A Response to McGrath and Brake: Batman, Joker, and Nietzsche’s Overman

By John MacDonald

On episode 36 of the Religion Prof Podcast, Dr. James McGrath and Matthew Brake shared their interpretations of Nietzsche’s overman in relation to the Batman mythos in popular culture.  McGrath raises the point that it is young Bruce Wayne’s response to his family tragedy that raises him from the level of the weak to the heroic, indeed moving beyond a Freudian causal unconscious to a Nietzschean context unconscious: that which does not kill me makes me stronger – life events not being joyous or tragic in and of themselves, but they depend on how we experience and interpret them.  For instance, triplets could grow up in an abusive home with the result of one being emotionally scarred, another unaffected, and the third stronger for it.  For McGrath, what makes Batman an overman “type” is he rejects societal values and plots his own course, while paradoxically defending societal values and working closely with the police. 

McGrath points out that some scholars argue it is Batman’s failure to kill the Joker that prevents him from fully becoming the overman – he still functions according to the slave categories of good and evil.  Clearly, good and evil don’t function in evaluating the actions of a “good” bird of prey.  But what I will argue below is the issue is about seeing moral events, not as inherently good or evil, but dependent on our interpretations.  So, we go beyond a dialectical logic of good and evil to a logic of mixed opposites of godless agape.  We move beyond the Euthyphro dilemma of whether it’s good because god loves it or god loves it because it is good, to the assessment/evaluation criteria of the cultural physician who asks instead whether an outlook is healthy vs sickly.  So for instance, we can say from the point of view of good vs evil, the most holy can be the most profane, such that while 9-11 is seen as evil by many in the west, there radical groups that see it as holy.

Brake sees Batman as more of a Kantian moralistic figure, and the Joker as a more Nietzschean one.  Certainly, in the mix of the chaotic logic of mixed opposites, Batman retains the Kantian moral foundation.  Phenomenologically, Kant would say that universally we all maintain a circle of friends, however small, that we act in a benevolent and just way toward – and that you’re a better friend if you play the game your friend wants to play rather than your favorite game – and you’re not being a good friend if you steal your friend’s toy.  We are morally attached to our actions, unlike lower animals.  This is a function of reason, and so a dog, with the intelligence of a 2 year old, can’t be evil.  We sue someone for destroying our couch, but understand the dog doesn’t know any better.  What Kant is primarily interested in is not just hypothetical morals (if-then), but categorical unconscious self-legislation of moral/responsibility attachment to actions which makes moral judgments/experiences possible.  Sound Christian?  It should, because it is historically related to the apostle Paul’s point that God wrote the law on our hearts.

Brake points out the Joker is constantly reinventing himself with no set personality: sometimes playful clown, sometimes psychopathic killer.  This is not absolute though, since the Joker is beyond good and evil negatively (not this/not that), but also positively an agent of chaos.  For me, the Joker represents a duality that we also see in Batman, just to a different degree. The Batman retains his humanity in his refusal to kill the Joker, just as the Joker steps back from the edge of pure chaos in his love of the Batman.  As we see in the Lego Batman Movie, the Joker needs to be Batman’s greatest enemy.  On the one hand, we hear Alfred’s description of the Joker in The Dark Knight: “Some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”  So we see the fundamental principle of chaos run against the principle of moral responsibility.  The result?  Nietzsche says art is worth more than truth (This point could bring to mind Jack Nicholson’s Joker in the art scene in the first modern Batman movie).

 So the question is, isn’t this just the opposite of Batman? Yes. But as Hegel showed, things depend on their opposites and are only fully realized out of them. In this way, at the end of Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on a Serious Earth, the Joker in the Asylum says to Batman: “If things ever get too hard for you out there, there’s always room for you in here.”

 So, it’s not simply a question of Batman vs Joker, but of how they represent the relationship between Gotham vs Arkham (I was sad when the Gotham tv series ended!).

 As for the relationship between Batman/Joker and Nietzsche’s overman, Nietzsche seems to advocate, as McGrath/Brake  say in their podcast, overcoming traditional values to be able to create your own criteria for evaluation.  But what does this mean?

 Nietzsche wants to distance himself from the “eros” of glory-seeking Achilles, and pushes instead for a godless, yet joyous, perspective in an Ecclesiastes’ world (“nothing new under the sun,” where Ecclesiastes’ answer is God) where the Last Man is overcome with an “agapic” perspective that is not a lack (eros) to be filled by beings (I love her because she’s beautiful, or for what she can do for me and my status), but a godless transfiguring love where one’s perspective creates value for beings (not revulsion at widow, orphan, alien, and enemy, but all these are given equal lovable value by a loving perspective)

 In this regard, the two key passages regarding the later Nietzsche and the overman for my reading are as follows:

 (1) Nietzsche characterizes the overman as “Caesar with a soul of Christ – the overman” (KGW VII 2:289). It is a Christ-like Caesar, conquering not with might but rather godless agapic love, a transfiguring, glass half-full approach to life. In Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love (agapēseis) your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love (agapāte) your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

 (2) Nietzsche says “I have never desecrated the holy name of love’” (1888, LN1 [286]).

 So, I don’t think either Batman or the Joker are “Later-Nietzschean-overmen” advocating an agapic criteria as an approach to beings, but they both are “over-man-ish” in the sense that Bruce is wildly successful and blessed by the standards of the world (he’s a playboy billionaire), but these things are not what brings his life meaning and purpose, just as the Joker isn’t breaking the law in an attempt to get rich, but rather he pursues Chaos as an end and is evil in that regard (hence the difference between Joker and Darth Sidious who is driven by the evil urge to control: “We will have peace …”).

 I don’t think McGrath/Brake understand what Nietzsche is trying to do with the overman. The image Nietzsche chooses for interpretation of The Philosopher is “cultural physician,” diagnosing what is unhealthy in a culture and prescribing a healthy treatment/course of action. The overman is defined in terms of something like agape because this is the most health achieving and promoting approach to life. The criteria of healthy/sickly is used to diagnose whether an individual or culture is strong or weak.

 The overman is beyond good and evil because “healthy/sickly” is a more original determining and evaluative factor than “good and evil” since an incarnation of good, for instance “slave morality,” can be shown to be birthed out of sickness. “Beyond good and evil” no more means going back and forth between good and evil than does agnostic mean going back and forth between theism and atheism. Nietzsche is not advocating “anything goes” with his overman as the Joker would. Rather, Nietzsche is talking about tearing down the old order of rank and re-aligning drives, impulses, etc., both individually and culturally, under the banner of “healthy vs sickly.”

I think a secular agape is crucial to understanding what the later Nietzsche is doing: a glass half full approach and love of fate because we do not try to find the desirable in the world as a seeking after glory like the eros Achilles lived, trying to fill a lack, but it is an agapic transfiguring of widow, orphan, alien, and enemy to all be lovable that births a truly creative life.

As I said, in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love (agapēseis) your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love (agapāte) your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  Of Nietzsche’s Antichrist, Goicoechea says:

“Of course, all along, Nietzsche wants to show that the loving Jesus is not the blaming Christ, which is the main point of [Nietzsche’s AntiChrist). And, Nietzsche writes: “The incapacity for resistance  here becomes morality (‘resist not evil!’; the profoundest saying of the Gospel, Its key in a certain sense)  blessedness in peace, in gentleness, in the inability for enmity.” This Jesus at the center of Nietzsche’s heart does not resist any evil. He is a gentle pacifist and peacemaker who does not even have the ability for enmity”  (Goicoechea, loc 1637).

There is a difference between love as eros, caritas and philia with the Greeks and Self-sacrificial love of the New Testament: agape.  Han-Pile points out with Nietzsche that

“In a nutshell, erotic love is motivated by the perceived value of its object: we love someone or something because we value them. By contrast, agapic love bestows value on its object, and this regardless of the value previously attributed to it: we value someone or something because we love them …  (Christ came for sinners and the righteous alike); and finally it creates value by transfiguring its object (the sinner becomes worthy by virtue of being loved by God)” (online, no pages).

 The main contrast is between an eternal return of the same where the sickly person is helpless in the face of eternal return wiping away the meaning and value from beings, versus the eternal return of the same difference where the creativity, strength, and joy of the thinker wipes beings clean and lovingly bestows value on them in the spirit of promoting strength and health.

 So, the eternal return for Heidegger’s reading of Nietzsche thus refers to the manner in which beings appear, which is, they appear as though they’ve been encountered countless times before, and so lose their luster for us simply as a function of our spending time with them, that is unless we are artistic and creative.  Nietzsche knew this experience well even before he articulated the eternal return as a concept, and so in a letter to Overbeck, he talked about how he was oblivious to the cabin fever affecting his friends at a rainy cottage as he joyously worked on his Third Untimely Meditation (Nietzsche, 1975,: 11.3 382).  And, there are numerous interesting historical analogies for the idea of tragic eternal return.  Nietzsche’s innovation was finding the fundamental joy in it.  Some examples are from (1) Ecclesiastes, (2) Seneca, and (3)Schopenhauer:

 (1) “All things are wearisome; more than one can express; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear filled with hearing. 9 What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes)

 (2) “26.  Some people suffer from a surfeit of doing and seeing the same things. Theirs is not contempt for life but boredom with it, a feeling we sink into when influenced by the sort of philosophy which makes us say, ‘How long the same old things? I shall wake up and go to sleep, I shall eat and be hungry, I shall be cold and hot. There’s no end to anything, but all things are in a fixed cycle, fleeing and pursuing each other. Night follows day and day night; summer passes into autumn, hard on autumn follows winter, and that in turn is checked by spring. All things pass on only to return. Nothing I do or see is new: sometimes one gets sick even of this.’ There are many who think that life is not harsh but superfluous. (Seneca ep. mor. 24. 26).”

 (3)  “He who lives to see two or three generations is like a man who sits some time in the conjurer’s booth at a fair, and witnesses the performance twice or thrice in succession. The tricks were meant to be seen only once; and when they are no longer a novelty and cease to deceive, their effect is gone.” (Schopenhauer, “Essays on Pessimism”)

 To which (3 above) Nietzsche responds to Schopenhauer regarding the performance from the point of view of the creative and artistic individual:

 “56. Anyone like me, who has tried for a long time and with some enigmatic desire, to think pessimism through to its depths and to deliver it from the half-Christian, half-German narrowness and naivete with which it has finally presented itself to this century, namely in the form of the Schopenhauerian philosophy; anyone who has ever really looked with an Asiatic and supra-Asiatic eye into and down at the most world-negating of all possible ways of thinking – beyond good and evil, and no longer, like Schopenhauer and the Buddha, under the spell and delusion of morality –; anyone who has done these things (and perhaps precisely by doing these things) will have inadvertently opened his eyes to the inverse ideal: to the ideal of the most high-spirited, vital, world-affirming individual, who has learned not just to accept and go along with what was and what is, but who wants it again just as it was and is through all eternity, insatiably shouting da capo not just to himself but to the whole play and performance, and not just to a performance, but rather, fundamentally, to the one who needs precisely this performance – and makes it necessary: because again and again he needs himself – and makes himself necessary. – – What? and that wouldn’t be –circulus vitiosus deus? (Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil)

 The Eternal return wipes away meaningfulness from beings, and so this is tragic for the eros of the sick and weakly, but the blank slate is an opportunity for creation for the transfiguring godless agape of the artistic and healthy.  Hence, Heidegger quotes Nietzsche twice: “To stamp becoming with Being, that is the highest form of will to power.”  The Joker is not simply reacting to the chaos he encounters in a state of endless ADHD, but rather he and Batman both see the chaos and try and stamp it differently: the Batman with justice, and the Joker with art.

(Conclusion)

Nietzsche’s later thought is essentially a reversal of Greek thinking by seeing what actually lied at the heart of it.  Aristotle said only a lower animal or God delights in solitude, and a philosophical life is a kind of godliness (athanatizein).  This doesn’t mean immortality, since the Greeks thought everyone was immortal, but rather refers to the fact that philosophers dine on the ever-youth-giving ambrosia of the gods, maintaining the vitality and wonder/involvement of youth.  The Greeks saw the gods as eternally youthful in this way.  Nietzsche uncovers this from the point of view of time.  The dwarf in Zarathustra is disgusted because he experiences the tragedy that everything moves in a circle, that even the beings we love become, as the Pina Colada song says, a warn out recording of a favorite song.  Nietzsche gives the example of this bad infinite in the Gay Science 124 with the extreme cabin fever of the once free caged bird to show the attuning to the eternal forms of the philosopher escapes the restlessness of the transitory, but only because our being-there is a being addicted: 

“In the Horizon of the Infinite. We have left the land and have gone aboard ship! We have broken down the bridge behind us, – nay, more, the land behind us! Well, little ship! look out! Beside thee is the ocean; it is true it does not always roar, and sometimes it spreads out like silk and gold and a gentle reverie. But times will come when thou wilt feel that it is infinite, and that there is nothing more frightful than infinity. Oh, the poor bird that felt itself free, and now strikes against the walls of this cage! Alas, if home sickness for the land should attack thee, as if there had been more freedom there, – and there is no ‘land’ any longer!” (Nietzsche, Gay Science, 124).

Nietzsche’s later philosophy is thus a humanism inasmuch as it tries to distinguish humans as not simply being an animal who is supremely rational.  It is the animality of human that is to be overcome with the artist:  In Nietzsche’s words, art is worth more than truth. 

Did you like this piece? Check out more from John MacDonald here and here.

Works Cited

Agape and the Four Loves with Nietzsche, Father, and Q Hardcover – March 13, 2013, by David Goicoechea (Author)

Nietzsche and Amor Fati, Béatrice Han-Pile First published: 23 May 2011 https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-0378.2009.00380 (online, no pages)

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