I originally came by these thoughts while preparing to teach a group of high school seniors in a class that doesn't really have a name that I know of. It might be called Sr. Bible, but it might also be called World View or Philosophy From a Christian Perspective. Regardless, while discussing Nietzsche, the teacher of the class, a long term and very good friend of mine, started researching the concept of supermen. Naturally, our favorite group of supermen came to mind and he decided I'd be a worthwhile guest speaker. How do our comic book heroes, especially the original who shares his name with Nietzsche's favorite concept, stack up to the ideal set forth by the philosopher? Let's take a look.
I have an initial caveat. I will not be editorializing on Nietzsche’s philosophy except in how it comes into play with my personal favorite slice of pop culture, the super hero comic book. If any of you would like to discuss it in greater detail and in light of your own philosophical or religious leanings, that’s what comments are for. And believe me, I have got some SERIOUS commentary on Nietzsche, I’m just trying to maintain a tight scope.
As I’m sure many of you are not aware of the basic tenets of Nietzsche’s philosophy, we’ll start with a primer. In as few words as possible (which isn’t really all that few), I bring you the Brief Guide to the Glorious Anti-Christ. Don’t look at me, that’s what other people called him, I’m just borrowing it.
With no belief in a transcendental God but a desperate need to make some sense out of the universe, Nietzsche developed a few core beliefs. He vehemently believed that life is Tragedy; devoid of hope for good or justice but also devoid of the cynicism that would believe in evil’s ultimate triumph. Indeed, Nietzsche thought of good and evil as abstracts with no real meaning, that there could be no immorality in a world that was inherently amoral. For Nietzsche, the only hope against despairing nihilism was to give in entirely to the Dionysian spirit.
Dionysian thought was centered on tragic optimism and sought to stop the moment in time through a lust for knowledge, youth, beauty and your own superhuman power (starting to get an inkling of where we’re headed here?). A Dionysian would create a superabundance of creative energy and seek to harness that energy towards change or “becoming.” There was no hope outside of yourself, only the potential of self-transcendence could hope to lift humanity out of its mire. This is pretty heady stuff, but believe me when I say I'm really trying to boil this down to the simplest explanations.
Nietzsche hated the middle class and its so-called “good life.” Comfort and conformity were chains causing the mass of humanity, the Herd as he called it, to stagnate in its own mediocrity. The merely average spent their days toiling away trying to get that slightly nicer house or slightly larger television (pardon my modern perspective) while the Dionysian sought to write music, create poetry, make art, love, fight battles and really LIVE, even if they would ultimately fail (constant and tragic failure is a core Nietzschean concept that I’ll deal with in greater detail shortly).
Nietzsche also loved the theories of Charles Darwin. He believed that humanity will be supplanted by a newer, better humanity even as we supplanted the apes before us. However, Nietzsche also believed that this next evolutionary step, this creation of the ubermensch (overman or superman) would not be merely biological. Humanity would do with Will what biology could never hope to do. Humanity has an innate Will to exercise power over itself and others, according to Nietzsche, and it is this Will that is the key to the next step in human evolution.
Nietzsche’s most influential work and the best example of his thought is the epic poem Thus Spake Zarathustra. Zarathustra is a fictional Persian prince who comes down from the mountain to explain that he is in absolute awe of humanity’s potential, but is in constant lamentation over its inability to move the vast majority of itself out of a passionless, orderly and rational existence and into something greater.
According to Zarathustra, we should aspire to heroism because it is the highest state of self-actualization. The definition of a hero is one who strives to achieve goals that have hitherto been the purview of the gods. However, because the hero strives for unattainable goals, they usually fail. Tragedy is the glorious end for the Hero! The Herd also fails, but its goals are so low that there is no tragic or transcendent dimension. In the striving and ESPECIALLY in the failing, the hero rises above the Herd’s pathetic, lowly existence and becomes something more through the exercise of the hero’s Will.
Sounds pretty damn good, doesn’t it? The attractiveness isn’t surprising. The examples of the tragic hero are nearly uncountable in mythology. The Greeks had Achilles who, knowing that life was useless and fleeting, sought immortality through fame. The Norse had Siegfried who knew throughout most of his life that it would end in tragedy, but fought the good fight and demanded all that life could give him despite the whims of the gods. With very little investigation, you will find examples of this ideal in nearly every culture.
“But what about our culture?” you might be saying (that is, if you're still awake at this point). Examples in today’s pop culture are nearly as rampant as they were in older civilizations. Think of James Bond who succeeds in the face of insurmountable odds through his own strength of will. But his successes are never long term; he is just holding the line against the Communists with no real hope of ultimate victory. To borrow another example from my teacher friend , you also have Ferris Bueller. Ferris’ life is hopeless. He is embroiled in his last opportunity for “one good day” in the last good time in his life, his waning youth. Soon, college and adulthood will close in and turn Ferris into the middle-class drone striving for the mediocrity that he sees his parents exemplifying. But before that happens, he will have one amazing day despite all the powers and circumstance arrayed against him. (If anybody likes, we can also talk about how Ferris Bueller is literally an example of evil in its truest form, but that’s a bit off topic in a discussion of a philosopher that didn’t really believe in good or evil.)Well, there isn't a lot about comics so far, is there? The good news is, the groundwork is laid and we can talk about comics in part two tomorrow. The bad news is that you have to wait until tomorrow to talk about comics. Please come back and comment, vigorous philosophical debate will follow!