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

We can now return to the notion of the overman. If the above is Nietzsche’s basic insight in relation to man—one which did not change but only deepened over time—then the overman for him could not represent a higher human type, because he doubted a higher “type” could be fixed or that such a “type” existed at all. There could only be individual humans—better, individuations—randomly emerging within the constant flux of nature. That higher type could also not have fixed qualities that would allow it to serve as an ideal for mankind; it could only reveal itself and take on identity in the process—in an active and direct engagement with the outside world.

Only in retrospect might a “superior” individual incite our admiration and wonder, for it will have revealed a harmonious coordination of the instincts that held out a promise for future individuals. In short, the overman as a “higher” human type could not serve as any goal or objective for a future humanity, because such an “ideal” toward which one could systematically work didn’t exist. There was no blueprint, no master plan; a “higher” human just emerged—at random, unexpected and unplanned. An idealized higher human, in the way Nietzsche envisioned it, could not be willed into existence, nor could mankind work toward it.

Let us examine a couple of passages to determine this. One of the most crucial in this regard lies on the other spectrum of Nietzsche’s philosophical development: one of two late “Anti-Darwin” passages (1888) in his notebooks. Here Nietzsche talks about the figure of Caesar as a consummate higher human being:

The richest and most complex forms—for nothing more is meant by the term ‘higher type’—perish more easily: only lower forms hold fast to an apparent immutability. [….] In mankind, too, under ever-fluctuating favorable and unfavorable conditions, higher types, the lucky strikes of development, perish more easily. [….] The short lifespan of beauty, of genius, of a Caesar, such a type does not get passed down. The type gets passed down; a type is nothing extreme, not a lucky strike (KSA 13, 317).

The generic “type,” in Nietzsche’s understanding, is the “apparent” average individual, the run-of-the middle human, whose will is always in danger of degenerating and who thus seeks to create a permanent dam against instinctual decline. The “type” is “apparent” and seems fixed [scheinbare Unvergänglichkeit], because the will, through rituals, habits and consistent practices, can help sustain itself against internal decadence; these practices are its measures against decay, its mask to conceal instinctual decline. While such individuals succeed in creating a temporary type, a deceptive permanence within flux, it is one that arises through a violent, cruel subjugation of the inner life (see GM II, 17).

In relation to the overman, the crucial point is the contrast: the lucky strike, the Caesar. Nietzsche suggests here that the higher type is neither planned, nor can it be passed down. Rather than seek methods to combat decadence, the superior will instinctively picks the right remedies and orders its instinctual chaos.[9] But that individual will cannot be (genetically) passed down,[10] precisely because it is not fixed, nor does it want to be; it embraces chaos and flux, and it masters the impermanency and turbulence that both nature and the inner life constantly present. That is what makes it a higher type—a being that is reflective, at a higher level of coordination, of nature itself. If such a higher type triumphs, it can only be due to a lucky coincidence, a fortunate constellation of events; most times higher types perish.

In one of the rare passages in the late published texts, post Zarathustra, where Nietzsche refers to an overman, in Antichrist 4 (1888), he writes (in the same year as the above):

in another sense, there is a continuous series of individual successes in the most varied places on earth and from the most varied cultures; here, a higher type does in fact present itself, a type of overman in relation to humanity. Successes like this, real strokes of luck, were always possible and perhaps will always be possible.

The word overman here is used not in a future-directed sense, but as a point of contrast and distinction, as an example of an exceptional type, in order to distinguish it from the wide swath of humanity (similar in function to the Last Man in the Prologue).[11] In hindsight, certain individuals, certain peoples will seem higher, because they exhibit a superior instinctual coordination and can appear to us, from our current vantage point, as “real strokes of luck” [Glücksfälle]. Nietzsche uses the metaphor in deliberately qualifying terms (“a type of overman”). There is no indication as to which particular character traits or features distinguish such a higher type or how, or even if, such a type will be possible again in the future (“perhaps will always be possible”).

Finally, a couple of important references appear in Nietzsche’s treatment of Zarathustra in his retrospective account, Ecce Homo (1888). These are especially important, because they refer back to the prime text in which the metaphor appears and hint further at how he wishes the overman to be understood. (Another important passage in this regard is his famous example of Cesare Borgia as a better example of the overman than Parsifal [EH, Books 1], though I will not examine it here.) In the first example, Nietzsche speaks of the ideal of a spirit who plays naively, i.e. not deliberately but from an overflowing abundance and power, with everything that was hitherto called holy, good, untouchable, divine […]; the ideal of a human, superhuman well-being and benevolence that will often enough appear inhuman—for example, when it places itself next to all earthly seriousness heretofore, all forms of solemnity in gesture, word, tone, look, morality, and task as if it were their most incarnate and involuntary parody—and in spite of all this, it is perhaps only with it that the great seriousness really emerges (EH, Za 2).

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