Nietzsche's Ubermensch: Concept & Theory

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 and the Superman

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 its important traits.

In 1883, the 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 ubermensch. This figure is sometimes called the superman, although a more appropriate translation may be the overman. The ubermensch may not exactly be a superhero, but in Nietzsche's philosophy, this superior man was here to save the day.

Nietzsche, the uber-philosopher with the uber-stache
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Qualities of the Übermensch

So, what makes the ubermensch 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 proponents of a philosophy we call nihilism. The nihilists believed that there were no moral truths. Nietzsche, in particular, espoused a strongly atheistic vision of this philosophy; the Christian Church was, therefore, an institution that created morality in order to subjugate the masses. The popular belief in a single, universal morality that gives humanity purpose and direction was nothing more than an illusion.

In this worldview, the ubermensch is the person who is able to break from the illusion. Basically, the ubermensch recognizes that society's definition of morality is biased and socially-constructed. So, does this mean that the ubermensch is amoral, or has no moral code? Absolutely not. Rather than accept the morality dictated by institutions like the Church, the ubermensch 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 ubermensch and makes this person a superior being.

Living by his own moral code gives the ubermensch a deep sense of morality a steadfast purpose. In this enlightened position, the ubermensch is dedicated solely to the advancement and betterment of humanity. In fact, as the ubermensch 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 ubermensch. 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 ubermensch has yet to appear. This is the prophetic element of Nietzsche's philosophy: the ubermensch will one day appear to save the world but is not yet a person who lives or has lived amongst us. It is an ideal, something to strive towards, not an existing model to emulate.

Misconceptions about the Ubermensch

Nietzsche's philosophies are complex and convoluted, and he didn't always fully explain them. As a result, a lot of Nietzsche's ideas have been misunderstood and misused, and the ubermensch is no exception. In fact, Nietzsche never actually explained who or what the ubermensch was; this is simply a character that appears in his works and was clearly important in his philosophical worldview.

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