Friday 30 December 2022

Why is The Superman considered necessary? From Nietzsche to Shaw to Transhumanism

No, not that Superman...

ANA. Tell me where can I find the Superman? 

THE DEVIL. He is not yet created, Senora. 

THE STATUE. And never will be, probably. Let us proceed: the red fire will make me sneeze. 

[They descend]. 

ANA. Not yet created! Then my work is not yet done. 

[Crossing herself devoutly] I believe in the Life to Come. 

[Crying to the universe] A father—a father for the Superman!

From Man and Superman by Bernard Shaw

As a late teen, I was deeply influenced by the work of Bernard Shaw; and followed the trajectory of the man himself by beginning as someone who sought nothing more than gradual improvement in living conditions (by means, I assumed, of Fabian socialism); to a recognition that - even if wholly successful - this would leave the fundamental problems, the fundamental unsatisfactoriness, of life unaddressed. 

In other words, no amount of tinkering with The System could overcome the inadequacy of Men. 

(And indeed, how the The System ever really be improved when Men - even the best of Men - were so profoundly and ineradicably flawed?)

In other words, a better world is not enough. Our heart's desire is for a qualitatively different and greater mode of living. 

As a typical leftist radical; Shaw's thinking was built-upon the rejection of Christianity - what I have called the attitude of "anything but Christianity". 

This attitude (which I shared for most of my life) is prepared to search the world, and consider almost any metaphysics, ideology or philosophy - except Christianity. 

Such radicalism (which is nowadays mainstream, normal, almost universal in The West); is thus rooted in a negative and oppositional motivation; which is what makes radicalism able to tolerate almost infinite incoherence, and which makes it always tend towards destruction. (As we may see all around us.)  

Shaw, therefore, sought the greater life in the context of this mortal world. The idea behind the play Man and Superman is loosely derived from Nietzsche, who invented and popularized the concept of The Superman as a qualitatively superior Man - and the best/ only hope for the future. 

In other words; Shaw assumes that there is only this world (and that Jesus Christ's promises of resurrection and Heaven are untrue); therefore our only grounds for hope (or only honest way of staving off despair) lies in improving this world.

Shaw recognizes that this world cannot be sufficiently improved because of Men: Men are Just Not Good Enough to make or inhabit the kind of world that would justify life. On the contrary. 

Since Men are the limiting factor; it is Men that must positively be transformed. 

Hence The Superman: he is what Man must become if life is to be worthwhile.

This is why The Superman is considered as necessary

Indeed, if The Superman does arise, then he will be that which transforms society for the better; because Men-as-they-are cannot really know what changes to make, nor are current Men properly motivated actually to make good societal changes.

And attempt to make a better society without The Superman will therefore be undermined by corruption of comprehension, motivation and conduct; and 'reform' will merely become what it always (covertly) was: a mask for new forms of exploitation. 

So, it seems to be the case that The Superman must come first.   

So The Superman seems to be necessary - but what exactly The Superman might be, and how he might arise, has always been contested among those who propose the idea.

Shaw was apparently never able to make up his mind. Sometimes he thought that The Superman might be evolved, from the right kind of 'breeding' - as with the above excerpt from Man and Superman

In that play, and its supplementary 'preface' and 'appendices'; the idea recurs that if the best women and the best men are able to reproduce - then the right combinations may lead to The Superman - either gradually or in a single vast evolutionary leap. 

Shaw's socialism is put forward as a means to this end. By eliminating all barriers of class, wealth, education etc; Shaw envisages that the best men and women can find each other, and that they will have the best children - and they will not be troubled by the raising of these children because that also will be done by a socialist society. 

In other words (at least when this mood was upon him), Shaw apparently regards The Superman as a quasi-genetic problem, and the solution as a matter of 'selective breeding'.

And yet, when he states this materialist perspective; he tends swiftly to contradict it as both inadequate and wrong-headed; because Shaw had a strong and almost 'spiritual' aspiration, and also a pessimistic understanding of Man's limits and possibilities.

This came-through in Back to Methuselah - in which higher forms of human consciousness emerge due to 'creative evolution'; which is envisaged in deistic terms; as a property of reality. 

The idea is that it is part of the nature of things that the universe strives first for life, then for consciousness, and then self-consciousness. 

Part of this is that life-span is extended, until it becomes immortality at the point when bodies are discarded and ex-Men become pure spirits of consciousness.

This is another vision of The Superman. 

And this is driven by the Life Force; which is mentioned several times in Man and Superman in (implicit) contradiction to the 'selective breeding' idea - as if Shaw cannot decide between them, or wants to cover all bases. 

Whereas selective breeding as conceived by Men, and organized (mad possible) by strategy; the Life Force uses Men in its blind gropings and experiments to attain The Superman - which is the abolition (or transcendence) of Man. 

It uses Men impersonally; and when each experiment is finished, casts them aside onto the 'scrap heap' (implied to be annihilation of the self, along with the body). 

This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.

(From the preface to Man and Superman - Shaw speaking as himself.)

The morality that Shaw proposes is one in which Men willingly serve the Life Force, and willingly sacrifice themselves in the quest for The Superman.

What has happened to The Superman in the 21st century? Has he disappeared from culture? 

No. Instead he has been down-graded into Transhumanism. 

Instead of a qualitatively superior man, perhaps a Man of higher and more spiritual consciousness; one who will discern and lead us to a better society; Transhumanism has reduced The Superman's capabilities to the level of emotions. 

Transhumanism starts with the feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances; and takes seriously his complaints that the world will not devote itself to making him happy - and Transhumanism envisages exactly a world that is genuinely devoted to making the 'selfish little clod' perfectly happy!

Transhumanism envisages a world without suffering, and consisting entirely of varieties of gratification; and this is to be attained by material means such as drug usage and other therapies; and genetic engineering (which replaces Shaw's hope for selective breeding). 

Transhumanism dispenses with all residues of the spiritual, all deistic concepts of a universe tending towards higher consciousness; and instead aims at an eternal life attained by the abolition of sickness and ageing - aiming at the defeat of entropy by correcting random error and outpacing degeneration with repair. 

The Superman of Transhumanism is at the opposite pole from Nietzsche's hero of action and self-expression, or from Shaw's Man of higher morality who embraces his own destruction in pursuit of abstract perfection of contemplation - instead there is envisaged a passive 'consumer of emotions' (implicitly being protected and sustained by an uncorrupt and well-motivated, all powerful ruling elite).

What matters to Transhumanism is how the world seems, not how the world is.  


Well, such are the terminal destinations of reflection on the Human Condition, when "anything but Christianity" is the baseline assumption. 

The pity of it, is that great creative intelligences such as Nietzsche and Shaw did not turn their abilities and motivations onto Christianity itself

Such thinkers deployed a double standard against Christianity. About anything except Christianity they would expend great effort, over long periods, to wrestle with concepts and ideologies in pursuit of the Good Life. 

They would think and debate endlessly over what 'socialism' really was, what was its essence - and what it ought to be; but the reality of Christianity was accepted secondhand, as a pre-packaged parcel - with barely a second thought. 

When it came to Christianity; Shaw and many others simply accepted that the proper and necessary definition and conceptualization was... pretty-much whatever stories they were told in their childhood; or whatever the worst of pseudo-Christian hypocrites did rather than said. 

So whereas other ideas were understood in terms of their potential, or ideal attributes; Christianity was judged by the worst of its worldly corruptions. 

Whereas everything-except-Christianity was approached as a core creative project; Christianity was regarded as something fixed and already-defined. 

This tendency was reinforced by the fact that defenders of Christianity - such as Shaw's great friend GK Chesterton - regarded Christianity in the same way; that is, the understood Christianity as something eternally unchangeable in its nature. 

Something beyond human creativity. 

Something, moreover, about which the creative genius had to defer to history, tradition and (above all) The Church (whichever church that might be, for present purposes).

The genius grappling with Christianity could therefore go so-far - and no further. Only in Christianity was the genius trammeled. 

Thus Christianity was - and remained - what it was and untouchable; and creative geniuses should look elsewhere when they strove to understand and re-describe reality. 

This meant that very few of the great geniuses-of-ideas in modern times were Christians. There was no scope for them in Christianity. 

They were confronted with a "take it or leave it" attitude about Church-Christianity - one that implied Men of the past had got-it-right in all essentials, and any dissent was necessarily error and Not Christianity. 

Yet genius is predicated on the assumption that achievement is not constrained by what is; and that no matter what the quality and eminence of past Men was or may have been; there is always the possibility of creative breakthrough for one whose motivations are true, and to the extent that these motivations are true.  

If Nietzsche, Shaw, and the modern Transhumanists would have expended a tithe of their efforts on grappling fundamentally with Christianity, in understanding What It Is experientially (each for himself and from himself); in the deepest and most sustained way of which they are capable...

Well, the history of the world would have been very different - and probably much better. 


The Anti-Gnostic said...

I've been listening to The Nietzche Podcast. I don't think current intellectual thought or world history has followed Nietzche at all, other than in the sense that the whole world has succumbed to what he would term "slave morality."

Given Christianity's utter supineness in the face of worldly evil, I'd say Nietzche's criticisms of it are well justified. The ultimate goal of the modern Christian is for himself and his family to be killed and pass into extinction, preferably at the hands of an immigrant criminal gang. There is an ugly, sickening taint of nihilism in Christianity.

You may or may not know this about Nietzche: when he came into some money, he purchased a tombstone for his father's gravesite. The inscription he had placed on it is from 1 Corinthians 3:18, "Love never faileth."

Bruce Charlton said...

@A-G - The point is: What is true?

That stuff about what "modern Christians want" is not philosophy - You need to forget it, put it aside, *if* you want to do philosophy.

If the promised gifts of Jesus Christ are *true*, then That is what matters; not whatever are the flaws, of whatever someone describes as "Christianity".

As I tried to explain, The Superman was 'needed' because the expectations of Christianity - i.e. resurrection, eternal life, Heaven - were assumed to be false. Except this core of Christianity was bundled up with a thousand-and-one *other things* from churches, and the package was declared to be integral and indissoluble.

Even arch-skeptics like Nietzsche accepted that this package was necessarily all or nothing.

The Superman is an attempt to make mortal life sufficient, worthwhile minus (everything in the Christian package).

Thus Nietzsche was trying, by various means, to understand what was needed to make mortal-life-on-it-own worthwhile - what attitudes would be necessary.

johnson said...

Mortal life on its own would be fine if God would just kill everyone who refuses to live as a subsistence farmer. Because then everyone would mind their own business.

Bruce Charlton said...

@johnson - Well, when you are a human being, you *have to* think beyond the level of the barnyard - like it or not. That's the lesson of the past century.

Pretending that metaphysics is nonsense merely means you are unconsciously in the grip of somebody else's metaphysics, and being manipulated by them.

William James Tychonievich said...

The Superman is one of those wrong ideas that has a core of truth. It is absolutely true that no imaginable world, not even Heaven, would be good enough if Men remain as they are.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Wm - Yes, that's it.

The Superman recognized the problem, even if it was unsatisfactory as a solution.

Nowadays, however, it seems that many fewer people can even recognize the problem. And are proud of this failure.

Guy Jean said...

An interesting post.

Bruce wrote, as explanations for why Nietzsche, Shaw (and presumably other great "intellects" of the late 19th/early 20th centuries, I'd include Ayn Rand) did not turn their considerable powers of thought onto Christianity itself:
1)"Christianity was judged by the worst of its worldly corruptions";
2) "Christianity was regarded as something fixed and already-defined... Something beyond human creativity...
3) "The genius grappling with Christianity could therefore go so-far - and no further. Only in Christianity was the genius trammeled... This meant that very few of the great geniuses-of-ideas in modern times were Christians. There was no scope for them in Christianity."

I'd add another, which occurred to me as I read this:"the creative genius had to defer to history, tradition and (above all) The Church (whichever church that might be, for present purposes)".
It is not just tradition or "the Church" to which the aspirant must defer, is it?

The Christian must accept Jesus as their Lord and Master. And this, I would suggest, is a major stumbling block for many intelligent people. They have become proud of their intellectual powers and accomplishments, often justifiably, and are egged on by society.

But Jesus said, "I am the Door" (John 10:9), and "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." (John 14:6, if I appear knowledgeable it is because I have stood on the shoulders of Google).

I know from my own experience the great fight the ego puts up when faced with this demand or invitation.

Ram Dass gave a hilarious description of this: he was brought before his friend's guru (Neem Karoli Baba) whom he'd reluctantly agreed to visit and was told the customary greeting was full prostration. Of course Richard Alpert (as he then was) refused: he, a Harvard Professor! A fully qualified psychologist! On the cutting edge of psychological research in the West, nay, in the world! Put his face in the mud? Touch a dirty old man's feet?? Are you freaking kidding?!?!

Dass' telling hints at the real reason for the prostration: the guru didn't give a you know what whether anyone prostrated themselves or not, but doing so means giving up at least some of your ego and that, even a little, creates a gap into which the grace of the guru can flow. As indeed it did in Dass' case. (His retelling is somewhere on YouTube; he tells a good story.)

So perhaps the ego refusing to bow down to any superior was one (other, additional) reason why these great egg-heads went down the wrong road. Though they may not have been conscious of it, it was simply foolish pride, of the kind that leads to the attitude that it is "Better to rule in hell than serve in Heaven", with "serve" being the triggering word.

Bruce Charlton said...

@GJ - I think there is probably a strong element of this in more recent generations. But not so much in the generations born in the 19th century. These retained a great deal of implicit, often unconscious, Christianity from their upbringing and culture - which is why the weird and unnatural value inversions we have seen since the millennium did not emerge and become dominant for so many decades.

So, I don't think this kind of resistance to the primary of Jesus Christ would have been so strong in the eras of Emerson, Nietzsche, Shaw. After all, early communists were mad keen on (mentally) prostrating themselves before dictators like Lenin/ Stalin, and would-be dictators like Trotsky.

Bruce Charlton said...

Lady Mermaid has left a commen:

"@ WJT- That sums up the core problem of the world. The transhumanists are correct in that we are fundamentally flawed and need to be reborn. I'd rather trust Christ to transform humanity instead of the Silicon Valley titans.

"I also believe that unrepented sin (particularly sexual revolution) may be another core aspect of the "anything but Christianity".

"A lot of people of my generation (millennials) are full supporters of the sexual revolution and [QWERTY] agenda. They sincerely believe that opposition to modern sexuality is motivated by hateful bigotry. For example, the current NZ prime minster... has stated that the main catalyst for abandoning her Mormon faith was its opposition to homosexuality.

"While metaphysical issues can be a barrier, a lot of modern people are afraid of confronting unresolved sins. This seemed to be the case in George Bernard Shaw.