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 As Nietzsche astutely observed, the Eastern despotic god of the late Bronze Age had already by the nineteenth century been replaced by something a little less fearful, but in Lewis, the trajectory continues still further down the path of divine softening.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.