Origins of Superman: Nietzsche and the Man of Steel - Brian Overland

Origins of Superman: Nietzsche and the Man of Steel

18 July 2013, Comments: 21

nietzscheWhen philosophy students come across the concept of Nietzsche’s Superman, the similarity of the name to a certain comic-book hero strikes them as odd. If they are brave enough to ask about it, they’re usually told that it’s a coincidence and they should do their best to forget it.

Yet there is a connection. One version of Superman was created to counter the other. Nietzsche’s Superman is elitist, Germanic, and believes that what the world most needs is a better class of human being. The comic-book Superman is democratic, American, and believes that the human race is fine as it is; it just needs protection from the occasional villain.

And yet—despite these figures being nearly polar opposites—I think the human race might have something to learn from both versions of Superman.


Thus Spake Frederich Nietzsche

In the nineteenth century, philosophers were influenced by the theories of Charles Darwin, believing, for example, in what Henri Bergson called an elan vital, or Vital Force, that worked in and through Nature, pushing things ever upward. But most philosophers rejected the more troubling moral implications of evolution—namely, the Law of the Jungle. They believed in Progress but ethically were still Christians.

Nietzsche was the exception, embracing the idea that life was for the fit, not the unfit. He believed that the meek will most definitely not inherit the Earth.

He is at once the most readable and most disturbing of all the great philosophers. Today we would call him politically incorrect. He is highly quotable. Here are just a few of his gems. In my view, these lose nothing in translation but translate from German into English beautifully:

Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

If you look into the abyss long enough, the abyss looks into you.

All things are subject to interpretation. Which interpretation prevails is a matter of power, not truth.

Goest thou to woman? Forget not thy whip!

The Will to Power.

God is dead.

Clearly, he is at odds with religion. He is sometimes seen as a gloomy, militaristic figure. And yet he is often surprisingly life-affirming, with beautiful quotes such as this:

We should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once. And we should call every truth false which was not accompanied by at least one laugh.

The real meaning of Nietzsche’s philosophy is hotly debated to this day, and the controversies are many. Was he a radical, reactionary, anarchist, or monarchist? One thing is certain: He was very popular in mid-twentieth-century Germany.


Nazism: Don’t Blame Fritz for Adolf

One of the first things my college professors said about Nietzsche was that it’s important not to blame him for Nazism. And that’s fair: the Nazis did a number of things—such as burning books—that would have appalled him. And he would have thought the Nazis to be idiots for chasing the most brilliant scientists on the planet, such as Einstein, out of the country and into the hands of their enemies, thus guaranteeing they’d lose the war.

Nonetheless, Nietzsche was the favorite philosopher of the Nazi Party. Hitler worshipped at the philosopher’s shrine, frequently visiting the Nietzsche museum in Weimar. It’s not hard to understand why. The Nazis’ interest in genetic experiments, sterilization, and elimination of “undesirables” showed their desire to create what they thought was a superior being, although this vision was a twisted one.

Almost certainly, Nazism would have happened without Nietzsche; but the Nazis married their ideas to his. And so—fairly or unfairly—this created a connection in many people’s minds between Nietzsche and ultimate evil. Nietzsche and Hitler had at least one thing in common: their philosophies had no sympathy for those they regarded as weak.


Nietzsche’s Ubermensch

At the core of Nietzsche’s philosophy is the concept of the Ubermensch, first mentioned in his 1893 book, Thus Spake Zarathustra. This is the superior human being that evolution, he hoped, would produce. Perhaps the Ubermensch was Nietzsche in his daydreams, for ironically, the philosopher was a sickly professor who in his final years became mentally ill and had to be cared for by his sister.

The distinctions of this superior being are primarily intellectual. The Ubermensch does not necessarily bend steel bars with his bare hands or leap tall buildings in a single bound, although he (and yes, he probably is a he) is expected to be vigorous, strong, and physically fit.

The Ubermensch starts by asserting that God is dead. The Nietzschean hero is self-assertive. He has replaced God with himself. This is either good or bad depending on your point of view. He’s either a brave creature who can stand on his own two feet, not needing to enslave himself to another, or he’s egotistical and even dangerous.

The Ubermensch rejects conventional wisdom, including conventional morality. And this is where the philosophy is most controversial. He puts himself above society’s ideas about good and evil.

Alfred Hitchcock’s classic movie Rope, based on a real-life murder case, represents this philosophy taken to its extreme. Two college students (played by Farley Granger and John Dall) murder an innocent but weakly classmate to demonstrate to themselves that superior men are not bound by ordinary morality. Their old philosophy professor, played by Jimmy Stewart, solves the murder and then tells them that, “Yes, we discussed those ideas. But in committing murder, you gave my words a meaning I never intended!”


Man and Superman

shawThe German word Ubermensch has been translated a number of ways, such as “Over-Man” or “Beyond-Man.” But when George Bernard Shaw, an admirer of Nietzsche, translated the idea into English, he picked the name “Superman.” Thus we get the title of one of his more interesting plays, Man and Superman, written in 1903.

This play is about a heroic man, Jack Tanner, who lives to change society and resists marriage to an attractive woman, for fear that marriage would make him conventional and weighed down with middle-class concerns. This echoes Shaw’s own ambivalence about marriage and the fact Nietzsche himself never married–his main experience with women, which was non-sexual, came from dealing with his sister. (One also thinks of the comic-book Superman, who never gets married to Lois Lane, or at least resists the idea for a very long time?)

For most people, the translation of “Ubermensch” into English as “Superman” has stuck. I would argue that it’s a good translation. The Latin word “super” means “beyond” or “higher than.” “Super” has since taken on meanings such as large, grand, impressive, flashy, or exciting (probably thanks to the advertising business more than anything else). But by strict and classical definition, “Superman” is fairly accurate.



Schuster and Siegel: A New Version of Superman

Joe Schuster and Jerry Siegel were two teenagers from Ohio trying to break into publishing when they created their first version of Superman. The year was 1933, and both being Jewish, they could not help but feel appalled at how the Nazi regime—having just come to power in Germany—declared Jews to be public enemies. And they were aware that the Nazis’ favorite philosopher was Frederich Nietzsche.

Superman evilThe two of them put out a fanzine, designed by hand and mimeographed, featuring a series of stories. One of these was titled “The Reign of the Superman.” In this first version, Superman was a supremely evil character with mental powers. (His mental prowess and bald appearance were later to be echoed by the comic book character, Lex Luthor.) This Superman was a mockery of Nietzsche’s conception, for he thought of Superman as a hero.

Later in 1933, Schuster and Siegel rethought the character of Superman and this time made him a hero—but a hero who embodied a rejection of all Nietzschean values. Though he had superhuman powers, he would use them to defend those who couldn’t help themselves. It is a classic dichotomy. Nietzsche’s Superman would say that might creates right… that the truly free man breaks free of conventional morality. The comic-book Superman holds to the more conventional idea of might for right.


Superman Through the Ages

After years of rejection, the character of Superman finally saw print in 1939, in Action Comics #1, in the process creating an entirely new art form, even an industry. He was an immediate hit with the American public. Superman became the archetype for all the many comic-book super-heroes who would follow.

Today, some people view this original comic-book super-hero as hopelessly square. And that may be because he was so completely wholesome and American. It’s no coincidence that his costume is red and blue. As for white, well he does have white skin, although I don't think that was intended in a racist way; America was a majority-white nation. (Yet unlike Hitler's Aryan race, he is not blonde.)

superman vs tojoIn the 1940s, Superman not only rounded up criminals but Nazi soldiers as well. He was an anti-Nazi fighting force, a one-man army helping the Allies to win the war.

In the 1950s, the Superman television show starring George Reeves began each episode by reminding us how Superman was dedicated to “truth, justice, and the American Way.” Today we’d ask, what did Superman ever have to do with “truth” and with “the American Way”? It doesn’t make sense until one recounts Superman’s anti-Nazi origins; remember that he was developed as an anti-Nietzschean hero (and the Nazi-Nietzsche connection persists even if this is not fair to the philosopher). The Nazis were famous for the Big Lie and for a conception of evolution that trampled on the weak and oppressed. The sympathy of the comic-book Superman, in contrast, was with the “tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

In short, Superman was from the planet Krypton, but his outlook was thoroughly American. To Nazi Germany, and most other countries throughout time, that would be a contradiction. But to America, that Nation of Immigrants, it made perfect sense. Superman was the ultimate immigrant.

In Superman II (1980), starring Christopher Reeve, there is a scene late in the movie where the villain, General Zod, says, “This 'Superman' is nothing of the kind; I’ve spotted his weakness. He cares… he actually cares for these puny Earthlings.” In the previous film, young Clark (who would grow up to be Superman) was admonished by Pa Kent that he must use his powers for something other than personal glorification. Even in 2013’s Man of Steel, Superman is portrayed as a man afraid of his powers, preferring for much of the movie to hide his light under a bushel.

Even Superman's use of an alter-ego… borrowed, no doubt, from Baroness Orczy's The Scarlet Pimpernel, about an Englishman who disguises his identity in order to rescue victims of the French Revolution… is in keeping with his essential modesty. Turning away from self-glorification, Superman puts on the cape only when it's time to save people. Otherwise he prefers to live out his life as mild-mannered Clark Kent.

(The alter-ego idea, probably originating with the Pimpernel, also was a device of Zorro, a character who first appeared in 1919. But whesuperman 1reas having an alter-ego is an absolute necessity for the Pimpernel, Zorro, and Batman, it is more a matter of personal choice for Superman. He'd simply prefer to be anonymous most of the time.)

All of this is in opposition to Nietzsche’s philosophy, with its Will to Power. In the Christian and American ways of thought, power is suspect and elitism breeds resentment and suspicion. The comic-book Superman's supreme distinction is that he never uses his powers to glorify or enrich himself. He has no Will to Power. He simply has power, and his sole concern is how to use it responsibly.


Defending Nietzsche

It’s easy to point to Superman and attack Nietzsche’s philosophy as representing all that Americans ought to reject. And yet a consistent minority of the American intellectual class has always admired Nietzsche… in part because his philosophy is seen as an antidote to the conventional, conservative thinking that has sometimes dominated American culture.

To most Americans, the phrase “Will to Power” is suspect. To Christians, it raises a red flag. Indeed, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is anti-Nietzschean in character; the Ring of ultimate power is necessarily the Ring of ultimate evil. In Tolkien's tales, to desire power almost guarantees that one will be seduced to the dark side. The Will to Power in the end becomes a Will to Evil. (Note, however, that Tolkien’s Men of Numenor, supposedly good, sound suspiciously like a Master Race.)

And yet as I pointed out earlier, Nietzsche’s philosophy can be seen in its positive aspect. Life by its nature, he was saying, is self-assertive and even greedy… greedy for more life! The wilting flower never manages to pass on its genes to the next generation, while the tree that grows taller and grabs the sunlight is successful. A certain amount of struggle and pain are inevitable in life, and to Nietzsche, the only alternative is Nihilism—to turn one’s back on living. To want things to be otherwise is to become a complainer or–worse–guilty of envy.

Nietzsche never asserted in any way that we ought to torture people or build concentration camps. Rather, he was saying we ought to enthusiastically embrace Life with all its ups and downs. He suggested his Ubermensch, or Superman, was someone who could stand on his own two feet (something Americans admire), rather than grovel before a higher power or before societal-imposed ideas of good and bad. Think for yourself, Nietzsche was saying. There are no unexamined truths.

In the final analysis, then, there is something to admire in both kinds of Supermen. To be self-assertive, to defend one’s independence of thought, to be willing to be unconventional, are all traits precious to many Americans—even though such Americans have sometimes been in a minority. At the same time, the comic-book Superman presents us with the ultimate expression of responsibility. To whom much is given, much is expected, and the gifted ought to use those gifts for the benefit of all.


21 responses on “Origins of Superman: Nietzsche and the Man of Steel

  1. Jedothek says:

    Nietzsche’s superman was not Germanic. You are confusing Nietzsche’s superman with the Nazis’ superman.

    • Brian Overland says:

      Super Man (Ubermensch) was not necessarily German, but Nietzsche was, and the values that contribute to Ubermensch are — in my humble opinion — relatively traditional (pre-World War) Germanic rather than American or English.

      America, England, and France have all come to hold democracy and equality (although equality has lost some ground in the USA lately) as as nearly sacred values. Germany has become a democracy in the last half century to be sure! But I’d guess that with Germany, democracy and capitalism are just good business.

      Although… after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I imagine that today’s generation of Germans are very glad to have a more open society.

      The Germans of today are very good people in many ways. But the ideal of fighting for the underdog (a very un-Nietzschean outlook) is traditionally more an American or British value. Or so we tell ourselves.

      • Jennifer says:

        Nietzsche was Prussian, not German, and actually spent a lifetime decrying Germanic nationalism. He renounced Prussian citizenship in 1869 when he moved to Basel in Switzerland and took up his teaching position at the university. He remained stateless for the rest of his life – happily so.

  2. Dear friends, what a great article. Wow, this is one of the best articles about the superman of Nietzsche that I have ever seen in the whole internet. I will share it with my friends. Thanks a lot for this great article. You know we need the motivational spirit of Nietzsche. Because in this world, every thing requires will and power. Even taking a shower requires will and power. Even working requires will and power. So thanks again for this great motivational, inspirational self-help article about the theory of the superman !!

  3. Brian Overland says:

    Thanks for the reply! I tried very hard to be fair to Nietzsche. Although he is controversial — anyone who is this provocative is bound to write controversial things — I certainly think that there are some positive things in his philosophy if looked at properly. Yes, the mere act of living is to some extent an act of self-assertion.

    • Dear friend, I would also like to ask you what do you think about the importance of physical muscular strength from a Nietzschean perspective, because in many of Nietzsche’s works, like The Antichrist, The will to power, and others he says that the superior individual must be physically strong as this part of section 57 of the book The Antichrist says:

      “It is nature that sets off in one class those who are very intellectual, in another those who are marked by muscular strength and temperament, and in a third those who are distinguished in neither by muscular strength nor by intelligence, but show only mediocrity, stupidity, fear, and physical weakness. This last third class represents the great majority of people, and the first two, the ones with muscular strength and intelligence, the few, the elites and the select. This superior caste, I call it the fewest. It has, as the most perfect, the privileges of the few: it stands for happiness, for muscular strength, for physical beauty, for everything good upon earth. Only the most muscular men and the most intellectual of men have any right to beauty, to the beautiful; only in them can goodness escape being weakness. Pulchrum est paucorum hominum.”

  4. Brian Overland says:

    First, you are well up on your Nietzsche, and I need to read more of his works! But I think it well in the spirit of Nietzsche that the body is not neglected. This has led to some ad-homien attacks on the philosopher himself… the charge is that the philosopher himself, who was sickly most of his life, is not Superman but who “Nietzsche was in his daydreams.” (Bertrand Russell.) That’s unfair, though, as Nietzsche ever claimed that he was this superior being, merely the herald.

    That a man (or woman) should not neglect that body but be a strong physical specimen is in keeping with the Greek ideals that Nietzsche admired — whether Apollonian or Dionysian. Still, it strikes me that the single most important ideal is the self-affirmation of a person who does not bow down before someone else’s ideology or cult. This is a mental and psychological trait.

  5. David Jack says:

    I’ve just finished reading the late Paul Kriwaczek’s “In Search of Zarathustra” because I’ve been very interested in learning more about the prophet who I’ve read is the originator of the idea of moral religion, and from what I’ve gathered, Nietzsche’s magnum opus “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” is more about refuting and reversing much of the course of that ball Zarathustra got rolling anywhere from 2,500 to 3,700 years ago, depending on who you ask.

    Also, depending on who you ask, Zarathustra’s religion is not only the best prescription for precisely the problems we face in today’s age, but the bulk of what we actually believe already IS his religion of Zoroastrianism. The problem is that we don’t know it as such because it actually formed the substantive metaphysical backbone of what most of us still persist in preaching, completely in ignorance of what all our separate religions actually say, and which most of us have never actually bothered to study. Because so much of our religions’ official orthodoxies are so patently aversive from the start, the truth is that most of us simply stop studying them and just unknowingly superimpose crypto-Zoroastrianism over them instead.

    Anyhow, after studying what little remains of the ideas of Zoroastrianism, I picked up a copy of Nietzsche’s “Zarathustra” and have skimmed some bits of it, but I’ve not yet gotten to it in my reading queue. I have read of Nietzsche himself, however, that his father was oppressively Christian and joylessly moralistic, and that Friedrich developed his philosophy in a visceral retaliation to all that.

    If that’s the case, and considering that Nietzsche came of age in a Europe that had only just discovered Zarathustra and had been shallowly popularizing what he supposedly stood for, as the foundation of Christian morality perhaps, then perhaps Nietzsche assumed that retaliating against Zarathustra by refuting “his” notions of good and evil, that he was attacking the root of the enfeebling and victimizing philosophy of Christianity.

    However, as Brian Overland has pointed out in his review of Reza Aslan’s book “Zealot”, the Christianity that the western gentile world ultimately got, was not the Christianity that was actually given — at least not by the actual Jesus of Nazareth himself. It was instead a product of the eastern Turk named Paul (formerly Saul) of Tarsus, who near-completely hijacked the actual character of Jesus, and replaced it with the attributes of what was very likely the post-Babylonian god Mithras, who was considerably popular in the region of far eastern Turkey, where Tarsus lies.

    (A quick note: Aslan’s book doesn’t talk about Paul’s cultural background in Turkey and the cult of Mithras there — I’ve read that elsewhere, but am offering it up simply as an explanation of where he likely got the attributes of his seemingly from-out-of-nowhere character of “Jesus Christ”.)

    At any rate, Paul’s “Jesus Christ” was a reinvention by Paul, and somewhat by the post-crucifixion survivors of Jesus’ inner circle, as a way to kiss up to the Romans and give them a nicely muddled new “look the other way” god of forgiveness and yet, simultaneously, self-denying, anti-worldly asceticism. This new hybrid would insinuate the culture of the Romans while at the same time rendering them psychologically softer and more passive-aggressive.

    Centuries later, this is the “Christianity” that Nietzsche would understandably rebel against, but it most certainly has nothing to do with Zarathustra, for even Zarathustra’s original message of true moral clarity and sobriety had been quickly buried beneath the avalanche of wishful thinking and sheer treachery that still continues to be most of traditional religion. However, because you can’t keep a good idea down, Zarathustra’s religion of spiritual dualism (not monotheism) — which centered around the notion that goodness derives from truth and evil from lies, the earth is a battleground between those two forces in which evil typically dominates, and that a paradise awaits those who choose goodness and a hell awaits those who choose evil — has continued to survive and pop up everywhere, regardless of any official orthodoxy of religion, like a never-ending game of Whack-a-Mole.

    THAT was the true Zarathustra, and that is what Nietzsche never actually got at. What he did get at, instead, was all the Romanized Mithras-tripe that got called “Christianity” and which was erroneously supposed to trace ultimately back to Zarathustra, which it most certainly did not.

    At any rate, based on all this, my understanding of Nietzsche is that his ideals were all too frequently sociopathically narcissistic and uninhibitedly Darwinian in the extreme. And from what I also know of the pre-existing ideologically similar ideas of Johann Goethe, from a hundred years prior, in his “Faust”, I would tend to agree that all of this would, yes, have been a fertile pre-existing ideological soil for Adolf Hitler’s ideas not too soon after Nietzsche’s. In fact, it seems very much to me like Hitler’s developing his ideas would have been not much more than a well-worn rehash of what Germanic culture had probably been very much about since at least the German race science writings of Blumenbach in the 1700s, which was roughly contemporary with Goethe’s.

    So, clearly, there is much here that Germanicists don’t wish to really come clean about, that Hitler and his ideas were some spontaneous anomaly with no kinship to the greater Germanic past and at least some of its most heralded thinkers.

    • ztech says:

      You’ve provided no substance towards the eternal fantasy that Christianity is a novelty of the West. In fact, there is little doubt that Christianity is rooted in Zoroastrianism and Mithrisim. Any denial of this, requires an exercise in self-delusion. From the concept of truth and monotheism, to celebrations of the new year, to Santa Claus. To quote, Rev. LH Mills, “Petty critics, unable to bear the idea that western thought, as well as religion, might have started in the east, do just what Christians always do to defend Christianity against external influences—they highlight the differences, as though Heraclitus had to take the entire Zoroastrian belief system or none at all. Had he done the former he would have been a Zoroastrian, and had he done that latter he would never have been heard of at all! Needless to say there is little left of whatever Heraclitus believed. If we had had more, his sources might have been clearer, but as it is he used manifestly Zoroastrian concepts, but used them in his own way, either because he did not understand the originals properly or because he rejected parts of the Zoroastrian philosophy. Since he was utterly opposed to gods of any kind, other than using the name for certain natural powers, he tried to put the Zoroastrian idea of conflict into a non-supernatural framework”

  6. David Jack says:

    Anyhow, I now read your article, and I’m glad that you did focus on the positive, life-affirming aspects of Nietzsche’s writing, because those ARE critical in a morally conniving world that does try to trick us all into being “good” little eagerly-exploitable doormats and live organ donors from an indefensibly young age.

    Ayn Rand had been a fan of Nietzsche, and the sci-fi show “Andromeda” even had a race of super-expatriates of Earth called the “Nietzscheans” who were every bit the conceited high school jock-bullies you might expect:

    I even found a clip of a Nietzschean joke from the show that goes like this:

    “We might let God sort them out, but someone told me he was dead.”
    “That Nietzsche — what a comedian.”

    Finally, here’s a pretty good Hitler-versus-Nietzsche bit from comedian Ricky Gervais:

  7. […] added the pairing concept of untermensch or subhuman.  Most philosophy students are encouraged to ignore the similarity in name between Superman and the Nietzschean superman. Hitler had two big buzzwords, übermensch […]

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  13. Angel says:

    Hi, can someone explain this?

    “Übermensch (German for “Overman, Superman, Superhuman, Hyperman, Hyperhuman”) puts
    himself above society’s ideas about good and evil; it also rejects conventional wisdom.”

  14. […] it is also naive and open to philosophical perversion. His answer is  : Der Ubermensch, the OverMan, the Superman. Nietzsche tells us that Men are capable of something more than they have been. That […]

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