A Stoic, an Overman, and a Nationalist walk into a bar…

” 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.”

Fair enough.


  1. twmilbourne says:

    First: your posts are always quite amusing. Keep up the awesomeness

    Second: Best of luck integrating philosophy with your characters. Do you have any specific methods of integrating the two?

    Third: Regarding your title. A Stoic, an Overman, and a Nationalist walk into a bar. The Hedon ducks, and the Freudian makes an inappropriate joke.

  2. ssbarnes says:

    Well thanks, Tim! As far as your second question (point?) goes, the easiest way to go about doing this is to take characters ideals as put forward by philosophers and then use these ideals in a manner specific to the philosopher’s wishes. For example, my Stoics (the race) exhibit the basic traits that the philosophical stoics held in high regard: a tendency to lean toward the middle of any issue (non-radical), a love of reason and rationality, a society based on tolerance (stoics believed in the universality of morals, that is, that everyone, regardless of race or social status, had the capacity to become a stoic), and a near obsession with personal honesty.
    Some philosophies don’t work well together, unsurprisingly, and from these fundamental differences in opinion arise the conflicts between characters.
    I really hope that made sense.

  3. William Adams says:

    Sierra, are you finding it difficult not to associate with one or two of the philosophies over the others? I know I wouldn’t be able to separate my personal judgement from the story very easily. I guess I’m some where between a stoic and a hedonist, so I probably wouldn’t fare too well in your stories, but where do you fall on the spectrum?

  4. sehartzell says:

    This is really interesting, and I am definitely looking forward to reading this next book! (And rereading the first, since you said you made some changes…) Anyway, I imagine that with Stoics and Nationalists, it’s easier to find historical figures to relate characters to, and have real life guide the interactions to some degree. With the Overman, though, it’s a concept, as you said…who decides who an Overman is, or what he would be like? (Nietzsche, I guess!)

    Is this a new character I have not met yet, after reading part one?

  5. ssbarnes says:

    In regards to Will: the issue of associating with the philosophies in my work isn’t really one I consider a big deal just because to some extent I expect my reader to associate with them as well. Even if they are based on philosophical concepts, they are still characters, and if you don’t like them then well I’m not doing my job as a writer! To answer your question it’s not very hard to distance my personal judgement from my work during the actual writing stage. Most of my own judgement comes in the research stage. For example, I know a lot about the Stoic philosophy, because everyone has to learn about it in their history class and I personally am interested in and can sympathise with to a large extent the goals and ideas of Stoicism. It was easy for me to make a main character with Stoic ideals because I (a) knew about them and (b) understood them (it’s philosophy here, understanding is important). WIth the Overman, it was a different issue entirely: conflicting definitions, bad translations, and a stigma against the term (no, it has nothing to do with Adolf Hitler and eugenics!) meant that I had no idea what the concept entailed. I had to do a lot of research to find out what Nietzsche meant. Even though I don’t agree with Nietzsche’s writings the way I agree with Seneca or Marcus Aurelius, I still make a point of making a believable, likable character of the Overman. And what would I consider myself? Probably a Stoic. But the Nationalist is way more fun to write. 🙂

  6. ssbarnes says:

    In regards to Sharon: Most of the research I do for characters is straight at the source: because they’re all based on the ideals, I sort of have to concentrate everything “Stoicy” or “Nationalisty” or whatever into a few highly recognisable traits. It’s easier to read the works themselves and then pull out the ideals in the philosopher’s own words than it is to find the philosophers and read about their lives, especially because SO MANY of them were hypocritical or inadequate (in their own words). Philosophers rarely think they’re good enough, and when they do, they’re wrong. For example, Seneca, one of the leading Stoic philosophers, was exceedingly rich, catered almost excessively to the emperor, and so sickly that he often considered committing suicide (except for the fact that he was terrified of death). On the other hand, it’s almost impossible to find philosophical treatises on Nationalism, as it’s become such a political movement, so the texts I’m reading there are usually either biographies of influential Nationalists (Napoleon, the Brothers Grimm, Maximilien Robespierre), crazy people talk (“What is Fascism?” by Benito Mussolini…woo), or information about highly recognisable and unique cultures and nationalist movements (Romantic period in Germany, Fascism and National Socialism, Slavic/Baltic cultures, Eastern European Judaism (think Fiddler on the Roof), Cossacks, Basque independence movement, Serbs, Arab nationalists, etc.).
    The Overman is so abstract that it is impossible to find historical evidence for him. In a nutshell, Nietzsche says the Overman is the next step in human society: the culmination of the “God is Dead” concept and the reactionary step against ensuing nihilism. The Overman is the overcoming of the fear of death and the need for a belief in the afterlife, the rejection of Judeo-Christian moral codes and the adaptation of a new, non-traditional set of values. It’s a load of bollocks, mostly, but it’s an important concept and he makes a good character (it’s Octavius, we met him in Traveller with Peter but he didn’t get much of a part). I had to go back to the source for that. Nietzsche was by no means an Overman, and did not claim to be one, but the examples he gave interestingly enough were Napoleon and Achilles.