Superhuman: The Superman and Superhumanity
*Below is a copy of my final research paper for 19th Century European Philosophy. Citations are from the 1961 R.H. Hollingdale translation of Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Friedrich Nietzsche describes the Superman, or Overman, through the main character, Zarathustra. Zarathustra preaches the human condition is something to be overcome in becoming the Superman. Zarathustra describes this transformation through narratives, parables, fables, and riddles that greatly resemble scripture. While Zarathustra is quite critical of theism, I contend he is creating a new material theism and new material trajectory. The material theism Zarathustra is describing is quite similar to the philosophical aspirations of transhumanists who claim humanity should overcome the human condition to become superhumanity, or posthumanity. In this paper, I demonstrate that Zarathustra is creating a material theism with the aim to transform humans into Superhumans, which is also the aim of contemporary transhumanists who seek to transform humanity into superhumanity. I begin by describing Zarathustra’s material theism, followed by a description of the Superman. I then describe transhumanism and superhumanity within the context of Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Lastly, I show that both Zarathustra and transhumanists are creating a material theism with similar trajectories, Superhumanity.
Zarathustra considers himself to be a creator, a prophet heralding in a new truth to be heard. He unequivocally states “Behold, I am a prophet” (pg. 45). Zarathustra is a prophet creating a new material theism that replaces or reimagines God, as the Superman. While Zarathustra delivers his sermon to the villagers, he unapologetically proclaims “God is dead!” (pg. 41). Zarathustra criticizes the traditionally recognized immaterial God of unearthly hopes and desires. His views are deeply rooted in the materiality of earthly desires and contends those that worship the immaterial God do not genuinely love life when they worship an unknowable, unreachable God void of life. He rebukes the people by stating that humanity must aspire toward a better hope. “It is time for man to plant the seed of his highest hope” (pg. 46) Zarathustra teaches them to love the Superman, which is to be the highest hope for every person to attain. He states, “Man is something to be overcome [. . .] Let your will say: The Superman shall be the meaning of the earth!” (pg. 41-42, 65, 75, 83). He argues that the human condition is not a goal, but a bridge. The human condition is a transitional period. To be human is, or ought, to be in transition toward the Superman. “What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal; what can be loved in man is that he is a going-across and a down-going” (pg. 44). Instead of humanity aspiring toward and emulating an immaterial God, humanity should reach for the attainable Superman. In Zarathustra’s new material theism, the immaterial God is dead, but in its place is the love of the Superman.
If human aspiration ought to be the Superman, what exactly is the Superman? Before describing the Superman, we must take a closer look at Zarathustra and what he represents in the narrative. Zarathustra tells a parable “Of the Three Metamorphoses” to describe people’s spirits: (1) the camel (2) the lion and (3) the child. The camel is a spirit that bears the burdens of heaviness. They pile on their back all the values and burdens of humanity without question. That is until the camel morphs into a lion. The lion seeks to become its own true lord. It wants freedom but cannot do that without destroying the great dragon. The dragon is the great “Thou shalt”—the commands of an authoritarian that the camel bears, yet also they are commands that the lion resists. There is no “I will” while the “Thou shalt” dragon lives. The lion’s primary objective is to destroy the dragon. However, the lion is incapable of creating new values. The lion is still imprisoned—stuck in a spiraling path of negation and cannot liberate themselves from their goal to destroy the dragon. The lion phase is a necessary step toward becoming a child. The lion must transform into a genuine creator capable of asserting their own values with creativity and even irreverence. The child is a new beginning, asserting “I will.” The child does what the lion cannot. Zarathustra is a child. When he greets the villagers they say, “How changed Zarathustra is! Zarathustra has become—a child, an awakened one” (pg.40). Zarathustra is not a Superman, he has not overcome the human condition. However, he is a child in transition toward a Superman.
Becoming a genuine creator, a child, is a necessary step toward becoming Superhuman. The child can create their own value system. They are irreverent, they laugh, they play and create without a worry about the dragon that imprisons both the camel and the lion. The child rebels. As Zarathustra states, “Let your commanding be obeying!” (pg. 75) For the child, commanding and obeying are one in the same, and for Zarathustra, humans should command their wills toward becoming Superhuman.
Defining Zarathustra’s Superman is tricky when Zarathustra is somewhat ambiguous in his descriptions. Though there is good reason for Zarathustra’s ambiguity. If he laid out exactly what a Superhuman ought to be, he risks becoming a new dragon covered in new “Thou shalts!” In this regard, the Superman as a hope for the future must be ambiguous to allow space for multiple trajectories and visions of self-discovery and overcoming. The Superhuman must be plural because the singleton Superman would be a dragon—a dictator demanding humanity’s highest hope be sameness. Zarathustra also states, “There has never been a Superman” (pg. 117). Thus far, there is no single Superman to look to as a clear example of what human aspiration ought to be. Even so, Zarathustra leaves us clues as to what a Superhuman might be. He states, “Let your love towards life be love towards your highest hope: and let your highest hope be the highest idea of life!” (pg.75) A child in transition to a Superhuman should love life, according to Zarathustra. Life and the highest hope of the individual both seem to be necessary to transform into a Superhuman. A Superhuman must have self-authorization to be a creator of their highest hope. In short, a Superhuman is a creator, lover of life, and is the manifestation of the highest self.
Another prophecy Zarathustra makes concerning the Superman is that the Superman will come from previous generations. In a sense a Superhuman is as a product of evolution. Zarathustra tells the villagers, “. . .you who have seceded from society, you shall one day be a people: from you, who have chosen out of yourselves, shall a chosen people spring—and from this chosen people, the Superman” (pg. 103). A Superhuman is birthed from previous people who have chosen to give rise to Superhumans. This is human-led evolution. Superhumans, in a sense, are the species of the future. Superhumans come from the transformation of genuine creators who cry out, “All gods are dead: now we want the Superman to live” (pg. 104). Superhumans are created and transformed into Superhumanity in an evolutionary process. Zarathustra states, “Life wants to climb and in climbing overcoming itself” (pg.125). Superhumans are not an ex nihilo creation from an immaterial God—that god is dead. However, the death of the immaterial God is not the end of all Gods. Superhumanity becomes the new material God—a product of human-directed evolution. This God is birthed from humanity and functions as a worthy embodiment of aspiration and emulation. Zarathustra continues, “. . .you could transform yourselves into the forefathers and ancestors of the Superman: let this be your finest creating!” (pg. 110). Superhumanity must be humanly conceivable if Superhumanity is to be conceived of by the humans creating Superhumanity. Humans are both in inheritors and parents of Superhumanity, according to Zarathustra.
Zarathustra’s Superman is both an individual and communal endeavor. Children don’t simply play alone, they seek playmates. “The creator seeks companions, not corpses or herds or believers. The creator seeks fellow-creators, those who inscribe new values” (pg.52). The act of creation and the assertion of “I will” is certainly an individual endeavor, but Zarathustra states that a creator also seeks co-creators through genuine friendship. Friendship is of specific importance for Zarathustra. He states, “May the friend be to you a festival of the earth and a foretaste of the Superman [. . .] In your friend you should love the Superman as your principle” (pg. 87-88). A creator also seeks creative friends on their path toward becoming Superhuman, and friendship is a foretaste to the community of Superhumanity. Zarathustra also considers marriage an aid in becoming Superhumanity. He tells the villagers, “To propagate yourselves not only forward, but upward—may the garden of marriage assist you” (pg. 228). Here, Zarathustra invites those who desire marriage to engage in the practice as an enhancement to the journey of becoming Superhumanity. From this we can gather one becomes Superhuman in and through friendship, and possibly marriage, as a community. As Zarathustra poetically states, “Precisely this is godliness, that there are gods, but no God” (pg. 220). This declaration suggests that the idea of a single Superman predicated on the subjection of others is not godliness. Remember the singleton Superman is a dragon covered in “Thou shalts.” However, the idea of potential gods joining and lifting each other toward their highest hope is godliness. Plurality is godliness. There is to be gods, but no singleton God.
Lastly, Zarathustra’s Superhumans must have the ability to will, redeem, and overcome death. In the section titled “On the Vision and Riddle,” Zarathustra tells a strange story. Zarathustra explains his encounter with a crippled dwarf, that represents The Spirit of Gravity. The Spirit of Gravity could also be thought of as immobilizing doubt. Zarathustra overcomes doubt with courage. Courage is key to overcoming The Spirit of Gravity and death. Zarathustra states, “Courage, however, is the best destroyer, courage that attacks: it destroys death, for it says: ‘Was that life? Well then! Once More!’” (pg. 178). Overcoming doubt and death is also an act of redemption. For Zarathustra, redemption is the power to will, which includes overcoming death. He iterates, “To redeem the past and the transform every ‘It was’ into an ‘I want is thus!’—that alone do I call redemption” (pg.161). This includes living. One cannot will or desire unless one is living. Though the will cannot break the eternal recurrence of time, according to Zarathustra, a person can still have the power of causation. Yet, a person cannot will unless a person is alive in earthly materiality. Again, in Zarathustra’s material theism, material death is death and material death is what must be overcome. There is no appeal to an immaterial immortal soul.
It is not by coincidence that Zarathustra states that courage destroys death. Continuing in the chapter “On the Vision and Riddle,” Zarathustra gives an example of a shepherd who overcomes death. In a dream, Zarathustra finds a young man, a shepherd, lying on the ground chocking on a heavy black snake caught in his throat. Zarathustra cried out to the shepherd, “Bite! Bite! Its head off! Bite!” (pg. 180). The shepherd bit down hard and spit out the snake’s head. Upon biting off the snake’s head, he was transformed. No longer a man, he laughed with cosmic laugher that was beyond human. The young man who overcame death with his will became Superhuman. He unlearned dogmatic obedience and learned commanding as his obedience.
The shepherd embodies Zarathustra’s teachings of the Superman. The shepherd is a comrade with Zarathustra. Both are on the path to becoming Superhuman, which is to become creators with the will to determine “I want it thus.” However, the snake is literally trying to kill the shepherd. This snake could represent any number of things—an immaterial God, dogma, unquestioned authority, or even death itself. In all cases, the snake represents the things the shepherd must overcome to become Superhuman. Though the idea of overcoming death may seem too preposterous to be taken seriously, that’s exactly what the shepherd did. He overcame the dragon of death covered in scales of “Thou shalt die!” and in so doing transformed himself. The transformation was both ideological and material. Both are necessary. Overcoming death must be conceivable if it is to become a material reality.
It’s both existentially empowering and terrifying to seriously consider death as a thing to be overcome. What would it be like to genuinely will one’s own life or death according to one’s desires? Some skeptics may consider the idea of overcoming death too outrageous for serious consideration, while others may cry hubris and resort to gods or saviors to grant us immortality without any effort on our part. Though the average theist may displace the responsibility to overcome death outside the scope of human power, materiality, or earthly pursuits, those great secular skeptics that cannot even conceive of overcoming death hinder humanity’s transformation into Superhumanity. How could the impossible ever become possible if it’s possibility cannot even be envisioned? Impossibility is a state of mind that favors obedience to conventionalism over the courage to create. The child doesn’t imagine what could be impossible. The child imagines what could be possible. Camels and lions lack the courage or creativity to envision and pursue Superhumanity. They are both slaves to the dragon.
One such group of contemporary philosophers that takes Zarathustra’s doctrine of Superhumanity seriously are called transhumanists. Intentional or not, there are striking similarities between Zarathustra’s doctrine of the Superman, and contemporary transhumanist philosophies and aims toward Superhumanity. The three similarities I would like to focus on are: (1) both are creating a material theism, (2) both ideologies teach Superhumanity is a communal and individual endeavor, and (3) both advocate for overcoming death.
To give a brief introduction, transhumanism is a philosophical movement that advocates for the technological transformation of the human condition. There are many visions, ideas, and opinions on what “overcoming the human condition” means and what it should include, but generally transhumanists would agree this transformation is material, technological, and within the scope of our abilities. Transhumanism is not a supernatural, immaterial endeavor. Transhumanists often debate the risks and benefits of emerging technologies and how they affect the status of the human condition. These debates may include politics, ethics, human rights, religion, social justice, scientific methodology, and technological accessibility.
Primarily, transhumanists aim toward transforming humanity into something beyond human, often called “superhumanity” or “posthumanity.” Transhumanists may argue that the evolution of humanity will eventually warrant a new classifiable species. For example, hominids are to humans, that humans are to Superhumans. Again, visions of what Superhumanity might be vary greatly among transhumanists but consistently include the enhancement of human intellect, physiology, and ethics. While the transhumanist movement and transhumanist organizations are generally secular, new emerging religious transhumanist organizations, notably the Mormon Transhumanist Association and the Christian Transhumanist Association, advocate for the reconciliation of transhumanist goals and religious endeavors. As one might imagine, there are tensions among secular transhumanist endeavors and various religious endeavors, hubris being one of the most common criticisms from religious persons. However, religious transhumanists seek reconciliation of diverse visions and aspirations among both religious and secular esthetics.
First, transhumanist philosophy, like Zarathustra’s, functions as a material theism. This is regardless of whether the average transhumanist believes in God(s) or not. At the very least, transhumanists believe in the potential of the humanity with enough robustness to replace or compliment previous religious doctrines of apotheosis—humans becoming gods. Just as Zarathustra replaced the immaterial God with the Superman, transhumanists have replaced immaterial visions of human aspiration with Superhumanity. Some transhumanists call Superhumanity, “God.” This material God, at the very least, functions as an imaginary trajectory for human aspirations, and at the very most already exists in the eternal recurrence of non-linear time. If a human can become Superhuman, are they not always Superhuman at some point in space and time? Are they both not the inheritors and creators of Superhumanity? This material theism of an eternal and evolutionary God is reminiscent of Zarathustra’s teaching on eternal recurrence. In Zarathustra’s dream “On the Vision and Riddle,” he suggests that “time itself is a circle” (pg. 178). If time is a circle and eternally recurring, what is to be will be. Yet, we are paradoxically causations of the future creating what is to be in the future. In this model, if Superhumanity can be achieved, it has already been achieved and will be achieved. In the words of a material theist, if godhood is possible, Gods already is. God, or superhumanity, as the material evolutionary offspring of humanity, already exists under the premise of eternal recurrence. Paradoxically, we are both the creators and inheritors of godhood in a model of eternal recurrence.
Second, becoming Superhuman is both a communal and individual endeavor. As demonstrated above, Zarathustra’s doctrine of the Superman is for the individual, but also aided by community. For transhumanists, there is no single person that can achieve Superhumanity alone. No single person is capable of evolving without communal involvement. From the most basic perspective, every human must be birthed from a parent, even if the offspring is developed technologically from a small tissue sampling. Every human has a biological parent. Evolutionarily speaking, humans came from hominids and our existence is predicated on them and many other different species. Humans didn’t evolve from no one, humans evolved from someone. Similarly, Superhumanity’s existence would be predicated on us. Superhumanity as a community comes from a community. Besides recognizing Superhumanity’s communal evolutionary heritage, no single person is entirely self-reliant. They alone cannot transform into Superhumanity without peers, comrades, or community. If I am wrong and Superhumanity is attainable by a single individual, by all means, help thou mine unbelief. However, everything from food, clothing, vaccinations, phones, and offspring come from a large network of people making these realities possible. Evolution and overcoming requires a community.
Third, Zarathustra has demonstrated that Superhumans must have a robust ability to command their will. The ability to will necessarily requires life for Zarathustra. This is a necessarily material pursuit, and not an appeal to an immortal soul. As Zarathustra stated, “Now I die in and decay [. . .] and in an instant I shall be nothingness. Souls are as mortal as bodies” (pg. 237). Again, the materiality of these endeavors cannot be overlooked in Zarathustra’s narrative. Similarly, transhumanists seek toward over coming death by technological means that are necessarily material. The materiality of Superhumanity is essential to transhumanist philosophy. For example, humans are material, we create material tools, and with those tools it might be possible to overcome death. There is nothing immaterial about immortality for the transhumanist. It is a material and evolutionary endeavor, just like Zarathustra suggests.
In conclusion, both Zarathustra and transhumanists are creating a material theism with the trajectory of becoming Superhuman. Zarathustra’s Superman is the material embodiment of the power to will, redeem, and live. The transhumanist trajectory of Superhumanity also embodies the power to will, redeem, and live. Though both philosophies are critical of traditional theism, both function as material theisms with similar rhetoric and aspirations. Both philosophies include communal and individual pursuits where becoming Superhuman requires a community. For both Zarathustra and the transhumanist, Superhumans have the material power to redeem and overcome death.