The Übermensch (German; English: Overman, Superman) is a concept in the Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche posited the Übermensch as a goal for humanity to set for itself in his 1883 book Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Also Sprach Zarathustra).
The book's protagonist, Zarathustra, contends that "man is something which ought to be overcome:"
All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man? What is the ape to man? A laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. And man shall be just that for the overman: a laughingstock or a painful embarrassment…
There is no consensus regarding the precise meaning of the Übermensch, or even the overall importance of the concept in Nietzsche's thought.
The German prefix über can have connotations of superiority, transcendence, excessiveness, or intensity, depending on the words to which it is appended. Mensch refers to members of the human species, rather than to men specifically. The adjective übermenschlich means superhuman, in the sense of beyond human strength or out of proportion to humanity.
The Christian escape from this world also required the invention of an eternal soul which would be separate from the body and survive the body's death. Part of other-worldliness, then, was the denigration and mortification of the body, or asceticism. Zarathustra further links the Übermensch to the body and to interpreting the soul as simply an aspect of the body.
As the drama of Thus Spoke Zarathustra progresses, the turn to metaphysics in philosophy and Platonism in general come to light as manifestations of other-worldiness, as well. Truth and nature are inventions by means of which men escape from this world. The Übermensch is also free from these failings.
Zarathustra presents the Übermensch as the creator of new values. In this way, it appears as a solution to the problem of the death of God and nihilism. Because the Übermensch acts to create new values within the moral vacuum of nihilism, there is nothing that this creative act would not justify. Alternatively, in the absence of this creation, there are no grounds upon which to criticize or justify any action, including the particular values created and the means by which they are promulgated.
In order to avoid a relapse into Platonic Idealism or asceticism, the creation of these new values cannot be motivated by the same instincts that gave birth to those tables of values. Instead, they must be motivated by a love of this world and of life. Whereas Nietzsche diagnosed the Christian value system as a reaction against life and hence destructive in a sense, the new values which the Übermensch will be responsible for will be life-affirming and creative.
This aspect of the Übermensch has reminded some of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer. But whereas evolution via natural selection or survival of the fittest proceeds without being intended by any member of the species, the transition from humanity to Übermensch must be willed.
Zarathustra contrasts the Übermensch with the last man of egalitarian modernity, an alternative goal which humanity might set for itself. The last man appears only in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and is presented as a condition that would render the creation of the Übermensch impossible.
Some commentators associate the Übermensch with a program of eugenics. This is most pronounced when considered in the aspect of a goal that humanity sets for itself. The reduction of all psychology to physiology implies, to some, that human beings can be bred for cultural traits. This interpretation of Nietzsche's doctrine focuses more on the future of humanity than on a single cataclysmic individual. There is no consensus regarding how this aspect of the Übermensch relates to the creation of new values, and many would deny vehemently that Nietzsche would countenance a eugenics program at all.
For Rüdiger Safranski, the Übermensch represents a higher biological type reached through artificial selection and at the same time is also an ideal for anyone who is creative and strong enough to master the whole spectrum of human potential, good and "evil", to become an "artist-tyrant". In Ecce Homo, Nietzsche vehemently denied any idealistic, democratic or humanitarian interpretation of the Übermensch: "The word Übermensch [designates] a type of supreme achievement, as opposed to 'modern' men, 'good' men, Christians, and other nihilists ... When I whispered into the ears of some people that they were better off looking for a Cesare Borgia than a Parsifal, they did not believe their ears.. Safranski argues that the combination of ruthless warrior pride and artistic brilliance that defined the Italian Renaissance embodied the sense of the Übermensch for Nietzsche. According to Safranski, Nietzsche intended the ultra-aristocratic figure of the Übermensch to serve as a Machiavellian bogeyman of the modern Western middle class and its pseudo-Christian egalitarian value system.
Laurence Lampert suggests that the eternal recurrence replaces the Übermensch as the object of serious aspiration. This is in part due to the fact that even the Übermensch can appear like an other-worldly hope. The Übermensch lies in the future — no historical figures have ever been Übermenschen — and so still represents a sort of eschatological redemption in some future time.
Stanley Rosen, on the other hand, suggests that the doctrine of eternal return is an esoteric ruse meant to save the concept of the Übermensch from the charge of Idealism. Rather than positing an as-yet unexperienced perfection, Nietzsche would be the prophet of something that has occurred an infinite number of times in the past.
Others maintain that willing the eternal recurrence of the same is a necessary step if the Übermensch is to create new values, untainted by the spirit of gravity or asceticism. Values involve a rank-ordering of things, and so are inseparable from approval and disapproval; yet it was dissatisfaction that prompted men to seek refuge in other-worldliness and embrace other-worldly values. Therefore, it could seem that the Übermensch, in being devoted to any values at all, would necessarily fail to create values that did not share some bit of asceticism. Willing the eternal recurrence is presented as accepting the existence of the low while still recognizing it as the low, and thus as overcoming the spirit of gravity or asceticism.
Still others suggest that one must have the strength of the Übermensch in order to will the eternal recurrence of the same. This action nearly kills Zarathustra, for example, and most human beings cannot avoid other-worldliness because they really are sick, not because of any choice they made.