanist creature, yet still aware of his faults (Cross, 7)?
Nietzsche argues that the achieve this, a man must be free of the weaknesses of society; he must not be bound by the convention that the strong have to help the weak. This convention only leads both parties to become even weaker. Nietzsche believes that the only way of overcoming this sickness in society is for the next evolutionary step to be taken– the weak be left to their own devices, whilst the strongest develop themselves. In effect, this is a representation of the survival of the fittest theory.
This reflects his view that the current evolutionary process has been halted by man’s weakness, and that it can only be restarted and the overman be attained by drastic measures (Cross, 10). However for man to change, he must want to change. See how he treats his fellow man with contempt. Yet, even in his own writing, this is a contradiction;
One can enhance only those men whom does not treat with contempt; moral contempt causes greater indignity and harm than any crime (Nietzsche, 393).
For this to be seen as possible, we must accept that the principle motivation behind man is not one of mere survival, but that is is one of betterment. The cost of self-imparement must not be at the expense of the weak. Arguably, it is an amorist view, which shows the reasons why so many scholars see Nietzsche’s questionalbe (Cross, 2).
One may argue that if the overman represents total obedience to oneself and not to others, this change would herald the end of the state. There would no longer be any need for the state because there would not be a role for it to play. However even in this contradiction, a level of stability must be reached in the individual overman. However, Nietzsche also argues that it is stability which has ultimately lead to the stagnation which is currently the position of man. In stability, there will be no movement forward and no evolutionary progress (Cross, 6).
In a final thought regarding the process and achievement of this overman statur, one can clearly see a difference in the state of mind in achieving it. The overman will not likely be satisfied in his position. The goal of the normal man, embodied by the masses, is that of pleasure. In this respect, Nietzsche argues with many other philosophers. However, this is different from the goal and reward which the overman receives. This Nietzsche sees the attainment of joy, yet with different outcome. Nietzsche views joy as being tinged with pain, in this way enabling the idea of joy to be appreciated in its totality.
The whole idea of a ‘superman,’ or overman has been seen many time through philosophy, but in the case of Nietzsche, it is a self-negating idea, and the theory would not work as it advocates to many imitations and a disregard for the social needs of man. The acceptance of this theory would be to disregard many of the social needs and the way in which society works. This theory advocates an abandoment of the current society in favour of total self-determination and obedience to the self.
However in considering this, the most basic message regarding the book The Will to Power must be that this was not written directly by Nietzsche. It is a collection of notes and observations, which are not finished or refined (Cross, 1). Here, we are in danger of misinterpreting his message, and the best and most complete way to rectify this flaw is to read his other books, which do present a final and polished perspective, rather than the unfinished rough outline.
Denneson, The Overman, pp. 1-16
Cross, Will to Power pp. 43-46