The concept of the overman (Germ. Übermensch) is one of the most recognizable (not to mention, most misinterpreted) philosophical propositions associated with Friedrich Nietzsche, most prominently explored in what is arguably considered to be the philosopher’s magnum opus, Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
From the prologue onward, Nietzsche’s title character conveys the importance of the overman in the greater scope of human development:
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. You have made your way from worm to man, and much in you is still worm. Once you were apes, and even now, too, man is more ape than any ape.
Here Zarathustra is emphasizing how the intellectual evolution of humanity is largely encapsulated by mankind’s repeated (some would even say, obsessive) desire to identify where and how our species truly fits in with the rest of the natural order. In this pursuit, we have almost always began and concluded with the presupposition that, as a living organism, man must—by some measure—stand apart from and ultimately transcend the rest of his material surroundings. Hence, in our reasoning of ourselves as the most exceptional of living creatures, we inadvertently declare our existence (i.e. human existence) as the most serious of considerations rationally conceivable; thereby clumsily demoting the existence of all else as something far less serious, in comparison to our own, and giving credence to the anthropomorphic ideal that all of physical reality exists with human priority in mind. And just as in this view we—i.e. modern man—have “transcended” in our perspective beyond the lowly underpinnings of the natural world all living beings are undoubtedly slaves to, so too Zarathustra claims will the overman “transcend” over the lowly underpinnings that intellectually, spiritually, and morally, enslave us.
Nietzsche reasons that because nothing within the harsh reality of nature itself warrants a belief in the transcended existence of man, the means by which we have come to justify our presumed higher status in the natural order is by appealing beyond the confines of nature, declaring the true spirit and virtue of man in the world to be a matter ordained by something wholly otherworldly. All on the assertion that we are not egotistically designating ourselves a favored status in physical existence, but are just humbly accepting the role that has been cast for us by something greater than physical existence itself. This is where Zarathustra draws a contrast between man and overman, because while the overman also identifies his existence as residing on a higher “spiritual” plane to the rest of the living world (at least in comparison to modern man), he will feel no need to credit his transcendence beyond the realm of the physical world—because “the overman shall be the meaning of the earth!”
According to Zarathustra, the reason we are inclined to look beyond the confines of the earth to give our lives on earth value, is ultimately due to our innate feeling of helplessness over the frailty encompassed in our finite existence. Thus, we seek—and, if need be, concoct—infinite answers on which to escape the dread of mortal life; an exercise that only serves to take man’s mind and hopes away from the earthly domain he resigns in. Zarathustra sees this as a great toxin paralyzing the spirit of human life, and calls on man to emancipate himself from such restraints:
I beseech you, my brothers, remain faithful to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of otherworldly hopes! Poison-mixers are they, whether they know it or not. Despisers of life are they decaying and poisoning themselves, of whom the earth is weary: so let them go.
Zarathustra considers mankind’s continued attempt to give meaning to life by virtue of appealing to a “greater”, “higher”, “transcendent”, otherworldly “beyond” to be a misguided effort that prevents man from ever overcoming the harsh reality of life—and death—because it causes them to repeatedly look for guidance from assumed metaphysical forces, instead of coping with the physical forces causing them grief in the first place. By Zarathustra’s standard, one cannot be truly fulfilled in life as long as the knowable source of life (i.e. earth) is marginalized in favor of a presumed better, unknowable, realm of existence:
To sin against the earth is now the most dreadful thing, and to esteem the entrails of the unknowable higher than the meaning of the earth.
Such a perspective breeds contempt for the earth, and, by extension, the life housed by the earth; fostering a sense of resentment towards one’s own physical existence, and an unyielding desire to be free from it permanently. Zarathustra proposes the dawning of the overman to be the antidote to this depressingly nihilistic view of life.
However, the overman should not be mistaken as a bringer of happiness and contentment. Quite the opposite, as the hour of the overman is described by Zarathustra as the “hour of the great contempt. The hour in which your happiness, too, arouses your disgust, and even your reason and your virtue.”
Zarathustra does not view happiness and contentment as necessarily benign reactions, because they often serve to numb the individual to the depressive forces pulling him or her down in life. To truly overcome the depressive forces suffocating one’s existence—i.e. to be the overman—one cannot steer clear of the chaotic, destructive, and frantic realities of life, because these deemed displeasures of life are as much a part of life as any deemed model of happiness could ever be.
The true means by which man overcomes such chaotic forces is to embrace them wholeheartedly; not seek to escape their destructive reality, but to motivate oneself through them and rise higher in one’s own being:
“Where is the lighting to lick you with its tongue? Where is the frenzy with which you should be inoculated?
“Behold, I teach you the overman: he is this lighting, he is this frenzy.”
It is clear that Nietzsche conceives of the overman as the symbolic representation for humanities potential progression towards a more life affirming existence. However, it is a progression that Nietzsche did not foresee as anywhere near set in stone in our social evolution:
Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman—a rope over an abyss. A dangerous across, a dangerous on-the-way, a dangerous looking back, a dangerous shuddering and stopping.
Despite what has come to be the dominate perspective on this subject in popular culture, Nietzsche did not envision the overman to be any one individual or group [and he certainly did not envision it as any one particular race or nationality]. Rather, the overman to Nietzsche is a frame of mind human existence ought to be striving for if it is to mature past the confines that are suffocating its creative and intuitive spirit.
However, Nietzsche did not believe that modern man was heading towards the path of the overman. Rather, the philosopher foreshadowed that if society continues to advance forward in its current direction, the likely outcome will be a degenerate caricature of what once existed of humanity, having Zarathustra declare to his unreceptive audience: “Let me then address their pride. Let me speak to them of what is most contemptible: but that is the last man.”
The last man is the antithesis to the overman. He is the zenith of mediocrity and degradation of life. He does not aspire, he does not innovate. He cannot create anything or progress anywhere from the spot he happens to be standing on; nor would he ever want to. He is content, and wishes nothing more than to remain in his contentment. The last men do not care about overcoming the harsh realities endemic to life; they simply wish to be sheltered from it; festering away in a mundane existence of riskless bliss:
Becoming sick and harboring suspicion are sinful to them: one proceeds carefully. A fool, whoever still stumbles over stones or human beings! A little poison now and then: that makes for agreeable dreams.
Because they avoid all manner of conflict and discomfort, the last men will be too fragile to confront the hardness of life (ironically causing them to recoil for more of the sort of sheltered existence that has left them so vulnerable to begin with). And by attempting to avoid—or more accurately, deny—the cruelties and chaos that make up life, they are avoiding and denying a vital aspect of life itself.
To the last men the concepts of ambition, success, and power have too many possible dangers associated with them to even be contemplated, because to attempt to succeed and advance creates the potential to fail and disrupt one’s cozy contentment in life. Thus, partaking in work no longer stems from a desire to accomplish a particular task, or even to earn a living, but to preoccupy one’s time with an inoffensive routine:
One still works, for work is a form of entertainment. But one is careful lest the entertainment be too harrowing. One no longer becomes poor or rich: both require too much exertion. Who still want to rule? Who obey? Both require too much exertion.
The world of the last man is bland and colorless; where creative fortitude has been sacrificed in favor of comforting sameness. The problem Nietzsche sees with this mentality is in its capacity to render human ingenuity sterile and restrain the most creative elements in society, because it is a world where “everybody wants the same, everybody is the same: whoever feels different goes voluntarily into a madhouse.” Although all will claim and even believe themselves to be happy due to the contentment surrounding them, it is a very artificial happiness made possible solely by the fact that the imaginative spirit of humanity will have been dulled too much for anyone to be capable to protest the mediocrity that is their mundane existence. “‘We have invented happiness,’ say the last men, and they blink.” In other words, when one seizes to care enough about life to find things within it worth combating against, life has become equivalent to death.
Zarathustra’s brief proclamation that, “one must have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star. I say unto you: you still have chaos in yourselves,” conveys that Nietzsche did not believe that contemporary man had reached the level of debasement of the last man, yet. However, he does make it clear that he believed that modernity was gradually setting us on that path.
No doubt he would have considered such modern values as egalitarianism and democratic governance to be antecedents of this trend. And admittedly there is certainly something to be said about the paradox of how it is exactly that with the advancement of security and comfort in the modern world, the continued rates of severe depression has increased exponentially (with no signs of leveling out). These may be issues that modern society ought to take seriously, and seek possible remedies to, but whether the ideal of the overman is the means by which these issues are to be best resolved remains to be seen.
Perhaps it’s manageable to contain the chaotic and destructive realities of life, and embracing their rightful place within the natural order; all while striving for greater security and comfort for as many people as possible. It may be true that by seeking to find a middle ground between Nietzsche’s dichotomy of the overman and the last man, we are sacrificing the creative and spiritual potential of humanity, in favor of finding simple contentment in life (i.e. instead of living truly fulfilling lives, we are just trying to survive through them). By all accounts, the answer to this dilemma depends on what priorities one has for oneself as an individual and society as a whole. And finding a consensus on the path forward human nature ought to be taking is certainly an obstacle too challenging to overcome—possibly even for the overman.
 The German word Übermensch is variably translated as both overman and superman, depending on the translation one uses. For this essay I decided to use “overman”, popularized by famed Nietzschean scholar Walter Kaufmann, as I believe it better conveys the philosophical underpinnings that the term is meant to encompass by its originator.
 Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “Prologue”, section 3.
 Ibid, section 5.