E. Belfort Bax

Man and Superman

(24 October 1903)

Man and Superman – Shaw, Justice, 24th October 1903, p.2.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The editor of Justice has been careful to admonish me anent the present article, as I valued my reputation, not to take Shaw seriously. He is convinced that George Bernard himself has no greater contempt for the intellect of any human being, than for that of the man who takes him seriously. Now, I rather agree with my friend the editor on this point. I, too, regard G.B.S. as the champion spoofer of the three kingdoms, who would sacrifice eternal welfare of his father’s ghost if by so doing he could get a smart epigrammatic joke out of its unhappy situation. But nevertheless I am disposed on the present occasion to risk the redactional wrath of Justice and Shaw’s contempt at the same time, by, for the nonce, taking our only Shaw at his own valuation and (for this occasion only) treating him like a human thinker. I am induced to do so by the fact that the main thesis running through his book of the salvation of mankind by “stirpiculture “ is one which seems to be getting a temporary vogue among the quasi-serious writers of the day on social subjects.

The notion of the superman (or in more tolerable English the overman) comes, of course directly from Nietzsche, though, in one or another shape, the idea is much older. It is a natural if rather obvious fancy that a quite superior type of human animal is to be obtained by breeding for him. But this thought assumes, at least in Nietzschian form, that natural evolution tends to a superior form of the human individual as such – to my mind very doubtful assumption. Shaw, it is true, would seem to identify his superman with the genius, the Shakespeare, the Goethe, or the Mozart, known already sporadically to the world’s history. But in this he seems to forget that the genius (as we know him) is in most cases only a super in a particular line of things. In other respects he may be very much sub. For example, does Shaw suppose that Mozart could have been a creditable organiser of industry ? The Genius almost invariably pays for his genius by the defects of his quality otherwise. And yet, if you are to have a world of geniuses, your average man must be an average genius all round, leaving the higher rungs of the ladder in every department for the exceptional specialist genius as now. A world entirely composed of specialists would lack a foundation. The genius as we know him however, as already said, is only a genius in his speciality. Outside he may be a fool. Shaw, let us say, is a literary and humoristic genius or super, but we have no reason to believe he could run a hotel any better than a man as literarily inferior to himself, as, say – Ibsen. But putting this aside and admitting the superman to be what we now call genius, the question is – Can we breed him?

That it is possible to obtain certain results from selection in breeding is clear from the experiments of agriculturists, pigeon fanciers, stud keepers, &c. But it may be observed that all the results obtained in this way, even when any are obtained (which is by no mean always the case), are very simple in their nature. You may breed for certain markings, a certain size, in the case of a race-horse for swiftness (which means strength and flexibility of limb), and for other things of this sort. Similarly with the human. Friedrich I succeeded by “stirpiculture” in producing his celebrated regiment of tall Hussars. But here, I repeat, we are concerned with certain relatively simple and purely physical characteristics. A complete mental life with its subtle qualities and thousandfold possibilities is entirely left out of account. And yet upon that the whole question hinges. Shaw’s friend, “life-force,” in its more complex manifestations, won’t be harnessed to any mechanical scheme of stirpiculture. Shaw forgets that it is not merely the immediate parentage that counts but a long-ascending scale of ancestors computed to include about 16,000 persons in two centuries, to any one of which, or any combination of which, the type may revert at any time. I have seen a woman in Eastern Switzerland, the living image of a family portrait of her ancestor of the seventeenth century. And how about the notorious feebleness of the children of great geniuses – which Shaw can hardly attribute entirely to the defectiveness of the “spindle” side. Was Christiane Vulpian not a healthy average young woman, a seemingly good counterpoise to Goethe’s genius ? Certainly, the genius as known to history seems lamentably deficient in the capacity of perpetuating himself in his kind.

What possible knowledge then have we of the causes producing superior types of intellect and character. I could quote one very striking case from a among my own and Shaw’s mutual acquaintance in which one brother of a family was a genius and the rest nonentities; so that after all, the character of the particular human does not seem to depend on the mere personality of the immediate parents but on something far more subtle and complex. Furthermore, even supposing a human couple likely to produce the superman were selected, and the superman really came off, what guarantee have we that the super would be more than one against many – that out of ten offspring we might not have nine duffers to one super? In which case we should not be very much better off than now. In short, of all the fatuous ineptitudes doing duty to-day for social wisdom (oftentimes with a view of drawing a kipper across the trail of the Socialist solution of things social) none seems to me more hopelessly out of it than this nostrum of Stirpiculture.

Men are now going about in this twentieth century of the Christian era seeking the means of salvation for the social body in this life, just as they were going about in the first century of the Christian era seeking the means of salvation for the individual soul in another life. We are given to understand that they used then to cry out, Lo, here is Christ! and lo there! So now our smart writers and politicians are perennially inviting us to partake of this or that or the other true panacea (the modern equivalent of “Christ”) for the social problem. In the present case, for instance, this Stirpiculture theory is put as an alternative, I suppose, to the Social-Democratic communisation of the means of production and distribution. No, the outlook may seem discouraging at times for the best Socialist, we admit, but it is never so bad as the frank jejuneness of “Stirpiculture.” Organise life on Social-Democratic principles with production for use and not for profit, and natural evolution of itself will do the stirpiculture for an indefinite time yet. Retain life on a capitalistic basis, and not all the artificial or quasi-artificial breeding in the world will prevent the super being dragged under by the economic circumstances into which he is born. If man is not going to “effectively will anything” till he becomes superman, then is doomsday indeed near.

From a literary, as opposed to a sociological, point of view I am inclined to rank Man and Superman among Shaw’s best efforts. There are some inconsistencies and even absurdities. For instance, a Manchester-School Radical Spencerite is not at all likely to behave like a shocked evangelical maiden aunt when he comes in contact with a man holding “extreme” views. He might, and probably would, laugh at them, affect to treat them with contempt, tell their propounder that when he lived to be as he (the speaker) was he would be wiser, and so forth; but develop an epilepsy of shockedness at the sight of a heteredox man or his book he certainly would not. And this is precisely what Shaw’s Ramsden is made to do. The second act strikes me as the best – the dream scene, as far as it goes, is capital. I say, as far as it goes, for why leave poor Leporello out in the cold? One quite resents not being let into Leporello’s views on the future life as revealed by Shaw. Let us hope Shaw will remedy this in future. We suggest that his next book should bear the title, Leporello in Heaven and Hell.

There are some childish affectations of eccentricity in spelling, the worst of which is the printing of Donna Anna’s name “Ana.” Shaw cuts off the final “e” in Shakespeare’s name, moreover, which, though not without precedent, of course, is nevertheless about the most unusual form he could have chosen. But these minor blemishes apart, those who seek literary amusement cannot do better than read Man and Superman; the play in the first instance, and afterwards the epistle dedicatory and the appendices. In the revolutionary maxims they will find the most admirable fooling comprising withal much sense and not a little nonsense, but both sense and nonsense done up in rissoles composed of the very essence of literary smartness and cooked to perfection.


E. Belfort Bax


Last updated on 11.6.2004