Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you The Übermensch - part 1
What is it you really want out of life?
A high-flying career? A beautiful house with a garden in a “nice” neighbourhood? An exciting and devoted romantic partner? A brace of sparkly-eyed children? Robust health, obviously - everybody wants that, right? Early retirement with a gold-plated pension plan? How about a top-of-the-range iPhone, a sexy, high-status ride, meals out at fancy restaurants a couple of times per week, your own wine cellar, frequent travels in exotic climes, a hundred-thousand followers on Instagram and a washboard stomach? Maybe you want more: celebrity status and a few million in the bank, why not? Sounds good.
At bottom, your desire for these things is rooted in your most basic, instinctual drives: material security, a family life, social esteem, comfort, sensual pleasure and freedom from all avoidable anxiety, pain and suffering. These drives are undeniably natural. It would be perverse to slander them. But do you ever have moments when you feel that the conventional answers to the demands of these drives lack substance? Do you ever have moments when you feel that a life of mere security, comfort and superficial pleasure leaves something important out? Worse still, it seems to miss the point. It is to get the least out of life; to bear minimal risk and earn a minimal return. Yet this is the arrangement that most people strive to realise: that nothing can threaten their interests, endanger their standards of living, embarrass them, inconvenience them. Better still, that their interests are furthered, that their standards of living are improving, that they enjoy high and rising social status, that life is easy and is getting ever easier – these are the standards of the highest good.
Naturally, you are acquainted with such people – what Nietzsche called ‘The Last Men’. I mean, how could you not? They are the overwhelming majority. Most of them act as if they want to get though life as quietly and comfortably as possible, not making any waves, not attracting too much attention, keeping their heads down, regurgitating the opinions of others and following the script that society provides. A proportion of them want to be notable in some way, famous, but often without any clear idea of what it is they should be famous for. What they really crave is distinction, a sense of their own specialness, to be admired - even adored - and that people will listen for once when they have something to say. Generally, they are seeking compensation for their own feelings of personal inadequacy.
So among the Last Men, at one extreme, there are those who wish to hide in the crowd, to blend in as much as possible, to fly under the radar, to dwell where it is safest. And then, at the other extreme, there are those who wish to push themselves forward, to distinguish themselves from the crowd – but, it must be understood, to be distinguished from the crowd on the crowd’s terms as one of the foremost of the crowd’s members. They step out of the shadows and into the spotlight (a risky business – credit where it is due!) only to try and win the accolades of the crowd. They need its love.
What about you? Do you fit somewhere on this continuum, at one extreme, the other or somewhere in between?
You will think that this picture of humanity is far from flattering but this is no diatribe against the common man or woman. It is entirely understandable that people will seek to avoid suffering and unpleasantness; that they will tend to conform to what most other people do; that they will pursue approval and affection. Human beings are a social species - what Nietzsche would call (somewhat more scornfully) a ‘herd animal’. And yet, though we live in a time of unparalleled privilege for many, with standards of living and social security at unprecedented heights, even the most socially conservative and culturally conformist people have their moments of uncertainty. They experience occasional ‘dark nights of the soul’.
And you have them too. Nights when sleep evades you and in the silence of the early hours you lie staring into the darkness, wondering where you are going, what your life means, why you are working a meaningless job alongside people you would never choose to spend time with, instead of doing something you know is truly, profoundly important. Why is there such a pervasive background feeling of subtle existential discomfort in life? Answers are not easy to find and so you evade these insoluble questions or dampen them down with light entertainment, shopping, alcohol or other drugs. Or you redouble your efforts towards getting that flashier car, that bigger house, that promotion at work, that elevation to a more elite stratum of society. Yet, no sooner do you have these prizes than their allure begins to fade. What is the explanation for this inevitable dissatisfaction? Why does ‘the good life’ never feel quite good enough?
What does it mean to be happy? What is happiness? What kind of evolutionary forces brought this chimeric feeling into existence? If happiness is the apotheosis of life, how can you align yourself with the currents of those forces such that the highest expressions of happiness characterise your being? In the next post we will begin the dissection of this most delicate and elusive of spirits. This will be the first step on our path towards a deep understanding of the Nietzschean Übermensch and the processes of its realisation in the real world.
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