Friedrich Nietzsche was ignored and misunderstood during his lifetime, but his ideas went on to influence a variety of disciplines, including philosophy, psychology, and literature, and eventually he came to be considered one of the greatest philosophers of all time. Trained as a classical Greek scholar, Nietzsche was a prodigy in his field, appointed associate professor at the University of Basel at the age of twenty-four. Because he suffered from poor health, particularly problems with his vision and his digestion, Nietzsche resigned his post in 1879 and turned his full attention to writing. He used his training in ancient Greek culture to critique traditional philosophy, and his insights into the hidden motives behind the formation of Western morality and ethics formed the basis for much twentieth century thought. Although he never completed an organized summary of his ideas, his revolutionary approach ensured him an important place in intellectual history.
In his early work, Nietzsche probed psychological phenomena and began to describe the function of the unconscious (some of this work foreshadowed his nervous breakdown in 1889, from which he never fully recovered). He analyzed humanity’s hidden drives, the human desire to dominate and to be dominated—drives that he would later describe as “the will to power” and that led to the famous skeptical doctrine in which he proclaimed the death of God—as forming the core of Christian virtue.
Nietzsche’s thought is best represented by his major work, Thus Spake Zarathustra. A long parable, full of sentimentality and satire, the work exhorts readers to abandon their conditioning and embrace a new mode of living: that of the Übermensch, or Overman, a being free from the constraints of society in general and of Christianity in particular. For Nietzsche, the Overman possessed a reason or a will that enabled him to master his passions and thus freed him to discover “truth,” or what Nietzsche called “the eternal recurrence of the same.”
Nietzsche declared that he chose the name Zarathustra because he was inspired by the Persian prophet, who had created the first moral vision of the world and transposed morality into the metaphysical realm so that, far from being a simple code of conduct, morality became an end in itself as both a force and a cause shaping the human universe. Consequently, Nietzsche’s book Thus Spake Zarathustra begins with the acknowledgment of its relevance to human life. As Zarathustra abandons his mountain solitude, he proclaims that he is going to travel in the world “once again to be a man.” Using metaphor, Nietzsche presents the mountain as the solitude of the soul, while the lowlands symbolize the plain inhabited by ordinary human beings. A similar symbolic contrast occurs with the appearance of Zarathustra’s pagan attendants, or animal familiars, the serpent and the eagle. The serpent is bound to the earth, while the eagle rules the sky, and Zarathustra, the bridge between the two, is the future healer of humanity’s split personality, tending on one hand toward the body and on the other toward the spirit.
Zarathustra contemplates the mystery of the sun, which sets and is reborn the next morning as a new and burning god. Nietzsche thus opens his book with metaphors for rebirth and resurrection, the theme underlying the entire work. After the stultifying effect of centuries of Christianity and of the kind of dogmatic moral beliefs that had led to the Crusades and the Inquisition, Nietzsche wonders how humanity can be reborn.
Nietzsche’s answer is to send his prophet Zarathustra, murderer of God, on a journey where he will preach the enlightened doctrine of daylight as a metaphor for consciousness and the limitations of human perception: “the drunken happiness of dying at midnight, that sings: the world is deep, deeper than day had been aware.” When...
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