Thus spake Zarathustra, by Friedrich Nietzsche (1883-1891)
This doesn’t want to be a review (how could I write a review of Zarathustra?) but more like a reading guide for those of you who are interested in reading Nietzsche’s most famous work but find it a bit scary.
So, the first thing you need to know is that it’s not a conventional philosophical essay, but more like a collection of short reflections on a series of topics with a conducting thread and a bit of a plot. The eponymous Zarathustra is based on real-life founder of Zoroastrianism, whose name was (surprise!) Zoroaster. The book is meant in a lot of ways as an inversion, refutation, parody, what have you, of the Bible, and Zarathustra is meant to be the prophet of all those refutations. Nietzsche chose Zarathustra as the one to spread his ideas about morals and religion because he considers Zoroaster to be the first of the lineage of religious leaders he wants to fight intellectually, so if he started everything he might as well end it too. Hopefully you are going to be reading a good annotated version because there are so many inverted, distorted and parodied quotes from the Bible you’re going to need as much help as you can get following what’s going on. Also you have to think that, as the subtitle says (A book for all and none) it’s very difficult to understand the whole of it. Some of the passages will resonate with you, and some won’t, but maybe will on a rereading, depending on your mood or experiences.
One of the most common misconceptions about Nietzsche is that he was somehow a cruel and brutal man, and I’m guessing that comes from the fact that he calls himself an immoralist through Zarathustra’s lips early on this book. Here you have to understand the very difference between morals and ethics. Ethics deal with telling good from evil using reason and objective arguments, as well as giving us tools to make good decisions and direct ourselves as decent human beings in our lives. Morals are simply behavioural codes societies are indoctrinated into by governing elites. They can overlap, but they don’t necessarily do. Ethics tell you that it’s evil to torture an animal because it’s a live being capable of pain. Morals tell you that people of the same sex can’t get married because the Bible says so. You can get yourself in really funny situations when trying to deal with more ambiguous ethical problems, like abortion and experiments on embryos, but I’ll give that to you as homework. The thing is Nietzsche calls himself an immoralist, but if you know his work it’s pretty obvious he’s not opposed to ethics, only to morals. Part of what he’s trying to convey in Zarathustra is that people should have their own ethical codes, constructed on their own judgement, and not just take good and evil as a given. Do you have a pair of Nineteenth Century goggles? Because you’re going to need them. Picture all these people in the 19th century, all being prudish, puritanical, going to church twice a day and getting upset about a woman accidentally showing some ankle. And now picture Nietzsche on his soapbox yelling at them: ‘Why are you so convinced that sex, and enjoying your body, and enjoying food, and the little pleasures of life, and so many other things are wrong? Just because they told you so? Use your brains, people! Life can be so much better!’
Here we’re getting at another interesting theme: vitalism and nihilism. In a very narrow and strict definition of nihilism Nietzsche can be thought of as a nihilist in the sense that be doesn’t believe in anything, namely god, or the afterlife, the soul or anything related to that. You are just an animal, and when you die you cease to be in every sense. But that doesn’t mean he’s a pessimist, or hopeless, or toxic, like people tend to picture nihilists. In fact he was one of the most optimistic people I can think of because he was ill most of his life, lost his sanity when he was only 45 and died ten years later and he never, ever retracted from his position that he loved life no matter what it brought him, and remained a vitalist until the end. More on that when we talk about eternal recurrence. He actually used the term nihilist to speak about his intellectual enemies, because they believed in nothing. To elaborate: picture this kind of religious zealot, very common in catholicism but also present in protestant sects. This person who never enjoys any material pleasure, spends their hours praying, withering, waiting for “the lord” to take them to heaven, and despising life as a valley of tears, where we come to suffer and pay for a ticket to paradise with as much misery as possible. This is who Nietzsche calls a nihilist, because they are despising the only thing that’s real, life itself, and torturing themselves with the hope of getting a reward in the afterlife. He attacks this kind of philosophy extensively in his work and for it he earned the label of vitalist. This is one aspect of his immoralism: why is it better regarded by (19th century) society to be a sickly, mean, peevish person just because you go to church regularly and pay the tithe than to be a free spirit and enjoy yourself, have sex and enjoy sensorial pleasures, which is normally considered as disruptive and detrimental to society?
Another common misconception about the man is that he was a nazi. It’s easy to debunk with just a basic fact: he died in 1900, over 15 years before nazis were even a thing. But he wasn’t a supremacist of any kind either. The idea of Übermensh lends itself to this misconception, for people who can’t fucking read. I dare you (I double dare you, motherfucker!) to find a single passage where he states that the overman is a specific race, ethnicity, nationality or even sex. Being the overman is a matter of attitude and there is nothing congenital to it. I have to stop here and admit that there are some passages in Zarathustra that are quite misogynistic, but please, put on your 19th century goggles again. His vision of women is quite stereotypical here, but probably he met no other kind of woman than those high-class ladies that were kept ignorant and silly by their families and social circles. He was genuinely fond of Lou Andreas-Salomé and Cosima Liszt until their eventual falling out and I’m sure if he had met any post-sexual revolution women he would consider us eligible to be Übermensch as well. But the thing is, the overman is more or less the incarnation of someone who has overcome imposed morals and nihilistic conceptions of life, and also someone who will embrace eternal recurrence. The overman is Nietzsche’s ideal human being and what he hopes is the future of humanity, and most of Zarathustra’s content focuses on describing what the overman has to overcome. Also it’s not a goal and ultimate end but just another milestone in the way of personal improvement. Nothing at all to do with racial or national supremacy so the next time someone mentions that as an argument to invalidate Nietzsche’s philosophy you punch them in the nose, okay?
Another thing that usually scares novice readers is the central role of conflict in his philosophy. He thought conflict, violence and tension were pivotal to the creative process and a central part of what life is about. That didn’t mean he wanted to stand up in the middle of the theatre and start shooting people, or that he condoned mindless violence. It’s not that at all. He’s recovering Heraclitus. One of that pre-socratic’s fragments goes ‘war is the lord and father of everything’ and then again that doesn’t mean that we should start killing each other. It means that life is constant movement and that movement is mostly of things moving against each other. Put on your 19th century goggles again and now tune them to Romanticism. Picture tempests and thunder, volcanoes, animals hunting each other, mating rituals, maggots feeding on corpses, plants growing in the most unexpected places, yourself trying to tackle a particularly difficult integral, and you will get the idea. When there is no conflict, no contradiction, no problem to solve, there is nothing, there is no life. Life’s nature is thriving, and it’s constantly overcoming adversity until its death, which is new life for other beings and so on. Conflict is essential to a creator. If you’re writing a story, you need a conflict for your characters. They need to go find the macguffin, or save the world, or defeat the big bad. If they’re just sitting on their asses blissfully you’ve got nothing. If you’re a scientist you need a problem to solve, or you need to understand something that you don’t now. It also, and most importantly, applies to your life. If you fall down, you stand up. If you’re sick, you get better. No matter what adversities come, you overcome them and you feel alive and powerful! Life is not a bed of roses and bad things happen to good people, so you can just lie there and wish to die or you can get your shit together and fight for your ephemeral glory. It’s like those motivational powerpoints your mom emails you, only more conceited.
The infamous will to power is mostly this, and tends to be misunderstood as well. You’re stating to see a pattern, right? This concept is especially driven against Schopenhauer, and indirectly against the Eastern philosophy Schopenhauer based some of his work on. Basically Schopenhauer has the opposite attitude towards lack and suffering, and will and desire: if I want anything at all I might be disappointed, or not get it, or get it but then find out that it’s not what I wanted, so the best course of action is to not want anything at all. The same reasoning is made in most Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, and namely in Zen Buddhism the attaining of Satori and Nirvana later on is this in spades: first I convince myself that I don’t want anything, because desire equals suffering, then I convince myself that the world I’m experiencing is not actually real until I detach myself of my bodily experiences and functions and when I’m fully convinced of that I will have attained Nirvana, and I will suffer no more. Nor will you enjoy no more, is what good old Nietzsche has to say to this reasoning. This is another form of the nihilism we discussed earlier and even though these ideas are mentioned in the Zarathustra they are more thoroughly developed in On the genealogy of morals.
So what is will to power? It’s not stomping others, or destroying the weak, or rising above others like a tyrant. It’s, partly, having the opposite attitude as a described from Zen above. Yes, if I want things I might suffer, but I don’t care. I like to want things, it makes me feel alive, it gives me goals, it gives me a creative drive and when I finally attain my objective the victory tastes so sweet. Also Nietzsche is genuinely disgusted by pity, compassion, indulgence and mercy, in the way that these focus more on taking pleasure on the victim’s suffering and the observation of the carer’s virtue than in actually empowering the victim and help them recover. Look at me! I’m pious and have mercy of this pitiful person who’s ill, or poor, or helpless, and let them know how miserable they are. Instead of, you know, helping them up.
Which brings us to the crown jewel of the Zarathustra: eternal recurrence. See, the great thing about eternal recurrence is that you can interpret it in a lot of different ways. It’s a very rich and powerful metaphor. You can take it at face value: one interpretation at the time was that if matter is finite and time is infinite, it is necessary that the exact same configuration of atoms repeats itself over a humongous amount of time. But that’s not really interesting as a philosophical idea. You can take it a bit less at face value: the idea of time as a linear structure is quite new (you can trace its origin back to the Middle Ages at most), but for almost every culture up to then time was cyclical: seasons, years, generations, glaciations. Nothing is new under the sun, every single archetype is already invented: we will be born, become brides and grooms, mothers and fathers, crones and old men, just like every person who came before and the ones that will come after us. The most relevant emotions and ideas, such as love, hate, guilt and pride will come back over and over for us to experience them. A very interesting exploring of the idea of circular time, family histories and cultural archetypes happens in A hundred years of solitude, which is an indisputable must-read for all of you. This metaphorical but straightforward reading of eternal recurrence is more interesting, but what if you take it as a mind experiment? You say you love life. But would you still love it if you had to live it over and over again, with every good and bad thing that happened to you, including deep bliss and insufferable illness? Nietzsche likes the Sisyphean metaphor a lot. You carry the rock uphill and when you’re done you have to start over. And over. And over. But hey, having to repeat everything eternally is not that bad, at least you get to live forever! You could pass it as a new, alternative religion. Except you’re not going to live forever. You’re going to die one day, and there is no god or afterlife, and everything you do you’re going to do it only once. In this sense, eternal recurrence is used as a device to emphasise how heavy and important your every action is. It has a huge impact in eternity because human beings are defined by mortality, which means a single lifespan is all the time we’ve got before we cease to be at all, and the closest thing we have to tasting eternity. You have to bear something in mind: when Nietzsche wrote this he was ill and he knew his death was close. The passages where Zarathustra wrestles with eternal recurrence are actually Nietzsche’s author avatar trying to face his own imminent death, and for that I find them unspeakably beautiful. And here is when compassion ties in with eternal recurrence: Zarathustra despised compassion on a theoretical level earlier, but now, faced with the unbearable certainty that he’s going to die soon, he’s strongly tempted to pity himself– but fights the urge in order to be coherent with his own teachings and ideals, calling compassion his last sin and temptation. A lot of passages at the end of the third part and the beginning of the fourth are devoted to this idea and he has conversations with other characters to portray this inner conflict of his.
The last important idea is reflected in the last chapters of the book, and it’s Nietzsche’s criticism of dogmatic thought. Zarathustra finds a bunch of disciples and he’s happy with their progress until he turns his back on them and they start worshipping a donkey. They excuse themselves in different ways, including that they need someone to worship, or that God can’t stay dead. This is meant to signify that Nietzsche’s criticism is not limited to religious beliefs, but also to all dogmatic systems of thought. Some people might declare themselves atheists but still have a believer’s mindset because in their system of thought some other entity, such as science, a political party, a corporation or the establishment has taken the place of god and it’s performing the same task as him in their system of beliefs. For these people, god is not dead either. So what should be done to avoid dogmatic beliefs? Examine the evidence. Be impartial. Be critical with yourself and everyone else. And most importantly: hold beliefs because you have examined them and found evidence of their truth, not just because you want them to be true, they’re more convenient or someone told you that’s the truth and offered no evidence.
I hope you enjoyed this little essay and it helped you understand a deeply misunderstood book and thinker. Any feedback will be greatly appreciated.