Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Morality & the Nietzschean Übermensch

In his book, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Friedrich Nietzsche explains the concept of the Übermensch, the superman. The Nietzschean Übermensch completes three steps in order to be considered as such. First, he is destructive in certain actions, rebelling against societal ideals and morals. Second, he is creative, in disjunction with nihilism, re-evaluating old ideals and creating new ones. Third, he must continuously struggle against himself. The titular character of Olaf Stapledon’s novel, Odd John, is a perfect example of a Nietzschean Übermensch, as he fulfills all of these steps towards greatness. Spanning the years between 1910 and 1933, Odd John describes the life of John Wainright, a homo superior, the next rung on the evolutionary ladder.

The most striking parts of Odd John are those in which John fights against accepted societal ideals and morals, completing the first requirement of the Übermensch. The first such incedent occurs when John begins a crime spree, robbing the houses of the rich, if for no other reason than to prove that he can. During one of these robberies, a police officer, one known personally to John, catches him. In order to escape the discovery of his greater-than-human abilities so early in his life, John is forced to murder the police officer. To keep hidden the existence of the superman, to protect the Übermensch before mankind can eradicate the threat, John sheds one of the most commonly accepted and believed-in social morals, and murders a living human being. To John, such an act, while still not exactly palatable, is not exactly the same as murdering another homo superior. Since John is of another species, one greater than man, he is able to kill a human, the way a human would euthanize a dog: with some regrettable pain, knowing it must still be done, in order to serve a greater end. John does, in fact, quite often describe humanity as canine in some respects: awkward, well-meaning, but still with some spark of intelligence. Some would say killing an animal is wrong under any circumstances, but this idea is not universally accepted, and so this incedent is only used as secondary evidence of John’s taboo-breaking.

The most striking of John’s rule-breaking occurs during a period in his life in which he attempts to conquer the human idea of love. John, through his great powers of learning and observance, determines methods in which to make any human, male or female, find him irresistable. First, this breaks a more slight taboo, one which some may argue is unrealistic to begin with, and is slowly dieing out: John engages in homosexual love. This, in itself, is not as striking as some of his other taboo-shatterings, in today’s world, as homosexual relationships are much more widespreadin the modern age, and will soon be considered completely acceptable by the vast majority of society, if it is not already. What is more disturbing about these actions is that, if one truly accepts that John is of another species, he must then be committing beastiality. In continuation of the previous analogy, John having sexual intercourse with a human being would be akin to a human being having sexual intercourse with a dog. While some would argue the morality of euthanizing an animal, there are very few who would argue the morality of seducing one.

In addition to this, John also beds his mother. To once more continue the previous analogy, this would be similar to a human being romancing the dog that gave birth to it. Clearly, the simile no longer applies, as there is no universal social law for such an act. In spite of this, I don’t think many people would argue that beastiality and incest cancel each other out; this action is, by far, the most shocking and amoral action John commits.

The most mysterious parts of Odd John revolve around the second requirement of the Übermensch, the homo superior’s creations; human beings cannot fully comprehend the greatest works of the supermen, and so it is impossible for the author, a simple homo sapien, to fully describe them.

One of the more simple-to-understand accomplishments of the supermen is the foundation of their own nation. After finding more of his own kind, John establishes a colony on a remote island in the Pacific Ocean, where the homo superior can train their minds, and create their greater spiritual works in peace. One of the most interesting aspects of their new society involves their interpersonal relationships; the members of the community do not make their relationships legally permanent, but they tend to stick together anyway. While the new system is not perfect, as some relationships still end poorly, it seems to have a much higher rate of success than the homo sapien system, which has about a fifty percent rate of failure. Additionally, this is an incredibly complex and unpredictable subject, which is bound always to have some failures. In this manner, the Übermensch re-evaluate old societal morals, keeping the monogomous relationship, but shedding the legal entanglements.

The government of the supermen is also important, as well as profound. Described as communist by the world powers, in this community there is no defined governmental body, and no law enforcement. To make decisions for the community, each member of the colony meets and discusses with the group the best course of action, and the meeting does not conclude until every voice is heard. Eventually, a decision is made, and every member of the colony respects and accepts the decision, because their opinion has been understood and weighed. While a system such as this seems almost perfect, it probably would not work well under the stress of great masses of homo sapien, not only because council meetings would last months until every voice was heard, but because humans are generally not able to set aside their own opinions in respect of the greater good; this government is completely Übermensch.

The impossible-to-understand accomplishment of the supermen involves their great spiritual work. Because humanity cannot hope to understand such a work, the homo sapien auther was unable to convey anything of its substance through the novel, but it is great enough that, in order to complete it, the supermen are willing to die. They realize that the world powers have organized to destroy them, and, rather than spend time completing the technology to defend themselves, the colony completes its great work of religion and commits suicide. The definite magnitude of their great creation is unclear, but it is presumably vast.

The third requirement of the Übermensch is the most simple to relate to Odd John. Once he fully realizes his superiority to humanity, John is struck with a sense of utter loneliness. John can no longer tolerate the presence of humans, their inferiority presenting constant reminders of his singularity, so he ventures into the wilderness, in order to escape mankind, and to overcome this feeling of desolation. As he evades human contact, John struggles with his basic animal traits; learning to hunt and kill a stag, using only his physical powers, he proves his worth as a new being. In defeating the stag, John learns more about himself and mankind than of which he had previously been aware. In describing the action to the narrator, John said, “How I knew him and praised him! And his death was his life’s crown.” The death of the stag had a profound impact on John, and gave him a new perspective on humanity.

John Wainright, as the above examples have clearly shown, is the very definition of the Nietzschean Übermensch. He rebels against societal ideals and morals, as he murders men, sleeps with those of the same gender, and beds his own mother. He re-evaluates old societal ideals and morals, and creates his own, through the existence of the new colony of supermen. In the process of killing the stag, John recognizes and overcomes his own physical weaknesses, as well as the simple, canine greatness of mankind.

This struggle against traditional morality is something the general public finds very upsetting about the Nietzschean concept of the Übermensch; the rebellion against traditional societal codes is seen as destructive to most people. It is of the utmost importance, however, that the Nietzschean Übermensch follow these steps, because morality is an ever-changing, subjective concept; to force everyone to follow the same rules of morality is stifling, and not always is the “morally correct” path the best. To go about this process in a slow, steady manner, while easier for some to accept, is detrimental to the process; massive, sweeping change is often necessary in order to fix the most stubborn problems of human society.

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