” There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
—Hamlet scene v, Act 1
Some friends and I went to see the Virginia Shakespeare Company’s production of Hamlet last night and as the actor playing that most melancholy of Danes spoke those words I was instantly struck at how appropriate they were. Shakespeare’s choice of words–particularly “philosophy”, as opposed to “learnings”, “books”, or even “religion” or “sciences”–seemed so perfect that I could not help but make a mental note of it. Of course, this particular line is very well known (as are so many lines from this wonderful play!), and one may ask oneself, why this particular line, why this particular time?
Earlier in the week I approached a philosophy professor on campus about a peculiar problem I was having with the book. The problem itself is not unique–it was character development, after all, and what writer doesn’t struggle with character development?–but one character in particular was giving me some difficulty. Specifically, he’s an Uebermensch (sometimes ill-translated as “Superman”, but most commonly accepted as “Overman” or “Beyond-Man”).
Oh man. Dropping the Nietzsche bomb.
So what is it that makes a man an Overman? What is it that would make any man a leader, an ideal, of any philosophy? The Stoics admired philosophers, their ideal was the sapiens, the enlightened man whose body (and accompanying emotions) was perfectly under the control of his hardened soul. Epicureans–hedonists–admired the happy man, the man who could make do with little and keep himself in the throes of worldly bliss. Nationalists admire the pure man, the man who embodies the soul of his country, whether that soul is courageous or honest or blond or blue-eyed or whatever, and, most of all, the man who is willing to sacrifice everything for the greater good.
But the Overman. For those blissfully unfamiliar with the works of Frederich Nietzsche, the Overman was a concept developed in his book Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Also Sprach Zarathustra) as the next step in human cultural development. The Overman, he said, was the reaction to the discovery that God is dead and the step against subsequent nihilism, the new morality, and the hope for the future. Or something like that.
So what does that mean as a character? How do you take a concept, an ideal, and turn that into someone readers can take, sympathise with, cheer on, and generally keep reading about until that final moment where you the writer puts down those most beloved of words, ‘The End’? How do these characters react to each other, each philosophy whirling about in its own private sphere, radically different from the other? How does the Nationalist, fired with love of country and ethnic pride, react to the cosmopolitan spirit of the Stoic? How does the rational Stoic, a creature of discipline and calculation, deal with the fiery, creative, destructive spirit of the Overman?
Well goodness. I’m finding that out.
I posited this question to my philosophy professor. He gave it some thought, and, after a moment, answered.
“Well frankly,” he said. “I think the Overman would kick the Stoic’s ass.”