Context

Friedrich Nietzsche belongs to the tradition of philosophers who wished to tell people how to live. His injunction is for one to become an individual and to follow one’s own desires—if necessary, through the destruction of others. Nietzsche is often inconsistent, sometimes contradictory, but he is almost always provocative. His criticisms of nineteenth century institutions remind the reader of those of his contemporaries, philosopher Søren Kierkegaard and writer Fyodor Dostoevski.

There are three principal themes in Thus Spake Zarathustra: the will to power, the consequent revaluation of values, and the doctrine of eternal recurrence. Life is essentially a will to power, the feeling that one is in command of oneself and of the future. In controlling the future, one finds that the values that most people accept are inadequate and that one must adopt a new, in many cases opposite, set of values. However, neither power nor the new set of values is desirable for its consequences. If one were to use power to accomplish some final end, one would no longer need it; if one were to realize the new values, one would no longer need them. For Nietzsche, there are no final ends. Power and the revaluation of values are good in themselves; and consequently, there is no millennium, nothing but an eternal recurrence of people, things, and problems. These three themes are developed carefully in Thus Spake Zarathustra, in a manner of development that is both self-conscious and purposive.

Individuals and the Overman

The main theme in part 1 is that individuals stand alone with their fate in their own hands. They can expect no help from others either in this life or in some imagined future life. They must “make themselves,” to use the phrase of the existentialists. As part 1 opens, Zarathustra is meditating on a mountain, where he has spent the last ten years. His companions have been his eagle, a symbol of pride, and his serpent, a symbol of wisdom. He has just decided to go into the world to teach some of the wisdom that he has acquired during his period of meditation.

On the way down the mountain, he meets a saint who tells him that the way to help people is to stay away from them and to save them through prayer. Here Nietzsche announces one of his important ideas, that the individual can expect no supernatural help because God is dead.

Zarathustra reaches a town where, finding a crowd engaged in watching a tightrope walker perform his act, he says to them, “I teach you the Overman. Man is something that shall be overcome.” He explains that people have evolved from apes but that they are still apelike. People are poisoned by those who teach that salvation is found not in this world but in the next and by those who teach the Christian ethics of virtue, justice, and pity. However, the people in the crowd are not ready for Zarathustra’s message. They think that he is announcing the tightrope walker’s act. He reflects that they cannot be taught because they are not ready to take the first step toward learning by recognizing that their present beliefs are false. What Zarathustra must find is those “who do not know how to live except by going under, for they are those who cross over.”

The tightrope walker falls and is killed. Zarathustra and the corpse are left alone in the marketplace. Zarathustra then realizes that one of his great problems will be to communicate his message to people too indifferent or too stupid to understand him. However, his purpose remains firm: “I will teach men the meaning of their existence—the Overman, the lightning out of the dark cloud of man.” Because he cannot teach the multitude, he decides that he will have...

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The Will to Power

In part 2, Nietzsche develops the notion of the will to power. The first part is largely negative, but the second part provides the positive doctrine. It begins with the idea that the conjecture of God is meaningless because it defies the imagination. However, the conjecture of the Overman is within the scope of the human mind if one first eliminates error. One cause of error is pity; but the Overman is willing to sacrifice the self and, therefore, willing to sacrifice others. Priests cause error. They have taken death as their God’s triumph; they need to be redeemed from their Redeemer. They are virtuous because they expect a reward in the afterlife, but there is no reward. For the Overman, to be virtuous is to be true to the self and to follow where it leads. The mass of people want power and pleasure too, but they want the wrong kinds. The Overman must seek the higher powers and pleasures; he must be nauseated by the rabble that is around him.

Nietzsche’s statement of his positive doctrine is often interrupted by criticisms. The contrast between the desires of the masses and those of the Overman reminds him of the belief that all people are equal. However, if people are equal, there could be no Overman. Those who have preached equality have told the people what they wanted to hear rather than the truth. The truth can be discovered only by the free spirit who wills, desires, and loves. Such a free spirit finds that not all things can be understood...

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A Godless World and Eternal Recurrence

The third part of Thus Spake Zarathustra introduces the theme of eternal recurrence, but it is almost obscured by other themes. The main question is: What does one experience when one travels? Zarathustra decides that no matter where one travels one can experience only oneself. However, if this is the case, then the individual is beyond good and evil, both of which require some absolute standard or criterion of judgment. There is none. People live in a world not of purpose, knowledge, law, and design but of accident, innocence, chance, and prankishness. “In everything, one thing is impossible: rationality.”

What of people who cannot accept this doctrine because they are weak in body and in mind? They cannot be expected to accept the truth; they talk but cannot think. They ask only for contentment and refuse to face life. They expect teachers of contentment, flatterers who will tell them they are right. They want those who will condemn as sins the acts that they never commit and who will praise their small sins as virtues. However, Nietzsche continues, “Yes, I am Zarathustra the godless!’ These teachers of resignation! Whatever is small and sick and scabby, they crawl to like lice, and only my nausea prevents me from squashing them.”

Although much that Nietzsche says is negative and critical, he constantly warns the reader that criticism should be given only out of love and in preparation for a positive doctrine to follow. Condemnation for its own sake is evidence only of an interest in filth and dirt.

If God is dead, how did he die? Here Nietzsche cannot resist...

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Zarathustra and the Overman

The fourth part of Thus Spake Zarathustra, not intended by Nietzsche to be the last, is concerned with the consequences of accepting some portion of Zarathustra’s teachings without accepting the whole. One must take all or none. Much of this part consists of parodies of Christian views—for example, that one must become like a little bovine to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

Zarathustra, who is still concerned with the Overman, wonders what he will be like. As the philosopher goes from place to place in the world, he sees that people are fit only to be despised unless they are the prelude to the Overman. People are not to be preserved; they are to be overcome. People must be brave even though there is no God; people must be strong because they are evil; and they must hate their neighbors as a consequence of the will to power.

Once more, this doctrine is too strong for the people who listen to Zarathustra. Although God is dead, it is necessary for them to make a god of their own; and this time they choose a donkey. The animal fulfills all of the requirements for a god. He is a servant of humankind. He does not speak and therefore is never wrong. The world, created as stupidly as possible, is in his own image. Everyone is able to believe in the donkey’s long ears. Zarathustra, after upbraiding the people for worshiping a donkey, is told by them that it is better to worship some god, even a donkey, than no god at all. At least here is...

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Additional Reading

Berkowitz, Peter. Nietzsche: The Ethics of an Immoralist. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995. Shows how Friedrich Nietzsche’s attacks on conventional and traditional morality entail a distinctive ethical outlook.

Conway, Daniel W. Nietzsche and the Political. New York: Routledge, 1997. A thoughtful discussion of the political implications of Nietzsche’s philosophy.

Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy: Modern Philosophy. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1965. Copleston provides a good overview of Nietzsche’s thought and situates him in his nineteenth century European context.

Hayman, Ronald. Nietzsche. New York: Routledge, 1999. An...

(The entire section is 510 words.)

Bibliography

Additional Reading

Berkowitz, Peter. Nietzsche: The Ethics of an Immoralist. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995. Shows how Friedrich Nietzsche’s attacks on conventional and traditional morality entail a distinctive ethical outlook.

Conway, Daniel W. Nietzsche and the Political. New York: Routledge, 1997. A thoughtful discussion of the political implications of Nietzsche’s philosophy.

Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy: Modern Philosophy. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1965. Copleston provides a good overview of Nietzsche’s thought and situates him...

(The entire section is 507 words.)