Odd John

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G. K. Chesterton

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The tricky thing about supermen is how do you depict someone who is your mental and (allegedly) moral superior?  The typical way falls back on talking about immature supermen, so you don't have to deal with the full-blown version.  The other is to rely on telepathy and similar powers, which are really just magic, but can act as a convenient stand-in for intellectual prowess.  The superior morality, on the other hand, is nearly impossible, unless you're relating the life of a saint, and so descriptions of the moral superman are invariably found wanting.  

Such is the case with Odd John, the title character from Olaf Stapledon's 1936 novel, one of literature's more successful attempts to depict a superman.  John is a young Homo Superior  from the north of England in the 1930s with strange eyes and a spidery build who matures so slowly that at the age of twenty three he looks fourteen.  Naturally, he is a mental giant who looks upon our species as little better than dogs and at one point in the book he considers conquering the world, but he rejects this because even though he could bring peace and happiness to mankind, it would ultimately be a waste of his time, which is better spent setting up a colony of fellow supermen. 

Over all, John comes across as a sort of socialist version of the Nietzschean ideal with a couple of the rougher edges rubbed off.  In other words, human morality has no call on him, but he occasionally feels mild guilt.  This is supposed to indicate his superior moral plane, but he comes across more as an odious, amoral little tick.  Stapledon assumes that human superiority over lesser animals is quantitative rather than qualitative.  In other words, we enjoy our position over the animals because we have more of some quantity called intelligence rather than some unique quality; be it sentience, self-awareness, or an immortal soul. 

Or to be blunt about it, morality is something shared between the strong and denied to the weak.

Because of this, Stapledon's supermen are allowed to rob from, seduce, exploit, manipulate, dispossess, and even murder "lesser" people when they get in the way of the supermen's plans due to the higher moral need to advance the interests of the master race.  This sort of an argument has an unfortunate track record and Stapledon could just get away with this in the '30s.  In less than ten years, however, a certain group of would-be supermen put such ideas into practice and the world is still trying to wash the taste out of its mouth.

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