Optimus Contra Nietzsche

Life has not been devised my morality: it wants deception, it lives on deception.

The Nietzscheans

The Nietzscheans

So says Nietzsche in the preface to Human, all too human, coming down on the Decepticon side of the argument.  And the master was aware of the consequences for the individual who chose to live out his philosophy:

Every select man strives instinctively for a citadel and a privacy, where he is free from the crowd, the many, the majority–where he may forget “men who are the rule”, as their exception;–exclusive only of the case in which he is pushed straight to such men by a still stronger instinct, as a discerner in the great and exceptional sense.” (fr. aphorism 26, Beyond good and evil)

Among the sort who are wont to think too much, Nietzsche is so appealing that he needs to be knocked down a peg or two, his every flaw exposed, so that we may not be mired in the 1880s (he would despise us for that) but feed on him and then move on.

The universal history of the Transformers provides a long and sustained assault on some core Nietzschean principles as exemplified above.

Go right to the very first episode of the very first Transformers series.  We see Megatron and Starscream, the boss and number one.  What is Starscream doing?  Boasting that he could do a better job than Megatron to his face.  Starscream is quite the freethinker, but the squabbles between these two Decepticons are ripe for exploitation by the Autobots.  Starscream’s insubordination is shocking (and lovable) but it’s calculating and clever, as he seems to know just when to yield.

friend or foe, nobody knows

friend or foe, nobody knows

I’ve been reading IDW’s rebooted Transformers continuity and I like how the authors here emphasize this Nietzschean aspect of the Decepticons, and how it consistently hurts them.  In “Spotlight: Cliffjumper”, the Autobot convinces a couple of humanoids on whose planet he has landed not to fear him because he is one of the good guys.  When the Decepticons arrive, they interrogate one of the humanoids and scoff at the story Cliffjumper spun for her:

“Told you they were heroes, did they.  They preach morality, but show little difference from us…save weakness.”

This reminds me of Nietzsche’s antithesis of strength and weakness, where often the same acts can be “out of weakness” or “out of strength” [regarding tolerance, see aphorism 49 of Twilight of the Idols, regarding adaption, see aphorism 242 of Beyond good and evil, regarding actions in general, see the whole of Thus spoke Zarathustra.]

Cliffjumper: model autobot or just an autobot model?

Cliffjumper: model autobot or just an autobot model?

The fundamental consequence is the organizational malaise (outright chaos) of the Decepticons, which reminds me a bit of the Nazis (interesting article on Nietzsche/Nazis here), and is exposed in the IDW’s “Spotlight” comics.  Look at three of the great Decepticon satraps:

1) Shockwave – This Decepticon uses his brilliant calculations to predict that Cybertron will be engulfed in a Civil War in the distant future.  He begins to prepare for this by shipping out massive amounts of Energon.  Everything is kept a secret from his lord.  “Megatron will brand me a rogue, a traitor, but such considerations are moot.”  Logical, strong, but whoa!

2) Soundwave – Shockwave disappears mysteriously, and Megatron wants to know what has happened.  The man for the job is Soundwave, the intelligence specialist.  Sure enough, the Decepticon uncovers Shockwave’s huge Energon transfer program, but does he tell Megatron?  Of course not!  Information is power, and Soundwave decides to keep his boss informed only on a need to know basis.

Shockwave and Soundwave are classic loners, choosing to work with others only for the sake of power.  Nietzschean undertones here…

3) Starscream – Starscream’s role in “Megatron Origin”, the initial series in the IDW continuity, is as pivotal as it is delightful.  I’ll have to come out with some spoilers here, but I’ll keep the actual details to a minimum:

Megatron begins his career as a miner working for the Autobots on Cybertron.  Outraged at the manipulations and abuses of the Cybertronian hierarchy, he leads a rebellion of the miners and escapes to a lawless district of the planet.  There, he amasses fame and fortune as a “gladiator”.  Starscream joins his crew and soon after they are all apprehended and incarcerated by the Autobot authorities.

Information is Power

Information is Power

Starscream immediately offers his services to the Autobots: he agrees to rat all of his friends out in exchange for preferential treatment.  Writer Simon Furman is very smartly playing on our expectations: Starscream is a self-serving bastard so this move on his part is as natural as can be.  As it turns out, however, this was planned with Megatron in advance.  At Starscream’s hearing before the Autobots, he suddenly whips out two big guns, massacres the whole lot and frees Megatron.

By the time the next series (“Infiltration”) wheels around, Megatron is already suspecting Starscream of betraying him.  What happens next, well, I won’t go into that, because it’s basically the whole plot.  The point is that each of these Decepticons has strong and powerful qualities that end up cancelling each other out and facilitating Autobot dominance.

So how about the Autobots?  Well, Optimus Prime runs a tight ship and his faction’s activities are always driven by moral concerns, even though the twin notions of “acceptable losses” and “lesser of two evils” keep coming up.



But there’s more than meets the eye here.  Optimus was chosen to this post (in the IDW reboot) by the Matrix of Leadership: his rule is sanctioned by a quasi-religious authority.  In the “Spotlight: Cliffjumper” comic that I mentioned above, we see the Autobot deliberately lying to the humanoids (he neglects to tell them he has killed just as the Decepticons have); the taunts of the Decepticons actually hurt him because underneath he suspects it is all true.  In the end, though, he manages to keep the faith and continue being a model Autobot.

The Autobot War Machine is fearsome despite it being classically religious and antithetical to Nietzschean principles.  I should rather say, because it is antithetical to Nietzschean principles.  When was the last time you saw Nietzscheans winning a war??

That said, this won’t be my last word on the subject  because this year’s limited series “All hail Megatron” portrays the Decepticons triumphant, and “Spotlight: Optimus Prime” reveals unsavory facts about the Prime dynasty that will make Optimus question his own existence.  I guess I need to read those to figure out if Nietzsche will still laugh in the end…

~ by Haloed Bane on July 2, 2009.

2 Responses to “Optimus Contra Nietzsche”

  1. Never thought of applying Nietszche to transforming robots myself, but since the topic’s come up, I’ll offer a dissenting analysis: the Decepticons probably embody one interpretation of Nietszche’s will to power, but I’m hesitant to say that Nietszche would have acknowledged them as such – I’m not sure that “power” for Nietszche is the same as pure physical or political power. It’s not so much the ability to coerce action from others as it is mastery over the self and freedom from the “slave mentality”. I’m still a little fuzzy on the definitions myself, as I haven’t read a great deal of Nietszche, but that’s the impression I get.

    In this sense, Megatron may be an ubermensch (depending on the characterization; as with many franchises, those vary widely), but Starscream is arguably not – his actions are dominated by his fear of Megatron and his naked envy and lust for Megatron’s position.

    I haven’t read the newer IDW Publishing comics, but I recall waaaaaay back when I picked up one of the Marvel Generation 2 comics – it was a continuity reboot of sorts, wherein the first issue Optimus is captured by Jhiaxus, the leader of a new generation of Transformers, the descendants of the Autobots and the Decepticons who continued to live scattered amongst the galaxy. After speaking with Jhiaxus, Prime is deeply unsettled and begins to question whether or not the Autobots and their ideals are truly still relevant, or if they are, as Jhiaxus terms them, “relics”; to which his faithful lieutenant Grimlock responds with an emphatic negative, stating in his classically charming way that “No! We the good guys!”
    In that sense I suppose the Autobots at least aspire to some sort of Ubermenschality (is that a word?) – true, the values they have are old values, but they are still attempting to establish a value system in the face of the (literal) collapse of their old society, whereas the Decepticons often show more of an “every man for himself” attitude.

  2. thanx for taking your time with this: Nietzsche can be taken in so many different ways it’s really a big headache!

    I see what you mean about Starscream. In Nietzschean terms, there’s a lot of ressentiment in him, so Nietzsche wouldn’t like him, but then again he IS trying constantly so that counts for something.

    Nietzsche does want mastery over the self, but he does point out that often that will translate into mastery over others (in a basic sense, Will to Power means will to acquire more power, and that can only mean decreasing the power of things/folk around you). Napoleon, Julius Caesar, Cesare Borgia were all examples of what Nietzsche wanted men to become, and i see more napoleons on the Decepticon side than on the Autobots.

    As you said, there’s a lot of variation in the different continuities…so far in IDW’s it seems as if the Autobots have a value system that’s actually structured and hierarchical. The only ubermenschen allowed are the Primes and the Senators…

    It’s interesting that G2 and IDW both show Optimus questioning the faith. I think that’s actually a common trope in 20th-21st century fiction, just as long as in the end he comes back to the faith…which i guess is what will happen with Optimus..

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