5/27/13 - friedrich nietzsche's "superman"

In today's encore selection -- Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher best known today for his statement "that which does not kill us makes us stronger," was an early convert to the pessimism of Schopenhauer. Yet by 1876, at the age of thirty-two, he had radically changed his philosophy -- and adopted a philosophy that revered Ubermenschen (which can be translated as "supermen"), men who pursued lives of adventure and exhilaration, but only after suffering in pursuit of that life:

"What had ... helped to change Nietzsche's outlook was his reflection on the few individuals throughout history who appeared genuinely to have known ful­filled lives; individuals who could fairly have been described -- to use one of the most contested terms in the Nietzschean lexicon -- as Ubermenschen.

"The notoriety and absurdity of the word owe less to Nietzsche's own philosophy than to his sister Elisabeth's subsequent enchant­ment with National Socialism ('that vengeful anti-Semitic goose', as Friedrich described her long before she shook the Fuhrer's hand), and the unwitting decision by Nietzsche's earliest Anglo-Saxon translators to bequeath to the Ubermensch the name of a legendary cartoon hero.

"But Nietzsche's Ubermenschen had little to do with either airborne aces or fascists. A better indication of their identity came in a pass­ing remark in a letter to his mother and sister:

"Really, there is nobody living about whom I care much. The people I like have been dead for a long, long time -- for example, the Abbe Galiani, or Henri Beyle, or Montaigne.

"He could have added another hero, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. These four men were perhaps the richest clues for what Nietzsche came in his maturity to understand by a fulfilled life.

"They had much in common. They were curious, artistically gifted, and sexually vigorous. Despite their dark sides, they laughed, and many of them danced, too; they were drawn to 'gentle sunlight, bright and buoyant air, southerly vegetation, the breath of the sea [and] fleeting meals of flesh, fruit and eggs'. Several of them had a gallows humour close to Nietzsche's own -- a joyful, wicked laughter arising from pessimistic hinterlands. They had explored their possibilities, they possessed what Nietzsche called 'life', which suggested courage, ambition, dignity, strength of character, humour and independence (and a parallel absence of sanctimoniousness, conformity, resentment, and prissiness).

"They had been involved in the world. ... Nietzsche's heroes had also fallen in love repeatedly. ... And finally, these men had all been artists ('Art is the great stim­ulant to life,' recognized Nietzsche).

"These were, Nietzsche implied, some of the elements that human beings naturally needed for a fulfilled life. He added an important detail; that it was impossible to attain them without feeling very miserable some of the time:

"What if pleasure and displeasure were so tied together that whoever wanted to have as much as possible of one must also have as much as possible of the other ... you have the choice: either as little displeasure as possible, painlessness in brief... or as much displeasure as possible as the price for the growth of an abundance of subtle plea­sures and joys that have rarely been relished yet? If you decide for the former and desire to diminish and lower the level of human pain, you also have to diminish and lower the level of their capacity for joy.

"The most fulfilling human projects appeared inseparable from a degree of torment, the sources of our greatest joys lying awk­wardly close to those of our greatest pains. ...

"Why? Because no one is able to produce a great work of art with­out experience, nor achieve a worldly position immediately, nor be a great lover at the first attempt; and in the interval between initial failure and subsequent success, in the gap between who we wish one day to be and who we are at present, must come pain, anxiety, envy and humiliation. We suffer because we cannot spontaneously master the ingredients of fulfillment."


Alain De Botton


The Consolations of Philosophy


First International Edition


Copyright 2000 by Alain Botton


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