Nietzsche’s “Overman” and “Last Man”

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The concept of the overman[1] (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.[2]

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!”[3]

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.[4]

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.[5]

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.”[6]

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.”[7]

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.”[8]

Overcoming a Spirit of Hopelessness – Help for Today

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.[9]

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.[10]

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.”[11] 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.”[12] 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,”[13] 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.

[1] 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.

[2] Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “Prologue”, section 3.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid, section 5.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

The Rationality of Suicide

[Disclaimer:  Due to the sensitive nature of the subject, I feel it necessary to mention that the purpose of this article is not to convince anyone to commit suicide, nor is it meant to trivialize the seriousness of suicide as a psychiatric issue.  On the contrary, I see this as a very serious matter, and encourage anyone struggling with suicidal thoughts to seek immediate help from trained professionals, and/or turn to trusted friends and family in their lives to manage through their personal distress.]

For the sake of brevity, allow me to list what forms of suicide I’m not talking about here.  I’m not talking about an act of self-sacrifice for the sake of saving another life.  Generally, people think quite highly of these sort of acts, and view them as very dissimilar to what most of us commonly refer to when we speak of suicide (a point I won’t be arguing against, because I agree that the two are in fact not the same).  Likewise, most people can imagine themselves empathizing with persons who are experiencing such agonizing physical suffering that it would be cruel to deny them their wish to be free of their pain permanently; even going so far as to accept the moral necessity to assist such individuals in their final act.  I would argue that when it comes to the topic of suicide most people see the above scenarios as exceptions to the norm, and therefore wouldn’t hesitate to call for a moment’s worth of pause, sympathy, and contemplation over the circumstantial details surrounding each situation.  However, the sort of suicide I wish to discuss here isn’t warrant for such nuanced introspection in most people’s eyes.  What I’m talking about is the act of a physically healthy, seemingly autonomous individual deciding to take his/her life for no greater reason other than simply not wanting to live any longer.

From what I’ve gathered in the public discourse on this type of suicide (i.e. the definition most people picture when they think of suicide) the topic inspires an almost universal revulsion, condescension, and condemnation of the very idea of it (and, often, the person who committed the act).  At best, the response garners a pitying tsk-tsk from onlookers, before they opine how cowardly and selfish the person is for taking his/her life.  There is an intense knee-jerk hostility in the tone directed towards those who kill themselves, where it almost sounds as if the person who chose to end his/her life has committed some great offense against all our collective sensibilities.  Additionally, there is very much a “How dare you?” subtext that seems to linger between the lines of the reasons people give for their disgust with the act (and, as mentioned before, the individual who has committed it).

“How dare you?  Don’t you know that life is sacred?”

Perhaps, perhaps not.  However, no matter what the objective merit of life may be, this is not much of a retort against the individuals who commit suicide for the mere fact that these individuals might very well agree that life, in general, is sacred and valuable, but they simply don’t extend this moral axiom to themselves as individuals.  This is actually not a contradiction in reasoning, as it’s undeniable that generalized precepts always break down at the level of the individual.  For instance, take the statement that all societies have developed some sort of moral code of behavior for their communities.  This is true, and usually gets internalized by the individuals within the society who follow the moral norms of their community–except for the individuals who don’t.  The existence of individuals who don’t follow societal morals does not invalidate the value of said morals.  Similarly, a person can be within the bounds of reasonable thought to deduce how although life as a whole is important/sacred/valuable/etc., his/her life as an individual plays too negligible of a factor in the greater scheme on which this moral precept operates to matter one way or another.

And there is a dose of rationality behind this, in that as far as society is concerned individuals are largely interchangeable, and even dispensable.  Your life has as much meaning as you can attribute to it on a personal level.  Thus, if an individual person ceases to be able to attribute any worthwhile meaning to his/her life, insisting otherwise isn’t going to instill a different perspective into his/her mind.  This in itself is not a justification for committing suicide, but it is a retort to the insistence that those who commit suicide are committing a crime against the “sanctity” of life as a whole.

“How dare you?  You’re going to die one day anyway, so you might as well appreciate the gift of life you’ve been given no matter how bad you might think it is.”

The problem with this line of logic is that a suicidal person can easily turn it around and ask why, since s/he is going to die one day anyway, it matters whether it’s now or 80 years from now?  In all fairness, I know that the point this reactions is driving at is the notion that no matter how dire one’s circumstances may be, the very fact that you have the opportunity to experience these circumstances, and experience life itself, is something worth preserving for as long as possible; precisely because there will come a time in which you will no longer have the ability to choose between life over death (neither its desirable or less desirable components).  Yet, as poetically appealing as this is, the truth is that this reaction commits the same error in reasoning that the previous one does.  Namely, it conflates the notion of Life (writ large) and generalizes the connotations and values ascribed to it with the values of any individual life.  Yes, life is a rare and fleeting phenomenon that those of us who have had the chance to be born and experience should consider ourselves lucky to have done so.  But this is a meaningless statement to the individual suicidal person who does not feel this way about his/her individual life.

To continuously hark this person about how life itself is grand and a blessing, in all these general terms does not give an iota of a reason why such qualifiers need necessarily be extended to said person’s individual life.  It is a fallacy to take the general attributes ascribed to a group and apply them to the random individual in said group (it’s called the ecological fallacy, to be precise).  Not to mention it is very likely that one motivating factor that drives suicidal persons to kill themselves is the realization that relative to the grand lives they observe all those around them, their individual existence falls short of any such splendor.  Hence, if the argument against suicide rests on the premise that one shouldn’t do it because life is too awesome, and the individual is painfully aware that in contrast his/her individual life is not at all awesome, what exactly is the rationale to continue on (from the perspective of the individual)?

“How dare you?  Suicide is an act of cowardice.  You should face your problems instead of running from them.”

This is where the condescension comes into play.  The demand to face one’s problems becomes a bit of an absurd statement to the individual who views life itself as his/her primary problem.  This person has no choice but to face “their problem” on a daily basis, which is…well…sort of the major part of their problem.  What the statement is really trying to say is that you should face the things in life that are causing you grief and deal with them.  But what if you honestly cannot resolve the issues in life that are causing you to contemplate ending it?  What if you have tried and tried, and searched for decades to find some means to overcome your grief, but have found no remedy, and have concluded that no remedy exists?  Have you failed to “deal” with your problems at this point?  Other than a few catchy, bumper-sticker worthy, feel-good slogans, what actual practical advice can be said to an individual in this situation?  Because to tell someone that they need to “face their problems” is a very, very easy thing to do on anyone’s part, but unless this statement is accompanied with a feasibly attainable set of solutions the distressed individual can utilize to overcome their distress, your profound insights are more likely to just make him/her feel even more hopeless about life.

Suicide is undoubtedly a taboo in most of Western society (in modern times and antiquity), for if it were not we would not have bothered to make it an unpardonable sin both in religious doctrines and secular philosophies.  We, as collective members of what we like to think of is a relatively stable and well-functioning community (and, generally speaking, it is), do tend to empathize strongly with fellow travelers in this land who are suffering and seek out help (though unfortunately we often find ourselves making exceptions this instinctive reaction, too, all for varying reasons and interests).  Yet, when it comes to those who took it upon themselves to permanently withdraw from the anguish they felt in life, we respond with a sense of defensiveness and betrayal.  And I would argue it’s not really because of the individual who committed suicide itself, because unless we knew the individual personally our reactions to the act can only dwell within the realm abstract idealism.  I think it has more to with the fact that we spend a great deal of energy convincing ourselves that whatever pain, whatever setback, whatever dilemma or trauma we have to endure, life itself–that is life for the sake of life–must still be worth pursuing, if for no other reason than that it is the only grand experience of which we can be certain.  Thus, we will always reason that, more often than not, even a painfully tormented life is better than no life at all.  And we will emotively dismiss any suggestion that the act of suicide can be the result of a valid and sound line of reasoning on the part of the individuals who take the dire step.  Because, to be honest, we would rather tolerate for a person to continue living in mental distress, as long as it means we get to preserve our ideals about the greater value of our lives.  Which is what it all ultimately boils down to.

Depression Impression

This is a topic I have been wanting to touch on for some time, but usually found myself pausing as it proved difficult to articulate what essentially comes down to a concerned observation on my part.  (I suppose one could consider this post an attempt to verbalize a matter that’s been unsettling me in hope that it will make more sense once I finally manage to focus it together in a coherent prose.)

Throughout the years of schooling and tutoring, I have noticed several trends and patterns emerging.  Notwithstanding the ever-fluid fashion sense of adolescent youths, a concerning trend I repeatedly take note of is how as time goes by the number of people being prescribed antidepressants continues to increase exponentially.  This trend is also true of colleagues, supervisors, family members, close friends, and casual acquaintances.  And demographic studies seem to confirm my observation that it is indeed the case that over the last three decades the number of people being treated for depression, and prescribed antidepressant, has continuously risen (at least in the U.S.) with no signs of leveling off.

One possible explanation for this is that only recently people have been willing to seek proper treatment for their depression than ever before, which would make the increase in prescribed antidepressants a positive development as it indicates that a greater number of individuals in need of medical/psychiatric care are receiving it.  However, although I would love nothing more than to wholeheartedly embrace this optimistic outlook on the observed trend, I can’t help but feel that it serves to overlook a rather important anomaly in the pattern:  namely, if there are now more people than ever seeking and receiving treatment for their depression, why is the rate of depression at a seemingly never-ending rise?  In other words, if we are being proactive by treating depression head-on, shouldn’t we see a correlating decrease in depression with the increase of prescribed antidepressants (i.e. the exact opposite of the trend we’ve been seeing over the last 20-30 years)?

As a point of preemptive clarity I feel the need to state how I hope this post doesn’t come across as the scribbling of an internet conspiracy theorist, raving against “Big Pharma” and “the ills of modern medicine”.  I also feel somewhat silly having to actually say this, but (again, just for clarity’s sake) I’m not opposed to medications, or vaccinations, or hospitals, and I have no issue giving due credit to the advent of modern medical science as an irrefutable component that has shaped the overall rise in improved health for the large segment of the globe that has enjoyed it for the better part of over a century.  But none of this has anything to do with the issue that is blatantly staring at me when it comes to depression and the increased dependency on antidepressants I see with the people around me (which seems to mirror the data gathered on the national population as a whole).  Furthermore, given this observed trend, I can’t help but ask myself to at least consider that something important is being overlooked.  Perhaps the possibility exists that it might not always be the depression itself that is the causal depressor to the afflicted individual; that, in at least some of these cases, the depression itself is a psychological response to an unaddressed stress factor that’s being overlooked because we are more content with just medicating people and sedating them into bliss, rather than considering the possibility that a deeper–possibly environmental or societal–problem exists here.

Like I said before, I am not an opponent to medicine or medication, but I can’t ignore the fact that I keep seeing more and more people around me resorting to antidepressants to treat their distress, with no apparent long-term plan or indication for these pills to actually subside and eliminate the cause of their depression.  What I’m saying is that if we are going to numb a portion of people’s neurological senses, we better be damn sure that what we are doing is actually treating the cause of people’s suffering, rather than just assume we’re on the right track and continue to prescribe medication that is simply not bringing about the expected result (i.e. actually reducing the number of people afflicted with depression).