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

Philosophy and Historical Contexts of Shaw's Play

Man and Superman
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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.

"The Revolutionist Handbook"

“The Revolutionist Handbook” is broken into ten chapters, each one verbose – at least by today’s standards. It can be said of Jack Tanner that he loves to hear himself talk. This was undoubtedly true of the playwright as well – and he certainly enjoys expressing his loquacious thoughts on every page. There’s a lot of material to digest – much of which can be interpreted in different ways. But here’s a “nutshell” version of Shaw’s key points:

“On Good Breeding”

Shaw believes that mankind’s philosophical progression has been minimal at best. In contrast, mankind’s ability to alter agriculture, microscopic organisms, and livestock has proven to be revolutionary. Humans have learned how to genetically engineer nature (yes, even during Shaw’s time).

In short, man can physically improve upon Mother Nature – why then should he not use his abilities to improve upon Mankind? (This makes me wonder what Shaw would have thought of cloning technology?)

Shaw argues that humanity should gain more control over its own destiny. “Good breeding” could lead to the improvement of the human race. What does he mean by “good breeding”? Basically, he contends that most people get married and have children for the wrong reasons. They should be partnering with a mate that exhibits physical and mental qualities that are likely to produce beneficial traits in the pair’s offspring. (Not very romantic, is it?)

“Property and Marriage”

According to the playwright, the institution of marriage slows down the evolution of the Superman. Shaw perceives marriage as old-fashioned and far too similar to the acquisition of property. He felt that it prevented many people of different classes and creeds from copulating with one another. Keep in mind, he wrote this in the early 1900s when pre-marital sex was scandalous.

Shaw also hoped to remove property ownership from society. Being a member of the Fabian Society (a socialist group who advocated gradual change from within the British government), Shaw believed that landlords and aristocrats had an unfair advantage over the common man. A socialist model would provide an equal playing field, minimizing class prejudice and broadening the variety of potential mates.

Sounds strange? I think so too. But “The Revolutionist’s Handbook” provides a historic example to illustrate his point.

“The Perfectionist Experiment at Oneida Creek”

The third chapter in the handbook focuses on an obscure, experimental settlement established in upstate New York around 1848. Identifying themselves as Christian Perfectionists, John Humphrey Noyes and his followers broke away from their traditional church doctrine and launched a small community based upon morals that differed greatly from the rest of society. For example, the Perfectionists abolished property ownership. No material possessions were coveted. (I wonder if they shared each other’s toothbrush? Blah!)

Also, the institution of traditional marriage was dissolved. Instead, they practiced “complex marriage.” Monogamous relationships were frowned upon; every man was supposedly married to every female. The communal life did not last forever. Noyes, before his death, believed that the commune would not function properly without his leadership; therefore, he dismantled the Perfectionist community, and the members eventually integrated back into mainstream society.

Back to the Characters: Jack and Ann

Similarly, Jack Tanner relinquishes his unorthodox ideals and ultimately gives in to Ann’s mainstream desire to be married. And it’s no coincidence that Shaw (several years before writing Man and Superman gave up his life as an eligible bachelor and married Charlotte Payne-Townshend, with whom he spent the next forty-five years until her death. So, perhaps revolutionary life is pleasant pursuit in which to dabble – but it is difficult for non-Supermen to resist the pull of traditional values.

So, which character in the play comes closest to the Superman? Well, Jack Tanner is certainly the one who hopes to attain that lofty goal. Yet, it’s Ann Whitefield, the woman who chases after Tanner – she’s the one who gets what she wants and follows her own instinctive moral code to achieve her desires. Maybe she’s the Superwoman.

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Bradford, Wade. "Themes and Concepts in "Man and Superman" by George Bernard Shaw." ThoughtCo, May. 2, 2017, thoughtco.com/man-and-superman-themes-and-concepts-2713246. Bradford, Wade. (2017, May 2). Themes and Concepts in "Man and Superman" by George Bernard Shaw. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/man-and-superman-themes-and-concepts-2713246 Bradford, Wade. "Themes and Concepts in "Man and Superman" by George Bernard Shaw." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/man-and-superman-themes-and-concepts-2713246 (accessed November 24, 2017).