How are we to understand the contrast between the Overman and the Last Man?
In this essay I will analyse the characteristics of the Overman and the Last Man, as well as investigate what use Nietzsche had for illustrating these two personas. Through exposition of this dichotomy and by illustrating the contrast between the two, I will uncover the key differences. Moreover, I will identify the philosophical problems that Nietzsche creates for himself and posit why one is preferable to the other.
A natural reading of the two characters, which Nietzsche draws in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, presents a dichotomy between what Nietzsche describes as an ideal and its antithesis. By describing the Overman, Nietzsche is concerning himself with the philosophical project of setting a goal for humanity: a trajectory of which man can aim towards. Nietzsche identifies two lines of development for the man of the future. Firstly, he suggests a “leveling of mankind”. Nietzsche believes this prevents humanity from overcoming itself and is what creates the Last man. The other is the “elimination of equality” whereby the rejection of equality allows for the Overman to grow.
In the prologue to Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the title character descends upon the market place where he proclaims, “I teach you the Overman. Human being is something that must be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, p 5). Zarathustra now wishes to impart the wisdom that he has gained throughout his ten years in the mountains upon the town’s people. He continues “All creatures so far created something beyond themselves; and you want to be the ebb of this great flood and would even rather go back to animals than overcome humans?” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, p5). A key characteristic of the Overman is identified here in addition to a reference to Zarathustra’s view of humanity. Firstly, the fundamental trait of the Overman is the continual “over-coming” of the human condition. He then positions his perspective that all creatures up until to this point have evolved. If this is to be interpreted allegorically he could be suggesting that the “creatures” of today do not. Then by stating “you want to be the ebb of this great flood” he suggests that the man of today wants to try and stand in opposition and “would even rather go back to animals than overcome humans”. Zarathustra is suggesting that the time has come for a new wave of evolution and that it is the town’s people or modern man that has ceased to evolve.
Whilst addressing the people in the market, Zarathustra is trying to illustrate the Overman but finds it difficult to describe. Instead of definitively articulating this he refers to the history of mankind “You have made your way from worm to human, and much in you is still worm. Once you were apes, and even now a human is still more ape than any ape” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, p6). Rather than describe the Overman, Zarathustra illustrates the evolution of man and how man has grown and changed but now has ceased to evolve. “What is the greatest thing you can experience? It is the hour of your great contempt. The hour in which even your happiness turns to nausea and likewise your reason and your virtue”. This hour of contempt that Zarathustra describes is a departure from the static contentment which man now embodies. It is this contempt that is required for self-overcoming.
“It is time that mankind set themselves a goal. It is time that mankind plant the seed of their highest hope”. Again Zarathustra posits the ideal of self-overcoming; because this self-overcoming is something that has ceased to happen according to Zarathustra. When the crowd scoffs at his proclamations, he appeals to their pride by characterising what he describes as the “most contemptible person”, The Last Man. “Beware the time of the most contemptible human is coming, the one who can no longer have contempt for himself. Behold! I show you the last human being”. Zarathustra then describes this The Last Man as “ineradicable,” who “lives longest” and that he has “invented happiness”. If the “Last Man” is to be understood as one who cannot be eradicated, who will live longer than anyone else, is it this self-preservation that defines his happiness?
It is the lack of contempt that the Last Man has for himself which prevents him from evolving and self-overcoming. In this statement Zarathustra is illuminating the decadence of the last human being, by describing him as one that does not seek anything that is ‘beyond’ himself. This refers back to when Zarathustra proclaims that human evolution has been stunted; it no longer looks to seek anything beyond itself. A key feature between the Overman and Last Man would appear to be self-reflection, the ability to question one’s own values, beliefs and way of life. To have contempt for oneself is to be able to identify and critique our own values, beliefs and ideals. Without contempt, humanity resides in apathetic contentment.
There are two different perspectives that might constitute contentment. In the first essay of The Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche distinguishes between the Master and Slave morality. The master morality is the perspective of good and bad. The master, with his nobility and strength is good, so therefore the slave must be bad because he is weak. For the slave however who sees morality from the oppressed herd perspective will believe that what is good is to be sympathetic to the suffering of the weak. The strong that exert their power over the weak are therefore perceived as evil. In the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche describes the history of discontentment, or the “bad conscience”, which was created when we began to increasingly use our conscious minds as opposed to our unconscious instincts. With the development of society, these instincts had no outlet for application, so we turned our instincts onto ourselves. Masters are free from this bad conscience because they can inflict their will freely, as opposed to the slaves who cannot. The focal point of this bad conscience for the slaves is their suffering; however Christianity has given them meaning to attribute to that suffering. It is Christianity, or moreover religion, that dictates moral and ethical codes by which the slaves abide. The masters are purveyors and perpetual instigators of their own ethics who are not inclined to live by these codes. The slave morality would favour the “leveling of mankind” while the master morality strives for the “elimination of equality.”
Francis Fukuyama in The End of History and the Last Man (1992, p301) suggests, “Nietzsche’s Last Man was, in essence, the victorious slave. He agreed fully with Hegel that Christianity was a slave ideology, and that democracy represented a secularized form of Christianity.” The equality brought about by democracy is an ideal, which mirrors that of the Kingdom of Heaven, where one day all believers shall reside equally. This belief is a “prejudice born out of the resentment of the weak against those who were stronger.” In their masses the slaves have been fused by Christian ideology, which believes that “the weak can overcome the strong when they banded together in a herd, using the weapons of guilt and conscience”. Fukuyama goes on to say that the “typical citizen of a liberal democracy was that individual who, schooled by Hobbes and Locke, gave up prideful belief in his or her own superior worth in favour of comfortable self-preservation” (The End of History and the Last Man, p 301). So liberal democracy, with no strong leadership of masters, effectively creates the best environment for the last man to reside. So without masters exerting their will on them they are free to determine their own values. However, these values will not be as great as the values of their past masters.
“Nietzsche believed that no true human excellence, greatness, or nobility was possible except in aristocratic societies” where “true freedom and creativity” would only ever arise out of the “desire to be recognised as better than others”. Whereas when equality is held up to be the highest principle people “would never push themselves to their own limits if they simply wanted to be like everyone else”. Moreover that the “desire to be recognised as superior to others is necessary if one is to be superior to oneself” (The End of History and the Last Man, p 306). For Nietzsche then, only those at the top of society with complete freedom will be able to perform true excellence. The master morality seeks to exercise its free will. Master morality then has freedom restricted in a liberal society where the weak masses chastise the strong elite. However, the textual problem for Nietzsche is that under democracy no one rules and the strong are restricted in creativity and freedom. Therefore the shared integration of ideals that occur is one of the characteristics, which is required to become the Overman.
Wolfgang Muller-Lauter in Nietzsche: His Philosophy of Contradictions and contradictions of his Philosophy (1999, p 81) identifies two conclusions that can be drawn from the perpetually self-overcoming Overman who says, “Yes” to life. “First, such unrestrictedness can mean that he must tolerate no counter-ideals. Wherever they appear, he must subject them to his own ideal or seek to destroy them. Secondly, the Yes should extend not merely to the leading goal-idea and what it subsumes. Here, unrestrictedness means expansion of the yes to all that is and was. Self-affirmation in this sense does not require negation, but quite the contrary, the recognition of the independent claims of other ideals. This approval and that rejection are, however, mutually exclusive.” Here in lies one of the major problems for Nietzsche’s Overman. Once an ideal has been formulated, a foundation established, a philosophy undertaken, it is prevalent for such a character as the Overman to stay true to the course of that philosophy. “He sets his goal absolutely. He can do this only by rejecting the claims of all other wills to power in order to subjugate or destroy them. Thus he needs the strength of negative action. And at the same time he needs the wisdom of positive discourse that allows those other wills to power in their multiple contradictions to attain the extreme degree, that is, the one most their own”. (Nietzsche: His Philosophy of Contradictions and contradictions of his Philosophy, 1999, p 81)
“Because we forget that valuation is always from a perspective, a single individual contains within him a vast confusion of contradictory valuations and consequently of contradictory drives” (Will to Power, 259). How then is the Overman to utilise other points of view if he is to be absolute in his use of ideals? In any society we are subjected to the valuations of others, which will often contrast our own. Sometimes these contradictory valuations out way each other. So at this juncture I have illustrated Nietzsche’s paradoxical position in two main ways; firstly that one must reject the ideals of others in order to affirm ones position, whilst at the same time embrace and conflict with other ideals only to then sublimate them to become stronger. Secondly that self-reflection is vital to knowing oneself in order to self-overcome whilst Nietzsche also argues that we must “shut our eyes to ourselves” (Will to power, 426).
On the first point between rejecting and assimilating other ideals, Muller-Lauter believes that a “unification could be realised in the Overman”. The self-overcoming man will have “recognised the conditions for achieving and maintaining his strength, should want resistance and opposition” (Nietzsche, his Philosophy of Contradictions, p76). It is important then for the longevity and sharpness of the Overman that he engages in locking horns with opposition to his ideal, for it would be a weak man to argue his position when he knows that he is wrong. “Breeding the great man and planning conditions under which he can prosper, one must therefore promote both his ability to consolidate a leading ideal and the contrary ability to modify it or even to surrender it in favour of other ideals”. Thus the Overman must constantly seek out challenges that must conflict with opposing ideals and continually appropriate new ones, in order to evolve and change. When new information comes to light it is important to readdress valuations. “An ideal can become stronger only by repeatedly being challenged by other ideals” (Nietzsche, His Philosophy of Contradictions, p75).
This continues onto the second paradox of self-reflection, which should inform us about how best to readdress our modes of values. How one is to change is dependent on how deep the self-reflection is undertaken. However Nietzsche also posits that we must learn to also forget. If this self-reflection can only be a shallow excavation of the self then we will be denying ourselves knowledge, which could possibly be vital in the formulation of new ideals. However well we can “shut our eyes to ourselves” may determine how successfully we appropriate knowledge whilst we self-reflect. At times of retrospection would it not be prevalent to open the floodgates to all past memories? Or is it better to keep some memories lost and continually shed the past from our consciousness in order to continually self-overcome? If one simply proceeds to evolve on the useful and relevant information at hand, disregarding our “roots buried in the ground” then this may allow for a stronger character as one will not be looking over ones shoulder to the past. The appropriation of new motives and ideals are assimilated as a result of conflict and self-reflection. This will then lead to a new trajectory of self-overcoming.
If, however, the Overman is the character that sets goals, how exactly does self-overcoming fulfill such an aim? If indeed the Overman is the goal, how can that ‘goal’ ever be achieved if the goal is a continual process? In Critical Assessments (1998) it is suggested that the concept of self-overcoming could be that “When we say that becoming, that the world process has no goal, is this not tantamount to nihilism” (Critical Assessments, p 392). The absence of a clear goal, which can be set out and worked towards, makes the situation somewhat ambiguous. Because there is no goal, the entire process is in a sense meaningless as the means are without ends. However the passage goes on to say that “the seeming paradox is that the absence of goals is so far from being that the very opposite is the case. It is the imposition of goals on becoming from without that led to the imminence of nihilism”. This is suggesting that the identification of goals characterise purpose and meaning. This then creates the very concept of nihilism. It could be argued that goals are superfluous; they are merely identified states of which we will not achieve.
What does this mean for the Last Man who sets himself no goals? The Last Man is concerning himself with comfort and self-preservation. He does not wish to engage in contemptuous self-reflection nor does he want to operate outside of his comfort zone. Is his existence a form of nihilism? If the Overman says yes to life, what of the Last Man, does he say no to life? If so why is it that the Last man would be interested in self-preservation, to continue his life? To contrast the two characters, the Overman is concerned with self-overcoming. He seeks conflict in order to harden and improve himself continually, following ideals and incorporating others in order to navigate through life. In Nietzsche’s perspective the Overman would be a strong man who is one born potentially of aristocratic heritage. He would be a master who is never satisfied and never stops self-overcoming. Whereas the Last Man would be a weak slave whom gives meaning to suffering from the master’s oppression and tries to comfort himself. The Overman says ‘yes to life’ because he continually challenges himself. However this continuous self-overcoming could be seen as negating life and saying no by not appreciating the comforts and security that the modern world offers. The Last Man on the other hand says ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to life. Firstly he says ‘yes’ in as much as he wants to prolong his life, preserve himself and relish in as much comfort as possible. Secondly however he says ‘no’ to life because his refusal to be contemptuous towards himself, denying self-reflection and ultimately residing in a form of denial can only be described as saying ‘no’ to life and reality. But is this necessarily Nihilism? “Nihilism threatens us because becoming, which is all there is, has value only for the sake of something else, again, for some static goal which, for Nietzsche, doesn’t exist” (Critical Assessments, p 392). The Overman wills for the eternal overcoming of himself whilst the Last Man wills preservation, it is not necessarily a will to nothing.
The human race, like all known life is not static, everything is in perpetual transience. With this in mind, what use is there in setting goals? Moreover what is the use of drawing dichotomous characteristic states as Nietzsche has done with the Overman and Last Man? “Discussions of the problem of contradictions in Nietzsche’s thought encounters a peculiar difficulty: his statements about the existence of contradictions seem themselves to be contradictory” (Nietzsche, his Philosophy of Contradictions, p 7). In the opening chapter of this book Wolfgang Muller-Lauter discusses the contradictions of Nietzsche’s position on opposites. “On the one hand, he says, “one is fruitful only at the cost of being rich in contradictions” (TI 5:3). “To be classical, one must possess all strong, seemingly contradictory gifts and desires” (WP 848).” He goes on to suggest that Nietzsche’s basic insight is that ‘”with every growth of man, his other side must grow too” (WP 881). So one cannot be without the other, opposites are “complimentary”. Muller-Lauter says that in Nietzsche’s opinion “counter-tensions must be promoted in the direction toward emergence of the highest man”. This would suggest that Nietzsche recognised the importance of opposites in illustrating what they are in relation to one another. However another problem with Nietzsche’s view on opposites is that he denies that any opposites at all can be found in reality. “There are no opposites: only from those of logic do we have the concept of opposites – and falsely transfer it to things”. This then posits a problem, for how are we to understand the difference between the Last Man and the Overman if there are no real opposites?
The two opposite states that Nietzsche has drawn in the Overman and Last Man are on first reading two different states which mankind will either strive toward or reside. As I suggested earlier, everything is transient and nothing stays the same. However there are clear distinctions that can be made between the Overman and the Last Man: contempt towards oneself leading to self-reflection, the sublimation of other ideals, the utilisation of history in order to overcome ourselves through growth and expansion. Whereas the Last Man will not be contemptuous towards himself, nor will he reflect or incorporate other ideals; there is no growth nor expansion. The way in which the distinction can be understood is rather by the difference in degree rather than as absolute opposites (Nietzsche His Philosophy of Contraditions, p7). Considering the Overman would continually over-come himself, he will always be changing. However, the Last man wants to stay the same and revels in antiquarian history He deludes himself with the artificial trappings that create the belief in permanence. For this can never be achieved. Even if it is not visible to the eye, everything is evolving, decaying, dying. Even if the Last Man seems to remain stagnant, he is changing all the time. But it is this difference in degree, which separates and characterises the two polar types across a spectrum of difference. We are likely to be more like one than the other, but never one or the other in an absolute sense.
So what use is Nietzsche’s description of these two absolutes? If neither is attainable, what purpose do they serve? In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche is concerned with the psychological attitude that humanity undertakes. The sharp contrast between the two figures is fictional projections or predictions of how our attitude towards life will have a different ‘yes’ or ‘no’ effect on our approach to life. Either of the two characters could be described as saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to life. Which one should we prefer?
There are several factors that may lead to an individual becoming more like the Last or Over Man. Namely their physical appearance, health, intellectual capacity, upbringing, or opportunity. All of these could play a part in whether or not that individual grows or stagnates. For neither of these states are achievable. They are nothing more than fictional illustrations of how humanity will progress depending on we choose to grow. It is on the one hand impossible not to change, evolve and grow; even if permanence and self-preservation were willed to the extreme, it is impossible to remain the same. Likewise it is impossible for anyone to achieve the status of the Overman, seemingly because there is no goal or point where this status can be achieved. Ultimately it is a psychological exercise that Nietzsche is proposing we position ourselves on the spectrum between the two. It would be impossible to become either the Last Man or Overman not simply because they are fictional or on the basis that existence is continually transient, but that absolutism in this case would negate either character. If one person was looking to consistently over-come their self, sublimating ideals and evolving through self-reflection, at what point do they hold onto ideals and ways of life that they see as appropriate to them? At what point through a critical self-analysis of their history do they decide to establish as antiquarian or monumental? How much can someone change throughout the course of his or her life? On the other hand if one person spends their entire life battling against the outside world to perpetuate their self-preservation, they will undoubtedly have to come up with new ways to preserve their comfort and security. They will, therefore, develop and grow.
We are to understand the difference between the two fictional characters as warnings and approaches to life that may or not be appealing. Certainly the people in the market who cry out to Zarathustra “make us into these Last men” suggests that the Last Man is an appealing character. Maybe this is because the last man ideal offers comfort and security, or perhaps because it would be easier than continually self-overcoming oneself. Despite the circumstantial factors in a person’s upbringing, Nietzsche is somewhat short sighted to suggest, “no true human excellence, greatness, or nobility was possible except in aristocratic societies”. The creativity and freedom which one needs in order to achieve ones goals should not be the right of one individual and not another. Moreover, rights by their very nature have to be granted and will come from the position of authority of one over another. The master/slave contrast is not necessarily something that is inherent. If we were to have a “one herd, no shepherd” which is what Nietzsche classes as the environment ripe for the Last Man, would there not be those who would want to overcome themselves? Does mankind really need to feel superior over someone else in order to evolve and grow? In reality, every generation could be the Last Man at the end of history. So it is logical to assume that people want to enjoy their existence. On the other it is likely that some would want to continually push themselves further, exerting their will over themselves and others.
It is more likely that the difference between the Overman and the Last Man can be found within our own personalities. For example people may constantly strive to overcome who they are by challenging themselves to new ways to make money. However, culturally and socially they could remain part of a small network of friends and family and be distrustful of others. The Buddhist monk can be used as an example of the opposite. The monk may want to remain where he is, doing the same thing day in day out, but is constantly overcoming the thoughts and contemplations his serenity brings him. Nietzsche’s philosophy articulates as well as deconstructs the contradictions we face in life and ourselves. While it would be logical to assume that the self-critical overcoming may be preferable, this can never be achieved absolutely. Therefore remembering our roots in terms of who we are and our capabilities, will enable us to live more contently if we are to self-constitute ourselves. How we deal with our own existence and temporality could be summed up in one of three ways: we can swim against the tide, tread water, or swim with the tide. It would seem logical to swim with the tide rather than prolong the inevitable and be swept away with it. Better to face the reality and adapt to the situation. Although occasionally we may need to tread water, to ‘swim with the tide’ I believe would be characteristic of the Overman.
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