If You're Up There, Save Me Ubermensch!
In the book “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”, Friedrich Nietzsche introduces us to his concept of the Superman or Overman. Keep in mind that Nietzsche was writing 150 years ago and his Superman bears no relation whatsoever to Clark Kent, Man of Steel. Nietzsche’s concept of the Superman is a contentious one as the man's ideas are sometimes hard to stomach for many modern readers. Nietzsche's legacy has also been misrepresented by many parties since his death to suit their own agendas. The ideal of the Superman itself however, is a solid one.
"Man is something that is to be surpassed. Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the Superman- a rope over an abyss. What is great in Man is that he is a bridge and not a goal."
What Nietzsche is talking about is personal transcendence in a practical and achievable way. That’s what I’ll be dealing with in this discussion. We’ll disregard Nietzsche's other theories as to what the aim of transcendence is, and focus solely on the idea of the Superman itself. I’ll put it to you this way; as it stands, we can all do better. It doesn’t matter what field you’re in or what your goals or hopes might be. If we don’t take practical steps towards achieving the things we aim for, then we are essentially dead in the water. Our present state is merely a step on the path to achieving our end goal. It doesn’t matter what the goal is or what kind of person you might be, the fact is that your present self is standing in your way. You are something that needs to be overcome. You are the bridge to your dreams. But sooner or later you have to cross over that bridge and leave it behind. We must carry what we think is worthwhile and disregard all of the crap that gets in our way and serves no purpose. That’s the nature of personal growth. Always simplify.
To be truly alive we must all have some vision of ourselves in our mind's eye that we would like to make reality. Whether that vision involves getting fitter and stronger, becoming a better parent or partner, growing your business, quitting the job you hate, getting an education, or whatever else is on your to-do list. When you get off your ass and do the work that’s necessary to make progress, you’re taking your first steps towards becoming the Superman. And as we all know, the first step is often the hardest.
So, the main character of Nietzsche's book is not actually the Superman himself, it’s a semi-historical Persian guy called Zarathustra (based on the character of Zoroaster). Zarathustra’s a clever guy. He’s spent ten years on a mountain meditating on the condition of mankind and the right path in life. As you might expect though, he gets lonely. Zarathustra misses the company of mankind and wants to spread his ideas to try and elevate man from its present condition. So he sets off on his descent, and literally as soon as he steps foot off of his lonely mountain, someone tells him he’s a fool for trying to achieve his goals.
We’ve all heard it. Sometimes it’s the people we love that hold us back the most. Maybe they fear the change that we are trying to achieve or maybe they resent the fact that we’re getting off of our asses when they aren’t. Regardless, sometimes our friends just aren’t as supportive as we’d like them to be. In Zarathustra's case it’s an old man who says the world isn’t ready to embrace the idea of the Superman. Then it’s the people of a nearby village who publicly ridicule and shame poor old Zarathustra. Nobody gets on his side. Except for one acrobat who unfortunately dies immediately. Inevitably, he begins to doubt his choices. We’ve all been here haven’t we? We want to take up a new challenge or quit our job and do what we love, but the voices in our head cause us to doubt what the right choice is and tell us to stay where we are. We even panic at the realization that others might suffer as a result of our actions. Nobody wants to have the death of an acrobat on their conscience. Like Zarathustra, we must overcome these doubting voices and take the first step.
It’s always the first step that troubles us the most.
In Zarathustra we are introduced to the idea of The Three Metamorphoses. How a persons Will becomes a camel, the camel becomes a lion, the lion slays a dragon and becomes a child. Sounds deep, but it’s really quite simple. When you allow your Will or your character to behave like that of a camel, you are behaving like a beast of burden. That’s what a camel is; we load them up with all of our heavy burdens and make the beasts walk around with them so that we don’t have to. In the early stages of any undertaking, we usually find ourselves carrying other people's burdens. Those burdens might be other people’s expectations of us, it might be your responsibilities, it might be the mindset and ideology that you’ve been raised in or it could be as simple as the psychological baggage that lies in your psyche, the face behind your mask. It’s a heavy load, and it’s not easy to move along your chosen path when other people have weighed you down with so much crap. That’s when you have to transcend beyond the camel-form and shake off all of those burdens, like Buckaroo. Sometimes it causes friction. Other people, even the people that love us, put us into psychological boxes of expected patterns and behaviours. When we step out of the box, people freak out. They don’t know what’s going to happen because they can’t predict our behaviour anymore, and this insecurity causes resentment. It’s never easy to set out on your own, but if you allow yourself to be ruled by what others want from you then you’ll be a beast of burden for ever. So you decide to break free from the load, to unchain yourself.
Now you’re a lion. You’re out on your own and making steps towards your goal. You probably start to see progress and feel pretty enthusiastic. You realize that even though it was difficult to get going, it’s better to be moving than stagnating. So like a lion, you’re out strutting your stuff around the desert, thinking you’re King Dick, when all of a sudden you bump into a dragon. A huge dragon. The dragon says hello and introduces himself as Thou-Shall. A menacing name. You take a closer look and notice that the dragon's scales are made of gold and you see that on every single scale there is stamped a law, a “Thou Shall” that states some rule that’s commonly accepted as general guideline for right conduct. He tells you to turn around and get out of his desert. You feel apprehensive; you don’t care too much for what this dragon is commanding you to do. You’ve got a goal to reach and this being is standing in your way. You could go home with your tail between your legs, but if you do you will inevitably regret not taking the chance and shooting for the stars when you wanted to. Giving up the quest means returning to your previous state as a camel, a load-bearing beast of burden.
You know full well what you have to do. It’s your job to slay that dragon. Nietzsche says that the lion’s name is actually “I Will”. It opposes the dragon “Thou Shall” by refusing to obey, and carrying on with its own will. At some point we have to stop saying yes to people. If we become the type of person that agrees to whatever is expected of us by others, then we lose our own sense of purpose and our own personal willpower. Sometimes we have to say no to our friends, and yes to ourselves. Again, this metamorphosis isn't easy, but once it’s done, you’re like a child again.
With the child metaphor it might seem like we’re taking a step backwards. I didn’t understand it myself for a while. But the return to the childlike state symbolizes the return of creative potential. The lion can’t create. The lion is a beast of pure willpower. Lions assert their will in the face of adversity. But once the dragon lies dead it’s up to the child to grow and create what it sees as its goal. When you turn from the lion to the child, you’ve got the chance to grow and shape your life in whatever way that you see fit, and now anything is possible.
The book “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” is a gold mine of wisdom for anyone concerned with transcending their present condition and creating a stronger, happier version of themselves. I recommend that you read it and more of Nietzsche’s work. For now, it’s a good day’s work if we take the first step and slay the dragon.
June 30th, 2014. Dublin.