Friedrich Nietzsche thought of his Übermensch, or “over-man,” as being “beyond good and evil.” He, or she, was to exist as a moral authority unto themselves, a lover of “this-world” who, unbound by transcendental norms or obligations, acted as creator and implementer of their own moral structures. For Nietzsche, of course, and many later existentialists, the transcendental norms or obligations were themselves mere human constructions of earlier, pre-modern, and unscientific communities.
Moreover, for Nietzsche, the Übermensch was not just superior in his capacity to stand over and above what ultimately were historically contingent constructs, but the Übermensch also excelled in his capacity to create, to achieve, and to dominate his world and the conditions it thrust upon him. The Übermensch was truly meant to be a sort of “super man”—willful, intelligent, self-disciplined, and utterly capable. Like the artistic and legendary portrayals of the hero-kings and emperors of ancient Greece or Rome, the Superman was the truly free, independent, human agent who through his own ingenuity and power created new realities of culture and new forms of civilization. Where Marx saw this power located in a socio-economic relationships, Nietzsche found it in the individual, human mind.
In contrast the term “Jedermann” in the German language simply means, the everyman, the common man. The “Everyman” is the man, who traditionally is under some other moral authority, who follows, to the best of his ability, that other authority, regardless of whether it be transcendent or immanent, religious or secular. Traditionally, however, everyman, in stark contrast to Superman, finds himself before God with only his own good deeds able to save him. Everyman, unlike Superman, is judged according to a higher law, traditionally speaking, a divine one. Everyman creates no moral standard, he is subject either to an eternal one, or to a local set of civil laws. He is not over anything, he is under the burden of the Law.
However, what happens when these two metaphors for a certain kind of moral agent are conflated into one and the same subject, as contradictory as that may sound? What does a culture look like, when the attempt is made to anoint the Jedermann as the moral Übermensch, and even treat him as such through the institutions and laws that surround him? In other words, what does a culture look like, where each individual has “bestowed” upon them the divine right to establish his or her own moral system, like Nietzsche’s Übermensch, but where the creative capacities and heroic virtues of the Superman seem woefully absent, like that of the traditional Everyman?
Is this our very own culture? I think it is. And, as a result, I think many tend to walk around believing that, on one hand, we really are the makers of our own morality, yet on the other, perhaps in moments of authentic self-awareness, we realize our total ineptitude in living up to those same, self-constructed moral standards. We tend to be pitiful Supermen indeed—Everymen and Everywomen, living trapped inside moral architectures of our own making, forming standards that we cannot live up to.
Or, maybe, if we do start believing we are living up to those standards, then, again in rare moments of self-awareness, we realize we have probably set the standards rather low, or, worse, we begin to notice the failures of others, seeing them as their failures to live up to our standard.
Is this rather tragic? I think so.
But, it doesn’t seem to stop there. For, once we begin to recognize the tragedy of our own inability to live up to moral standards, standards we are told we make ourselves, then we often start searching for ways to compensate for this “epic fail.” Perhaps the most common, self-serving tactic is to find those doing worse than ourselves, and point out their failures, often times in the most glaring and public manner possible. This kind of “leveling” not only helps us to feel better about our own moral status, since we can always point at that “other” everyman or everywoman whose failures are more egregious than our own, but it also takes our thoughts off of ourselves and the low standards we have formed. Thus we can persist in failure, or in maintaining the same, low moral standards we have become accustomed to.
One concrete example of this tactic can be found in most of our late-night television shows: exactly this kind of moralizing dynamic that seeks out the other everyman who is the greater moral failure, exposing them to laughter and ridicule. And this, especially since Trump’s election, or Harvey Weinstein’s fall. After all, there is always another “Hitler” lurking around the corner upon whom one can levy criticism, or outright mock.
The short of it is this: we live in a culture of everyday supermen and women; a paradox to be sure. A culture hell-bent on comparing how I, within the framework of my own, apparently self-constructed moral system, am doing with regard to those around me who are trying to live up to their own, self-constructed moral systems. Now, if there were absolutely no overlap between these customized moral constructs, then there might be no way to compare them, and, therefore, no way to make moral judgments whatsoever. Others would simply seem alien to us, like extra-terrestrials that do things we don’t grasp as either good or evil, just different.
But, the reality is, our personalized moralities do overlap, and overlap in significant ways. No individual construct of morality exists in a vacuum. We all share some moral beliefs, and because of that we do assess others around us in their moral behavior. This kind of moral individualism within actual community, however, is woefully destructive, for if there is one virtue that becomes increasingly hard to find, it is that of Grace. The Superman in us might have the capacity for Grace, because he is, after all, beyond it all. He could be gracious towards all kinds of people: Trump, Weinstein, Mr. Rogers. However, the everyman in us tends to not feel “beyond it all” after all. As everyone and everywomen, we judge, because we also feel judged. And when the everyman or woman judges, they judges harshly.
For if the failures of others is a means to covering up my own failures (or to deceiving myself about them), then how likely is it that I would extend grace when I see others fail? How could I? Why would I?
After all, to show someone else Grace, someone who is failing in their moral system, might imply that I too might need to be extended that same Grace. But to need Grace is to admit that I really am not the moral Superman I think I am, or that I’ve been told I am. It is to admit that I really am only Everyman.
“Judge not, that you be not judged. 2 For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. 3 Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? 4 Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:1-5)