Nietzsche’s “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”: Part 1, The Speeches of Zarathustra

On the Flies of the Marketplace
The strength of the State is in its cities, but the one who would bring about the Overman should go into the wood; “flee, my friend into your solitude”, says Zarathustra in his next speech. The people in the cities “have a sense for all performers and actors of great things”; unfortunately, they miss the truly important personages, the creators. It seems to me today that we have come no further than in Nietzsche’s day in this regard. I can’t go a day without seeing a headline or a Facebook note about a certain low-brow celebrity whose name is familiar to me by simple repetition, even though I have never actually read a single article about him. I agree with Nietzsche: it’s better to flee into one’s solitude. When one is out of the region of solitude (which is just as real as a metaphor), one is in the marketplace, with its “great men” (politicians, kingmakers, and the like) and its jealous spirits who sting like inconvenient flies. The rest of the chapter reads like a relatively simple rant of a grumpy person.

This is certainly a strange way to bring about the Overman, for it is difficult for either hermits in a physical countryside or deeply reflective people who keep themselves “unspotted” from the world to exert significant impact on the lives around them. Certainly, it seems to me, the idea of the Overman as a mere Superman or anarchist is ridiculous. Such images fail to capture the nuances, the patience, the compassion, and the reflective spirit that are inherent in the Overman, an idea dreamed up by a person who seems to have hated people as much as he loved them.

On Chastity
I remember reading in C.S. Lewis’s essay “On the Reading of Old Books” that one ought to read old books because they will not make the same kinds of intellectual mistakes that we make nowadays. Lewis imagined that in the future, one would be able to look at diametrically-opposed enemies and see in them a common allegiance to the underlying spirit of the age. Similarly, in choosing to make “chastity” a category of discussion, Nietzsche shows himself very much a participant in the Zeitgeist he so railed against in “On the Despisers of the Body”. In On Chastity, Zarathustra begins by saying that too many people in cities live “in heat”, asking “Is it not better to fall into the hands of a murderer than into the dreams of a woman in heat?” He then goes on to say that men who “know nothing better on earth than to lie with a woman” are dirty and muddy. Zarathustra opposes himself to “that bitch, Sensuality”, and condemns the “lust” of the people around him. And this is supposed to be a section that sets people free! So much time and energy are spent expressing abhorrence at sex that Zarathustra’s apparent message, the proposition that chastity is not for everyone, gets lost. But it gets worse.

On the Friend
There are jewels in this speech, but they are embedded in misogynist crap. My favourite example of the former is this quotation: “Many cannot loosen their own chains and yet they are a redeemer for a friend”; frankly, I admire the sentiment and assert its correctness. In fact, I think many of the most compassionate people show love and friendship to others out of their own inner and profound suffering. That’s as good as this speech gets, though. Zarathustra says that friendship should be about privacy, and a good friend “should be a master at guessing and keeping silent”. So far so good, but that only goes so far. The prophet advises people to have compassion for their friends, but to keep their passions under a shell. Obviously, Zarathustra himself didn’t get all that he should have from his friendships, for he makes the astonishing claim that a woman can’t know friendship. A footnote in my volume explains that Nietzsche was working through his feelings of rejection and betrayal following his relationship with Lou Salomé while he worked on the first two parts of his book. Indeed, Nietzsche’s prophet in this speech characterizes women as cows at best, and tyrant and slave at worst, and I have no doubt that Zarathustra is speaking for Nietzsche himself.

Frankly, I simply don’t have patience for anyone who generalizes about the opposite sex based on bad romantic experiences they have had. It’s ridiculous. And Nietzsche does it here, and he won’t be finished yet. If he had been born today, there would have been no excuse for him, but born in the era he was, he had, I suppose, some small, tiny excuse. But if he had had the ability to have good friends to talk to about this aspect of the human condition, I assert, he would have been much more psychologically healthy. Well anyway, this part of Thus Spake Zarathustra shows the author’s feet of clay. It makes for disagreeable reading. Certainly, a good deal of bad philosophy and equally repugnant theology can be traced to some males’ relational immaturity and consequent misogyny. I hope we’ve all grown out of that by now.

Nietzsche’s “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”: Part 1, The Speeches of Zarathustra: “On the Three Metamorphoses”

Chapter 10 begins with narrative, but very quickly becomes speeches, or sermons, and these make up the majority of the first part of the four parts of Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The speeches are introduced with an unusual formula that resembles the “toletoth” forumlae that punctuate Genesis (“These are the generations of…”); here, the formula says, “Thus began Zarathustra’s going under”. Like Genesis, the formula here seems somewhat ambiguous as to whether it refers forwards or backwards. I have finished the first speech: “Of the Three Metamorphoses”.

This speech really surprised me because the first stage of human transformation, Zarathustra says, is that of the spirit that is like a camel: a humble beast of burden. This section of the speech is very much in the tradition of Jesus’ “turn the other cheek” and Paul’s “bears all things”: “What is heavy? thus asks the carrying spirit. It kneels down like a camel and wants to be well-loaded.”

But Zarathustra says that it is not enough for humanity to have this spirit of the meek, for the spirit requires something else: it requires a lion. Why, Zarathustra asks, is a lion required? Because only a lion has the ability to rebel against traditional religious values and systems, characterized as a dragon: the lion wants to fight its former master and devour its old god. In doing so, the lion creates the space for creativity. To the “thou shalt!” of the dragon, the lion says consciously and assertively, “I will!”

The child is the third stage of human transformation: unlike the lion, the child can “create freedom”; it is only the child, with its “innocence” and its lack of knowledge of how things are supposed to be, that can set the stage for the introduction of the Overman. (This is why a “starbaby” is the final image of 2001: A Space Odyssey.)


Counterpoint: C.S. Lewis in The Magician’s Nephew, a children’s book in the Narnia series, goes to great pains to make bad-guy characters Queen Jadis and Uncle Andrew both feel that they are a law unto themselves. “Ours is a high and lonely destiny”, they say as they use others for their own ends without compunction. I am certain that Lewis had something similar to the doctrine of the Übermensch in mind, just as Dostoevsky did in Crime and Punishment. For Lewis and Dostoevsky, morality cannot exist on a human level without a divine framework, and both authors feared society would simply come apart at the threads without the influence of traditional religion. I think Lewis misunderstood the idea of the Overman, for the Overman has within himself the spirit of the camel, and is thus neither a murdering Nazi nor a criminal with no compunction about committing immoral acts.


I forgot to say in my previous post that Zarathustra’s presentation of man as being a stage between ape and Overman reminds me a lot of Darwin’s theory of evolution, which had been published some decades earlier in his book The Origin of the Species. In Nietzsche, we begin to see how the new scientific theory was beginning to take hold on the human imagination.

Nietzsche’s “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”: Part One, The Prologue (Chapters 1-5)

A note on the book’s name:

Zarathustra, of course, was the name of the figure known to the Greeks as Zoroaster, the apparent founder of the religion of Zoroastrianism. Zoroaster preached a dualism of good versus evil, with the battle place being the world of human souls. Zoroastrianism saw an end-time judgment in which the righteous would go off to heaven, while the wicked would get their comeuppance. (Incidentally, it is often thought that Zoroastrianism exerted an influence on the final stages of the writing of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament.) In any case, Nietzsche was apparently not much interested in the historical Zarathustra, using him instead to write what Pippin calls work that sometimes functions as a “parody”. I have to say, even though I usually do not assume a text’s narrator speaks for the author, I do feel that Zarathustra does speak for Nietzsche, based on what I have read so far.

Journal Commentary
The very first sentences of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra are about as primal in story-telling style as one can get:

“When Zarathustra was thirty years old he left his home and the lake of his home and went into the mountains. Here he enjoyed his spirit and his solitude and for ten years he did not tire of it. But at last his heart transformed,–one morning he arose with the dawn, stepped before the sun and spoke thus to it: ‘You great star! What would your happiness be if you had not those for whom you shine? . . . . Behold! I am weary of my wisdom, like a bee that has gathered too much honey. I need hands that reach out. I want to bestow and distribute until the wise among human beings have enjoyed their folly, and the poor once again their wealth.”

Immediately, we see that we are on biblical territory here. I do not agree with Pippin when he writes (or was it the translator?) in a footnote on p. 8 that the allusion to Luke 17:33 was the first “direct allusion” to biblical material. It’s right here in the first sentences. The phrase “left his home” is typical of many scenes in the Hebrew Bible in which a prophet is “called out” of his home and his town. Similarly, the phrase “home and the lake of his home” contains a perfectly good instance of Semitic repetition. The words “star” and “spirit” might remind us of the creation of stars by God’s brooding spirit in Genesis 1. Furthermore, the idea of the poor being wealthy goes back through the Sermon on the Mount and into the spirituality of ancient Yahwism. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, thirty was the age at which Jesus was said by the Gospel-writers to have begun his ministry.

Very clearly, then, Nietzsche is placing his narrator in the long tradition of biblical narrative-writing. The content, though, is going to be quite different in some ways.

“Thus began Zarathustra’s going under”; this phrase is punned on in German, my volume tells me. Zarathustra’s “going under” (or “going down”) the mountain to visit the people parallels the Christian doctrine of the incarnation in a sense: in both a figure must humble himself to preach to the ordinary people. Just after Zarathustra comes down off his mountainous home to preach to ordinary mortals, the first person he meets is a “saint”, a hermit. The hermit clearly is a representative of the extremest asceticism practiced by Christians. After dissuading Nietzsche from his mission, they part, friends. But Zarathustra exclaims after the hermit is out of the earshot: “Could it be possible? This old saint in his woods has not yet heard the news that God is dead!” (emphasis in original). I tend to think that Deism is being referenced here, as well as the whole Enlightenment tradition of skepticism of religious affairs and claims.

In any case, Zarathustra goes on and comes to a crowd anticipating the performance of a tightrope walker. Zarathustra, seeing he has got a crowd, begins to preach to them. This juxtaposition of the two elements–tightrope walker and prophet–is very good Hebraic storytelling style. Nor do the biblical allusions end there, for Zarathustra is portrayed, like Jesus and the prophets were portrayed, as having a thoroughly unreceptive audience. Unlike Jesus, though, who “spoke to them in parables” so that the people would not understand and turn from their sins and be healed, Zarathustra does not justify himself by denigrating the people, saying twice that “I am not the mouth for these ears.”

But what was the content of this talk? Zarathustra would correct the people for their ascetic, body-denying, Earth-denying approach to life. They are so perfect, he tells them, that they are “stingy in sin”; they are contented in a contemptible way. They live in fear of God, but he never zaps the atheists with lightening. The “Overman” (Übermensch) is that lightening, Zarathustra says. Mankind, like a tightrope or a bridge, is a transition stage between apes and what comes next, the Overman. (As others have noted, 2001: A Space Odyssey makes this argument right from the opening scene.)

Zarathustra addresses the crowd in a sermon that directly recalls the Beatitudes of Jesus:

“I love those who do not know how to live unless by going under, for they are the ones who cross over. I love the great despisers, because they are the great venerators and arrows of longing for the other shore. I love those who do not first seek behind the stars for a reason to go under and be a sacrifice, who instead sacrifice themselves for the earth, so that the earth may one day become the overman’s.”

And so on. How is this similar to the Sermon on the Mount (see, for example, Matthew 5)? First, each is a first major sermon of the messenger. Second, the repetition of the basic “I love those who… for…” corresponds to “Blessed are the … for they …” of Jesus’ first important sermon. Each sermon features repeated structures that have a happy element (“I love” or “Blessed are those”), and an object sometimes followed by a relative clause, and then a conjunction which gives a reason for the happy element. Third, the sermons both have many paradoxes. The meek shall inherit the earth, and the ones who go under shall go over. Like Jesus, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra speaks in metaphors of earth and planting and trees.

On the other hand, it is noteworthy that Zarathustra has had to “go under” (i.e. go down the mountain) to reach these people, whereas Jesus has ascended the mountain with his people for his sermon. There is another somewhat astonishing similarity between the claims of Jesus and Zarathustra: in John, Jesus goes to the mansions of heaven to prepare a place for the people, while in our work Zarathustra says that he builds a house for the overman and prepares the earth for him.

Zarathustra goes on and asks the question “what is love”; the same question was poetically addressed (of agape by Paul in I Corinthians 13, and philosophically posed of eros by Socrates in the Symposium of Plato. Zarathustra would love the people, people who he says–again, recalling Jesus’ words–are like sheep without a shepherd.

Zarathustra’s spirituality is very refreshing on the one hand, and very, very old on the other. His insistence that man be the center of all things, and not God, must have been a brave thing to say even in the nineteenth century. Even more specifically, Zarathustra’s correct characterization of Christianity as a body-denying religion was extremely important–even to Christianity, which in our time is much less ascetic than it once was, no doubt due to critiques like this by Nietzsche and others like him. On the other hand, the selfless Zarathustra is still recognizable as a philosophical and literary reincarnation of Jesus of Nazareth and Sakyamuni Buddha of Mahayana Buddhist spirituality. Zarathustra desires salvation–excuse me–“overcoming”–for mankind so they may become “Overmen” just as the Buddha would try to save all humanity and Paul’s Jesus would make old men new.

In a way, then, Nietzsche is pouring new wine into old wineskins with his tale. Whatever else it may prove to be, the wine tastes good–but will the skins hold out?


Counterpoint: I’m reading my son C.S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew right now. Lewis specifically brings up the idea of the overman–though a caricature–in the persons of the evil witch Jadis and the wicked uncle Andrew. Lewis is adept at creating a sense of the numinous that his children characters appreciate, but which is lost on Jadis and Andrew. The dialogue between Lewis and Nietzsche is something I will be returning to later.