the imaginative conservative logo

nietzsche“I am better than everybody else” is the disturbing theme underlying Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 film Rope. Dostoevsky developed the same idea in Crime and Punishment as did George Bernard Shaw in Man and Superman.

Rooted in Nietzsche’s idea of the übermensch—”Superman” or “Above Man”—the idea is that a new breed of humanity will emerge who will be superior to the old, joyless Judeo-Christian ethic. Striding confidently into a brave new world, this new super-humanity will rise above the old humanity groveling before their gods. For this new strain of humanity to emerge certain superior individuals will step out of the lumbering lemming herd of hoi polloi. Such individuals will live for higher ideals and will be able to disregard the petty rules and moral codes that govern lesser mortals.

Dostoevsky’s student Raskolnikov therefore chooses to murder the old pawnbroker—a human cockroach if ever there was one—in order to take her wealth and do untold good with it for the rest of his life. He sees himself in the same category as Napoleon, who could trample the laws and lives of millions for a greater goal and greater good. In Shaw’s play, John Tanner is the young revolutionary anarchist who represents the emergent human genius. In Hitchcock’s film, Brandon Shaw (a nod to Bernard Shaw?) and Philip Morgan are young college graduates who strangle a classmate and hide his body to prove that they are, like Raskolnikov, superior creatures who are above the law.

Rope was based on an earlier stage play, which was inspired by the real life case of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. Leopold and Loeb were brilliant University of Chicago students who kidnapped and murdered thirteen year old Bobby Franks in their own attempt to prove themselves to be Napoleonic supermen. They were caught and sentenced to life imprisonment. Loeb was killed by a fellow prisoner in 1936 and Leopold was released on parole in 1958.

In both the fictional versions and the actual story of Leopold and Loeb each of the “supermen,” like Nietzsche himself, were arrogant, introverted and lonely individuals. Raskolnikov spends hours shut up in his miserable garret, rejecting the friendship and love of others. John Tanner is a “confirmed bachelor”. Leopold and Loeb were lovers, and Hitchcock (unable in 1948 to be obvious about homosexuality) portrays Shaw and Morgan as charming “aesthetes.” In other words, the Nietzschean, Napoleonic übermensch is a fancy word for “Narcissist.” Like Narcissus, the “supermen” gaze on the beauty of themselves. Narcissistic navel gazers, they become obsessed with their greatness, their superior intelligence and glorious destiny.

We should make no mistake, the person who believes in the theory of the superman really believes that he is on of the elite. The Nietzschean narcissist, like a masturbatory adolescent, is in love with himself and no other. The old wives said people like this would go insane and poor old Nietzsche did just that.

What is most disturbing is that his prophecies have come true. Modern America is filled with individuals who behave like Raskolnikov, John Tanner, Leopold and Loeb and Hitchcock’s dastardly duo. We are a nation of narcissists. Like Raskolnikov we murder millions through abortion for high sounding, utilitarian, but ultimately selfish reasons. Like John Tanner we march under revolutionary banners proclaiming a brave new world that revolves around our self-centered ideologies. Like Leopold and Loeb we are prepared to sacrifice others on the altar of our own self adulation.

Nietzsche considered his übermensch to be above the law. Like most madmen, he viewed reality in reverse. Instead of the superman being above the law he is below the law. Because he regards himself as superior he is inferior. When a man behaves as a narcissist he does not raise himself above common humanity, but lowers himself to the level of the instinctively self interested beast. He is therefore not more than human, but less than human. The Nietzshean Narcissist cuts himself off from society, from family, friends and from love. The only thing that breaks this cycle of self adoration is self sacrificial love, but self sacrificial love is the factor the one thing the narcissist cannot understand and of which he is incapable.

Nietzsche despised the Christian virtues of humility, service and self sacrifice as weakness. What he failed to understand is that the true exercise of these virtues requires superhuman strength. Rather than lowering man, self sacrificial love is the one thing that raises him from ape to angel.

The true superman is therefore the humble and penitent man. The last shall be first and the first last. Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov is the character who comes down where he ought to be. In the final pages of Crime and Punishment the cowardly student rises to greatness. Sitting on the riverbank while serving his prison sentence his heart finally opens, and for the first time he turns away from love of self to the love of Sonia—the simple prostitute who has supported him in his terrible trial.

This is the essential lesson of becoming fully human, and it is in the simple humanity and humility of love that Nietzsche recovers his sanity, the narcissist turns away from self love and the little Napoleon becomes a giant.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

Print Friendly
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
5 replies to this post
  1. I expect that narcissism plays a major role in the personality disorders and pathologies that dominate the Left-Progressivists that currently dominate in Washington. How that drives the elite to demand, require, support, and endorse both abortion and the destruction of the economy is a bit confusing. It is, however, very apparent that these people are mad and we should ‘get away’ from them, and their destructive, corrupt, and impulsive pathological disorders.

  2. Well said, Father! When Loeb was killed after soliciting a fellow inmate, a Chicago newspaper reported that he ‘ended his sentence with a proposition.’

  3. “The noble soul has reverence for itself” is the famous line of Nietzsche. This is not narcissism. But to get into a debate about interpretations of Nietzsche is probably a tad too much within this space.

    Furthermore, I question some of what is said here (in this highly interesting essay): that that which is humble and small is good and virtuous and anything (or anyone) aspiring to greatness is evil and pathological. This, of course, is not true.

    Modern narcissism is the monopoly of mediocrities, not truly superior individuals. What we see in society today–the rudeness, crudeness, flakiness–is a mass phenomenon that mirrors an “elite”, which in turn tries to pander to that mass by attempting to relate to it, rather than setting a better example of behavior. True superiority sets a superior example. It is not an inferiority complex wringing its hands.

    One can be ambitious, proud, confident and have a “healthy contempt” for the muddled-mass (which is quite muddled indeed) and still have a Christian or “classical” sense of virtue. “I would forfeit my entire empire to be Aristotle for a day”, said Alexander. That kind of humble comment is the mark of a superior man.

  4. Father Longenecker isn’t saying that the mediocre is good & that aspiring to greatness is bad!

    The Christian concept of “humble” doesn’t equate with the mediocre. Rather, humility is the realization that we are fallen, we are not infallible, we do NOT have the right to decide what is “good” and what is “evil”; and that we must submit ourselves to external Standards.

    So when I write a paper – if I want it to be good – I must submit myself to the Laws of Logic; the Rules of Grammar; the transcendent moral laws, etc.

    The alternative is to consider myself superior to – to be above – the laws of logic, rules of grammar, the transcendent moral laws.

    While I do not have authority to speak for the good Father, I think this is his meaning.

    See?

    Self-respect is what we earn when we act rightly. But to have reverence for ourselves no matter how we act is narcissistic.

  5. One might argue that the ultimately tyrannical narcissism of Nietzsche is not that distinct from the more mundane self-indulgence of the average person. Both reflect the “curving in on oneself,” that Luther identifies as a hallmark of human sin. The sovereign self must eventually consume all others. Camus’ profile of de Sade in The Rebel is a good illustration.

Please leave a thoughtful, civil, and constructive comment: