Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche was born 15th October 1844 in the small town of Rocken, and died 25th August 1900. Nietzsche was a highly influential philosopher, particularly within post modernism (a rejection of many ideas with philosophical modernism, such as humanity) and existentialism (the belief that philosophical thought should be to deal with the conditions of the existence of the individual person and their emotions, actions, responsibilities, and thoughts).
Nietzsche’s key ideas included the death of God, perspectivism (the idea that there are many perspectives in which the judgement of what is true can be made), Ubermensch (dealt with in ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra’), eternal recurrence (the idea that the universe has and will continue to recur) and will to power (humanity’s main focus- ambition and the aim to achieve the highest position).
Thus Spoke Zarathustra was written in four parts between 1883 and 1885. The introduction to the book is written by Nietzsche’s sister and it is explained that Zarathustra is the history of Nietzsche’s most individual experiences, ‘his friendships, ideals, raptures, bitterest disappointments and sorrows.’ The book also showcases Nietzsche’s greatest hopes and remotest aims. Zarathustra was the ‘haunter of (Nietzsche’s) dreams.’
The book itself begins with Zarathustra, leaving his cave within the mountains in which he had lived for the past ten years. He claimed to have grown weary of his wisdom and wanted to share it with someone. ‘...like a bee that has too gathered too much honey; I need hands outstretched to take it..’
On his descent from the mountain Zarathustra meets a saint, who warns him of mankind’s imperfections and implores him to give nothing to them and to love God instead. Upon leaving the saint Zarathustra exclaims to himself ‘Could it be possible! This old saint has not yet heard in the forest that God is dead!’ Nietzsche’s first exclamation of the death of God was written in The Gay Science. Nietzsche is not denying the existence of God but he is asserting that God is no longer a strong enough belief to give meaning to people’s lives.
When Zarathustra reaches the nearest town he begins his first lesson. ‘I teach you the Superman. Man is something that should be overcome.’ He speaks of the Superman becoming the meaning of the earth, and to blaspheme the earth would be the greatest of offences. The people of the town do not appear to understand Zarathustra and have little interest in the overman, instead they laugh. Zarathustra is puzzled by their lack of comprehension and questions what makes them so proud. ‘What is it called that makes them proud? They call it culture, it distinguishes them from the goatherds.’
Zarathustra then speaks to the people of the town about the Ultimate Man- the most contemptible man. Again, the townspeople do not understand this and merely state that they are happy. Whilst Zarathustra is preaching a tightrope walker begins a performance but falls from his tightrope next to Zarathustra. He too is sceptical, but Zarathustra assures him that the ideas of heaven and hell are not real. ‘You have made danger your calling, there is nothing in that to despise, now you perish through your calling: so I will bury you with my own hands.’ The tightrope walker appears reassured and gestures to Zarathustra with his hand as if to shake it.
As Zarathustra walks to bury the tightrope walker he is met with laughter and the knowledge that the people of the town resent him and wish for him to live. He comes to the conclusion that he must no longer preach to the masses but instead seek out those of a similar mind to join him.
Part One: Zarathustra’s Discourses
Chapters one to ten of part one contain a series of teachings from Zarathustra.
Of The Three Metamorphoses: Zarathustra speaks of the metamorphoses of the spirit in three parts. The spirit becomes a camel, the camel a lion and the lion a child. This can be related to the idea of the superman/ the overman and the struggle to develop into the highest possible being, until the last stage has been reached and the struggle is replaced by innocence.
Throughout the other preaching’s it is evident that Nietzsche favours struggle and hardship, likening it to war or to climbing a mountain. ‘He who climbs the highest mountains laughs at all tragedies, real or imaginary.’ There are many things to overcome before a person can become the overman/superman.
Nietzsche also asserts that Christianity’s belief in heaven and hell is a rejection of the body, and the need for relief in the afterlife. (The Despisers of the Body.)
On Chastity: Nietzsche sees the pursuit of sex as counter-productive and something which could eventually corrupt the spirit. ‘Is it not better to fall into the hands of a murderer than into the dreams of a lustful woman?’
Many of the chapters and teachings in part one relate to distractions in becoming the overman. Love and marriage are distractions, women are a distraction, sex is a distraction and so on. It appears that Nietzsche favours solitude and personal hardship, his last lesson he preaches to the town, he encourages people to find their own paths and not simply follow his. Each must face their own journey to become overmen.
‘All gods are dead: now we want the superman to live- let this be our last will one day at the great noontide.’
‘-and only when you have denied me will I return to you. Truly with other eyes, my brothers, I shall then seek my lost ones; with another love I shall then love you.’
In part two, Zarathustra returns to his cave in the mountains. In a dream he sees a devil and realises that his enemies are distorting the meaning of his teaching. He resolves to return to the people and continue to share his ‘old, wild wisdom.’
Part two of the book also has the key theme of will to power. Will to power is the belief that all life strives for power in one form or another. This encompasses both physical and mental power. True power can only be achieved by self-overcoming, which is a fundamental drive. Power can be sought from everything and freedom gained from it.
‘Everything is empty, everything is one, everything is past.’ (The Prophet) Zarathustra dreams he is a night-watchman, watching over coffins in a castle. The coffins burst open and laughter sounds. One of Zarathustra’s disciples interprets the dream as Zarathustra being a saviour who will awaken humanity from its emptiness and sadness. In many ways these references appear biblical, especially referring to saviours and disciples.
At the end of part two, Zarathustra again returns to his cave in solitude. ‘O Zarathustra, your fruits are ripe but you are not ripe for your fruits.’
Zarathustra’s return to the mountains was predominantly to discover eternal recurrence. Courage is key in helping to confront eternal recurrence. Everything is infinite and every moment in life has already happened and will continue to happen. Zarathustra also states that courage destroys pity, which, to man, is the ‘deepest abyss.’ It also destroys death, saying ‘Was that life? Well then! Once more!’
Zarathustra expects the realisation of eternal recurrence to bring him pain but he is still filled with happiness. ‘Away with you blissful hour! With you there came to me an involuntary bliss! I stand here ready for my deepest pain- you came out of season.’
‘Happiness runs after me. That is because I do not run after women. Happiness, however, is a woman.’
It may seem a happy thought that all our best moments are repeated infinitely but we must also face the fact that all our worst moments will recur in the same way too. There is a balance between them both. Zarathustra cannot come to terms with this as it means that humanity, in its mediocre state, will never fully be overcome.
Although Nietzsche was an atheist, he does praise Jesus as being the creator of a new way of seeing, respecting Jesus as a man rather than a religious icon. Again this relates to will to power and courage to overcome.
Nietzsche also appears to praise evil at various points throughout the book. What makes something evil is dependent on a moral viewpoint and it is something to overcome as part of constant change.
In part four of the book, Zarathustra waits in the mountains for people to come to him. Here he is asked to confront his final sin- pity. This was previously described in the book as a man’s deepest abyss. Zarathustra thinks he can hear the higher man calling out to him in despair and goes in search of him. On his journey he encounters various people: two kings, a man in a swamp, a magician, a pope, ‘the ugliest man,’ a beggar and his own shadow. Each of these encounters is an element of becoming the overman- Zarathustra’s ultimate goal, it is also each person Zarathustra meets with is an aspect of Nietzsche’s personality
The kings represent those who wish to worship a higher man rather than become one themselves.
The man in the swamp represents Nietzsche’s idea of the ideal philosopher.
The magician represents philosophy itself.
The ugliest man represents the resentment and overcoming of pity. God exposed all that was to be pitied about the man, therefore the ugliest man rejected God.
The beggar represents the need to learn and continually absorb knowledge.
Zarathustra’s shadow is representative of searching, but following someone else’s search rather than its own.
Zarathustra knows that none of the men in his cave can become overmen because they still hold too many of their old values and old resentments, for example the pope is still weighed down by his love for God. Zarathustra tells his companions to steer clear of the absolute- God, truth, morality.
Nietzsche also shows self doubt in part four of the book, as he questions whether his happiness and laughter are as a result of him only dealing with light-hearted issues. ‘...in all my efforts to free myself from dogmatism and absolutism, I've freed myself from everything substantial. Like a fool or a poet, perhaps I deal only with frivolous and pleasing subjects, and that's why I laugh.’
In the final chapter of the book, Zarathustra states ‘Very well! The lion has come, my children are near, Zarathustra has become ripe, my hour has come.’ This is referring to the lion in book one, the metamorphoses of the spirit. Zarathustra is on his way to becoming the superman/overman.
General points on Thus Spoke Zarathustra
Zarathustra is a man who praises laughter and can laugh at himself. He is critical of mass movements such as Christianity. It is easier to speak out to individuals rather than the masses. Zarathustra praises evil as it can get rid of older moralities, such as God, and replaces them with something new.
The overman is one who is free from prejudices and morality. The overman is the creator of his own value, which is the ultimate goal of humanity.
Eternal recurrence and will to power are also key concepts in overcoming man and becoming the overman.