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Themes and Concepts in "Man and Superman" by George Bernard Shaw

Philosophy and Historical Contexts of Shaw's Play


Ingrained within George Bernard Shaw’s humorous play Man and Superman is a perplexing yet fascinating philosophy about the potential future of mankind. During Act Three, an awesome debate between Don Juan and the Devil takes place. Many sociological issues are explored, not the least of which is the concept of the Superman.

What is a Superman?

First of all, don’t get the philosophical idea of the “Superman” mixed up with the comic book hero who flies around in blue tights and red shorts – and who looks suspiciously like Clark Kent! That Superman is bent on preserving truth, justice and the American way. The Superman from Shaw’s play possesses the following qualities:

  • Superior intellect
  • Cunning and intuition
  • Ability to defy obsolete moral codes
  • Self-defined virtues

Shaw’s Examples of Supermen:

Shaw selects a few figures from history who display some of the Superman’s traits:

Each person is a highly influential leader, each with his own amazing capabilities. Of course, each had significant failings. Shaw argues that the fate of each of these “casual supermen” was caused by the mediocrity of humanity. Because most people in society are unexceptional, the few Supermen who happen to appear on the planet now and then face a nearly impossible challenge. They must try to either subdue the mediocrity or to raise the mediocrity up to the level of Supermen.

Therefore, Shaw does not simply want to see a few more Julius Caesars crop up in society. He wants mankind to evolve into an entire race of healthy, morally-independent geniuses.

Nietzsche and the Origins of the Superman

Shaw states that the idea of the Superman has been around for millennia, ever since the myth of Prometheus. Remember him from Greek mythology? He was the titan who defied Zeus and the other Olympian gods by bringing fire to mankind, thereby empowering man with a gift meant only for deities. Any character or historical figure who, like Prometheus, endeavors to create his own destiny and strive towards greatness (and perhaps leading others toward those same godlike attributes) can be considered a “superman” of sorts.

However, when the Superman is discussed in philosophy classes, the concept is usually attributed to Friedrich Nietzsche. In his 1883 book Thus Spake Zarathustra Nietzsche provides a vague description of an “Ubermensch” – loosely translated into Overman or Superman. He states, “man is something which ought to be overcome,” and by this he seems to mean that mankind will evolve into something far superior to contemporary humans.

Because the definition is rather unspecified, some have interpreted a “superman” to be someone who is simply superior in strength and mental ability. But what really makes the Ubermensch out of the ordinary is his unique moral code.

Nietzsche stated that “God is dead.” He believed that all religions were false and that by recognizing that society was built upon fallacies and myths, mankind could then reinvent itself with new morals based upon a godless reality.

Some believe that Nietzsche’s theories were meant to inspire a new golden age for the human race, like the community of geniuses in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. In practice, however, Nietzsche’s philosophy has been blamed (albeit unfairly) as one of the causes of 20th century fascism. It is easy to connect Nietzsche’s Ubermensch with the Nazi’s insane quest for a “master race,” a goal that resulted in wide-scaled genocide. After all, is a group of so-called Supermen are wiling and able to invent their own moral code, what is to stop them from committing countless atrocities in pursuit of their version of social perfection?

In contrast to some of Nietzsche’s ideas, Shaw’s Superman exhibits socialist leanings which the playwright believed would benefit civilization.

Shaw’s Superman and “The Revolutionist’s Handbook”

Shaw’s Man and Superman can be supplemented by “The Revolutionist’s Handbook,” a political manuscript written by the protagonist of the play, John (AKA Jack) Tanner. (Of course, Shaw actually did the writing – but when writing a character analysis of Tanner, students should view the handbook as an extension of Tanner’s personality.)

In Act One of the play, the stuffy, old-fashioned character Roebuck Ramsden despises the unconventional views within Tanner’s treatise. He throws “The Revolutionist’s Handbook” into the wastebasket without even reading it. Ramsden’s action represents society’s general revulsion toward unorthodoxy. Most citizens take comfort in all things “Normal”, in long-held traditions, customs, and manners. When Tanner challenges those age-old institutions such as marriage and property ownership, mainstream thinkers (such as ol’ Ramsden) label Tanner as immoral.

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