When 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.
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.
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.
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!”
The 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.
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.
The 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.
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.)
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 whereas 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.
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.