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Nietzsche's Ubermensch: Concept & Theory

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  • 0:04 Nietzsche's Übermensch
  • 1:03 Qualities of the Übermensch
  • 3:36 Misconceptions About…
  • 5:09 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Nietzsche's philosophies are fairly complex and tend to be misunderstood. The one that is perhaps misused the most often in his idea of the ubermensch. In this lesson, examine this concept and see how it relates to Nietzsche's philosophy.

Nietzsche' Übermensch

In 1933, two high school students developed the idea of an alien who came to Earth as a baby and became the savior of the planet. They called their character Superman. He was literally the superior man. While Superman's creators may not have been acquainted with German nihilist philosophy, their character certainly reflected some of its important traits.

In 1883, the famous German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche published a book entitled Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Also sprach Zarathustra). This philosophical treatise dealt with many of Nietzsche's ideas about the relationship between morality and humanity, and caught in the middle was the character of the Übermensch. This figure is sometimes called the superman, although a more appropriate translation may be the overman. The Übermensch may not exactly be a superhero, but in Nietzsche's philosophy, this superior man was here to save the day.

Qualities of the Übermensch

So, what makes the Übermensch so important to Nietzsche? Can he leap over tall buildings? Is he faster than a speeding bullet? No, but he can transcend 19th-century European morality.

Nietzsche was one of the first major philosophers to explore a philosophy we call nihilism. The nihilists believed that there were no moral truths. Nietzche believed that the caustic effects of nihilism would eventually destroy all moral and religious convictions, which would precipitate the most profound crisis in human history. However, he also believed that the world would eventually work through nihilism and discover the right course for mankind, although it would come at an incredible price.

In this worldview, the Übermensch is the person who is able to break from the illusion. Basically, the Übermensch recognizes that society's definition of morality is biased and socially constructed. So, does this mean that the Übermensch is amoral, or has no moral code? Absolutely not. Rather than accept the morality dictated by institutions like the Church, the Übermensch creates his own morality, based on his own experiences, which is grounded in this secular physical world (as opposed to some non-earthly afterlife). It is this superpower, the ability to see past the illusion, which creates an Übermensch and makes this person a superior being.

Living by his own moral code gives the Übermensch a deep sense of morality a steadfast purpose. In this enlightened position, the Übermensch is dedicated solely to the advancement and betterment of humanity. In fact, as the Übermensch is aware of the suffering of existence, he is even willing to sacrifice his own self in order to help improve humanity. Over time, he will help other people break from the bonds of institutional morality and thus become a figure who impacts history forever. In fact, Nietzsche defined humans as being the link between animals and the Übermensch. Humanity was caught in a constant struggle between animalistic instincts and a pull towards this more perfect existence.

On that note, we must remember that the Übermensch has yet to appear. This is the prophetic element of Nietzsche's philosophy: the Übermensch will one day appear to save the world but is not yet a person who lives or has lived amongst us. It's considered to be an ideal, something to strive towards, not an existing model to emulate.

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