Nietzsche and the Übermensch
Friedrich Nietzsche considered his Übermensch, or “over-man,” as being “beyond good and evil.” He, or she, was to exist as a moral authority unto themselves, a lover of this-world who, unbound by transcendental norms or obligations, acted as creator and implementer of his own moral structures. For Nietzsche of course, and many later existentialists, the transcendental norms or obligations were themselves mere human constructions, projections of the mind onto a merely physical reality–a leftover from an pre-modern and unscientific past. Unwilling to bow to the humanitarian secularists of his time, however, Nietzsche proposed an unleashing of the human “spirit” in all of its grandeur, ingenuity and creative power.
Thus, the Übermensch was not just superior in his capacity to stand over and above what ultimately were historically contingent, moral constructs, but the Übermensch also excelled in his capacity to create, to achieve, and to dominate his world and the conditions it thrust upon him. The Übermensch was truly meant to be a type of “super man”—willful, intelligent, self-disciplined, and utterly capable; and this long before the advent of comic books and their watered down, humanitarian heroes. Instead, like the artistic and legendary portrayals of the hero-kings and emperors of ancient Greece or Rome, Nietzsche’s Superman was the utterly free, completely independent human agent who through his own ingenuity created new realities of culture and new forms of civilization. Where Marx saw this power to create new realities located in socio-economic relationships, Nietzsche found it in the individual, human will.
Jedermann meets Übermensch
In contrast to Übermensch, is the character of Jedermann. In German this simply means, the everyman, the common man. The “Everyman” is the man who traditionally is under some other moral authority; who, to the best of his ability, follows that other authority, regardless of whether it be transcendent or immanent, religious or secular. However, everyman, in stark contrast to Superman, finds himself before God with only his own good deeds able to save him. Everyman, unlike Superman, is judged according to a higher law, one not of his own making. Everyman creates no moral standard. Instead, he is subject either to an eternal, universal morality, or to a local set of civil laws and customs. He is not over anything, he is always under the Law.
What happens, however, when these two metaphors for a certain kind of moral agent are conflated into one and the same subject, as contradictory as that may sound? What does a culture look like, when the attempt is made to anoint the Jedermann as the moral Übermensch, and even treat him as such through the institutions and laws that surround him? In other words, what does a culture look like, where each individual has “bestowed” upon them the once divine right to establish his or her own moral system, like Nietzsche’s Übermensch, but where the creative capacities and heroic virtues of the Superman are manifestly absent, like that of the traditional everyman?
Is this not strangely representative of our very own culture? Do we not walk around believing that, on the one hand, we really are the makers of our own morality, while on the other, always realizing our total ineptitude in living up to those very same, “self-constructed” standards? Pitiful Supermen we are, indeed. We are everymen and everywomen who live trapped inside moral architectures of our own making, all the while forming standards that we cannot achieve, or that we simply change once we realize our ineptitude.
At best, if we do start believing we are living up to those self-constructed standards, then, in rare moments of self-awareness, we realize we may have set the standards rather low. Or, even worse, we begin to notice the failures of others as they fail to live up to our standard. For, once we begin to recognize the tragedy of our own inability to live up to moral standards, standards we are told we make ourselves, we often start searching for ways to compensate for this “epic fail.” Perhaps the most common, self-serving behavior is to find those doing worse than ourselves and point out their failures, often times in the most glaring and public manner possible.
This kind of “leveling” not only helps us to feel better about our own moral status, since we can always point at that “other” everyman or everywoman whose failures are worse than our own, but it also takes our thoughts off of ourselves and the low standards we have formed. Thus we can persist in failure, or in maintaining the same, low moral standards we have become accustomed to, so long as we sense we are better off than others.
One concrete example of this can be found in most of our late-night television shows: exactly this kind of moralizing dynamic that seeks out the other everyman who is the greater moral failure, exposing them to laughter and ridicule. The political nature of this is also pervasive as we look to peer into the moral lives of others so as to elevate our own social personas and aim at accomplishing our own sociological goals.
The short of it is this: we live in a culture of everyday supermen and women; a paradox to be sure. A culture hell-bent on comparing how I, within the framework of my own, apparently self-constructed moral system, am doing with regard to those around me who are trying to live up to their own, self-constructed moral systems. Now, if there were absolutely no overlap between these customized moral constructs, then there might be no way to compare them, and, therefore, no way to make moral judgments whatsoever. Others would simply seem alien to us, like extra-terrestrials that do things we don’t grasp as either good or evil, just different.
But, the reality is, our personalized moralities do overlap, and overlap in significant ways. No individual construct of morality exists in a vacuum. We all share some moral beliefs, and because of that we do assess others around us in their moral behavior. This kind of moral individualism within actual community, however, is woefully destructive, for if there is one virtue that becomes increasingly hard to find, it is that of Grace. The Superman in us might have the capacity for Grace, because he is, after all, beyond it all. He could be gracious towards all kinds of people: Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein, Fred Rogers, Kamala Harris, because the Superman knows that they, like him, were just doing what Supermen and Superwomen do, living by their own will and and succeeding in their political and artistic projects. However, the everyman in us tends to not feel “beyond it all” after all. As everyone and everywomen, we judge, because we also feel judged. And when the everyman or woman judges, they judges harshly.1 Of course, Nietzsche had a term for this as well, namely, “resentment.” It is the resentment of the weak, of the everymen and everywomen that is despicable in the eyes of the Superman.
For if the failures of others is a means to covering up my own failures (or to deceiving myself about them), then how likely is it that I would extend grace when I see others fail? How could I? Why would I? After all, to show someone else Grace, someone who is failing in their moral system, might imply that I too might need to be extended that same Grace. But to need Grace is to admit that I really am not the moral Superman I think I am, or that I’ve been told I am. It is to admit that I really am only everyman.
“Judge not, that you be not judged. 2 For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. 3 Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? 4 Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”(Matthew 7:1-5)
- 1Of course, Nietzsche had a term for this as well, namely, “resentment.” It is the resentment of the weak, of the everymen and everywomen that is despicable in the eyes of the Superman.