The philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche is a tangled mess that philosophers and analysts must constantly unravel. His style was one of anecdotes and aphorisms, rarely having one connected thought roaming from page one to the final page. Two of his biggest, or at least most well-known, ideas were that of the “overman” and of “the will to power”. As someone with a background in philosophy and a specific interest in Nietzsche, I find that I am as well-informed as anyone else (which is either a lot or very little, depending on your interpretations of Nietzsche).
The following questions were submitted by others, and the answers are my own.
What exactly is the overman, and how did Nietzsche believe one rises to it?
Sometimes called the “superman”, I prefer the term “overman”, but that really doesn’t matter and is more of a translation issue. Overman is a more literal translation of “ubermensch” and does not carry the connotations that “superman” has today. I have read suggestions that the more exact translation would be “transman” (because of his transcendent nature) but this idea has never gained popularity because of the fact this calls to mind terms like “transsexual” or “transvestite”. While I do not personally see a problem with transman, overman works just as well.
I see the overman as someone who has overcome (hence the “over”) the limitations of humanity in its current form. There is a line in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883) something to the effect of “man is the tightrope stretched between ape and overman”. The character of Zarathustra also says “man is something which ought to be overcome”. Nietzsche is vague about this as he is with many things, as we know. His style never really was very good for providing clear, concise answers.
The wrong way to interpret this line is that overman is some sort of evolutionary being in a physical sense. He further muddies the waters with the following:
“All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man? What is the ape to man? A laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. And man shall be just that for the overman: a laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. You have evolved from worm to man, but much within you is still worm. Once you were apes, yet even now man is more of an ape than any of the apes.”
Since Nietzsche was familiar with Herbert Spencer and Charles Darwin, it could be implied he thought man would evolve to a new creature, the overman. Darwin’s The Origin of Species came out in 1859, and Spencer’s Principles of Biology (which contains the immortal phrase “survival of the fittest”) came out in 1864. But I don’t think he felt this physical transformation was necessary for an overman to develop.
When he speaks of the “transvaluation of all values”, particularly in Beyond Good and Evil, this is what I think he thinks is the overman: a new class of people who aren’t under the limitations of human morality and can see that there is a greater next step.
It ties into Nietzsche’s dislike of socialism and Christianity, his preference for master morality over slave or herd morality. An overman wouldn’t rely on the morals that keep him “weak” and dependent on others, but blaze his own path and be his own master. What many people see as a strong morality (helping the
poor) he would see as weak because it drags everyone down. There’s certainly much more to the concept of overman, but that is a general idea.
As for how this is achieved, Nietzsche did not say. He does imply that no one has ever reached the point of overman, so perhaps no one can reach this in their lifetime, but must rather be born as such. Or perhaps what is required is a great paradigm shift, where the knowledge of the past that gave us the current moral values is thrown out as obsolete and we all rise consciously to the next level. Overman is a more mental or moral state than a physical one, after all.
How does the “death of God” play into this?
We can have hope that mankind is on its way to achieving the overman as we have already “killed God”, thus opening the door for a replacement of new, superior values.
As early as 1870, Nietzsche wrote in a notebook that, “I believe in the ancient German saying: ‘All gods must die.'” To what extent he meant this is unknown. Nietzsche makes the “death of God” the most explicit many years later, in section 125 of The Gay Science (1882):
“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”
The “Death of God” is symbolic of man’s no longer having reliance on Christianity and Christian morality. Indeed, in the 1886 revision of Gay Science, Nietzsche defines the death of God as saying that “the belief in the Christian god has become unbelievable” in aphorism 343. Clearly, God is not “dead” in any real sense and Christianity stills exists. But man’s reliance on religion is fading as science takes hold. One by one the old ideas given to us by the priests must be thrown away. When the last of them is gone, overman will not be far behind. As Zarathustra says:
“It is here [in the material world] and nowhere else that one must make a start to comprehend what Zarathustra wants: this type of man that he conceives, conceives reality as it is: it is strong enough for it–, it is not estranged or removed from it, it is reality itself and exemplifies all that is terrible and questionable in it, only in that way can man attain greatness…”
For Heidegger, the death of God is the latest stage for nihilism, which he says is always in the background of Nietzsche’s thoughts. According to Heidegger, “Nietzsche himself interprets the course of Western history metaphysically, and indeed as the rise and development of nihilism.” [Heidegger: 54] Heidegger says that God, for Nietzsche, is a catch-all for the world of metaphysics, “the suprasensory world in general” or “the realm of Ideas and ideals.” [Heidegger: 61] For this god to be dead, he is saying the “suprasensory world is without effective power.” [Heidegger: 61] What shall take its place?
“Into the position of the vanished authority of God and of the teaching office of the Church steps the authority of conscience, obtrudes the authority of reason. Against these the social instinct rises up. The flight from the world into the suprasensory is replaced by historical progress.” [Heidegger: 64]
Science in its purest form is free of value.
What exactly is the “will to power”?
One problem with the phrase “will to power” is that although the concept plays a central role in Nietzsche’s thought, it was rarely used in his published writings. His book “Will to Power” was collected and edited after his death by his sister Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche and former student Peter Gast, so it is not considered official or canon by some. There is a more definitive edition compiled by Walter Kaufmann, whose entire career essentially revolves around interpreting Nietzsche and can be considered more reliable.
Like the overman, there is never really a clear time when Nietzsche says precisely what the term “will to power” means. He leaves pieces here and there which we must collect and analyze together. (The only term he ever really seems to explain very well is the “eternal recurrence”, though even this gets mixed up with reincarnation for many readers.)
Many people, including some not very savory people, interpret “will to power” to mean that you must rise above the average man and become the master of them. Using your inner drive or will (Wille) to attain power (Macht). This might be included in his belief system, but I think it mistakingly labels him as more violent and power-hungry than he was intending.
I once wrote an essay (which I will put online if I ever find it) explaining “will to power” in a much more benign fashion: taking your inner strengths and drives and making them your focus. For example, Nietzsche was a writer and poet. So his “will to power” was channeling his strength of writing into a career of philosophizing and being a trailblazer in this sense. I think he would suggest similar paths for people with other artistic abilities. Nietzsche’s background is not philosophy after all, but rather philology (basically the study of old literature and languages) and reading The Birth of Tragedy (1872) really reveals his admiration for the artist, particularly the musician and especially Richard Wagner. (Birth of Tragedy, although his first book, probably should not be read first — I found it one of his more challenging pieces and he introduces some very unusual new terms.)
Heidegger sees the will to power as the grounds for positing new values to replace those we lost upon God’s death. He sees it as “the striving to come into power”. [Heidegger: 76] Indeed, the will for Nietzsche is always striving for something, as he says in Genealogy of Morals (1887): “(The will) will rather will Nothing, than not will”. As such, the will can be seen as always trying to gain more power, more control. Anything we desire or strive for, from the simplest urge for a meal to the megalomaniacal craving for world domination, is for “power” in some sense, for growth, to keep our body and our Self moving up. No one aims to lower themselves — even the ultimate masochist still sees as positive what many would call a degradation.
Heidegger also makes clear that the “will to power does not have its ground in a feeling of lack”. [Heidegger: 81] He stresses that life at its core is “the will to will” — any sense of lack would be self-destructive.
Tying this back into the overman and the transvaluation of values: while Nietzsche was trying to throw out the “weak” morals of Christianity and socialism, I do not think it should then be inferred he suggested that the overman would rule over the people or that he could just kill and rape as he saw fit. Killing and raping are bad more or less universally in the world of ethics. And, as Heidegger says, the overman “never enters at all into the place of God”, a place that “can remain empty.” [Heidegger: 100] Because God’s “death” does not mean there is no god, but rather that belief in Him is no longer possible.
Nietzsche was more likely suggesting with the will to power that the greatest goal was independence and a striving for our own goals and desires. We shouldn’t necessarily step on people to get to these goals, but we also should not hold back because society says what we believe in is not possible. Being an overman, transvaluating the old values, and using our inner drive to attain the life we want were his central focus.
While I interpret the idea largely in the normative sense (what we ought to do), Nietzsche wrote of the will to power more in a psychological or biological sense (what we are programmed to do, regardless of desire), although even non-biological creatures have the will on some level. He contrasted his view with the views of his biggest philosophic influence, Arthur Schopenhauer.
Schopenhauer talked of a “will to life”, which is basically the idea that man strives to live as his primary motivation. Given the option of life or death, man will almost invariably choose life over death even if the outcome will be less than pleasant. This survival instinct is present in most forms of life, and can therefore easily be seen by biologists or Schopenhauer as the primary goal.
Nietzsche instead thought the primary human drive was the will to power, the desire to exploit. And I use “exploit” in the most generic sense, as in “utilize”, not as in the manner in which the strong prey upon the weak. As he says in Beyond Good and Evil, section 259, as translated by Kaufmann:
“[Anything which] is a living and not a dying body… will have to be an incarnate will to power, it will strive to grow, spread, seize, become predominant — not from any morality or immorality but because it is living and because life simply is will to power… ‘Exploitation’… belongs to the essence of what lives, as a basic organic function; it is a consequence of the will to power, which is after all the will to life.”
Think about it in these terms: in order for man to survive, he requires oxygen before anything else. But we wouldn’t reduce the definition of our existence to a striving for oxygen. Likewise, while we also need food, shelter and other basic goods and services (see Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs) these shouldn’t be seen as a primary human drive. We are, to Nietzsche, striving for the ability to use our power — these other things are just secondary drives, necessary to assist in the primary goal. As he says in Beyond Good and Evil:
“Physiologists should think before putting down the instinct of self-preservation as the cardinal instinct of an organic being. A living thing seeks above all to discharge its strength — life itself is will to power; self-preservation is only one of the indirect and most frequent results.”
Nietzsche goes further in section 636 of Will to Power, as translated by Kaufmann:
“My idea is that every specific body strives to become master over all space and to extend its force (—its will to power) and to thrust back all that resists its extension. But it continually encounters similar efforts on the part of other bodies and ends by coming to an arrangement (“union”) with those of them that are sufficiently related to it: thus they then conspire together for power. And the process goes on.”
When all things have an inner will to power, the ultimate achievement is equilibrium, with resistance from both directions (the exploiter and the exploited), both in living and non-living things (any inanimate object, while not consciously possessed of a will, does push back with certain limitations). The result is not just a homeostasis or stagnant existence — it forms a union of all life and non-life to work together. For example, all employers need employees as much as the employees need employers — there is an agreed upon exploitation — one using the other for income and the other using the one for labor.
As I have said, while Nietzsche focuses on the idea of “will to power” as a drive and instinctual, I consider it in many ways a normative concept. While will to power may exist naturally on some levels, such as rocks resisting influence from the outside world, people are more complicated. Everyone desires oxygen and food, but not everyone may desire to use their gifts to achieve power or to exploit. Many gifted people, in fact, will freely choose not to do what they are best suited to do. Also, many times the choice to do what we are naturally suited for is more difficult and less natural. Choosing food over no food is easy, but choosing to pursue a dream may require some psychological courage.
My interpretation may be wrong, or Nietzsche may be wrong but there remains some fine-tuning before will to power can be considered a fact or even a solid hypothesis. The concept of will to power can be taken in many ways, and as we’ve made a point of showing, Nietzsche is never quite clear. Even when his own words are lumped together the ideas are less than entirely coherent and compatible.
Heidegger, Martin. The Question Concerning Technology, and Other Essays Harper Torchbooks, 1977.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science: With a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs Vintage, 1974.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morality Hackett, 1998.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for Everyone and No One Penguin Classics, 1961.
For Further Reading
If for some reason you desire to read more of my ramblings on Nietzsche, they are here:
Post-Nietzschean Ethics, where I ask: what do we do now that God is dead?
Selling Nietzsche Short, on how the school systems have cut Nietzsche from philosophy classes.
Who or What is a Philosopher?, where we examine who (or what) is a philosopher. Is Nietzsche one?
A Nietzschean concept of love and happiness is mentioned in On Love, Part One in section 2a… (parts two and three focus exclusively on Stendhal and Plato, with part four on Bertrand Russell)