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

Works Cited

The quotations from Ecce Homo, the Antichrist and Zarathustra come from the following editions:

Ecce Homo, translated by Judith Norma (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005)

The Antichrist, translated by Judith Norman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005)

Thus Spoke Zarathustra, translated by Adrian del Caro (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006)

All other translations are the author’s own.

[1] The bulk of “overman” references appears in Zarathustra and in the fragments written during its composition, from Summer 1882 to Fall 1883 (Marie-Luise Haase, Der Übermensch in Also Sprach Zarathustra und im Zarathustra Nachlass 1882-1885. Nietzsche Studien 13 (1984), 229). Only isolated references to it occur in later published works or fragments, and some of the most prominent appear in connection with Zarathustra, in Ecce Homo. This underscores how intimately this particular metaphor is linked to the text and its narrative strategies.

 [2] One of the major postwar English-language studies of Nietzsche after Walter Kaufmann was Arthur Danto’s 1965 monograph with the telling title, Nietzsche as Philosopher (New York: Columbia University Press). Danto felt the need to burnish Nietzsche’s credibility as a philosopher by showing how many of his concerns anticipated analytic positions. He even suggested that Nietzsche would have spoken (written) more clearly if only he had understood some of the things we now know today: “because we know a good deal more philosophy today, I believe it is exceedingly useful to see his analyses in terms of logical features which he was unable to make explicit, but toward which he was unmistakably groping” (Danto, 13)! Nothing better encapsulates the inherent skepticism and unease (disdain?) with which analytic philosophers approach Nietzsche’s language.

[3] A notable exception is Paul Loeb’s The Death of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010). Loeb combines an analytic approach with a sensitivity toward the literary features of Zarathustra.

[4] For my recent review of Stegmaier’s monograph, see The Agonist 11:1, 31-34. (Fall 2017).

[5] Nietzsche portrays the composition of Zarathustra in ways that suggest a completely spontaneous process—wie aus einem Guss, as the Germans say—where all critical faculties were suspended: “If you have even the slightest residue of superstition, you will hardly reject the idea of someone being just an incarnation, mouthpiece, or medium of overpowering forces. The idea of revelation in the sense of something suddenly becoming visible and audible with unspeakable assurance and subtlety, something that throws you down and leaves you deeply shaken—this simply describes the facts of the case. You listen, you do not look for anything, you take, you do not ask who is there; a thought lights up in a flash, with necessity, without hesitation as to its form, — I never had any choice.” (EH, Za 3). This account may or may not be accurate. But it doesn’t preclude the likelihood that Nietzsche, after his “divine inspiration,” carefully constructed, layered and edited the text.

[6] For a full-length study of Nietzsche’s engagement with Darwin’s theories, see Dirk R. Johnson, Nietzsche’s Anti-Darwinism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[7] “Nietzsche’s criticisms and amendments are wrong not about Darwin, but about the facts, as we now know them; on these points Darwin has been confirmed, and Nietzsche’s doubts no weight” (John Richardson, Nietzsche’s New Darwinism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 17.

[8] Maudemarie Clark argues this position in Nietzsche on Truth and Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990.

[9] Nietzsche summarizes all the requirements that a “higher type” will have in the term Wohlgerathenheit (“state of being well-turned out”) (EH, Wise 2). With this term, Nietzsche emphasizes qualities that reflect instinctual accuracy in making the right choices for one’s personal well-being. A higher type is higher simply because he is, and that is reflected in his choices and the decisions he makes.

[10] The discovery of Mendel’s Law, and the subsequent science of genetics, occurred after Nietzsche’s productive career. But this is irrelevant for Nietzsche’s insights. The science of modern genetics is focused on fixed biological traits that get genetically passed down, thus suggesting a fatalistic determinacy in our characters and behavior. But Nietzsche seems to suggest, instead, that what gets passed down (genetically) is only one contributing factor and not alone decisive. It is how one coordinates and psychically deals with (genetic) inheritance that determines human potential.

[11] Nietzsche, when writing about the overman, uses it as a comparative term; it is superhuman not in absolute terms, but only in contradistinction to the current human type: “[Zarathustra] does not conceal the fact that his type of person—a type that is an overman in comparison—is an overman specifically when compared to the good, that the good and just would call his overmen devils.”(EH, Destiny 5).

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