Zarathustra’s Overman, or the Suggestive Power of Metaphor By Dirk R. Johnson

But already by the second half of the Prologue, Nietzsche distances Zarathustra from the position he first articulated in the marketplace. With the dramatic death of the socially maligned tightrope walker, who now becomes the most promising possibility for a higher human type, Zarathustra reassesses his original objective. The tightrope walk of course echoes back to Zarathustra’s earlier image of the bridge that connects man to overman. But here, the tightrope walker falls to his death on his way across the span, not reaching the other side. Zarathustra now regards this figure as the better material from which to fashion the overman.

Nietzsche, at this point, does not give up on the overman as such, but changes who should become the carrier of the ideal: a man like the tightrope walker, who, with courage and humility, “does his job.” By the end of the Prologue, Zarathustra has not yet given up on the ideal itself, only shifted its focus. And finally, in the closing sections of the Prologue, he declares that solitary individuals will become the recipients of his message, no longer the masses. These individuals have a better chance of carrying the seed for the overman.

Thus, in the short span of the Prologue’s ten sections, Nietzsche has performed a crucial pivot, thereby problematizing Zarathustra’s mission. The overman was at first resoundingly declared the objective for mankind, and the central metaphor was etched in the readers’ imagination. But going forward, the overman loses its contours, gets filled with different contents along the way, but never again assumes concrete shape. The metaphor of the overman compares to what Nietzsche famously described as truths no longer believed in but that continue on as metaphors: “coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins” (On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense, 1873).

Nietzsche’s Understanding of Man

The highly influential early text On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense is also the place to start with an examination into Nietzsche’s understanding of man. A current line of reading has it that the ideas Nietzsche presents in this text, above all his skepticism toward the possibility of truth, would be rebuked in the late texts, where Nietzsche would return to a position consonant with (scientific) truth.[8] But this perspective is highly suspect. On the contrary, the ideas expressed in this text are the fertile seedbed out of which the rest of his philosophy grew. His later insights would be more sophisticated and wide-ranging chords from this original score.

One of the key insights Nietzsche challenges here, radical for the time, though highly cogent in its line of argumentation, is our faith in fixed linguistic concepts. Nietzsche explains the impossibility of defining a unique type, a conceptual signpost, under which one can subsume the multifarious individuations of nature. All attempts to do so reflected an anthropomorphism through which man tried to explain, and thereby master, the essential inscrutability, randomness and chaos of nature. Here, Nietzsche already exhibits a decidedly anti-Platonic animus. But curiously, Nietzsche also uses the word Gattung with which Germans designated Darwinian “species”. Implicitly, Nietzsche already questions the basic building block of Darwinian theory; he doubts the existence of fixed forms and suggests, instead, that surface similarity is a cover for endless variation:

We obtain the concept, as we do the form, by overlooking what is individual and actual; whereas nature is acquainted with no forms and no concepts, and likewise with no species [Gattung], but only with an X which remains inaccessible and undefinable for us. For even our contrast between individual and species is something anthropomorphic and does not originate in the essence of things.

Instead of “species,” or Gattung, we should learn to discern and to appreciate the nuances that are concealed by conceptual simplification.

In the texts that follow in the so-called middle period, and until Zarathustra, Nietzsche expanded on this premise and examined the human type—however, not based not on its communalities, i.e., that which fixed the human as a distinct species type, but rather on the differences. From various angles, he argued that the “self” is a conceptual myth, by which man tried to fashion a firm identity out of a storehouse of conflicting drives and instincts. Man’s inner life, like nature itself, was in constant flux, which led individuals to simplify the reality of their inner life—and the interpretation of the natural world—for the sake of survival. As he already noted in the earlier text: unbeknown to man, and at the most subconscious level, conflicting drives were creating false impressions and vast simplifications that deluded him into believing in the fixity of self, forms and nature itself.

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