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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.

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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

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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 to select a few disciples who will follow him “because they want to follow themselves.”

Throughout the rest of part 1, Nietzsche expresses a series of more or less disconnected criticisms of the people of his time. Most people are sleepers because sleep robs them of thought, makes them like inanimate objects, and imitates death. People use sleep as a means of escape, just as God created the world as a diversion, as an escape from himself. Another sort of escape is found by accepting the injunction to renounce the body and love the soul. However, the soul is only a part of the body, and one must love the whole more than one loves any part. Love of the soul to the exclusion of the body is a kind of renunciation of life. Another escape is the belief that life is full of suffering. So it is, but the Overman will see to it that he is not one of the sufferers. War brings out many of the best qualities in people, Nietzsche argues. “You should love peace as a means to new wars—and the short peace more than the long. . . . You say it is the good cause that hallows even war? I say unto you: it is the good war that hallows any cause.” The state, another escape from reality, is one of the greatest enemies of individualism. It tells individual citizens what to do, how to live; it replaces their personalities with its own.

Another renunciation of life is dedication to the ideal of chastity. To deny the lust of the flesh is often to affirm the lust of the spirit. Why deny lust? Nietzsche asks. Women are only half human at best, more like cats or cows. What is great is the passion of love between men and women, for all creation is the result of passion. The solution to all of women’s problems is childbearing; and this is the only interest women ever have in men. A man needs two things, danger and play. His interest in woman is that she is “the most dangerous plaything.” She is “the recreation of the warrior.” Her hope should be that she will bear the Overman. Men are merely evil, but women are bad. That is why they are dangerous. Men can overcome them only by subjugating them completely. An old crone agrees with Zarathustra and adds her advice, “You are going to women? Do not forget the whip!”

When should one die? Only when one has perfected one’s life; but if one cannot live a perfect life, then it is best to die in battle. Death must come because one wants it.

Part 1 ends with the injunction that through Zarathustra’s teaching one should not become merely a disciple and imitator of the prophet, but should learn through him to understand oneself. The section ends on a note that has become familiar: “Dead are all gods: now we want the Overman to live’—on that great noon, let this be our last will.”

The Will to Power

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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 and that some must be felt. The will to truth is just one aspect of the will to power. Such a will carries the free spirit beyond truth and falsity and beyond good and evil as well. Slaves think that they can conquer their masters by their servility; they have the will to power but in its lowest form. The forerunner of the Overman has the will to be master, the will to command, the will to conquer. Because slaves are incapable of positive action, they can do neither good nor evil. Masters with their capacity for evil have a capability for good. If the good requires positive action, so does the beautiful. Zarathustra asks, “Where is beauty?” and answers, “Where I must will with all my will; where I want to love and perish that an image may not remain a mere image.”

If one cannot find truth among those who tell the people what they want to hear, still less can one find it among the scholars, who have removed themselves from the possibility of action and who “knit the socks of the spirit.” Neither can one turn to the poets. They know so little that they have to lie to fill the pages they write. They are the great mythmakers; they created God. Zarathustra’s mission is to lead people away from myths toward an assertion of the will. People who accept the myths are like actors who play the parts assigned to them but who can never be themselves. Those who exercise the will to power can do so only by being themselves.

A Godless World and Eternal Recurrence

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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 a criticism of the composer Richard Wagner, with whom he had been closely associated and with whom he had finally quarreled. Wagner had written an opera, Götterdämmerung (The Twilight of the Gods). It is a highly dramatic story of the destruction of the Norse gods. Nietzsche says that the gods did not die in the way that Wagner describes. On the contrary, they laughed themselves to death when one of their number announced that there was only one god. This jealous god had lost his godhead by saying the most godless word, and the other gods died laughing.

What are often considered evils turn out on close examination by Nietzsche to be goods. Sex, which is cursed by “all hair-shirted despisers of the body,” is a virtue for the free and innocent. Lust to rule, which destroys civilizations, is a fit activity for the Overman. Selfishness, a vice only of masters as seen by their slaves, is a necessary virtue of great bodies and great souls. The first commandment is to love yourself; the great law is “Do not spare your neighbor! Man is something that must be overcome.”

Nietzsche turns at last to the doctrine of eternal recurrence. The theory that history repeats itself in identical cycles is familiar to us through the Greek philosopher Plato, who derived it from the writings of Egyptian and Babylonian astronomers. It requires a concept of time that has not been congenial to Western thought ever since it was attacked by Saint Augustine. For Westerners, time seems to move in a straight line that has no turnings. Nietzsche, knowing that his doctrine would not be well received, stated it first as coming from Zarathustra’s animals: “Everything goes, everything comes back; eternally rolls the wheel of being.” Whatever is happening now will happen again and has happened before. The great things of the world recur, but so do the small. The recurrence of the small things, of the people farthest removed from the Overman, seems at first impossible for Zarathustra to accept. That the return is exactly the same—not that the best returns, not that the part returns, not that all except the worst returns, but that all, best and worst, returns—is difficult for him to acknowledge. However, at last he is willing to abandon the doctrine of progress for the truth of eternal recurrence.

Zarathustra and the Overman

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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 something that the worshiper can see, touch, hear, and even smell and taste if he or she wants to. God seems more credible in this form. The first atheist was the person who said that God is spirit.

Zarathustra replies to this plea for the donkey by pointing out that worship of any sort is a return to childhood. The Overman has no wish to enter the Kingdom of Heaven; he wants the earth. However, if the people need to worship, let them worship donkeys if such a belief helps them.

No one except Zarathustra has seen the earth as it is. However, the Overman will come, and he will see it. He will command the earth and it will obey. With this vision in mind, Zarathustra turns again to the world to search for and bring into perfection the Overman.

Additional Reading

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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 excellent biographical introduction to the thoughts of the philosopher, clearly presented and requiring no special background. Bibliography.

Hayman, Ronald. Nietzsche: A Critical Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980. A chronological account of Nietzsche’s life and work.

Heilke, Thomas. Nietzsche’s Tragic Regime: Culture, Aesthetics, and Political Education. De Kalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1998. A fascinating treatment of the theme of political education in Nietzsche’s early work.

Higgins, Kathleen. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987. Clearly written and accessible, this book explores in depth the themes and issues raised in Nietzsche’s work Thus Spake Zarathustra.

Jones, W. T. A History of Western Philosophy: Kant to Wittgenstein and Sartre. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1969. Provides a good introductory discussion of Nietzsche’s main themes.

Kaufmann, Walter. Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist. 4th ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1974. A standard and important account of Nietzsche’s life and thought by one of his major translators.

Klein, Wayne. Nietzsche and the Promise of Philosophy. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997. Discusses Nietzsche’s vision of what philosophy should and should not be and traces the implications of his analysis.

Krell, David Farrell. The Good European: Nietzsche’s Work Sites in Word and Image. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997. Analyzes Nietzsche’s philosophy in relation to the contexts and places in which he developed his distinctive vision.

Krell, David Farrell. Infectious Nietzsche. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996. Shows how Nietzsche’s influence has been challenging, ongoing, and significant in ways that will continue to make him a thinker of immense importance.

Magnus, Bernd. Nietzsche’s Existential Imperative. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978. An interpretation of Nietzsche that focuses on his doctrine of eternal recurrence and takes Thus Spake Zarathustra as a principal source.

Magnus, Bernd, and Kathleen M. Higgins, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Nietzsche. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Nietzsche scholars contribute insightful articles about diverse aspects of his influential philosophy.

Nehamas, Alexander. Nietzsche: Life as Literature. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985. An instructive interpretation of Nietzsche’s philosophy and his view that philosophy has close links to narrative.

Porter, James I. The Inversion of Dionysus: An Essay on “The Birth of Tragedy”. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford, 2000. An insightful interpretation of Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy.

Waite, Geoff. Nietzsche’s Corpse: Aesthetics, Politics, Prophecy, or, the Spectacular Technoculture of Everyday Life. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1996. An assessment of Nietzsche’s significance and impact on the development of culture, politics, and technology in the twentieth century and beyond.

Dan Barnett John K. Roth

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 507

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 excellent biographical introduction to the thoughts of the philosopher, clearly presented and requiring no special background. Bibliography.

Hayman, Ronald. Nietzsche: A Critical Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980. A chronological account of Nietzsche’s life and work.

Heilke, Thomas. Nietzsche’s Tragic Regime: Culture, Aesthetics, and Political Education. De Kalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1998. A fascinating treatment of the theme of political education in Nietzsche’s early work.

Higgins, Kathleen. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987. Clearly written and accessible, this book explores in depth the themes and issues raised in Nietzsche’s work Thus Spake Zarathustra.

Jones, W. T. A History of Western Philosophy: Kant to Wittgenstein and Sartre. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1969. Provides a good introductory discussion of Nietzsche’s main themes.

Kaufmann, Walter. Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist. 4th ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1974. A standard and important account of Nietzsche’s life and thought by one of his major translators.

Klein, Wayne. Nietzsche and the Promise of Philosophy. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997. Discusses Nietzsche’s vision of what philosophy should and should not be and traces the implications of his analysis.

Krell, David Farrell. The Good European: Nietzsche’s Work Sites in Word and Image. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997. Analyzes Nietzsche’s philosophy in relation to the contexts and places in which he developed his distinctive vision.

Krell, David Farrell. Infectious Nietzsche. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996. Shows how Nietzsche’s influence has been challenging, ongoing, and significant in ways that will continue to make him a thinker of immense importance.

Magnus, Bernd. Nietzsche’s Existential Imperative. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978. An interpretation of Nietzsche that focuses on his doctrine of eternal recurrence and takes Thus Spake Zarathustra as a principal source.

Magnus, Bernd, and Kathleen M. Higgins, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Nietzsche. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Nietzsche scholars contribute insightful articles about diverse aspects of his influential philosophy.

Nehamas, Alexander. Nietzsche: Life as Literature. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985. An instructive interpretation of Nietzsche’s philosophy and his view that philosophy has close links to narrative.

Porter, James I. The Inversion of Dionysus: An Essay on “The Birth of Tragedy”. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford, 2000. An insightful interpretation of Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy.

Waite, Geoff. Nietzsche’s Corpse: Aesthetics, Politics, Prophecy, or, the Spectacular Technoculture of Everyday Life. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1996. An assessment of Nietzsche’s significance and impact on the development of culture, politics, and technology in the twentieth century and beyond.

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