In the book “Thus Spake Zarathustra,” German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche introduces us to his concept of the Superman or Overman, the German word for which is Ubermensch. Keep in mind that Nietzsche was writing over 150 years ago, and his Superman bears no relation whatsoever to Clark Kent, Man of Steel. Nietzsche’s concept of the Superman has been a contentious one as the man’s ideas are sometimes hard to stomach for many modern readers. Nietzsche’s legacy has also been misrepresented by many parties since his death to suit their own agendas. The ideal of the Superman itself, however, is a solid one.
“Man is something that is to be surpassed. Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the Superman- a rope over an abyss. What is great in Man is that he is a bridge and not a goal.”
What Nietzsche’s talking about in this quote is personal transcendence in a practical and achievable way. That’s what I’ll be dealing with in this discussion. We’ll disregard Nietzsche’s other theories as to what the aim of transcendence is and focus solely on the idea of the Superman itself.
I’ll put it to you this way; as it stands, we could all do better.
It doesn’t matter what field you’re in or what your goals or hopes might be. If we don’t take practical steps towards achieving the things we aim for, we’re essentially dead in the water, adrift on life’s seas. Our present state oughtn’t to be eternal but rather a step on the path to achieving some high and noble goal. It doesn’t matter what your goal is or what kind of person you might be; the fact is that your present self, probably, is standing in your way. You are something that must be overcome. You are the bridge to your dreams and ambitions, if you have any. But sooner or later, you have to cross over that bridge and leave it behind. We must carry what we think is worthwhile and disregard all of the crap that gets in our way and serves no purpose.
That’s the nature of personal growth. Always simplify. Always improve. Abandon what detracts from your purpose, even your current self, if necessary.
To be truly alive, we must have a purpose. We must have some vision of ourselves in our mind’s eye that we would like to make a reality. Whether that vision involves getting fitter and stronger, becoming a better parent or partner, growing your business, quitting the job you hate, getting an education, or whatever else is on your to-do list. When you get off your ass and do the necessary work to make progress, you’re taking your first steps towards becoming the Superman. And as we all know, the first step is often the hardest.
The main character of Nietzsche’s book is not the Superman himself. It’s a guy called Zarathustra (based on the historical Persian Zoroaster). Zarathustra’s a clever guy. He’s spent ten years on a mountain meditating on the condition of mankind and the right path in life. As you might expect, though, he gets lonely. Zarathustra misses the company of mankind and wants to spread his ideas to try and elevate humanity beyond its present condition. So he sets off on his descent, and literally as soon as he steps foot off of his lonely mountain, someone tells him he’s a fool for trying to achieve his goals.
We’ve all heard that. People will shoot you down. Sometimes it’s the people we love that hold us back the most. Maybe they fear the change that we’re trying to achieve, or perhaps they resent the fact that we’re getting off our asses when they aren’t. Regardless, sometimes our friends aren’t as supportive as we’d like them to be. In Zarathustra’s case, it’s an old man who says the world isn’t ready to embrace the idea of the Superman. After that, it’s the people of a nearby village who publicly ridicule and shame poor old Zarathustra. Nobody gets on his side, except for one acrobat who unfortunately dies immediately.
Inevitably, he begins to doubt his choices. We’ve all been here, haven’t we? We want to take up a new challenge or quit our job and do what we love, but the voices in our heads cause us to doubt what the right choice is and tell us to stay where we are. We even panic at the realization that others might suffer as a result of our actions. Nobody wants to have the death of an acrobat on their conscience. Like Zarathustra, we must overcome these doubting voices and take the first step.
It’s always the first step that troubles us the most.
In Zarathustra, we are introduced to the idea of The Three Metamorphoses. This is a metaphor in which Nietzsche describes how a person’s Will becomes a camel, the camel becomes a lion, the lion slays a dragon and becomes a child. It sounds deep, but it’s really quite simple.
When you allow your Will, or your true character, to behave like that of a camel, you’re acting like a beast of burden. That’s what a camel is; we load them up with all of our heavy burdens and make the beasts walk around with them so that we don’t have to. In the early stages of any undertaking, we usually find ourselves carrying other people’s burdens. Those burdens might be people’s expectations of us, it might be your responsibilities, it might be the mindset and ideology that you’ve been raised in, or it could be as simple as the psychological baggage that lies hidden in your mindset, the face behind your mask. It’s a heavy load, and it’s not easy to move along your chosen path when other people have weighed you down with so much crap. That’s when you have to transcend beyond the camel-form and shake off all those burdens, like Buckaroo. Sometimes it causes friction. Other people, even the people that love us, put us into psychological boxes of expected patterns and behaviors. When we step out of the box they’ve put us in, people freak out. They don’t know what will happen because they can’t predict our behavior anymore, and this insecurity causes resentment. It’s never easy to set out on your own, but if you allow yourself to be ruled by what others want from you, then you’ll be a beast of burden forever. So you’d best decide to break free from the load, to unchain yourself.
Once that’s done, you’re a lion. You’re out on your own and taking steps towards your goal, chasing down your ambition no matter what people think about it. You probably start to see progress and feel pretty enthusiastic. You realize that even though it was challenging to get going, it’s better to be moving than stagnating. You develop a sense of pride and self-worth that, perhaps, you might never have felt before.
So, like a lion, you’re out strutting your stuff around the desert, thinking you’re King Dick, when all of a sudden yo
u bump into a dragon. A huge dragon. The dragon says hello and introduces himself as Thou-Shall. A menacing name. You take a closer look and notice that the dragon’s scales are made of gold, and you see that on every single scale, there’s stamped a law, a “Thou Shall,” that states some commonly accepted rule for right conduct. He tells you to turn around and get out of his desert. You feel apprehensive; you don’t care too much for what this dragon is commanding you to do. You’ve got a goal to reach, and this being is standing in your way. You could go home with your tail between your legs, but if you do, you’ll inevitably regret not taking the chance and shooting for the stars when you wanted to. Giving up the quest now means returning to your previous state as a camel, a load-bearing beast of burden who lacks a Will of his own.
You know full well what you have to do. It’s your job, your duty to yourself, perhaps your destiny, to slay that dragon. Nietzsche says that the lion’s name is actually “I Will.” It opposes the dragon “Thou Shall” by refusing to obey and carrying on with its own Will.
At some point in our lives, we have to stop saying yes to people. If we become the type of person who agrees to what is expected of us by others, we lose our sense of purpose, identity, and willpower. Sometimes we have to say no to our friends and yes to ourselves. Again, this metamorphosis isn’t easy, it severs many bonds, but once it’s done, you’re like a child again.
With the child metaphor, it might seem like we’re taking a step backward. I didn’t understand it myself for a while. How could being a child be preferable to being a dragon-slaying lion? But the return to the childlike state symbolizes the birth of creative potential. The lion can’t create. The lion is a beast of pure willpower. Lions assert their Will in the face of adversity. They dominate and slay their enemies. But once the dragon of repression lies dead, the lion is at a loose end. He’s reached his plateau. After that freedom has been gained, it’s up to the child in us to grow and create what it sees as its goal. When you turn from the lion to the child, you’ve got the chance to shape your life in whatever way that you see fit, and now anything is possible. If need be, you can always bring back that lion energy to assert yourself once more. But once you’ve done that and got a little breathing space, channel your inner child, that part of you that embodies pure potential and dreams big dreams. Then create your world as your Will dictates.
The book “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” is a gold mine of wisdom for anyone concerned with transcending their present condition and creating a stronger, happier, more authentic version of themselves. I recommend that you read it and more of Nietzsche’s work.
For now, it’s a good day’s work if we take the first step and slay the dragon. Ask yourself where you find the most resistance in your life? Do you hate your job? Does your family hold you back? Do you have any creative outlets? Do you have any notable ambition in life? Figure out what kind of life you truly want to live and then determine what’s stopping you. Once you know that, you’ve identified your dragon. Then all you’ve got to do is assert your Will in the face of adversity, and you will have revealed to yourself and the world that you’re a lion who won’t be repressed. Once that’s done, find the child in you who delights in creation and realizing potential.
Then set your child free.
If you found this article interesting, consider checking out my book “Unchaining The Titan” for many more essays that also analyze old myths and literature, and make them relevant to modern life.
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