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 1, Chapters 6-9

Chapter 6 begins with a sad, but nice little episode: the tightrope walker has been “leaped over” by a jester, causing the former’s death. Zarathustra has gone to comfort him as he lay dying and protesting his death. The stunt artist says that if Zarathustra’s ideas are right, then he is only a man “taught to dance by blows and little treats”. Nietzsche thus anticipates a common objection to the Zarathusian gospel: namely, that without a God in the universe, life has no meaning.

Zarathustra counters that his livelihood and his death have both been caused by danger, and that there is nothing “contemptible” in that. He had previously characterized the people of the village as being “contemptible” for their lack of reflection and vision.

In chapter 7, human life still has no meaning, while in chapter 8, the jester comes to Zarathustra in the blackness and threatens to “leap over” him just has he had done to the tightrope walker, whose body is now on Zarathustra’s hands. Obviously, our species is shown as being quite busy “leaping over” each other instead of “overcoming” themselves.

Zarathustra prudently withdraws, taking the body of the corpse with him, and walks a great distance by night. Zarathustra can do this for he is an expert night walker. I take the nighttime journey to be indicative of the ability of the Overman to do without that which masquerades as divine revelation.

The theme of “divine revelation” continues in chapter 9. Here, Zarathustra criticizes the “faithful of all faiths” for hating above all others those who break their “tablets of stone”, an allusion to the Ten Commandments as a metonymy for “divinely-given laws”. But here is the catch: it is the “lawbreaker” (not a criminal, but one who breaks religious taboos) who is the “creative” one.

Zarathustra puts the dead body in a tree, which reminds me of the towers used to dispose of the dead that were used by some adherents of the Zoroastrian religion. It’s a touch that–together with the note about “doom” and the imagery of bridges–seem to be allusions to actual Zoroastrian practice and belief. The tree also alludes to the crucifixion of Jesus. The implication seems to be that a living Zarathustra is better than a dead corpse in a tree–whether in this book, or in the Gospels.

Stung by the accusation that he is a robber of the herd (recalling Jesus’ words on numerous occasions about sheep without a shepherd), Zarathustra realizes that he has no disciples. He needs “harvesters” (again, recalling Jesus’ words of his disciples). Zarathustra realizes that his disciples will be called evil, a note that corresponds to Jesus’ comments to his disciples that they would be hated by all “for my name’s sake”. It’s a difficult message, for people, for, as Zarathustra notes, “for him who still has ears for the unheard of, I shall make his heart heavy with my happiness”. (The allusion, of course, is to Jesus’ oft-repeated phrase, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”)

So Zarathustra has experienced the need for disciples; it is also an existential thing for him: he must “go under”, i.e., humble himself and speak with the people of his vision for humanity. In this, the portrayal is both different from and similar to that of the Gospel-writers, for Jesus is not shown as psychologically needy for disciples before they begin to follow him. Zarathustra is a more “human” prophet, though just as much as Jesus, he describes himself as having come for a purpose. On the other hand, the Son of Man is depicted as humbling himself to talk with others, just as Zarathustra.

In the mean time, which disciples will answer the call of the prophet of the Overman?