A royally adorned black eagle, its talons grasping a sword and a scepter, once graced the flag of the Kingdom of Prussia, where Friedrich Nietzsche was born in the village of Röcken some 180 years ago. It is a commanding image, its spirit one of rule and accomplishment, its tone implicitly merciless. The dominant Germanic power of the nineteenth century whose self-perception was indivisible from its military success, Prussia had reason to trumpet its authority and this was doubtlessly not lost on the young intellectual who was, at heart, a fighter. However, this anthropomorphized image of supremacy is only superficially emblematic of Nietzsche’s writings. Despite the conception perpetrated by chauvinists and charlatans of Nietzsche as a hawk bent on annihilating the weak, the nationalistic eagle symbolizes everything he loathed. Nietzsche, the great individualist, was more bar-headed goose than bird of prey, soaring over philosophical mountains in pursuit of the clearest visions.
In 1883 Nietzsche published the first and second parts of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the treatise from which his philosophical legacy would be most forcibly shaped. Written in the aphoristic style characteristic of his later work, when ill-health and myopia precluded sustained bouts of writing, it is not a text that lends itself to casual reading. Each of his lofty pronouncements demands further inspection, as if, underneath the syllables that constitute each phrase, there are more meaningful reverberations to sound. The book’s biblical tone is also its weakness. Several times during my own reading, weary of its grandiose style and opacity, I exhaled and quietly seethed to myself, “Get to the goddamn point.”
In spite of its weighty tone, the forcefulness and originality of Nietzsche’s style makes Zarathustra an exciting read, and one ripe for misinterpretation. Early on, its protagonist, a solitary prophet named Zarathustra, descends from his mountainous retreat to prepare the way for the coming Ubermensch, or Overman—Nietzsche’s human apotheosis whose very existence would lend meaning to a godless universe. “God is dead,” Zarathustra announces in a market square, perplexing its locals. “The Overman is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the Overman shall be the meaning of the earth!”
The Overman, which Nietzsche conceived as the endpoint on the continuum of human evolution, was more about self-mastery than the subjugation of others, but tragically it was an idea that lent itself to contortion in a time when Europe was a veritable powder-keg. Taken to its most simplistic conclusion, the concept of the Ubermensch as the ‘blond beast’ whose unsparing treatment of others is the acceptable byproduct of one’s will to power, saw its most sinister human realization in Nazi henchman Reinhard Heydrich, whose ruthlessness and physical looks personified what many misconstrued Nietzsche to be championing. Herein lies the misinterpretation. Heydrich’s inhumanity was anathema to the writer’s ideal, and the disservice done in linking his philosophy to the twentieth century’s most loathsome political movement is one of the great damages visited on any man of letters, although it’s one that wouldn’t have surprised him.
Nietzsche’s discomfort in Thus Spoke Zarathustra is not so much for human weakness as it is for the illusion of strength. After Zarathustra introduces the Overman, he talks of the ‘Ultimate Man’, or the mediocre final man whose unthinking belief in the comforts of his bourgeois lifestyle satiates him, thereby precluding introspection and subsequent growth. “The time of the most contemptible man is coming, the man who can no longer despise himself. Behold! I shall show you the Ultimate Man.”
Nietzsche’s contempt was for the self-assured, whose identity is derived from how symbiotic their lifestyles are with the petty values of society. (A testament to Nietzsche’s brilliance is his recognition that in the absence of God, humans would idolize lifestyle.) One can never be great, Nietzsche warns, if one cannot first recognize one’s incompleteness and then, through ceaseless introspection and reevaluation, create highly personal meaning out of existence that’s distinct from the pressures of society. This sort of development is only possible in the most noble man (women in Nietzsche’s writing are either objects of scorn or afterthoughts), and only through this process can he transcend his nihilism and extract meaning from an ambivalent world that no longer can be understood through the prism of Christianity.
It is this emphasis on individualism that places Zarathustra in opposition to the fascist movements that soiled Europe in the first half of the twentieth century. The philosopher had no appreciation for the state or its contrived set of values, since its effect was inherently insidious: to make human beings expendable by denying them their individuality. He writes: “Only there, where the state ceases, does the man who is not superfluous begin: does the song of the necessary man, the unique and irreplaceable melody begin.” A human being, as an infinitely complex organism in which instinctual drives feud with irreconcilable intellectual impulses, becomes further muddled when the social and legal exigencies of the state impose themselves. The state is so nefarious, Nietzsche says, because it is inherently opposed to individuality: to retain its strength as the primary social force it requires conformity to its manufactured values. Uninterested in society’s contrivances, the Overman gives himself entirely to his spirit, within which the potential for personal development is limitless.
Nazi ideology ran counter to Nietzsche’s brand of forceful individualism. Its platitudes, ludicrous theories of racial privilege, and exhortations of state power in no way echo the perspectives the philosopher voiced in his books. He despised submission to mass movements, and prized, above all else, revelation through introspection. “I love the great despisers” he writes, “for they are the great venerators and arrows of longing for the other bank.” Self-mastery is impossible if one is in ideological service to the state, regardless of whether the overarching structure prizes racial extremism or demands more banal forms of conformity. Original meaning and true power can proceed only from an individual’s investigations of self. Put another way, power in the Nietzschen paradigm is never the brutal leverage SS guards exercised over concentration camp inmates, nor can it be found in the barrel of a gun or at the end of a bayonet. Rather, it is the experience of original, highly personal revelation. In this sense, one’s will to power is indivisible from Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence, in which only moments of individual supremacy have the privilege of returning, forever and ever in the universe’s mysterious orbit, as they alone justify one’s existence.
Who did Nietzsche consider the Overman, and how can this concept be synthesized within his larger philosophical system? The Overman wasn’t Heydrich or Hitler, but neither was it Napoleon, who to Nietszche represented the unsublimated will to power. The closest approximation to this highest ideal is Goethe, the German polymath Nietzsche venerates in Expeditions of an Untimely Man. Goethe wasn’t exceptional because he embraced violence, but through his commitment to personal development, artistic expression, and eventually scientific discovery. The dramatist that ascended to continent-wide fame as a young man, who friend Friedrich Schiller called an “egoist to an unusual degree”, Goethe was not an entirely benevolent spirit but a remarkably intelligent man who fashioned enduring art from the bright lights and black holes of his internal universe. He learned to temper his passions in the service of creation, and the scope of his achievements makes him the Nietzschen barometer against which other men are judged.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
For Nietzsche, Goethe’s lifelong commitment to artistic creation and independent thought allowed him to transcend the provincialism of his rural German milieu. While Nietzsche is nihilistic to a degree, and keenly aware of suffering and the temporal limitations on human life, he is ardent in his belief that one can overcome through creativity the confines of a society ruled by mountebanks and mediocre souls. “Creation—that is the great redemption from suffering, and life’s easement. But that the creator may exist, that itself requires suffering and much transformation.”
One must first come to understand the amorality of the world before true creation can occur—a painful process as it forces the artist to face the ruthless meaninglessness of life in order to appreciate its worth. This existential confrontation prompts a search for meaning through which the artist may arrive at a more nuanced understanding of his or herself by deriving personal worth from their worldly experience. Such an engagement is necessarily idiosyncratic, because the artist must locate aesthetic elements in the world that resonate with his or her personality. Once identified, these elements function sequentially. In the first instance, their recognition allows the artist to place his or herself within the world as someone with a specific attunement to something beautiful. In the second instance, after their recognition has ensured the artist’s individualism, the veneration of and identification with these elements affirms the artist’s existence. The artist is left with the complex task of creation, but he or she is finally ready, only now, to transform their particular aesthetic experience into something original. Suffering thus leads to introspection, understanding, and then creation, and this progression encapsulates the transformative process of self-overcoming by which human life is redeemed.
Nietzsche is not an egalitarian, however inspiring his message might be. It takes a person of considerable intelligence and richness of personality to fulfill the monumental process of self-overcoming necessary to create lasting art. This sort of personality is one that’s inclusive of humanity’s best and worst behaviours, for to produce work that’s representative of life the artist must have a visceral and intellectual understanding of both its poles. In Book II Nietzsche says “In truth, I have often laughed at the weaklings who think themselves good because their claws are blunt!”
The philosopher dismisses those who believe in their rectitude because they are not intellectually or emotionally equipped to be anything but conventionally ‘good’, as their weakness prevents them from indulging their basest passions. The highest man is no less depraved, but he’s equipped, crucially, with the intellect and will to understand and then sublimate his depravity in the service of his creation. The artistic dilettante, however commercially successful he might be, has no such sublimated strength or deep understanding of human life, and creates only platitudinous, superficial work that doesn’t – or, more specifically, can never—synthesize beauty with original insight, because he hasn’t looked into himself or at the world with the unflinching depth and courage of the true artist. The dilettante is a mere actor, who reproduces the illusion of originality and understanding but who is never original.
There are obvious shortcomings in Zarathustra. As any female reader would identify, there is no reason why a woman is any less capable of original creation than a man. Moreover, the era of an aristocracy ruled by artistic Overmen hasn’t arrived, nor will it ever, because human beings, the majority of whom aren’t constantly preoccupied with abstract questions about their place in the world, must live in a stable society, however suffocating its influence is on individuality. While societies introduce inauthenticity to people’s lives, the alternative is more insidious. An absence of formal laws or social rules won’t liberate the oppressed genius, only people’s worst, most competitive tendencies.
It’s foolish to dwell on the grandiose Overman as a human possibility, but the development which precedes him can teach us what a person might achieve if they are brave enough to look inward. Nietzsche’s ideas are effective inspiration for overcoming one’s nihilism in a world devoid of objective meaning. By freeing one’s self from ideological servitude to engage idiosyncratically with the world, one can create original meaning and identity and thus transcend the depressing banality of life. Power by personal development, not by force or social coercion, confers significance on human existence. This is how Nietzsche affirms life in Zarathustra, and this, to me, is the book’s greatest philosophical contribution. — Eliott McCormick