Roadside Shrine in Higashimatsuyama, Saitama, Japan

Roadside shrine in Higashimatsuyama, Japan

I found a lot of very humble “roadside chapel”-like shrines dotting the countryside towns of Japan. I had always thought of Japan as a very non-religious country, and I am aware that much of the religious activity that takes place within the country does so for cultural rather than religious motivations, but I must still say that I was surprised and intrigued by the sheer number of small shrines dotting the landscape. As with the previous post, I am embarrassed to say that I can’t tell whether this is a Shinto or a Buddhist shrine.

Yakushi Shrine in Kawagoe, Japan

Shrine in Kawagoe, Japan

This little shrine in the old city in Kawagoe intrigued me a great deal. An accompanying sign indicated the presence of a “buddha” in the temple, but the gate to the side (see below) appears to be a Shinto gate. To me, the site looks like a Shinto shrine sitting on the grounds of a Buddhist temple, but I am ashamed to say that I just don’t know if this is the case. A few photographs follow below:

Side of shrine in Kawagoe, Japan

Stone wolf in shrine in Kawagoe

Sign explaining Yakushi Shrine in Kawagoe, Japan

This site, incidentally, also houses a famous and historic bell tower:

Bell Tower in Kawagoe

Final Thoughts on Nietzsche’s “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”

Thus Spoke Zarathustra has taken me far longer to read than any other book. Even the entire Bible–not a single work to be sure, though often bound as one volume–I got through in nine months–the same length of time it took me to read Zarathustra. This is a dense, dense book. Awkward phrases in German, translated into awkward English, and a density of detail render the book something heavier than light reading. The constant put-downs concerning women, old women, brown girls, etc. were difficult to get through. On the other hand feminists have praised the verve of the book as a whole, and speaking personally, I can say that reading Zarathustra was one of the most worthwhile as well as intellectually-challenging books I have ever read. Thus Spoke Zarathustra is a clarion call to a better humanity, a gentler humanity, and pardoxically, a more ambitious humanity. In fact, I think it would be hard to overstate the effects of Nietzsche’s work on western civilization, and I would say that these effects have been overall quite positive. Meanwhile, actually reading the work showed me that the Nietzsche himself anticipated and responded to many of the criticisms of his prophet’s philosophy, namely, that it lacked compassion, that it promoted nihilism, and that it led to nowhere.

I think that if Nietzsche could have lived into our century today, he would have found much to please him (though doubtless he would have been grumpy, too), and it seems to me that many of these changes can be ascribed to his credit. This can be illustrated through the changes that have taken place in the character of Christianity, even. I think that C.S. Lewis and other writers, took inspiration from Nietzsche and ran with it. Lewis pirated Nietzsche’s lion, his ass, his brown girls, and his urging that humanity dance and achieve a state of joy. Lewis also took from Nietzsche the latter’s sense of “earthiness” based on Nietzsche’s own reverence for humanity as an earthly species. As Nietzsche astutely observed, the Eastern despotic god of the late Bronze Age had already by the nineteenth century been replaced by something a little less fearful, but in Lewis, the trajectory continues still further down the path of divine softening. Meanwhile, modern-day atheists like Christopher Hitchens make the same arguments advanced by Nietzsche over a hundred years before.

From Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey to Hal Ashby’s Being There to the entire Star Trek universe of Gene Roddenberry, Nietzsche’s influence lives on. (Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes such as “Skin of Evil” contain allusions to Thus Spoke Zarathustra [cf. “The devil himself is skin” on p. 221 of the Del Caro and Pippin Cambridge text].) Indeed, the very thought of turning to the stars for the future potential of humanity may go back to Nietzsche’s constant references to stars as upper limits to be overcome. By the time we get to the universe of Jean-Luc Picard, we find that human being is something that is overcome–and fulfilled, again and again, for the near part of eternity.


Up next: Hesiod.

Nietzsche’s “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”: Part 4 “Ass Worship”

The fourth part of Thus Spoke Zarathustra was originally intended by Nietzsche to be published separately. In some ways, the fourth part reads like an appendix to a book, or even like a sequel, rather than like an integral part of the entire work.

Parts one to three, in some ways, remind me of Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy, with a general movement from a beginning of prose to an ending dominated by poetry. The songs of the end of part 3, though, find their continuation in part 4, but the effect, at least on this reader, was lost. Much of the “songs” are garble, and it would seem that Zarathustra would agree with this assessment.

The basic plot outlines of the fourth part read as follows. The scenes take place entirely on Zarathustra’s mountain. In general, a simple pattern occurs repeatedly: Zarathustra, seeking “the higher man,” hears the latter’s cry of distress, but instead finds a human (such as a king, a retired pope, the murderer who killed God, etc.). He invites this person to his cave, and continues seeking his higher man. Zarathustra’s selling is very much like that of a politician seeking to invite all comers to a big tent; the prophet advertises his “big cave” as sufficient and safe. In the end, all the people Zarathustra has met converge in his cave, seeking wisdom. Zarathustra is evidently now something of a celebrity, but the quotes, misquotes, and misunderstandings of his teaching show that it has not been received and transmitted accurately.

The exchange of Nietzsche’s prophet with the retired pope is wonderful. The latter indicates how the character of God has changed, from an Eastern deity certain of his power to a kind of watered down, feminized (remember–Nietzsche had no great view of women) divine being. Nevertheless, the retired pope misses having something to worship.

The motley crew become a microcosm of humanity in general when Zarathustra leaves his cave for some fresh air. When he returns, he hears his disciples all worshipping the kings’ donkey, known happily throughout only as “the ass.” Thereupon the first “ass festival,” a parody of the rite of Communion/the Eucharist takes place. Zarathustra recognizes that the festival of the ass and the ass worship have brought his disciples joy, and so he encourages this ass worship to their faces while proclaiming to only himself and his animals that these are not the humans he needs to bring about his overman. The ass, incidentally, is recognized as a deity on account of his timely “hee-yaw” braying. In German, ja means “yes,” and stands in contradistinction to millennia of Christian “thou shalt not’s”; meanwhile, I suspect that the “yaw” sound also is a parody on the name of God in the Hebrew Bible. Similarly, the kings say that the ass has “taken the form of a servant,” an obvious parody of the Christian usage of Deutero-Isaiah to describe the character of Jesus as preached in the doctrine of the Incarnation. In any case, the point is that humanity will worship even a dumb ass, all puns intended–because something in humanity seems wired for worship, despite the evident lack of appropriateness for this.

I did find a number of connections to C.S. Lewis again. Everyone knows of Lewis’s portrayal of Aslan in his Narnia books; Aslan, a lion, is analogous to Christ. Oddly enough, a lion appears in the much earlier Zarathustra at the end, a “sign” to Zarathustra of his mission. Also, there is Lewis’s use of a donkey in The Last Battle; in this passage, an ordinary talking donkey is tricked into impersonating Aslan himself, and becomes an unwitting object of worship. Similarly, Lewis, in his book, The Pilgrim’s Regress–an obvious take on Bunyan’s more famous Pilgrim’s Progress, alludes to Nietzsche’s use of “wicked brown girls” with a whole troop of naughty “brown girls” of his own. Neither Lewis nor Nietzsche, it would seem, enjoyed the prospect of the equality of women. Finally, both Lewis and Nietzsche used refrains of joy to end their works. “Further up and further in!” in Lewis corresponds to “Come” and “up” and “joy is deeper than pain, and joy wants eternity” in Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

Zarathustra is at pains to say that his kingdom is not of Heaven; rather, he seeks people to populate his kingdom of Earth, turning the teaching of Jesus completely upside-down–or, rather, as Nietzsche would have put it, turning Jesus’ upside-down philosophy right-side-up. In this, he might be said to resemble a few biblical characters who are said to abuse their friends and befriend their enemies.

There are some pithy nuggets of wisdom in the piece: one should never will anything contrary to nature (contra the church, which, for example, crucifies just about every sexual impulse), and one should learn to laugh at one’s failures. The world is a deep, deep place–in other words, the natural world is enough for humanity to become lost in wonder in; one doesn’t need a fourth dimension.

In the end, though, Zarathustra finds that he has pitied the “higher men” (his guests, the same ones who are no higher than the ass), finding that he lacks the “proper human beings” who can bring about his overman. To the latter, the former are a mere bridge, and there will have to be bridges built on them before everything is through.

It would seem that Zarathustra’s constant references to “nausea” at the values of the “rabble” were mirrored in Nietzsche’s mind to some extent, for the fourth part of this work was late in coming, and Nietzsche ended up suffering from mental health issues. He didn’t much like people, it would seem. Zarathustra, in general, is a man who loves and hates people, just has he loves and hates humanity–but he finds both irritating. It’s a pity Nietzsche couldn’t have lived long enough to see a more open century–a century he had a great hand in making and shaping.

Nietzsche’s “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”: Part 3: “On Old and New Tablets”

“On Old and New Tablets”–this is a long section subdivided into many short subsections.

“Here I sit and wait, old broken tablets around me, and also new ones only partially written upon.” These words in Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra speak eloquently to the total inadequacy of religion-based value systems. There are no gods–rather, there are humans–godlike beings. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, high up the mountain, shows this level of self-knowledge when he says that he talks “myself to myself.” “On Old and New Tablets” is divided into many short sections, nearly every one of which is a real jewel of wisdom. Section 2 mocks the human tendency to know what is good for humankind according to old value systems. Humanity needs new visions, new horizons, new dreams, not old tablets of stone.

In the fourth section, in a pointed allusion to Jesus summing up of the Law and Prophets, Zarathustra says that one should not “spare” one’s neighbour–one must command and obey–oneself! The rhetoric seems intended to provide a more macho message than Jesus’ teachings on love, but ultimately, self-discipline is part of the various religious traditions of the world, too. How self-discipline plays out, though, is different here: Zarathustra wants self-discipline to result in the rejection of the old tablets and the creation of new ones.

In the fifth section, Nietzsche’s spokesperson claims that common people want life and enjoyment for free, but according to Zarathustra, the likes of Zarathustra ask what they can give in exchange for what they receive.

In the sixth section, Zarathustra sees himself as a kind of sacrificial first-born. It would seem an appropriate description of the author, too–reviled for much of his life and after by many.

The next sections illustrate how intellectual currents have been changing–now belief in fate, now they believe in freedom.

Later, Zarathustra remarks on “holy words.” Like our modern-day prophet of atheism, Christopher Hitchens, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra asks “where in the world have there been better robbers and killers than holy words? These words have killed truth, and then the religious have the gall to say “thou shalt not murder and rob.”

The eleventh section reminds me of several octogenarians and younger folks I could mention: their idea of the past goes back no further than that of their grandfather. Because of this forgetting of intellectual history, the world is impoverished and requires new leadership, a new “nobility” as Nietzsche puts it.

The fourteenth section contains a most humorous nugget of wisdom. For some religious, all life is sorrowful, sinful, and dirty. Zarathustra replies that life is like a human: it has a behind, but it isn’t all shit. The world has a behind, “but the world itself is not therefore a filthy monster!”

The idea of the “will to power” is explained nicely in section 16. “Willing liberates because willing is creating.”

Section 17: If you don’t want to die, then stop being so world-weary! Section 18: there are tablets created by laziness and weariness; religion saps humanity of its potential because of its low origins.

Section 20: Nietzsche: “whomever you cannot teach to fly, him you should teach to fall–faster!”

Section 23: This passage is famous because of the clear gender roles Zarathustra prescribes for humanity: men should be ready to fight, and women should bear children. It does sound obnoxious, but what critics often ignore is the fact that the next sentence says that both genders should know how to “dance in head and in limb.” Not a day should go by without such dancing. I think that Nietzsche’s critics in religion have actually taken the point; C.S. Lewis makes no less than Bacchus himself appear in the closing of his children’s story “Prince Caspian,” and his god leads Aslan’s children in a wild, lovely, earthy dance.

Section 24: Wow! Nietzsche here advocates for a trial period of marriage so that people don’t break their wedding vows because their vows broke them!

Section 25: I imagine the character Jean-Luc Picard of the starship Enterprise in Star Trek: The Next Generation was inspired by this piece: “Whowever has become wise about ancient origins will, surely, in the end, seek new wells of the future and new origins.”

Section 26: “The good must crucify the one who invents his own virtue!” The “good” and the “just”–in other words, religious leaders–“sacrifice the future to themselves–they crucify all future humanity! They do this by destroying new creators.

Section 30 closes this long series of short passages with a hymn to Zarathustra’s own self-will.

Part 3 closes with three songs: the first to Zarathustra’s soul, the second to life itself, and the third, to eternity. A number of allusions to Revelation are present, and it would seem, just as I thought at the end of Part 1, that the book is now complete. But a fourth part awaits.

Nietzsche’s “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”: Part 3: “On Apostates” and “On the Spirit of Gravity”

“On Apostates”: This section contains a fascinating little anecdote. Zarathustra reveals a very funny exchange between two night watchmen in which one doubts the existence and character of God.

A fascinating little observation closes the piece. Zarathustra sees in monotheism not only the beginnings of a demytholized view of the world but also the beginnings of atheism. The reason I find this interesting is because Nietzsche wrote this book in the nineteenth century and so much of my own childhood was spent amongst people who had no knowledge at all about the intellectual undercurrents of anything outside of the twentieth century (and that was badly misunderstood).

“On the Three Evils”: a nice defense of sex, lust for power, and selfishness.

“On the Spirit of Gravity”: a nice riposte to the traditional Christian rhetoric of “waiting for God”; Zarathustra pointedly says that he (i.e. Zarathustra) actually learned to wait for himself!

The beginnings of post-modernism are in evidence in a beautiful and beautifully self-confident exchange that Zarathustra claims to have with those who try to convert him. Here is the exchange:

“That, howeve–is my taste–not good, not bad, but my taste of which I am no longer shameful nor secretive. ‘This–it turns out–is my way– Where is yours?’ That is how I answered those who asked me ‘the way.’ The way, after all–it does not exist!”

I fell in love with these sentences. While I don’t believe in “anything goes” values, this heroic defense of the right of each human to decide for themselves what their values should be, undetermined by the teachings of the bearded clerics, is at the heart of what it means to be modern, wise, and free.

Nietzsche’s “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”: Part 3: “On the Virtue that Makes Small”

“On the Virtue that Makes Small”: The opening words of this speech would echoe ever after, even in Nietsche’s intellectual descendant Christopher Hitchens (though the latter would probably have denied it): “I walk among these people and keep my eyes open; they do not forgive me that I am not envious of their virtues.” And right there we have the basic problem with religion, it seems to me: the religious find unforgivable the fact that agnostics and atheists–and even other “believers” of a more liberal persuasion, not only disagree with their values, but have no wish to admire them at all. The religious must always feel the compulsion to push their value systems on others, and will not rest until they have done so. Hitchens himself made this exact point many times.

Indeed, this section is a meditation on what holds humanity back, what holds individuals back: smallness. What makes a person “small” are their “many absentions”–in short, what passes for godliness. In contrast, Zarathustra proclaims loudly and proudly his own ungodliness.” For Zarathustra, the whole Christian rhetoric about servanthood (an excuse for the strong to prey on the weak), and love is ridiculous and misplaced. The “godly” have no idea how to give love because they have not first learned to love themselves. In short: they are small, pathetic, pitiable people, not the grand examples they think they are.

Nice quote about religious leaders: “And this hypocrisy I found to be the worst among them; that even those who command feign the virtues of those who serve.”

Nietzsche’s “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”: Part 3: The Earlier Parts

Part 3 of Nietzsche’s work “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” begins with a longer narrative section, and indeed, the third part of the work features more narrative in proportion to speeches than the second. The third section opens with “The Wanderer,” an eponymous passage that depicts Zarathustra as a wanderer and a mountain climber; he even admits to being “unable to sit still for long.” After much climbing, Zarathustra finds himself contemplating his “ultimate peak”–a designation both literal and metaphorical. Zarathustra must climb even above the stars, an image which must have been very inspiring to the directors of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Trek and others like them. (I mention these because they contain very clear allusions to Nietzsche’s work).

Having gone very high up the mountain, Zarathustra is “willed” by “destiny” to return, to descend into “suffering.” This is one of the several features that Zarathustra shares with the Christian Jesus, an instance where parallel, and not contrast, is drawn. At the pinacle of a mountain that connects two seas, Zarathusra feels an intense “longing” for precisely what is unsaid. I couldn’t help thinking of C.S. Lewis’s wonderful, if mistaken work “The Pilgrim’s Regress” here. The connection is the idea of coming full-circle in the Regress, an image that perhaps seems to recall the two sides of the mountain here.

“The Wanderer” closes with the “love” of Zarathustra”–a love that he feels for the sea, for monsters, for anything wild. Zarathustra, like Jesus, goes up mountains alone and comes down with a message, a teaching, and part of this teaching concerns love in all its universaility. Christian critiques of Nietzsche as a nihilist fail to take passages like this into proper consideration.

The second narrative section of the third part is entitled “On the Vision and the Riddle.” This section contains an explicit allusion to I Corinthians 13, in which Paul wrote his most famous words to the effect that those who are without love are as “sounding bass”–cacophanous brass instruments. For Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, “sounding brass” is courage, courage that accepts suffering. There is a strange image of the shepherd with a snake in his mouth, a snake whose head he must bite off in order to save his own life. After he has done so, this young man becomes a “transformed, illuminated, laughing being! Never yet on Earth had I heard a human being laugh as he laughed!” (emphasis in original). For Zarathustra, this young man, who has bitten off the head of all that is ugliest, darkest, and blackest in humanity (in other words, all the values and value systems associated with religions), is a new type of being, a transfigured being. In short, though he does not say it, this is the overman.

“On Unwilling Bliss”: This section features a comparison of Zarathustra to Noah, who provided Israel with its tablets of stone. Zarathustra would destroy old tablets and make new ones.

A certain misogyny closes the piece. It’s such a pity that Nietzsche let his own negative experiences of individual women colour his perceptions of the entire female gender.