Nietzsche and Overcoming Oneself
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) was a German philosopher, one of the fathers of Existentialism
One of Friedrich Nietzsche’s major concerns is how to live our life deeply and fully. This concern is especially acute given the “death of God”: the fact that people in our modern world no longer believe in absolute values and truths. An absolute value can give us the inspiration and the power to pursue it with passion, to devote ourselves through difficulties and dangers, and thus to live fully. But this, according to Nietzsche, is no longer a viable option for us. His concern is that modern life is becoming lifeless, empty, small.
In response to this concern, Nietzsche envisions a self-transformation that would lead to a new kind of person: the overman (or “superman” in older translations). The overman is a strong and free individual who has overcome the “man” in himself, in other words the contemptible side of himself: his trivial, weak, petty tendencies. Nietzsche’s transformation is therefore a process of self-overcoming, in which the individual overcomes his own small self and creates a new, higher self—a self that is full of creative passion. Such a person creates his own values, and he lives fully and passionately in an attempt to realize them.
Thus, a human being is not a stable state or a finished product, but rather a transition, a challenge, a mission. As Nietzsche says in his Thus Spoke Zarathustra (sections 3-4, based on Walter Kaufmann’s translation):
I teach you the overman. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?
All creatures so far have created something beyond themselves; and 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 laughing-stock or a painful embarrassment. And man shall be just that for the overman: a laughing-stock or a painful embarrassment.
(…) Behold, I teach you the overman. (…) Man is a rope stretched between beast and overman—a rope over an abyss: A dangerous crossing, a dangerous on-the-way, a dangerous looking-back, a dangerous shuddering and stopping.
The “man” in us—in other words, those tendencies which we need to overcome—is the man of the herd who lives a dull life that contains nothing greater than petty satisfactions and comforts. One of his central characteristics is obedience and conformism. In contrast, the overman is a free-spirited individual who creates himself.
In another section from Thus Spoke Zarathustra—“On the Three Metamorphoses”—Nietzsche describes the path of overcoming as consisting of three stages: It begins with the “camel” who carries traditional values on its back, continues to the “lion” who rejects traditional values, and ends with the “child” who creates anew. (The following is based on Walter Kaufmannn’s translation):
Of three metamorphoses of the spirit I tell you: how the spirit becomes a camel, and the camel a lion, and the lion, finally, a child.
There is much that is difficult for the spirit—for the strong, reverent spirit that would bear much; but its strength demands the difficult, the most difficult.
“What is difficult”? asks the spirit that would bear much, and kneels down like a camel wanting to be well loaded.
“What is the most difficult, O heroes?” asks the spirit that would bear much, “that I may take it upon myself and exult in my strength?”
(…) All these most difficult things the spirit that would bear much takes upon itself: like the camel that, burdened, speeds into the desert, thus the spirit speeds into its own desert.
In the loneliest desert, however, the second metamorphosis occurs: here the spirit becomes a lion. He wants to conquer his freedom and be master in his own desert.
Here he seeks out his last master: he wants to fight him and his last god; for ultimate victory he wants to fight with the great dragon.
Who is the great dragon whom the spirit will no longer call lord and god? "Thou shalt" [=you must] is the name of the great dragon. But the spirit of the lion says “I will!”
“Thou shalt” lies in the camel’s way, sparkling like gold, an animal covered with scales; and on every scale shines a golden "Thou shalt."
Values, thousands of years old, shine on these scales; and thus speaks the mightiest of all dragons: “All value of all things shines on me. All values have already been created, and all created values are in me. Truly, there shall be no more ‘I will’!” Thus speaks the dragon.
My brothers, why is there a need in the spirit for the lion? Why is the reverent beast of burden not enough?
To create new values—that even the lion cannot do; but to create for oneself freedom for new creation—that is within the power of the lion.
To create freedom for oneself, and a sacred "No" even to duty—for that the lion is needed, my brothers.
To assume the right to new values—that is the most terrifying task for a reverent spirit that would bear much.
(…) But say, my brothers, what can the child do that even the lion cannot do? Why must the preying lion still become a child?
The child is innocence and forgetting, a new beginning, a game, a self-propelled wheel, a first movement, a sacred "Yes" [=a Yes to life].
For the game of creation, my brothers, a sacred "Yes" is needed: the spirit now wills his own will; the spirit who had been lost to the world now conquers his own world.
I have told you of three metamorphoses of the spirit: how the spirit became a camel, and the camel a lion, and the lion, finally, a child.