By David K. Johnson, Ph.D., King’s College
Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra is a story about a man, Zarathustra, who, much like Nietzsche himself, lives secluded in the mountains pondering the depths of philosophy. After 10 years, Zarathustra descends the mountain to try to impart wisdom to the world. Although, as he discovers, his wisdom is wasted on most, he is able to recruit a few disciples upon whom he imparts his wisdom.
Most of the book consists of speeches made by Zarathustra to his disciples. Zarathustra addresses the first crowd he sees:
I teach you the Übermensch [the Overman, the Superman]. Man is something that is to be surpassed. What have ye done to surpass man?
All beings hitherto have created something beyond themselves: [but] ye want to be the ebb of that great tide, and would rather go back to the beast than surpass man?
What is the ape to man? A laughing-stock, a thing of shame. And just the same shall man be to the Übermensch: a laughing-stock, a thing of shame.
Ye have made your way from the worm to man, and much within you is still worm. Once were ye apes, and even yet man is more of an ape than any of the apes. […]
Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the Übermensch—a rope over an abyss. […] What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal…
This is a transcript from the video series Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The key lies in understanding what Zarathustra is trying to do, and what he thinks the Übermensch is. Zarathustra is trying to teach the men he meets, like his disciples, how to become an Übermensch. He isn’t trying to transform the entire species, and he certainly isn’t predicting that it will be transformed. He is simply trying to get people to embrace his philosophy because he thinks that by doing so, they can become better persons.
We can actually see this when Zarathustra asks:
What have ye done to surpass man? All beings hitherto have created something beyond themselves: [but] ye want to be the ebb of that great tide, and would rather go back to the beast than surpass man?”
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Übermensch and the Animal State
He is not just asking what humanity has done to surpass itself; he is asking the individuals in the crowd whether they want to try to surpass what the average man is like or revert to being like animals. Why would they revert? Because he says animal qualities still lie within them:
… ye have made your way from the worm to man, and much within you is still worm. Once were ye apes, and even yet man is more of an ape than any of the apes.
This is how man is “a rope stretched between the animal and the Übermensch…a bridge and not a goal.” Humanity is not on its way to becoming something great. Each person in the crowd has a choice regarding what to do with themselves: Go one way on the bridge and try to surpass their current state, or go the other way and revert.
Enlightenment for Men and Women
Part of the confusion, it seems, is caused by Zarathustra using the word “man” to refer to both individual persons and human kind—a confusion which perhaps could have been avoided, but wasn’t necessarily sexist.
Nietzsche wrote the work in German, and the German word for human being is der Mensch—which, although it’s grammatically masculine, refers to both men and women. The same is true for Übermensch—which is often translated as “superman”, but really refers to both men and women. So Nietzsche wasn’t suggesting that philosophical enlightenment was reserved for men alone.
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Enlightenment at an Individual Level
Now, attaining the philosophical enlightenment to which Zarathustra wants people to aspire would improve a person dramatically; that’s true. And such a person might even look upon their fellow humans as we humans look upon the apes. But it would not result in a new species.
After all, it’s not like philosophical enlightenment can be passed down through the genes and eventually work to fixation; nor did Zarathustra expect it to. If this enlightenment happened, it would happen now, on an individual level, to some people living today.
As Nietzsche said in his essay, “On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life”:
[A] time [will come] when one will regard not masses but individuals, who form a kind of bridge across the turbulent stream of becoming. These individuals do not carry forward any kind of progress but live contemporaneously with one another… No, the goal of humanity cannot lie in its end, but on in its highest individuals.
In reality, Zarathustra seems to have expected only one person to be enlightened. Like John the Baptist heralded the one and only savior, Zarathustra was a prophet for the one and only Übermensch: “Lo, I am a herald of the lightning,” he said, “and a heavy drop out of the cloud: the lightning, however, is the Übermensch.”
A Pipe Dream
What’s more, Nietzsche may have thought the entire thing was a pipe dream. At the end of the book, after returning to his mountain, Zarathustra thinks he hears the voice of the Übermensch and goes on a quest to find him. When the quest fails, he returns to the mountain, only to hear the voice again and go out to try to find him again.
One gets the impression that this will be an endless cycle, and thus that it’s impossible to fully embrace the philosophical approach that Zarathustra endorses. Even for Nietzsche, fully embracing his philosophy, and becoming the Übermensch, is likely forever out of reach.
Common Questions about Zarathustra and Nietzsche’s Übermensch
Zarathustra is trying to teach the men he meets, like his disciples, as he wants to get people to embrace his philosophy. He thinks, by doing so, they can become better persons.
Zarathustra does compare man to a rope. He does so because he feels that this is how man is “a rope stretched between the animal and the Übermensch…a bridge and not a goal.”
After returning to his mountain, Zarathustra thinks he hears the voice of the Übermensch and goes on a quest to find him.