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NA432512 - NIETZSCHE, F.: Thus spoke Zarathustra (Abridged)
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Friedrich Nietzsche
Thus spoke Zarathustra

Friedrich Nietzsche was born in 1844, at Röcken near Leipzig in Saxony, to Carl Ludwig Nietzsche (a Lutheran minister) and his wife Franziska; he had a younger sister, Elisabeth, and a younger brother Joseph (who died at the age of just one). Educated at the famous Schulpforta near Naumburg, he went on to study Classics at the universities of Bonn and then Leipzig, with such distinction that in 1869 – at the age of just 24 – Nietzsche was offered a chair in Classical Philology at the University of Basel in Switzerland. He held this post until his retirement in 1879.

Philologie as understood in Germany at this period covered a broad spectrum of disciplines which may seem to us separate; Nietzsche taught courses in Greek and Latin language, literature and philosophy (as well as more technical disciplines like metre and epigraphy). His major publications of these years, however, ranged more widely still. His first book, The Birth of Tragedy (1872; in German, Die Geburt der Tragödie) offered a controversial (then – and now) and very influential account of the ‘Apolline’ and ‘Dionysiac’ elements in Greek culture; even here, Nietzsche looks well beyond the borders of the ancient world, with the final third of the book devoted to a consideration of Wagnerian opera (Nietzsche was from 1868 until 1876 a close friend of the composer). With Untimely Meditations (1873-6; Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen) he returned to Wagner, in one of four long essays on aspects of German culture (the others on David Strauss, historiography and Schopenhauer). But this form was not congenial to Nietzsche, and in his next book Human, all too human (1878; Menschliches, Allzumenshliches) – made up of 638 discrete sections, often with their own titles, discussing a huge variety of subjects – he found a format (drawing on traditions of the French Enlightenment) more suitable for the directions that his thought was now taking. His next works Assorted Opinions and Maxims (1879; Vermischte Meinungen und Sprüche) and The Wanderer and his Shadow (1880; Der Wanderer und sein Schatten) continue in this mode: cultural and philosophical commentary on a variety of subjects, couched in aphorisms or short essays.

In 1879, Nietzsche resigned from his Basel chair, partly on the grounds of his poor health: a factor which would have a decisive influence on the next ten years of his life, which were spent mainly in the Alps and northern Italy. He retained contact with a few loyal friends, and in 1882 enjoyed the most significant erotic relationship of his life (with Lou Salomé) – but their affair did not last, and much of this period was spent in solitude. Remarkably, these were the years of Nietzsche’s greatest achievement as a writer and thinker.

Daybreak (Morgenröte), published in 1881, was in form similar to the works of 1878-80; but it represented something of a new departure in terms of content. Looking back on it in his retrospective self-portrait Ecce Homo (written in 1888), Nietzsche said ‘with this book my campaign against morality begins’; and while Daybreak contains reflections on many other subjects, it is perhaps those on moral judgement as a basis for human action which are most significant. Nietzsche ‘denies morality’: that is, he denies that moral judgements are based on universal truths (Daybreak §103). This denial follows in part upon a loss of belief in the Christian God (for if God exists, He can establish moral truths) – a subject central to Nietzsche’s next book The Gay Science (1882; Die fröhliche Wissenschaft); in §125 of which the madman in the marketplace makes his famous announcement: ‘God is dead... And we have killed him’.

To his vivid articulation of such momentous rejections of “traditional” values Nietzsche owes much of his reputation today; and this destructive work was continued in Thus spoke Zarathustra (1883-4; Also sprach Zarathustra). But already in The Gay Science we find glimpses of a wider vision; and as Zarathustra himself tells us in his very first discourse (‘The Three Metamorphoses’), destruction achieves only the freedom for new creation; a step further is required: the spirit must create new values. We are later told of ‘the way of the creating one’:

‘Do you call yourself free? I want to hear your ruling idea, and not that you have escaped from a yoke...
Free from what? Zarathustra does not care about that! But your eye should clearly tell me: free for what?
Can you furnish yourself with your own good and evil and hang up your own will above yourself as a law?’
‘Free for what?’: Thus spoke Zarathustra was Nietzsche’s first sustained attempt to provide an answer to this question.

It is by any standard an extraordinary work. In mode and form, Thus spoke Zarathustra represents a radical departure from Nietzsche’s previous works. The discursive mode of those essays and reflections, with their passionately engaged first-person authorial persona, is replaced in Thus spoke Zarathustra by the narrative mode: here the author Nietzsche tells the story of the Persian philosopher Zarathustra. And although there are many points of contact between the author and his character – in their lives, opinions and styles of expression – we should not forget that the ideas and thoughts found in the book are presented as those of the character Zarathustra: the title of the book (not to mention the final words of most of its subsections) is after all ‘Thus spoke Zarathustra’. Nieztsche himself remains a detached, impassive narrator. The deployment of the narrative framework gives the work greater literary appeal than any other Nietzschean text, and its comparative accessibility has ensured that it remains his most well-known work. But this frame also renders Thus spoke Zarathustra more slippery than much modern philosophical writing; by yielding centre stage to Zarathustra and his occasional interlocutors, ‘Nietzsche’ becomes a more elusive and ambiguous figure than hitherto in his career, comparable in this respect to the Plato of the Socratic dialogues (whose relationship with the character Socrates is similarly elusive).

The work begins with a prologue in which we are introduced to Zarathustra:

‘When Zarathustra was thirty years old, he left his home and the lake of his home, and went into the mountains. There he enjoyed his spirit and solitude, and for ten years did not weary of it. But at last his heart changed…’

Zarathustra tells the sun that he is weary of his wisdom: ‘I would rather bestow and distribute’; and so he must ‘go down’ to men. The narrative of Zarathustra’s ‘downgoing’ forms the remainder of the prologue, in which some key ideas make their first appearance. On his way down through the forest, Zarathustra encounters a hermit who proclaims love of God and not of man; Zarathustra marvels to himself: ‘Could it be possible! This old saint in the forest has not yet heard of it, that God is dead!’. With this glance back to The Gay Science, Nietzsche establishes at the very beginning of Thus spoke Zarathustra the foundation on which Zarathustra will build his own teachings: the death of God leaves the field open for a new creator and new values.

Shortly after leaving the hermit, Zarathustra arrives at a town and addresses the people gathered in the marketplace. He is utterly uncompromising from the beginning:

‘I teach you the Superman. Man is something that is to be surpassed. What have you done to surpass man?

All beings hitherto have created something beyond themselves: and you want to be the ebb of that great tide, and would rather go back to the beast than surpass man?

What is the ape to man? A laughingstock, a thing of shame. And just the same shall man be to the Superman: a laughingstock, a thing of shame.’

Zarathustra coins a new word to express his novel ideal: the Übermensch, ‘Over-man’ or ‘Super-man’; in German, the noun is related to the verb ‘überwinden’, to surpass or overcome: ‘I teach you the Superman. Man is something that is to be surpassed.’ (‘Ich lehre euch den Übermenschen. Der Mensch ist Etwas, das überwunden werden soll’). This is the first of very many instances of Nietzsche’s delight in verbal ingenuity and wit, a crucial feature of Thus spoke Zarathustra (albeit one which is difficult to apprehend fully in translation).

The idea of the Übermensch will be crucial to Thus spoke Zarathustra, as the focus of Zarathustra’s vision of the future of mankind: he claims later in the prologue that ‘The Superman is the meaning of the earth’. Yet Zarathustra does not trouble himself to provide his first audience with any clear indication of exactly who or what this exotic-sounding entity might be; he is rather content to leave them with such cryptic statements as ‘Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the Superman – a rope over an abyss’, or ‘I am a herald of the lightning, and a heavy drop out of the cloud: the lightning, however, is the Superman’. We learn a little more later in the work: that an Übermensch has never existed (‘The Priests’); that he will be created from such as follow Zarathustra (‘The Bestowing Virtue’); that an Übermensch is not compatible with existing values (‘Despisers of the Body’, ‘The New Idol’). Yet it must be conceded that for so central a feature of Zarathustra’s thought, the Übermensch remains a concept decidedly lacking in clarity; and Zarathustra’s first listeners make their feelings clear enough:

‘And here ended the first discourse of Zarathustra, which is also called ‘The Prologue’: for at this point the shouting and mirth of the multitude interrupted him. “Give us this last man [i.e. the man rejected by Zarathustra], O Zarathustra,” they called out, “make us into these last men! Then will we make you a present of the Superman!” And all the people exulted and smacked their lips. Zarathustra, however, turned sad, and said to his heart: “They understand me not: I am not the mouth for these ears.”’

Nietzsche’s extensive use of ‘internal audiences’ (i.e. the presence of audiences for Zarathustra in the narrative itself) throughout Thus spoke Zarathustra offers both a guide and a counterpoint to our responses to his text, constantly posing the question: with whom do we sympathise? The answer will vary from reader to reader, listener to listener. But in the prologue, the prophet of the Übermensch is rejected; and shortly afterwards, Zarathustra leaves the town.

Already in these opening scenes we have run up against what is perhaps the chief difficulty for the first-time audience of Thus spoke Zarathustra; a difficulty which obtains throughout the book. For Nietzsche has the reputation of a great philosopher; and in the modern Anglophone world at any rate, philosophy is a discipline of which we have certain expectations: we look for the clear definition of terms, for the reasoned development of an argument, and more often than not for a transparent, comprehensible style. That this regularly leads to the dry and academic is a price which we are prepared to pay. Now listen to Zarathustra; in the discourse ‘On poets’, he is asked a question by one of his listeners (‘why did you say that the poets lie too much?’):

‘“Why?” said Zarathustra. “You ask why? I do not belong to those who may be asked after their Why.
Is my experience but of yesterday? It is long ago that I experienced the reasons for my opinions.
Should I not have to be a cask of memory, if I also wanted to have my reasons with me?
It is already too much for me even to retain my opinions; and many a bird flies away.’

It is in fact not uncommon for the positions adopted in Thus spoke Zarathustra simply to be asserted, with little or no attempt to present coherent arguments in their favour or to counter possible objections. We might complain that this is not philosophy; and perhaps it is not – at least, not as we know it. But Nietzsche could – and did – present philosophy in more conventional ways, as we see in works both earlier and later. The mode adopted in Thus spoke Zarathustra is clearly a deliberate choice; and we shall appreciate and enjoy the work much more if we listen to it on its own terms, rather than bringing to it a predetermined set of assumptions.

Nietzsche himself acknowledged the difficulties of Thus spoke Zarathustra in Ecce Homo:

‘Some day institutions will be needed in which men live and teach as I conceive of living and teaching; it might even happen that a few chairs will then be set aside for the interpretation of Zarathustra.’

So we should not perhaps be too disconcerted if we reach the end of the book still without a clear idea of exactly what an Übermensch might be. The difficulty of this concept – and of certain other ideas in Thus spoke Zarathustra, above all the notoriously impenetrable ‘eternal return’ (given its clearest (!) exposition in ‘The Convalescent’ in Part Three; see also ‘The vision and the Enigma’) – is in fact largely due to Zarathustra’s (and Nietzsche’s) refusal to explain in detail what he means. To a great extent, this is ‘take it or leave it’ philosophy; its mode of presentation does not so much invite reasoned consideration as pull us along on a journey: a journey which, if we allow it to, will take us to some extraordinary places.

Rejected by the townspeople, Zarathustra comes to a decision:

‘A light has dawned upon me. Not to the people is Zarathustra to speak, but to companions! Zarathustra shall not be the herd’s herdsman and hound!...
Companions, the creator seeks, not corpses – and not herds or believers either. Fellow-creators the creator seeks – those who grave new values on new tablets.’

In Parts One and Two of Thus spoke Zarathustra, Zarathustra finds the companions he desires: in Part One, a select group of followers in the town called ‘The Pied Cow’; and in Part Two, a similar (identical?) group on ‘the Happy Isles’. To them he presents his thoughts on a wide range of topics. (A guide to the individual Reden, or ‘discourses’, appears at the end of this general introduction.) Zarathustra’s major concern is with ethics, and specifically with how to respond to a world in which ‘God is dead’. There are two aspects to his approach (as explained in ‘The Three Metamorphoses’, ‘Self-Surpassing’ and in Part Three in ‘Old and New Tablets’): the rejection of old values, and the creation of new ones.

The old values against which Zarathustra concentrates his fire are primarily those associated with the Christian religion. Since Christian metaphysics are to be rejected – and Zarathustra makes a case against the afterlife (in ‘The Afterworldly’), the distinction between soul and body (‘The Despisers of the Body’), and an intransitory God (‘In the Happy Isles’) – Christian ethics are no longer valid. We find explicit criticism of Christ’s attitude to the earthly (‘Voluntary Death’), and of Christian priests (‘The Priests’); but more often the rejection of Christian positions is implicit: thus ‘Neighbour-Love’, for example, attacks love of one’s neighbour; ‘The Pitiful’, pity as a virtue; ‘The Virtuous’, the notion of reward for virtue; and ‘The Tarantulas’ attacks punishment dressed up as ‘justice’. Now it should be noted that Zarathustra harbours no small respect both for Christ himself (seen as ‘noble’ but immature in ‘Voluntary Death’) and for certain Christians (even among the priests, he claims, ‘there are heroes’); but in the end Christianity must be rejected:

‘He whom they call Saviour put them in fetters:
In fetters of false values and fatuous words! Oh, that some one would save them from their Saviour!
On an isle they once thought they had landed, when the sea tossed them about; but behold, it was a slumbering monster!
False values and fatuous words: these are the worst monsters for mortals – long slumbers and waits the fate that is in them.
But at last it comes and awakes and devours and engulfs whatever has built tabernacles upon it.
Oh, just look at those tabernacles which those priests have built themselves! Churches, they call their sweet-smelling caves!
Oh, that falsified light, that mustified air! Where the soul – may not fly aloft to its height!’ (‘The Priests’)

Closely related to the old Christian values is what Zarathustra calls ‘the Spirit of Gravity’. This great opponent is first met in the discourse ‘Reading and Writing’:

‘I should only believe in a God that would know how to dance.
And when I saw my devil, I found him serious, thorough, profound, solemn: he was the spirit of gravity – through him all things fall.
Not by wrath, but by laughter, do we slay. Come, let us slay the spirit of gravity!’

His importance is explained in Part Three – riddlingly in ‘The Vision and the Enigma’, then more clearly in ‘The Spirit of Gravity’:

‘Almost in the cradle are we apportioned with heavy words and values: “good” and “evil” – so calls itself this dowry…
Man is difficult to discover, and to himself most difficult of all; often lies the spirit concerning the soul. So causes the spirit of gravity.
He, however, has discovered himself who says: This is my good and evil: therewith has he silenced the mole and the dwarf, who say: “Good for all, evil for all”.’

The Spirit of Gravity – in Zarathustra’s vision, half-mole and half-dwarf – must be defeated because it is this which denies the relativity of moral values (as asserted by Zarathustra in ‘The Thousand and One Goals’) and insists on there being only one path to the truth (whereas Zarathustra in ‘The Spirit of Gravity’ sees many paths); such claims stand in opposition to the establishment of new values: thus, only by defeating the Spirit of Gravity can the creator carry through his work.

Creation itself calls for strength, and for belief. Zarathustra’s most withering scorn is reserved for those who have rejected Christianity, yet have failed to replace the old values with anything new; the following passage is from ‘The Land of Culture’ (and compare ‘The Way of the Creating One’):

‘For thus speak you: “We are complete realists, and without faith and superstition”: thus do you plume yourselves – alas! even without plumes!...
Perambulating refutations are you, of belief itself, and a dislocation of all thought. Unworthy of belief: thus do I call you, you realists!
All periods prate against one another in your spirits; and the dreams and pratings of all periods were even more real than your awakeness!
Unfruitful are you: therefore do you lack belief. But he who had to create, had always his presaging dreams and astral premonitions – and believed in believing!’

Scarcely less contempt is directed at those ‘conquerors of the old God’ who have fallen short of the strength required to create worthy new values, and have turned instead to that ‘coldest of all cold monsters’, the state: ‘Weary you became of the conflict, and now your weariness serves the new idol!’ (‘The New Idol’).

What is required in a creator of new values, Zarathustra tells his followers, is the ‘will to power’. The will to power is seen in man’s free bestowal of meaning upon the world, in his own creation of values, including the values of good and evil: the world only gains meaning through man’s will to power. (The clearest exposition of this comes in ‘Self-surpassing’.) Where values of good and evil are recognized on earth, this is the sign of a will to power which created them in the past; and ‘Verily, men have given to themselves all their good and evil. Verily, they took it not, they found it not, it came not to them as a voice from heaven’ (‘The Thousand and One Goals’).

Zarathustra’s own exercise of the will to power produces, it must be admitted, at best mixed results. As we have seen, central planks in his new system of values – the Übermensch, the ‘eternal return’ – are so unclear in Thus spoke Zarathustra as to be almost meaningless; but we can admire some of the other ideas. For example, in Zarathustra’s first speech in the marketplace in the prologue, he urges:

‘I invoke you, my brethren, remain true to the earth, and believe not those who speak to you of superearthly hopes! Poisoners are they, whether they know it or not.’

This ‘truth to the earth’ is not merely a rejection of Christian otherworldliness (on which see ‘Voluntary Death’); it is also a positive celebration of the transitory nature of time, the human body and the earth, which is sounded throughout the book: ‘A new pride taught me my ego, and that teach I to men: no longer to thrust one’s head into the sand of celestial things, but to carry it freely, a terrestrial head, which gives meaning to the earth!’ (‘The Afterworldly’); ‘the awakened one, the knowing one, says: “Body am I entirely, and nothing more; and soul is only the name of something in the body”’; ‘“Ego,” you say, and are proud of that word. But the greater thing – in which you are unwilling to believe – is your body with its big sagacity; it says not “ego”, but does it’ (‘The Despisers of the Body’); ‘Ah, there has always been so much flown-away virtue! Lead, like me, the flown-away virtue back to the earth – Yea, back to body and life: that it may give to the earth its meaning, a human meaning!’ (‘The Bestowing Virtue’); ‘Evil do I call it and misanthropic: all that teaching about the one, and the plenum, and the unmoved, and the sufficient, and the imperishable! All the imperishable – that’s but a simile, and the poets lie too much. – But of time and of becoming shall the best similes speak: a praise shall they be, and a justification of all impermanence!’ (‘In the Happy Isles’).

In Part Three of Thus spoke Zarathustra, Zarathustra has left his followers and is making his way slowly back to his cave in the mountains. The journey home brings him into contact with new audiences, and the greater narrative variety of Part Three brings a greater variety in the content of Zarathustra’s speeches. On the ship from the Happy Isles, Zarathustra tells his fellowtravellers of an extraordinary vision (‘The Vision and the Enigma’). Reaching land, he proclaims his contempt for mankind (‘The Bedwarfing Virtue’); but on encountering ‘Zarathustra’s ape’, who expresses a similar contempt, he explains the importance of moving beyond (or ‘passing by’) such feelings:

‘Why did you live so long by the swamp, that you yourself had to become a frog and a toad?...
I despise your contempt; and when you warned me – why did you not warn yourself?...
This precept give I to you, in parting, you fool: Where one can no longer love, there should one – pass by!’ (‘On Passing-by’)

This advice is a development of that found in ‘War and Warriors’ in Part One: ‘You shall only have enemies to be hated, but not enemies to be despised’.

When he reaches the mountains, Zarathustra rejoices in the solitude. ‘The Return Home’ marks the start of the final movement of Thus spoke Zarathustra, which builds as a crescendo through the recapitulation of Zarathustra’s key ideas (in ‘The Spirit of Gravity’, and the epic ‘Old and New Tablets’) to the climax of his recognition of the ‘eternal return’ in ‘The Convalescent’. This difficult discourse is followed by Zarathustra’s recollection of a mysterious encounter between Life and himself (‘The Other Dance-Song’); Life accused Zarathustra of not loving her as much as he claimed, and of planning to leave her soon:

‘“Yea,” answered I, hesitatingly, “but you know it also” – And I said something into her ear, in among her confused, yellow, foolish tresses.
“You know that, O Zarathustra? That no one knows – ”
And we gazed at each other, and looked at the green meadow o’er which the cool evening was just passing, and we wept together. – Then, however, was Life dearer to me than all my Wisdom had ever been.’

We are not told what Zarathustra said to Life. Such deliberate obscurity at the very climax of the work is only further proof (if any were needed) that this is not conventional philosophy; Nietzsche here is more interested in generating mystery, emotion – sublimity, even. Thus spoke Zarathustra ends with the lyric ecstasy of ‘The Seven Seals’:

‘If ever I have spread out a tranquil heaven above me, and have flown into my own heaven with my own pinions:
If I have swum playfully in profound luminous distances, and if my freedom’s avian wisdom has come to me:
– Thus however speaks avian wisdom: “Lo, there is no above and no below! Throw yourself about – outward, backward, you light one! Sing! speak no more!
Are not all words made for the heavy? Do not all words lie to the light ones? Sing! speak no more!” –
Oh, how could I not be ardent for Eternity, and for the marriage-ring of rings – the ring of the return?
Never yet have I found the woman by whom I should like to have children, unless it be this woman whom I love: for I love you, O Eternity!
For I love you, O Eternity!’

Clearly we are dealing with much more than a work of philosophy here. The literary ambitions of Thus spoke Zarathustra are visible from the prologue right up to this triumphant conclusion. In an unprecedented mingling of different genres, we find elements of the picaresque novel; of drama (comedy and tragedy); of didactic, diatribe and sermon; of the philosophical dialogue; of lyric poetry; of satire and invective; of prophecy; of the fable and folk-tale; even elements of proto-surrealist hallucinatory narrative (see the extraordinary discourse ‘The Vision and the Enigma’). There is a clear debt to the essay and the aphoristic forms of Nietzsche’s earlier career: in many respects Zarathustra’s Reden (‘discourses’) can be seen as spoken versions of these literary forms. Throughout the book, ideas are articulated in fantastic imagery and often with great wit; a delight in wordplay and paradox is evident. Looking back in Ecce Homo, Nietzsche described Thus spoke Zarathustra as a ‘dithyramb’: and Zarathustra acknowledges that his work has much in common with poetry (in ‘Poets’). Gilles Deleuze has spoken of Thus spoke Zarathustra as ‘a piece of theatre or an opera which directly expresses thought as experience and movement’; it is perhaps no accident that parts of the book have been interpreted as, or set to, music on a number of occasions (and how many works of philosophy can one say that of?).

The enormous variety of elements visible in Thus spoke Zarathustra nevertheless coheres into a remarkably unified whole. Here we see the crucial importance of Nietzsche’s decision to cast Thus spoke Zarathustra as a narrative centred on the figure of Zarathustra. For it is Zarathustra around whom the book revolves; and what could have been a loose mélange of writings on a miscellany of subjects becomes a coherent, linear narrative within which the philosophy develops in an accessible and generally comprehensible way – and which constitutes in itself a magnificent and singular literary achievement.

The first three Parts of Thus spoke Zarathustra were published in 1883 and 1884. They were not well received, and sold poorly. Nevertheless, Nietzsche went on to write a Part Four, which was printed privately in 1885; it forms something of an afterthought, in a number of respects quite different from the first three parts – and is not included in this audiobook recording.

Nietzsche continued to write prolifically during the following years, producing a series of remarkable books including the philosophical masterpieces Beyond Good and Evil (1886; Jenseits von Gut und Böse) and On the Genealogy of Morals (1887; Zur Genealogie der Moral). Yet in his mind Thus spoke Zarathustra remained unequalled:

‘Among my writings my Zarathustra stands to my mind by itself. With that I have given mankind the greatest present that ever has been made to it so far.’

These words are taken from Ecce Homo, one of an astonishing five books Nietzsche wrote in 1888. Tragically, this was to be his last year of sanity. In January 1889, he collapsed in the street; madness claimed the final eleven years of his life. He died in August 1900.

The opening section of the Preface to Ecce Homo concludes with these words: ‘Above all, do not mistake me for someone else.’ In the light of this, the history of Nietzsche’s early reception reads with grim irony. Manipulation by his sister Elisabeth during his years of insanity was the first of the abuses perpetrated against Nietzsche and his memory; worse was to follow. Wilful misreading, selective editing and Nietzsche’s own fateful lack of clarity (above all with regard to the Übermensch) allowed this great thinker to be appropriated by ‘intellectuals’ of the National Socialist movement in early twentieth-century Germany; his reputation, particularly in Anglophone countries, has still not fully recovered. As Camus said, ‘we shall never finish making reparation for the injustice done to him’.


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