If you were to ask any historian of philosophy about which thinker caused the most controversy, confusion, and amazement at the same time, they would probably answer “Friedrich Nietzsche.” If you were to ask them about his most controversial, radical, and compelling work, they would probably mention Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
Thus Spoke Zarathustra contains, without a doubt, Nietzsche’s most significant concepts and ideas, his most radical way of thinking, as well as his hardest rebellion against all of traditional philosophy. Because of that, it is often classified as one of the most challenging books in contemporary philosophy as a whole. But what makes it so challenging, controversial, compelling, and thought-provoking? In the following article, we’ll take a closer look at Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, examine its main ideas and points, and the influence it had, and show its relevance even today.
1. The Beginning of “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”: Zarathustra’s Climb Down the Mountain
Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None, as cited with its full name, is often considered to be Nietzsche’s hardest rebellion against Christianity and democracy, although he touches on these subject matters quite often in his other books as well.
Nietzsche writes in his autobiography Ecce Homo about why he chose that title for the book. He chose Zarathustra because he sees the real Zarathustra (Zoroaster) as being the first one to have created and established a moral system that will eventually grow out to become the Judeo-Christian morality, which Nietzsche attacks in this book. It seems as though it felt fitting for Nietzsche that the fictitious Zarathustra should be the one to break down the moral system that the real Zarathustra developed. Nietzsche also stated one time that it was his favorite of his own books.
The book begins with Zarathustra climbing down alone from the mountains after 10 years spent in solitude. He expresses his love and wisdom and wants to teach humanity about the overman, often also referred to as superhuman (übermensch). On the way, he meets an elderly man that left his hut so that he could find his roots in the forest. This old man tells him that he once loved man and humankind, but got sick from its imperfections and now he only loves God.
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Zarathustra tells him about the gift of the overman that he is going to give humanity, and the old man says that humankind does not need such a gift; instead, they need help, he says. They need someone to enlighten them and provide them with empathy. The old man advises Zarathustra not to go to the people, but to go back to the forest, and even to go to the animals instead. After they separate and each head their own way, Zarathustra contemplates their encounter and thinks to himself: “Could it be possible! This old saint in his woods has not yet heard the news that God is dead!” (Nietzsche, 1883).
Through these lines, right at the very beginning of the book, we can see Nietzsche making his first main point. When Nietzsche says that “God is dead” it’s important to remember that he does not reject his existence. His saying that “God is dead” actually refers to the idea that God does not represent the source, basis, and foundation of truth, and therefore, of morality. He does not state that God does not exist (at least, not in this book), but instead that God is not the one that gives meaning and purpose to our existence anymore. If God were the one that gives our lives meaning and purpose, the world and life without God would be meaningless.
That’s why Nietzsche believes that the times we live in are nihilistic – completely free of all moral values, lacking positive and constructive goals. However, Nietzsche does not see this as a negative thing. Instead, this gives man the power to create his own values, meaning, and purpose, Nietzsche states. That’s why he suggests that the basis of morality has to be the overman, whose highest value is the will to power. We’ll take a closer look at the idea of the will to power later on.
Zarathustra arrives at the nearest town and says to its citizens that he’s here to give them knowledge and to teach them about the overman. The overman has to be the knowledge and the meaning of existence in this world, he says. The human, says Zarathustra, is just a bridge, a fastened rope over an abyss between the animal and the overman.
The overman is someone that’s free of all prejudice and of the long-lasting morality that seeps through human society, and he’s the one that creates his own values and goals, rejecting the traditional understandings and concepts of morality. But the people do not understand Zarathustra, and it seems like they do not find the knowledge of the overman very interesting. That’s why Zarathustra says that even though it’s still possible to strive to become the overman and cherish his knowledge, humankind has become more and more timid, tame, and obedient. Very soon, humankind will get to witness the last human being.
Through the image of the last human being, Nietzsche tries to paint the final result of nihilism. Lacking any kind of positive beliefs or needs, human beings will tend to reach comfort at all times and fight as little as possible. The last human being is just like the animals. He enjoys the simple pleasures in life, and finds comfort in mediocre things, avoiding everything that seems too extreme or too dangerous. Soon enough, we’ll all become the same – all average and all perfectly satisfied. We’ll “invent happiness” through the elimination of every source of worry and suffering from our lives.
The overman is actually the solution for nihilism. The overman faces a world without God in it, but instead of viewing it as meaningless, the overman sees the beauty by giving himself his own meaning and purpose. Giving his life his own values, meaning, and purpose, he revolts against the believers of “the good and the just” and the believers of “true faith,” who have yet to learn that God is dead.
At this point in the book, people in the crowd cheer and ironically shout: “Give us this last human being, oh Zarathustra, make us into these last human beings!” (Nietzsche, 1883). They simply want to go back to their daily lives: they were watching a boy walking on a tightrope at a festival. What happened next was something very unexpected. The tightrope walker falls down to the ground from a tall tower-like height. The crowd panics and they all start running away.
The walker, still alive, lies on the ground, still, when Zarathustra approaches him. He asks Zarathustra whether he’s the devil and has come to take him to hell. Zarathustra consoles him and says that he shouldn’t be afraid of death, because life after death does not exist, and therefore, neither the devil nor the hell exists, after which the boy dies. Zarathustra takes him in his arms and heads to the forest to bury him. On his way to the forest, Zarathustra thinks about the events that just transpired, concluding that he is not meant for this herd of people. He decides not to teach the herd but instead to give the knowledge he has to the ones who want to learn, the ones that want to separate themselves from the herd.
2. Zarathustra’s (And Nietzsche’s) Concept of the Overman
After this, Zarathustra’s speeches and teachings begin. Through his speech in the first chapter, “On the Three Metamorphoses,” we get to learn what Nietzsche really means by his concept of the overman. The three metamorphoses or the three transformations are: how the spirit becomes a camel, the camel a lion, and finally the lion a child. We can compare these metamorphoses with the process that the creative genius goes through.
Let’s take the artist as an example. In the first phase, he burdens himself and carries baggage like a camel walking through the desert, with long learning and studying about the technical abilities and skills he needs to possess, as well as the life-long history of art. In the next phase, he has to establish his independence and individuality like a lion, becoming a king of his own desert, and distinguishing himself from the other artists. In the end, he has to create his own way and style of expression, creating something totally new and unique.
In this last phase, the artist becomes like a child, giving birth to something totally new because he has integrated a total sense of innocence: all marks and traces of his past sufferings are completely gone, and we only see that which is new and infiltrated.
“The child is innocence and forgetting, a new beginning, a game, a wheel rolling out of itself, a first movement, a sacred yes-saying. Yes, for the game of creation my brothers a sacred yes-saying is required. The spirit wants its will, the one lost to the world now wins its own world.”
Now we can fully understand why Nietzsche talks so much about war, exercising resistance, coping with the world, and self-overcoming. It’s because these are necessary parts of the phases for becoming the overman. The progression to the overman requires a constant fight in which the new self overcomes the old. Nietzsche often talks about the war and the fight, so much so that he oftentimes gets misinterpreted. However, it’s important to remember that what Nietzsche talks about is an intellectual and internal war with ourselves – constant aspiration and desire for overcoming oneself, and not the literal meaning of war – violence and shedding blood.
He often compares war with the climbing of a mountain. He pictures this comparison most clearly in the chapter “On Reading and Writing,” where Zarathustra talks about the overman as someone standing at the top of the mountain looking down. This looking down from the top of the mountain is meant to picture the superior looking down on the faces of the inferiors. The overman has climbed so high that he can only look down. That’s why he looks down on everything, even in the face of the hardest and the most tragic events with a smile and laughter. Zarathustra points out laughter as an extremely important virtue because the overman has nothing to aspire for, nothing that would be above him, nothing that he considers serious or important. Instead, he lightly accepts everything and enjoys freedom. Freedom, on the other hand, is oftentimes shown through dancing.
We can extend this picture of the overman standing on the top of the mountain as someone that has climbed up so high and take it as a suggestion: every (over)man should find their own peak on the mountain. Zarathustra can talk about the obstacles along the way and the reward at the top, but he cannot lead others climbing the mountain because, after all, he’s only familiar with his own path and his own mountain peak.
Zarathustra is the prophet that gives the concept of the overman to humankind, but he’s not a prophet that wants to have followers, something that he mentions quite often, and it’s what differentiates him from the other prophets. We can ask ourselves as Michael Tanner does in “Nietzsche: A very short introduction”:
“How can someone who claims to know the truth not want to have followers?”
(Michael Tanner, 2001).
The answer to that question would be that Zarathustra is not really sure if he knows the truth. That’s why he decides to leave the mountain and go down to the city in the first place – this is carefully calculated ambiguity on Nietzsche’s side, Tanner points out. In the last chapter of the first part of the book, “On the Bestowing Virtue,” when Zarathustra is leaving his pupils, he even says to them to completely forget about him, to not praise his teachings, to even be ashamed of him, and to rebel against him. He says that a pupil should not return to the teacher as a pupil. That’s why they have to create their own values and meaning.
3. Nietzsche’s Rebellion Against Christianity
Now let’s dive into Zarathustra’s critique of Christianity a bit deeper. Zarathustra criticizes Christianity, among other things, because of its presupposition of a will that does not challenge the human being, but instead promotes obedience and tameness. According to Zarathustra, this means turning your back to life. Instead of revenge in this life, Christianity promotes suffering and pain, stating that God will establish justice in the afterlife.
The chapter “On a Thousand and One Goals” is named like that because in it Zarathustra talks about how he existed as a thousand and one person, a thousand and one times, each existence with its own concepts of good and evil, each with its own values and goals. He mentions four examples: the Greeks, the Persians, the Jews, and the Germans. In each of these lives, what they consider good is “the voice of their own will to power.” The will to power, Nietzsche says, is the fundamental drive that causes all events, changes, and movements in the universe.
Regarding the concepts of good and evil, it’s important to mention Nietzsche’s distinction between them in his book “On the Genealogy of Morality.” In it he draws a clear line between master morality and slave morality, the latter of which got created and developed within the lower-class people and the priest’s yards. The weak and powerless invented slave morality as a means of revenge towards the aristocratic rulers. The weak despise the power their rulers have and feel resentment for their powerlessness to avenge them. Because they cannot get to them and get revenge in this life, they invented the idea of life after death and the idea of God’s justice that will eventually avenge them in the afterlife.
Therefore, God’s justice is a product of people that are not strong enough to establish justice for themselves. They also invented the concept of evil, which Nietzsche sees as the greatest invention of humankind. The aristocratic rulers, and everything that relates to them: wealth, power, strength, good health, and happiness, were considered evil. On the contrary, the slaves identify good in everything that their ruler is not: being poor, weak, sick, unhappy, and average is good. In fact, it’s themselves that they identify as good. This new morality of the slaves represents a total turn of the old one, the morality of the masters.
Furthermore, Nietzsche comes to recognize that slave morality is mostly present in Christianity, as well as in democracy. The biblical “Sermon on the Mount” found in the Gospel of Matthew is the clearest example of that. In it, Jesus preaches a life of obedience and poverty, completely lacking the wealth and treasures in life. Democracy, on the other hand, lays on the foundation of equality and justice for all, which Nietzsche sees as the rudiments of slave morality. Instead of accepting a world that promotes charity and imposed equality, Nietzsche promotes a world of creative freedom, achieved through the inequality between people. In such a world, every man will be his own starting point, ambition, and goal. While Christian values are undesirable and unpleasant, and at the same time require an external reward to be achieved, Nietzsche’s ideal values for creativity and self-overcoming should be pursued not only because they’re desirable, but also because they are good by nature itself. In such a world, pitying is bad for both the one being pitied and the one that pities.
4. Zarathustra’s Doctrine of Eternal Recurrence
At the very end of our text, there’s another important idea that needs to be pointed out, and that’s Zarathustra’s doctrine of eternal recurrence and rebirth, at the end of the fourth part of the book in the chapter “The Song of Melancholy.” This idea presupposes that all events and occurrences in the world are going to repeat themselves for eternity.
It’s only the overman that can fully grasp that idea because only he has the power of the will, and the will to power as well, to take full responsibility for every moment of his life, and to not want anything more but the constant repetition of those moments, for eternity. Zarathustra also expresses his anxiety and worry about this idea, as he cannot stand the thought of having the averageness of the herd repeated for all eternity, without any progress.
5. Thus Spoke Zarathustra’s Importance and Further Influence
Thus Spoke Zarathustra covers a major portion of Nietzsche’s adult philosophy, and it’s considered to be one of the strangest books in western philosophy. Its subtitle “A Book for All and None” speaks about the incredibly complex style it’s written in. Nietzsche was an extremely lonely person, and he believed that none of his contemporaries understood his ideas. He knew that his philosophy would not be met with open arms, which is why he stated it’s a book for “none.” On the other hand, the subject matter he writes about concerns the fate of humanity as a whole, and in this sense, Thus Spoke Zarathustra is a book for all. This interpretation is noted by many historians of philosophy.
This crisis of meaning that Nietzsche (along with Ludwig Feuerbach) conceived at the end of the 19th century prompted philosophers to ask themselves the lifelong philosophical question – what is the meaning of life? Out of this renewed engagement with meaning emerged existentialism as a new philosophical doctrine. Considering the struggles of the search for meaning, philosophers put the focus back on the human being and gathered their knowledge in an attempt to answer the most baffling question of all time.
Zarathustra’s critique of Christianity, the concept of the overman, the idea of the will to power, as well as Nietzsche’s philosophy altogether, were all big factors in the emergence of such a renewed focus on this question, and their influence can clearly be seen in the philosophy following. That’s why Thus Spoke Zarathustra remains, to this day, a must-read book for everyone studying the history of philosophy.