by: Douglas Giddens
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In Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche wrote: “Ich lehre euch den übermenschen.” This has been translated into: “I will teach you the superman,” but this does not convey what he meant. Superman suggests being superhuman or possessing a super power. A better translation might be: “I will teach you the superior man.”
What is a superior man? There are many controversial ideas about what Nietzsche meant and whether or not his philosophy ought to be encouraged; therefore, I will present my idea of the superior man and explain why I believe we agnostics should endeavor to become superior men.
The superior man is not just another cog in the great machine. He can be of any race, sex, religion, or social background. His superiority is a superiority of character: of mind, body, and spirit. It requires him to be his best, everyday being better than he was the day before.
Regarding his character, this means embodying the traits of the ancient Roman dignitas. Dignitas is the root for our English word dignity, but meant so much more. It was a man’s honor, his right to be respected. It was the sum of his personal influence. A man’s dignitas was how others determined whether or not he could be trusted, whether or not he could be believed and accepted at his word. It permeated every aspect of his life and his being. It concerned his dignitas when Caesar said: “The wife of Caesar must be above reproach” before divorcing his wife, who was suspected of impropriety during the Bona Dea scandal.
The superior man aspires to be honorable, honest, and loyal. His dignitas is not about what he thinks of himself, but is what others think of him. It’s not people-pleasing; it’s being known as a man who does what he believes is right, especially when the right thing is hard or unpopular. The men with the greatest dignitas in ancient Rome were not always well-liked, but they were always well-respected.
So too, we must aspire to cultivate our own dignitas. There are those who condemn agnostics as godless and immoral. While we may take pride in the former, we must never let ourselves be seen as the latter. We must show others that the two are not interdependent, that we are moral and have no need of any god. “God is dead. God remains dead, and we have killed him.” Nietzsche.
Cultivating our dignitas and becoming superior men encompasses our whole being: mind, spirit, and body.
Life is full of problems, difficulties, and obstacles; and we must be prepared to overcome them and find solutions. When faced with a dilemma, most people depend on someone else to find answers for them. We must be prepared to find these answers for ourselves. We must be the ones to whom others know they can turn to think things through and devise a means to face and conquer life’s vicissitudes.
This does not mean we must do it alone. The superior man is wise enough to recognize his own limitations and confident enough to ask for help from those with more knowledge, skill, and expertise in the various fields to reach conclusions. The superior man uses what is available to him, in whatever form, and thinks critically to create a viable solution.
We must be rational and levelheaded, not prone to fits of rage. Our minds must be clear, without the influence of unnecessary or extreme emotion. Feeling empathy for our fellow men is admirable, but we must not allow our emotions to cloud our judgment. The superior man is the one to whom others come to for mediation because he is known to be open-minded, reasonable, and fair.
The superior man aspires to new heights, always endeavoring to overcome his own limitations. We cannot overcome what we don’t see (whether out of ignorance or pride). Therefore, our first step must always be introspection and an honest self-evaluation. This is very difficult; it requires breaking down barriers, removing our self-imposed blinders and seeing our own shortcomings, faults, and limitations. We must try to think of what we have been accused (dishonesty, short-temper, conceit, etc.) and determine whether or not their accusations are true. We may even ask some of our friends and family what they think our shortcomings are, without taking offense to their answers.
Once we recognize in ourselves what we believe to be a shortcoming, fault, or limitation, we must determine its source. Many – though not all – of our limitations are self-imposed and are founded on our own rational or irrational fears. Determining the source of our limitation may take time and effort, especially if we must first conquer our own vanity and denial.
After identifying its source, we must determine a method to overcoming our limitation. Some require us only to face our fear – to walk through the dark or to stand victorious atop a sheer cliff face – but others require more. Sometimes we must admit to ourselves or to another that we are wrong, even when doing so means facing consequences. Sometimes we must humble ourselves and ask for help from others, even those we dislike or who may choose to lord over us their own perceived supremacy. But if overcoming our limitations were easy, it would not require a superior man.
The surest sign of an inferior man is his believing that he has nothing more to learn or that he has no need for the knowledge and skill of other men. In his arrogance, he believes that he has all the answers, often relying not on empirical proofs but on his certainty in his own infallibility supported by insipid arguments.
The superior man recognizes that scientia est potentia (knowledge is power). He craves knowledge, endeavoring to grow and better himself every day. While he may, during the course of his growth, gain power over others, his ultimate goal is power over himself.
The most visible means by which one’s power over self may be demonstrated is the manner in which he maintains and cares for his body. While a superior man must have strength of mind and spirit, he ought also to take pride in himself and not neglect his body. The Romans said: “Mens sana in corpora sano” (A sound mind in a sound body). Our body is not only to be respected because it is our own individual temple, but it also concerns our dignitas, in that our body is the first part of us that others see, by which they draw their first conclusions about us. We need not all be swimsuit models, but we ought to put some effort toward physical fitness and healthy hygiene. It was well said: There are no ugly people, only lazy people.
Caring for one’s body, however, includes more than just eating right, exercising, and proper hygiene. It also requires avoiding the excessive intake of harmful substances. Social drinking and recreational drug use become unacceptable when they become dependencies or, in any way, interfere with one’s ability to function. Others do not trust and cannot rely on a drunk or an addict, and a superior man has no need for such vices and crutches to deal with his reality. He faces his problems head on and conquers them.
All of this requires courage. Not necessarily the courage to free-climb a sheer mountain or to lead the way through a minefield, but the courage to do what is unpleasant or unpopular, to face ridicule and condemnation when it is the right thing to do.
Only in doing this will others recognize that he is driven, not by the arbitrary whims and moods of the crowd, but by conscience, reason, and his desire for what he believes is the greater good. He will be opposed by many and may be slandered by some, but his dignitas will be known, and he will be respected by all.
This is the superior man: der übermensch.
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