In 1920, in his essay Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Sigmund Freud proposed that the human psyche could be seen as comprising of three conflicting and counter-balancing parts - Id, Ego, and Super-ego - in terms of whose activity and interaction mental life could be described and understood. The idea was later elaborated upon in The Ego and the Id. According to this 'structural' model of the psyche, the id is the set of uncoordinated instinctual trends; the ego is the organised, realistic part; and the super-ego plays the critical and moralising role.

It is the dark, inaccessible part of our personality... We approach the id with analogies: we call it a chaos, a cauldron full of seething excitations... It is filled with energy reaching it from the instincts, but it has no organisation, produces no collective will, but only a striving to bring about the satisfaction of the instinctual needs subject to the observance of the pleasure principle.
— Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis.
Id is often described as the sum total of all our primal impulses and being driven by the Pleasure Principle, it derives its energy from an unlimited reservoir of Libido or Eros. It is a slave to the senses and seeks instant gratification of all its desires, while suffering minimum amount of pain or displeasure. Id consists of everything that is inherited, everything that is pre-existent at birth. When a child is first born, its mind is completely Id-driven. Id knows no good or evil and has no sense of morality. It wants whatever feels good, and whenever it feels so, without any regard for reality.

With time, as we go through the five different stages of psychosexual development, the ego and the super-ego begin to assume a definite form. Ego acts according to the Reality Principle and tries to submit to id's demands in a way that is socially acceptable. It often uses rationalizations to suppress or reject id's demands that conflict with accepted norms. Ego represents reason, rationale, and common sense, in contrast with id's blind passions. Initially using ego to refer to the self, Freud had later used the term to represent a whole range of psychic functions like judgment, tolerance, control, and intellectual development.

During the third stage of psychosexual development, or the phallic stage, children become aware of their own bodies, the bodies of other children, and the anatomical differences between males and females. Freud proposed that during this stage a child's decisive psychosexual experience is the Oedipus Complex (for boys) or the Electra Complex (To be precise, Carl Jung was the one to suggest the idea of a different complex for girls) during which time they encounter their first sexual and murderous/envious urges. The successful resolution of these complexes results in the development of the infantile super-ego, wherein the mind learns to abide by societal rules by internalising morality, instead of complying out of fear of punishment.

The Super-ego is the part of our personality that's driven by the Perfection Principle. It dictates our beliefs of right and wrong and is a symbolic internalisation of the father figure, cultural bindings, and ethics - in other words, what we call our conscience. The super-ego is in constant conflict with the Id because of their divergent needs and because of their aggressiveness towards the ego. It is extreme, intolerant and punishes our transgressions through devices like guilt, inferiority, anxiety, and self-loathing. The task of the ego is to mediate between the two and strike a balance by meeting the demands of id without upsetting the super-ego while still taking into account the reality/practicality of a situation. Thus the ego, "driven by the id, confined by the super-ego, repulsed by reality, struggles...[in] bringing about harmony among the forces and influences working in and upon it".

The development of the super-ego is closely linked to that of our conscience. The nascent super-ego absorbs the ethics and cultural restrictions of the family and surrounding society. Its spiritual ideals and psychic tendencies are intricately tied to the code of moral values in which it is incubated. In most social setups, religion and God present themselves as the source of these mores. Which brings us to the important question - What happens when the fundamental basis of this moral code ceases to exist? What happens when God dies?

God is dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?
— Nietzsche, The Gay Science (tr. Walter Kaufmann).
"God is dead", so shrieked the Madman. Who killed Him? How did He die? These questions are not important. They are fluff. The Death of God should not lead us to deliberate whether there was an actual God who was killed in the literal sense. What Nietzsche means here is the absolute annihilation of all moral values that this God embodied and engendered. This God (especially as understood in a Judeo-Christian world) is no longer the source of our Morality. Whom, then, does the super-ego look upto? Where from do we derive our sense of righteousness?

The event of this Death is too far removed from the present to be analysed with any degree of precision. But we do know that there is a universal moral code that permeates all societies and communities, irrespective of their religion, race, ethnicity, or caste. The destruction of this system of values will lead to a moral vacuum where people will lack any universal perspective, and along with it any coherent sense of objective truth. Such a situation may eventually escalate into outright nihilism - the belief that nothing has any inherent importance and that life lacks purpose. However, from this abyss of chaos will emerge a new breed of men - the Übermensch - who shall become the creator of new values. By laying down the rules for all other rules (à la mode The Ten Commandments perhaps?), the Übermensch will assume a mythical God-like status and thus no longer remain ordinary men, but become overmen or supermen.

I teach you the overman. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him? ... What is ape to man? A laughing stock or painful embarrassment. And man shall be that to overman: a laughing stock or painful embarrassment.
— Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
Nietzsche was not the first one to write about men deliberately trying to upset a steady cart. Men who not only challenged mores but also thought themselves to be capable of escaping the moral repercussions of such a radical act. One of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's most acclaimed works, Crime and Punishment is the story of the psychological struggle of Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, an impoverished student living in St. Petersburg. Originally intended to be an attack on the Russian Nihilist movement of the 1860s, Crime and Punishment has come to be regarded as a definitive work on the moral dilemmas of a scrupulous criminal.

Raskolnikov, in his bid to prove that some people are not only naturally capable of disregarding laws meant for ordinary men but also have a right to do so, kills an old pawnbroker whom he considers to be a parasite to the society. In his attempt to impersonate people like Nopolean and Muhammad (christened 'great men' in the novel), Raskolnikov uses utilitarianism to justify his murdering an old pawnbroker. After all, what is an old louse, an insect meant to be crushed, on the road to greater good? However, over the course of only a few days, his innate sense of morality gets the better of him and he succumbs to his guilt. Through out the novel, Raskolnikov is presented as a very volatile character, wracked with equal amounts of doubt and conviction. Doubt regarding his own strength and conviction in an idea. As a result, it is difficult to say if he eventually gives in out of fear or guilt. But his acceptance of his sentence as a penance for his sins certainly gives one the impression that he finally seeks refuge in religion and morality - the very institutions he had so brazenly tried to defy.

Man and Superman, a play written by George Bernard Shaw in 1903, is usually performed as a light comedy of manners. However, as is evident from the title itself, Shaw had intended the play to have much deeper and graver connotations. Jack Tanner, the male protagnist of the play, with his blatant disregard of customs and morals, comes across as a Nietzschean superman - a man of intellect and intuition who is willing to defy obsolete mores and define new virtues for himself.

One doesn't need to take recourse to fiction in order to find examples of people who have tried interpreting the idea to suit their own diabolical needs. Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, commonly known as Leopold and Loeb, were two wealthy University of Chicago students who murdered 14 year old Robert "Bobby" Franks in 1928 just because they thought that they could. Both exceptionally intelligent, Leopold and Loeb, aged 19 and 18 respectively at the time of murder, believed themselves to be Nietzschean Übermensch who were exempt from the laws governing ordinary men. Through the murder of young Bobby Franks, Leopold and Loeb had sought to commit the perfect crime and at the same time assert their supremacy. Even though the crime was botched and the law took its course, the two young lads hardly showed any remorse for their actions and took a great deal of pleasure in regaling the press and the public with details of their sordid crime. Perhaps, Leopold and Loeb represent the other end of the spectrum - Men probably born before their time had truly arrived. An excerpt from their defence attorney's speech on the final day of hearing aptly sums it up:
This terrible crime was inherent in his organism, and it came from some ancestor… Is any blame attached because somebody took Nietzsche's philosophy seriously and fashioned his life upon it?… It is hardly fair to hang a 19-year-old boy for the philosophy that was taught him at the university?

The term Übermensch was particularly popular with Hitler and the Nazi regime, which borrowed from Nietzsche's work and sought to use him as a philosophical precursor for their anti-semitic pogroms. Taking it a step further, the Third Reich used the term untermensch (roughly translated as under-man or sub-man) as an antipode to ubermensch in order to describe ethnic groups like the Jews, Gypsies, Poles, Serbs, and Russians. Not surprisingly, this philosophy has often been blamed for 20th century fascism. After all, if there is indeed a group of so called supermen who are willing and able to invent their own moral code, what is to stop them for massacring millions of people in their zealous quest for a superior master race?

Crime and Punishment (1866). Fyodor Dostoyevsky (tr. Constance Garnett).
Id, ego, and super-ego. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Id,_ego_and_super-ego.
Leopold and Loeb. http://www.leopoldandloeb.com/.
Man and Superman (1903). George Bernard Shaw. http://www.archive.org/details/Man_and_Superman.
Rope (1948). Directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
Superego. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/574274/superego.
Übermensch. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%9Cbermensch.
What is a Superman. http://plays.about.com/od/manandsuperman/a/supermanthemes.htm.

Still in the process of editing this article. Comments, errors, and suggestions would be welcome.


  1. While watching Fight Club again, I had an urge to revisit that conversation we had on ubermensch. This served me well. Very succinct.

  2. I wouldn't say succinct, but reasonably frugal. And simplified too without being simplistic. Great piece!

  3. do any of these pieces answer or suggest an answer as to how to deal with someone who believes himself to be beyond the moral/social codes of conduct?
    This question has come up in my mind on more than one occasion when i read about nietzche or the libertines.

  4. I take it you are talking about the references. Well, in effect, all of them are about people who thought they were over and above the moral code governing other people. However, I do not know if they can provide you with an answer on to how to "deal" with such people. Since we do not live in a moral vacuum right now, it changes depending upon the context - some people are punished, some regret their actions, while others never muster the courage to do anything.

    In fiction, I would consider Crime and Punishment to be a landmark work. Otherwise, you should read more about Leopold and Loeb. They were directly inspired by Nietzsche's ideas and even towards the end of their lives, they seemed to be least repentant of their actions.

  5. I'd love to find out if theabrain (above) has been looking for an answer to his question. It's a very interesting tangent to a great piece. Well done.

  6. I guess you will have to ask him that!

    Assuming I have understood the idea behind ubermensch correctly, in the ideal scenario, I think that one doesn't 'deal' with such people. One simply follows them. Like sheep. That is how (and perhaps why) they attain a mythical, God-like status and are known as 'over-men'.

    This piece is still incomplete. Since I first wrote it, I have come across several other ideas that merit a mention. I have a mind to include them in the article and make it more wholesome. But both motivation and effort have been lacking on that front. Okay, I am ranting now.