The Übermensch (German for "Overman, Overhuman, Above-Human, Superman"; German pronunciation: [ˈˀyːbɐmɛnʃ]) is a concept in the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche posited the Übermensch as a goal for humanity to set for itself in his 1883 book Thus Spoke Zarathustra (German: Also Sprach Zarathustra).

There is no overall consensus regarding the precise meaning of the Übermensch, nor on the importance of the concept in Nietzsche's thought.


Übermensch in English

The first translation of Thus Spoke Zarathustra into English was by Alexander Tille published in 1896. Tille translated Übermensch as Beyond-Man. But in his translation, published in 1909, Thomas Common rendered Übermensch as "Superman"; Common was anticipated in this by George Bernard Shaw, who had done the same in his 1903 stage play Man and Superman. Walter Kaufmann lambasted this translation in the 1950s for two reasons: first, its near or total failure to capture the nuance of the German word über, and second, a rationale which Frederic Wertham railed against even more vehemently in Seduction of the Innocent, for promoting an eventual puerile identification with the comic-book character Superman. His preference was to translate Übermensch as "overman." Scholars continue to employ both terms, some simply opting to reproduce the German word.

The German prefix über can have connotations of superiority, transcendence, excessiveness, or intensity, depending on the words to which it is prepended.[1] Mensch refers to a member of the human species, rather than to a man specifically. The adjective übermenschlich[2] means super-human, in the sense of beyond human strength or out of proportion to humanity.


Nietzsche introduces the concept of the Übermensch in contrast to the other-worldliness of Christianity: Zarathustra proclaims the Übermensch to be the meaning of the earth and admonishes his audience to ignore those who promise other-worldly hopes in order to draw them away from the earth.[3][4] The turn away from the earth is prompted, he says, by a dissatisfaction with life, a dissatisfaction that causes one to create another world in which those who made one unhappy in this life are tormented. The Übermensch is not driven into other worlds away from this one.

Zarathustra declares that the Christian escape from this world also required the invention of an eternal soul which would be separate from the body and survive the body's death. Part of other-worldliness, then, was the abnegation and mortification of the body, or asceticism. Zarathustra further links the Übermensch to the body and to interpreting the soul as simply an aspect of the body.

As the drama of Thus Spoke Zarathustra progresses, the turn to metaphysics in philosophy and Platonism in general come to light as manifestations of other-worldliness, as well. Truth and essence are inventions by means of which men escape from this world. The Übermensch is also free from these failings.

The death of God and the creation of new values

Zarathustra ties the Übermensch to the death of God. While this God was the ultimate expression of other-worldly values and the instincts that gave birth to those values, belief in that God nevertheless did give meaning to life for a time. 'God is dead' means that the idea of God can no longer provide values. With the sole source of values no longer capable of providing those values, there is a real chance of nihilism prevailing.

Zarathustra presents the Übermensch as the creator of new values. In this way, it appears as a solution to the problem of the death of God and nihilism. If the Übermensch acts to create new values within the moral vacuum of nihilism, there is nothing that this creative act would not justify. Alternatively, in the absence of this creation, there are no grounds upon which to criticize or justify any action, including the particular values created and the means by which they are promulgated.

In order to avoid a relapse into Platonic idealism or asceticism, the creation of these new values cannot be motivated by the same instincts that gave birth to those tables of values. Instead, they must be motivated by a love of this world and of life. Whereas Nietzsche diagnosed the Christian value system as a reaction against life and hence destructive in a sense, the new values which the Übermensch will be responsible for will be life-affirming and creative.

Übermensch as a goal

Zarathustra first announces the Übermensch as a goal humanity can set for itself. All human life would be given meaning by how it advanced a new generation of human beings. The aspiration of a woman would be to give birth to an Übermensch, for example; her relationships with men would be judged by this standard.[5]

Zarathustra contrasts the Übermensch with the last man of egalitarian modernity, an alternative goal which humanity might set for itself. The last man appears only in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and is presented as a condition that would render the creation of the Übermensch impossible.

Some commentators associate the Übermensch with a program of eugenics.[6] This is most pronounced when considered in the aspect of a goal that humanity sets for itself. The reduction of all psychology to physiology implies, to some, that human beings can be bred for cultural traits. This interpretation of Nietzsche's doctrine focuses more on the future of humanity than on a single cataclysmic individual. There is no consensus regarding how this aspect of the Übermensch relates to the creation of new values, and many would deny vehemently that Nietzsche would countenance a eugenics program at all.

Re-embodiment of amoral aristocratic values

For Rüdiger Safranski, the Übermensch represents a higher biological type reached through artificial selection and at the same time is also an ideal for anyone who is creative and strong enough to master the whole spectrum of human potential, good and "evil", to become an "artist-tyrant". In Ecce Homo, Nietzsche vehemently denied any idealistic, democratic or humanitarian interpretation of the Übermensch: "The word Übermensch [designates] a type of supreme achievement, as opposed to 'modern' men, 'good' men, Christians, and other nihilists ... When I whispered into the ears of some people that they were better off looking for a Cesare Borgia than a Parsifal, they did not believe their ears."[7] Safranski argues that the combination of ruthless warrior pride and artistic brilliance that defined the Italian Renaissance embodied the sense of the Übermensch for Nietzsche. According to Safranski, Nietzsche intended the ultra-aristocratic figure of the Übermensch to serve as a Machiavellian bogeyman of the modern Western middle class and its pseudo-Christian egalitarian value system.[8]

Relation to the eternal recurrence

The Übermensch shares a place of prominence in Thus Spoke Zarathustra with another of Nietzsche's key concepts: the eternal recurrence of the same. Over the course of the drama, the latter waxes as the former wanes. Several interpretations for this fact have been offered.

Laurence Lampert suggests that the eternal recurrence replaces the Übermensch as the object of serious aspiration.[9] This is in part due to the fact that even the Übermensch can appear like an other-worldly hope. The Übermensch lies in the future — no historical figures have ever been Übermenschen — and so still represents a sort of eschatological redemption in some future time.

Stanley Rosen, on the other hand, suggests that the doctrine of eternal return is an esoteric ruse meant to save the concept of the Übermensch from the charge of Idealism.[10] Rather than positing an as-yet unexperienced perfection, Nietzsche would be the prophet of something that has occurred an infinite number of times in the past.

Others maintain that willing the eternal recurrence of the same is a necessary step if the Übermensch is to create new values, untainted by the spirit of gravity or asceticism. Values involve a rank-ordering of things, and so are inseparable from approval and disapproval; yet it was dissatisfaction that prompted men to seek refuge in other-worldliness and embrace other-worldly values. Therefore, it could seem that the Übermensch, in being devoted to any values at all, would necessarily fail to create values that did not share some bit of asceticism. Willing the eternal recurrence is presented as accepting the existence of the low while still recognizing it as the low, and thus as overcoming the spirit of gravity or asceticism.

Still others suggest that one must have the strength of the Übermensch in order to will the eternal recurrence of the same; that is, only the Übermensch will have the strength to fully accept all of his past life, including his failures and misdeeds, and to truly will their eternal return. This action nearly kills Zarathustra, for example, and most human beings cannot avoid other-worldliness because they really are sick, not because of any choice they made.

The Übermensch and the Nazis

The term Übermensch was a favourite of Hitler and the Nazi regime, which borrowed from Nietzsche's work and sought to adopt him as a philosophical precursor. Their conception of the Übermensch, however, was racial in nature.[11][12] The Nazi notion of the master race also spawned the idea of "inferior humans" (Untermenschen) which could be dominated and enslaved; this term does not originate with Nietzsche. Nietzsche himself was vehemently critical of both antisemitism and German nationalism.

In popular culture

  • Jack London dedicated his novels The Sea-Wolf and Martin Eden to criticizing Nietzsche's concept of the Übermensch and his radical individualism,[13] which London considered to be selfish and egoistic.
  • George Bernard Shaw's 1903 play Man and Superman is a reference to the archetype; its main character considers himself an untameable revolutionary, above the normal concerns of humanity.[citation needed]
  • James Joyce utilizes the Übermensch in the first chapter of his novel Ulysses. Joyce makes Buck Mulligan say it:[14] "—My twelfth rib is gone, he cried. I'm the Uebermensch. Toothless Kinch and I, the supermen."
  • In The Power (novel), a 1956 book by Frank M. Robinson, the villain consciously models himself upon Nietzsche's Übermensch, and a quotation from Nietzsche serves as the book's motto.
  • In real life, Leopold and Loeb committed an act of murder in 1924 partly out of a superficially Übermensch-like conception of themselves.[15] Their story has been dramatized many times, including in the Alfred Hitchcock movie Rope, the 1959 film Compulsion based on Meyer Levin novel, the 1994 film Swoon, and the 2002 movie Murder by Numbers.
  • The comic-book hero Superman, when Jerome "Jerry" Siegel first created him, was originally a villain modeled on Nietzsche's idea (see "The Reign of the Super-Man").[citation needed] He was re-invented as a hero by his eventual designer, Joseph "Joe" Shuster, after which he bore little resemblance to the previous character, though he still had dubious morals. Only as the series progressed did Superman become the wholesome, morally upright figure of modern times. However, Superman does find an adversary in the mold of the Nietzschean Übermensch in the recurring arch-villain Lex Luthor,[citation needed] his greatest enemy on Earth. A direct reference to the term occurs in the episode "Double Trouble" of the TV series Adventures of Superman, in which a German-speaking character calls the title character "verfluchter Übermensch" ("cursed Superman").[16] In the tenth season of the show Smallville , an alternate Lionel Luthor refers to Clark as the "Übermensch".

See also


  1. ^ Duden Deutsches Universal Wörterbuch A–Z, s.v. über-.
  2. ^ Übermenschlich PONS.eu Online Dictionary
  3. ^ Hollingdale, R. J. (1961), page 44 - English translation of Zarathustra's prologue; "I love those who do not first seek beyond the stars for reasons to go down and to be sacrifices: but who sacrifice themselves to the earth, that the earth may one day belong to the Superman"
  4. ^ Nietsche, F. (1885) - p4, Original publication in German - "Ich liebe die, welche nicht erst hinter den Sternen einen Grund suchen, unterzugehen und Opfer zu sein: sondern die sich der Erde opfern, dass die Erde einst des Übermenschen werde."
  5. ^ Thus Spoke Zarathustra, I.18; Lampert, Nietzsche's Teaching, 67; Rosen, Mask of Enlightenment, 118.
  6. ^ Safranski, Nietzsche, 262-64, 266-68.
  7. ^ Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, Why I Write Such Good Books, §1)
  8. ^ Safranski, Nietzsche, 365
  9. ^ Lampert, Nietzsche's Teaching.
  10. ^ Rosen, The Mask of Enlightenment.
  11. ^ "Nietzsche inspired Hitler and other killers - Page 7", Court TV Crime Library
  12. ^ http://econ161.berkeley.edu/tceh/Nietzsche.html
  13. ^ Patrick Bridgwater: Nietzsche in Anglosaxony: A Study of Nietzsche's Impact on English and American Literature. Leicester University Press, 1972, p. 169
  14. ^ Joyce, James (1922). Ulysses. Shakespeare & Co.. ISBN 0-679-72276-9. 
  15. ^ "Nietzsche inspired Hitler and other killers", Court TV Crime Library
  16. ^ Gary Grossman, Superman: Serial to Cereal, 1976, p.67.


  • Nietzsche, F. (1885) Also Sprach Zarathustra
  • Hollingdale, R. J., Rieu, E.V, (1961). Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Nietzsche, F.) Penguin Classics: Penguin Publishing (Originally published 1885)
  • Lampert, Laurence. Nietzsche's Teaching: An Interpretation of Thus Spoke Zarathustra. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986.
  • Safranski, Rudiger. Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography. Translated by Shelley Frisch. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2002.
  • Rosen, Stanley. The Mask of Enlightenment: Nietzsche's Zarathustra. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
  • Wilson, Colin. The Outsider. Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher, 1981.

External links

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