~by David Aiken~
There is soon set to open its doors in Monflanquin, France a philo-café, associated with Phrontisterion, called L’Eternel Retour. The Eternal Return is a symbol perhaps better known in the West by one of its earliest images, the ancient Egyptian ouroboros, or the serpent that eats its own tail; a wiki source claims that this symbol “is often interpreted as a symbol for eternal cyclic renewal or a cycle of life, death, and rebirth.”
The artist’s logo for this philo-café, which was designed by Esfaindyar, has the ceaselessly winding serpent encircling Friedrich Nietzsche’s head, because in the history of Western philosophy, Nietzsche is the philosopher of the eternal return, and Nietzsche’s Zarathustra the prophet of the »ewigen Wiederkunft«.
In the Ecce Homo (§ 3), Nietzsche writes, “Die Lehre von der »ewigen Wiederkunft«, das heisst vom unbedingten und unendlich wiederholten Kreislauf aller Dinge – diese Lehre Zarathustra's könnte zuletzt auch schon von Heraklit gelehrt worden sein,” which is to say: “The teaching about the "Eternal Recurrence"—that is to say, of the unconditional and endlessly recurrent cycle of all things—this teaching of Zarathustra's could unquestionably have been taught by Heraclitus.” In a less didactic moment, where Nietzsche is able to provide a much more interesting, dramatic amplification of the idea of the Eternal Return, he famously describes in the Gay Savoirthe moment when one becomes aware of the reality of recurrence:
The Heaviest Burden.—What if a demon crept after thee into thy loneliest loneliness some day or night, and said to thee: "This life, as thou livest it at present, and hast lived it, thou must live it once more, and also innumerable times; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and every sigh, and all the unspeakably small and great in thy life must come to thee again, and all in the same series and sequence—and similarly this spider and this moonlight among the trees, and similarly this moment, and I myself. The eternal sand-glass of existence will ever be turned once more, and thou with it, thou speck of dust!"—Wouldst thou not throw thyself down and gnash thy teeth, and curse the demon that so spake? Or hast thou once experienced a tremendous moment in which thou wouldst answer him: "Thou art a God, and never did I hear aught more divine!" If that thought acquired power over thee, as thou art, it would transform thee, and perhaps crush thee; the question with regard to all and everything: "Dost thou want this once more, and also for innumerable times?" would lie as the heaviest burden upon thy activity! Or, how wouldst thou have to become favourably inclined to thyself and to life, so as to long for nothing more ardently than for this last eternal sanctioning and sealing?—
So, this is a reprised reflection, and the celebration of an idea in which we join together these three seemingly disparate players: an eponymous philo-café in France called L’Eternel Retour; an ouroboric serpent latched eternally on to its own tail; and a strange German philosopher with enormous moustaches and eye-brows, whose prophetic Zarathustra continues to teach us about a new man for a new age of the world.
§ The Superman & The Eternal Return_The Great Unlearning of Morality
Much has been written, much mused, and much else assumed about Nietzsche’s notion of the Übermensch, culminating in what is perhaps the notion’s most inappropriate, because malapropic contemporary avatar: ‘It’s a bird…It’s a plane… It’s Superman.’ It just seems so irresistibly facile in this latest translation-adaptation of the Übermensch idea, to imagine our red-becaped Superman, accessorized with his fire-engine red, spandex jockey shorts on full display, arriving on the scene of some paralyzing human drama and pronouncing in the mellifluous intonations of the very-French, love-crazed skunk of cartoon-dom, Pépé le Pew: “I am ze Übermensch, mon amour .”
In order to speak seriously about Nietzsche’s notion of the Übermensch, we must first return to Roman antiquity, to the Stoic philosopher Seneca, to revisit his aphorism that “quae philosophia fuit facta philologia est” (“What was philosophy is now become philology”). In 1869, as the new professor of philology at the University of Basel, Nietzsche delivered his inaugural address, which he entitled ‘Homer and Classical Philology’, in which he playfully inverted Seneca’s aphorism to say, “What was philology is now become philosophy.” Today we must hark back to Seneca’s original statement, because it would seem that mainstream opinions about Nietzsche’s Übermensch are primarily concerned with the possible meanings of the actual word, Übermensch, rather than in the philosophico-psychological concept the word is intended to express.
There are reasons for this, however. The Übermensch idea remains elusive at least in part due to the prepositional prefix –über (‘over’, ‘beyond’, and even ‘super’—if dragged kicking and screaming through a layer of Latin) attached to the word –mensch (person), and it has been translated into English diversely—as ‘Beyond-Man’, ‘Superman’, and ‘Overman’. None of these are particularly felicitous translations, however, because they remain burdened by the compulsion for a one-word for one-word literalism that sometimes—actually many if not most times—just does not work well between languages.
§ The Zeitgeist of the 19th Century
It is banal to say that Nietzsche’s Übermensch was conceived in an 18th-19th century thought-world defined by the two influences of Hebraism, which is to say the Judeo-Christian religious heritage of western civilization, and Hellenism, or the vigorous resurgence of Greek cultural ideas through Anglo-German poetry and scholarship.
Matthew Arnold published Culture and Anarchy (1869) in the UK to mixed, or mostly negative reviews. The title of perhaps the most famous chapter in Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy is “Hebraism and Hellenism,” which suggests a certain opposition of ideas. In a 2016 review published by the Washington Examiner, a noted American historian calls this antithesis unambiguous:
The governing idea of Hellenism is spontaneity of consciousness; that of Hebraism, strictness of conscience. The uppermost idea with Hellenism is to see things as they really are; the uppermost idea with Hebraism is conduct and obedience. The Greek quarrel with the body and its desires is that they hinder right thinking; the Hebrew quarrel with them is that they hinder right acting. Hellenism is comfortable in the “pursuit or attainment of perfection”; Hebraism, obsessed with sin, sees only “the difficulties which oppose themselves” to perfection.
And yet the framing of Arnold’s book not only anticipates, but resembles comme deux gouttes d’eau the framing of Nietzsche’s own thinking: the same themes that wander around in the writings of Matthew Arnold will also inform Nietzsche’s thinking, from the works of his youth, such as Die Kindheit der Völker (1861), which Nietzsche composed as a 15-year old student, through his first scholarly book, The Birth of Tragedy (1872), and into the Genealogy of Morality (1887), which goes to show that this “framing” for his ideas will remain significant to Nietzsche throughout his thinking and writing life.
So, both Arnold and Nietzsche are ‘prophets of culture’ who are working within very similar zeitgeistige framings, yet they draw strikingly dissimilar conclusions from their thinking. For Arnold, “The two [principles of Hebraism and Hellenism] are not so much opposed, … as “divergent,” animated by “different principles” but having the “same goal” and “aiming at a like final result.” Both are “contributions to human development—august contributions, invaluable contributions.” Both “arise out of the wants of human nature, and address themselves to satisfying those wants.”
For Nietzsche, on the other hand, as the Genealogy of Morality makes unambiguously clear, the creation of ‘Morality’ is an anti-life evolution of thought, a nihilism that kills the naturally ‘Good’ wherever it comes into existence. For Arnold, it is truly “Hebraism and Hellenism,” whereas for Nietzsche it is “Hebraism vs. Hellenism.” So, while there are many similarities clearly showing that Matthew Arnold and Friedrich Nietzsche come from the same thought-world, which suggests a more general philosophical arena for these framings and these thoughts, there is absolutely no traceable, direct contact between these two thinkers. Nietzsche does not seem to have specific personal knowledge about Matthew Arnold, nor are there any of Arnold’s writings in Nietzsche’s personal library.
§ Undermen as Overmen—a ‘History’ of False Starts
Famous, but alas all too typical of the Übermensch idea in normal and uninformed parlance, is the “Leopold and Loeb” case in Chicago of the 1920s. In the Wiki-telling: L&L are two students who, becoming friends at the University of Chicago and having a shared interest in committing the ‘perfect crime’, dusted off their portable Nietzsche and convinced themselves that they were resplendent examples of the Übermensch idea “— transcendent individuals, possessing extraordinary and unusual capabilities, whose superior intellects allowed them to rise above the laws and rules that bound the unimportant, average populace. …[B]y [Leopold’s] interpretation of Nietzsche's doctrines, he was not bound by any of society's normal ethics or rules. Before long he had convinced Loeb that he, too, was an Übermensch. In a letter to Loeb, Leopold wrote, "A superman ... is, on account of certain superior qualities inherent in him, exempted from the ordinary laws which govern men. He is not liable for anything he may do."
L&L did not succeed in committing the perfect crime; so Clarence Darrow, of Scopes Monkey Trial fame (1925) and otherwise champion of scientifically minded rationalism, was engaged to defend the two men. Darrow succeeded in accomplishing two things in the defense of his two clients. First, it would seem that he probably saved Leopold and Loeb from being executed by the state of Illinois for the murder of Robert Franks, because both were only sentenced to life imprisonment, which seemed to buck the trend at the time. Second, Darrow succeeded in transforming Nietzsche and his notion of the Übermensch into the stooge for human arrogance, a sense of social entitlement and superiority, and evil intent. In Darrow’s version of the facts-and-only-the-facts, L&L were just two normal lads who turned bad because they had had the misfortune of reading too much philosophy, and specifically, of reading too much Nietzsche in their youth. It remains undecided whether philosophy in America has ever really shaken this guilt by association.
Some, such as a writer for Philosophy Now, see some kind of connection between Nietzsche’s Übermensch and the Over-soul of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American transcendentalist, who published “The Over-soul” as Essay IX in his Essays: First Series in 1841. In PN’s article, entitled “Nietzsche’s Übermensch: A Hero of Our Time?,” we read that,
The term Übermensch, often translated as Superman or Overman, was not invented by Nietzsche. The concept of hyperanthropos can be found in the ancient writings of Lucian. In German, the word had already been used by Müller, Herder, Novalis, Heine, and most importantly by Goethe in relation to Faust (in Faust, Part I, line 490). In America Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote of the Oversoul, and, perhaps with the exception of Goethe’s Faust, his aristocratic, self-reliant ‘Beyond-man’ was probably the greatest contributor to Nietzsche’s idea of the Übermensch.
It is indisputable that Emerson greatly impressed Nietzsche, an interest and an affinity that spanned Nietzsche’s entire life. Unfortunately, while there does seem to be a demonstrable connection between Carlyle, Goethe, Emerson, William James, and Nietzsche, on the notion of the Great Man, that connection does not seem, in addition, to contribute discernably to or to inform our interpretation of Nietzsche’s Übermensch.
The PN author also draws upon a Fordham University article, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra and Parodic Style: On Lucian’s Hyperanthropos and Nietzsche’s Übermensch, to establish some kind of philologists’ “must-have-been” connection between Nietzsche’s Übermensch and the Greek term coined by the 2nd century AD satirist, Lucian of Samosata. Unfortunately, while it is certainly accurate to say that the term hyperanthropos is found in the writings of Lucian, it is equally accurate to say that any reference to Lucian in Nietzsche’s corpus is entirely tangential, as opposed to substantial, and that hyperanthropos never occurs in his work.
Furthermore, the hapax usage of hyperanthropos in Lucian (in The Downward Journey, sec. 16; Loeb, vol. 2, 1999) is an ab ovo misdirection, because it is employed by a neighbor of the tyrant Megapenthes, whose name is Micyllus, and who says that the tyrant,
appeared to me a super-man, thrice-blessed, better looking and a full royal cubit taller than almost anyone else; for he was uplifted by his good fortune, walked with a majestic gait, carried his head high and dazzled all he met. But when he was dead, not only did he cut an utterly ridiculous figure in my eyes on being stripped of his pomp, but I laughed at myself even more than at him because I had marveled at such a worthless creature, inferring his happiness from the savour of his kitchen and counting him lucky because of his purple derived from the blood of mussels in the Laconian Sea.
As a satiric description attached to the somewhat ludicrous, I-wish-I-weren’t-so-dead tyrant Megapenthes who is busily attempting to negotiate his way out of Hades, this irony-laden connection seems an obscurantist and erudite non-starter as far as the history of Nietzsche’s idea might be concerned.
Other ‘literature’ on the question of the Übermensch is polyphonic and both predictably and unhelpfully inconclusive, although the populist consensus seems determined to associate the concept with eugenics and the creation of a higher biological type. Some, such as Safranski (Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography, p. 365), arguing a variation on the biologism theme, think that, “Nietzsche intended the ultra-aristocratic figure of the Übermensch to serve as a Machiavellian bogeyman of the modern Western middle class and its pseudo-Christian egalitarian value system.” This interpretative trend was certainly also evident in Nazi thought, which used Nietzsche’s concept of the Übermensch to articulate a particular national version of the Aryan master race.
Popular culture, as well, has certainly had a wonderful time fussing with Übermensch-type personae, from Siegel’s first villainesque Superman, to G.B. Shaw, and James Joyce. In a more philosophically interesting treatment, of course, there is always Ayn Rand’s transmogrification of the Übermensch into her radically individualistic and supra-moral Supra-Men characters. Likewise, in George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman, a four-act drama written in 1903, there is the famous act called Don Juan in Hell (Act 3, Scene 2), which is often produced as a stand-alone piece. It consists of a dream-act debate concerning the advantages of Hell, which, in quintessentially übermenschlicher style reminiscent of Faust’s Mephistopheles narrative, include the more emotive topics of art and beauty and love and pleasure, whereas Heaven will only celebrate rational discourse and the dissemination of the Life Force. The Devil defends such hedonistic amenities, whereas Juan wants none of them and heads for a thinker's Heaven. There is a theater review here, and a YouTube version of Don Juan in Hell here.
§ I Thought I saw an Übermensch… I Did, I Did.
There is every sort and variety of opinion ‘out there’ about the Übermensch; and they occupy whatever thought-terrain is fertile enough to sustain them. However, all the above opinions about Nietzsche’s Übermensch are simply wrong and wrong-headed—they have nothing to do with Nietzsche’s thinking. So, who is or might conceivably be, an Übermensch? Who exactly are ‘those who have gone beyond’? And, if this is indeed a philosophical model of some sort, or a political model, or a heroic model, what is the exact profile?
There are some Nietzsche scholars who are actually subtle enough in their thinking to understand that Übermensch is not a state of ontology, but rather a state of mind. Nietzsche is not proposing an Antichrist, or a Führer, or a Carlylean Great Man with this concept; rather, he is proposing to his readers something much more akin to a philo-psychological adjustment, such as taught by Epictetus in the Enchiridion: e.g., “Of things that can happen to us in a lifetime, there are some that we can control [are dependent upon us], and some that we cannot control [are not dependent upon us].” Corrections in our thinking of this type, says Nietzsche, will transform us into freie Denker, free thinkers, and ultimately, into free minds.
There is evidence that some contemporary scholarship is starting to read Nietzsche psychologically, such as in the essay entitled ‘Nietzsche and the Greeks’ published recently (2013) in the The Oxford Handbook of Nietzsche. There we read that, “Nietzsche was generally more interested in the psychological consequences of philosophical doctrines than in their content.” There is also a 2010 book, Nietzsche, Psychology, and First Philosophy, which challenges “various traditional views of Nietzsche, taking him at his word when he says that his writing can best be understood as a kind of psychology.”
At this point, it might be helpful to recall our Western intellectual history—that psychology as a discipline is only a very young blossom on the western vine of knowledge, and only began separating itself from philosophy after the 1850s. So it would seem reasonable, given the time frame, that Nietzsche should in fact consider himself a psychologist; and in fact, the self-identification as psychologist permeates Nietzsche’s writing, and especially the Twilight of the Idols :
· Beyond Good and Evil [1886: 76, 20]: “Der neue Psycholog bereitet dem Aberglauben ein Ende, der bisher um die Seelen-Vorstellung wuchterte.”
· Twilight of the Idols [77, 343]: “Aus meinen Schriften redet ein Psychologe.”
· Twilight of the Idols [77, 405]: “Es gab vor mir noch gar keine Psychologie.”
Finally, among his aphorisms from Idols is number 35: “Es giebt Fälle, wo wir wie Pferde sind, wir Psychologen, und in Unruhe gerathen: wir sehen unsren eignen Schatten vor uns auf und niederschwanken. Der Psychologe muss von sich absehn, um überhaupt zu sehn.”
So, Nietzsche the psychologist continually reminds us that it is a misdirection to seek for models and profiles of what the Übermensch can be… For it is not about some particular model of a more-than-human, such as a Caesar or a Napoleon, but rather about the mental context and framing of an übermenschlich state of mind.
As a psychological moment, the Übermensch-realization is actually a fusion of two distinct insight-events. Aristotle, in the Poetics [1452a&b], refers to the first insight-event as a discovery [anagnorisis], as the recognition of the moment of “seeing” something, of grasping the truth about something, of the ah-ha moment when we ‘get it’. It is that very private moment in the life of our mind when, finally, the light bulb goes on and we realize that… for example, our partner does not love us, or that someone has been cheating on us, or that our boss has been defrauding the company, or, or, or…
Obviously, there are untold examples of this insight-event in literature, but it is important for Nietzsche that these moments should be philo-psychologically correct, that they should correspond to the actually lived human condition of mind, and that they should take us beyond ourselves into a different sphere of knowing.
Aristotle himself thinks that Sophocles’ depiction of this moment in the life of Oedipus is superb—the moment when Oedipus, cast down under the weight of his misery and shame, stabs out his eyes, finally realizing that blind, he would see no worse than with his eyes wide open.
There are also other great and moving insight-events in literature, such as when Ajax falls upon his sword after finally realizing that Athena has deceived him, blinding him to truth through folly. Or when Viktor Frankenstein realizes that the creature he has made is no man, but a monster. Or when Milton’s Satan [Book 9; lns. 458-466], standing before Eve and contemplating even then the enormity of the evil he was going to bring into her life in Paradise, is struck dumb before her loveliness.
Her heavenly form
Angelic, but more soft, and feminine,
Her graceful innocence, her every air
Of gesture, or least action, overawed
His malice, and with rapine sweet bereaved
His fierceness of the fierce intent it brought:
That space the Evil-one abstracted stood
From his own evil, and for the time remained
Stupidly good; of enmity disarmed,
Of guile, of hate, of envy, of revenge:
Now however humanly touching these illustrations may be, none of these particular insight-events actually captures entirely what Nietzsche intends with his Übermensch-realization, which is an insight-event actually quite limited in scope. For in addition to the insight-event as a psychological event, Nietzsche’s Übermensch-realization is also about a second, very specific type of realization. It is about the insight that dawns on us when we finally grasp that everything we have “believed” about Value, about morality and moral thinking, about right and wrong and good and evil, and about human destiny, is philo-theological misdirection. It is a layer of fiction applied to a world of fact—an unhappy because antagonistic joining if ever there was.
Through his Zarathustra, Nietzsche has undertaken the task of radically rethinking the foundations of morality, and of imagining the psychological and emotional consequences of that rethinking in the normal course of a life. Just imagine the psychic wreckage and emotional damage! Just imagine the courage needed, the daring, to overcome our own private foundation myths, which whisper quietly to us from the stillness of our souls, of right and wrong, good and evil. And then imagine the courage needed, and the discipline of mind, to rebirth ourselves in innocence, and to create in our innermost selves a willingness to throw ourselves, body and soul, into a life that is to be newly created and defined each and every day, entirely by us.
Nietzsche’s Zarathustra is the story of such a mental and emotional journey, which has three quite distinct segments. As the journey begins, (and we have to remember that this is a journey possible to each one of us through the thinking and imagining mind), Zarathustra has to imagine first that he is a camel. The camel is the perfect Beast of Burden; it is an animal that carries, almost as if by second nature, burdens that are not his own. The first leg of Zarathustra’s journey, then, is to become aware that he also, like the camel, carries a burden that is not properly his own—the burden of ideas and values and beliefs—of Culture writ large, that are inherited through the mother milk of World that surrounds us, beliefs which grow up inside us as we grow up, almost as a second skeleton, and which become so fundamental to our psyche that they organizes all the spaces of our minds into our own private character.
The lion characterizes the second segment of Zarathustra’s journey of the mind. This segment of the journey, which demands all the courage of the lion, happens only in the solitary wastelands of the mind, where we give battle to the fiction of inherited morality, where we finally push it away from our minds and dare to stand alone in human history, finally.
The child embodies the third and final segment of Zarathustra’s journey of the imagination. What happens to us, emotionally, when we finally dare to step out of an abusive or horrible situation? There is a sense of relief, certainly; but there is also a sense of being overwhelmed because we have to start everything all over again. So, says Nietzsche, we have to put on the mind of the child – to accept in all innocence the new-Beginning of the world that stands before us; and we have to go on to create anew our life, not just physically, but also and especially psychically.
Thus spoke Zarathustra.
§ Eternally Returning – Windmills In Your Mind.
According to Nietzsche, a fundamental element of the Übermensch life of the mind is the recognition of the Eternal Return of the Same, or Eternal Recurrence. As an idea, and for the mental image, this certainly brings back to mind the 1960s Noel Harrison tube, “The Windmills of Your Mind.”
Round like a circle
in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel
Never ending or beginning on an ever-spinning reel
Like a clock whose
hands are sweeping past the minutes of its face
And the world is like an apple whirling silently in space
Like the circles that you find in the windmills of your mind!
Nietzsche’s thinking about the Übermensch is framed in the zeitgeist of his century, which tended to separate time into sacred or divine history [e.g., Hebraism; Heilsgeschichte] and human empirical time [Hellenism; Geschichte]. This is a distinction, just for the example, that will also be much and usefully exploited by the philosopher and historian of religion, Mircea Eliade.
First in Nietzsche’s thinking about the eternal return, is the idea that divine or Christian history is a linear conception of time that does not recur. This is to say that we humans enter into the sacred flowing at some point, and the current takes us unidirectionally toward the culmination of time in the Parousia of God. This linear notion of history, or divine history, reasons Nietzsche, usurped at some remote time the Greek or natural pagan notion of history, which saw time as a series of recurring revolutions or cycles in the ‘great clock of being’ (Zarathustra). For Nietzsche, the Übermensch stands before a choice—to live out his life through unidirectional divine time, which is the destruction of fully human time and, thus, a nihilism, or to cast himself into the multi-faceted organization of the world’s, and so into man’s, natural time: “…it is the world which redeems our contingent existence, reintegrating the Christian ego into the order of cosmic necessity, i.e., into the eternal recurrence of the same” [Gay Savoir § 341-342, under “the heaviest burden” and “the death of God” § 343]. Clifford Geertz, the American anthropologist, will translate an idea much like this into the following: ‘One of the most significant facts about us may finally be that we all begin with the natural equipment to live a thousand kinds of life but end in the end having lived one.’
Natural cyclical time, where we enter and re-enter into the full stream of a fully human experience and creation of time, is an ancient concept found not only in the philosophies of India and Egypt, but also in Greek antiquity, and notably among the Stoics and Pythagoreans. Nietzsche encapsulates this idea in a very Epictetian or Stoic value: Amor fati, a Latin expression about ‘embracing one’s fate’ because it is one’s own. In his book Meaning in History, Karl Löwith reminds us on this point (p. 216) that Nietzsche introduces this idea, “not as a metaphysical doctrine but as an ethical imperative: to live as if “the eternal hourglass of existence” will continually be turned, in order to impress on each of our actions the weight of an inescapable responsibility.”
Among the Greeks the notion of Eternal Recurrence was normative, and included 1) living a life “in harmony with nature” (Plato’s Philebus); and 2) the idea of circularity (of lives, the process of generation and creation, orbit of planets, etc.) – Heraclitus, Empedocles, Pythagoras, Plato (cf. esp. Timaeus, The Statesman, and The Republic), Aristotle, Eudemos of Rhodes, the Stoics, and the Hellenistic astronomer Hipparchus, who will contribute the idea of the equinox precession (the slow spin of the earth) to Plato’s Great Year, which idea will recur later in Cicero’s De Natura Deorum.
Like a circle in a
spiral, like a wheel within a wheel
Never ending or beginning on an ever-spinning reel
As the images unwind, like the circles that you find in
The windmills of your mind!
Further Phrontisterion reading:-
· For the first known ouroboros, found in one of the shrines of Tutankhamun: Image by Unknown author - Chrysopoea of Cleopatra (Codex Marcianus graecus 299 fol. 188v), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36915535
(Reprised from December & January’s 2014/2015 Essay_The Superman & The Eternal Return_The Great Unlearning II)