Portrait by Basil Baroda

NIETZSCHE'S ZARATHUSTRA

A Summary

In some respects the story of Friedrich Nietzsche's Zarathustra is an epos in the way the stories of Odysseus or Jesus or Don Quijote are. It describes a man with a distinct character, who faces an important task, who in the pursuit of this task has significant encounters with friends and adversaries, who experiences deep crises and changes of heart, and who in the end comes to a resolution that represents a meaningful possibility of human existence.

In contrast to most other epic poems, however, Thus Spoke Zarathustra is less a series of external adventures than a spiritual journey. The ratio of external events and inner developments is heavily weighted in favor of the latter. More than half of the entire text consists of Zarathustra's philosophical lectures and thoughts, although these thoughts are conveyed by archetypal myths and poetic language rather than analyses. The plot of Zarathustra's story is important, however. Zarathustra's philosophical pronouncements cannot be fully appreciated without being seen in the context of specific external events. To understand Thus Spoke Zarathustra one has to follow both the story's line of action and its line of thought.

In the Prologue the reader is told that at the age thirty Zarathustra "left his home and the lake of his home and went into the mountains. Here he enjoyed his spirit and his solitude, and for ten years did not tire of it." After this time, however, Zarathustra decides to leave his mountain retreat to share his slowly accumulated wisdom with the rest of humanity. His goal is to proclaim the "overman," a type of human being that is to be as superior to today's human beings as today's humanity is to the higher apes. The state of modern humanity seems to Zarathustra to be such that a new guiding ideal is urgently called for-an invigorating inspiration that would give new energy and meaning to people who, tired and disillusioned, are mired in a cultural wasteland.

Much of the reigning spiritual malaise is due to what Zarathustra refers to as the "Death of God." Not that Zarathustra thought that God had ever existed, but he knew that once the idea of God was a most important inspiration without which most of Western (as well as much of Non-Western) culture would not have been created. As the Modern Age with its secularizing tendencies developed, however, the idea of an all-powerful God progressively lost its plausibility and organizing force, and by the time scientific rationality had become the dominant mode of thought, it seemed hopelessly nave and anachronistic to think that an anthropomorphic deity could be something like a law-giving lord of a well-ordered and meaningful world. The universe as described by modern science became too vast to be comprehended in its entirety at all, and for educated people it became increasingly difficult to find any valid basis for a genuine moral order, or for a more than arbitrary meaning of life. Nihilism had become a haunting problem for modern humanity, and it is this problem that Zarathustra's philosophy is meant to solve. The "overman" is Zarathustra's answer to the modern wasteland.

Once among people Zarathustra does not lose any time to advocate his vision: Humanity as a whole is to overcome its present mediocrity and bankrupt civilization in order to create the overman: "Man is something that is to be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?" The reception that Zarathustra's philosophy receives, however, is none too encouraging. First the crowd mistakes the new prophet as part of a circus act. And once the people understand what Zarathustra is up to, they let him know in no uncertain terms that they have absolutely no use for something like the overman, that what they are really interested in is a nice and comfortable life. "You can have the overman," they laugh. If life has no higher meaning, that is not something over which they will lose any sleep. Happiness in the form of pleasure is their highest goal--"the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people," as the Utilitarians put it. (There is no philosophy to which Zarathustra's thought is more directly opposed than Utilitarianism. Nietzsche rarely talks about the "flathead" J. S. Mill, the principal theoretician of Utilitarianism, with anything but derision.)

From now on Zarathustra has nothing but contempt for the masses, although he is repeatedly tempted to pity and help them. His contempt extends not only to those social classes that have traditionally been excluded from the privilege of higher education, but also to all people who limit their lives and aspirations to the pursuit of trivia and convenience. That includes the majority of artists and writers, of students and professors, of journalists and politicians-the majority, that is, of what is sometimes called the "cultural elite." They all fall far short of seriously developing their personal or their human potential. Instead Zarathustra starts looking for a few outstanding individuals, persons who are genuinely hungry for something more in life than the fulfillment of mediocre and philistine desires. Zarathustra searches for the seekers, and he has no trouble finding and attracting such individuals. At this point his career as a teacher begins in earnest.

Part One of Thus Spoke Zarathustra consists almost entirely of the twenty-two speeches that Zarathustra delivers to his disciples and followers. The speeches elaborate the philosophy of the overman. Their main line of thought can be summarized in the following six points:

1. Zarathustra's most basic contention is the sweeping rejection of all metaphysics--of the idea that there is a "real" world "behind" the physical world, a transcendent world beyond the world of the senses. For Zarathustra there is only one world, and that world is essentially physical. Zarathustra is a materialist monist, in other words, he rejects dualism in its philosophical as well as in its religious forms. Plato, Descartes, or Kant are as unacceptable to him as Christianity or any other metaphysical religion. "Be faithful to the earth!" he admonishes his followers time and again.

In several speeches Zarathustra spells out implications of this basic contention. Priests of metaphysical religions, for example, he calls "Preachers of Death," because in their teachings they imply that there is something better than the earth and its life forms. They kill true reverence for life, and they do so because they are afraid of life, or because they have failed to come to terms with it.

2. Corresponding to Zarathustra's materialist monism is his rejection of the traditional dualism of body and mind: People do not have bodies, but they are bodies. Human beings are not composites of a physical and a non-physical substance, but whole organisms, although these organisms are often very intelligent, and capable of deep feelings. Human behavior is much more intelligible if it is understood as the behavior of bodies, and not as behavior that originates in pure minds. People are generally much more physical than most individuals-under the influence of metaphysical teachings-are inclined to admit to themselves or to others.

In speeches on a variety of topics Zarathustra encourages his followers to acknowledge their physical nature, and to live out of its power and resources. Books that are "written with blood," for example, are better than the seemingly detached and purely cerebral works of most academics, and works of art that draw on the pre-rational powers of the unconscious mind are deeper and far more powerful than those that are created by the rational mind. The instinctual passions that grow out of our physical constitution are truer to life than most of the constructions of the intellect. (It is worth remembering here what Nietzsche writes about the origin of art in his The Birth of Tragedy: Greek tragedy was powerful as long as it grew out of Dionysian intoxication and Apollinian dream visions. It deteriorated--at the time of Socrates's teaching--when playwrights became calculating craftsmen, instead of inspired visionaries.)

3. Zarathustra advocates a self-asserting individualism that by most standards would be considered reckless and immoral. Zarathustra has no interest in virtues that promote social peace, or a culture in which people place a high value on not upsetting or offending each other. Peace of mind is suspicious because it may come about at the price of muffling the real forces of life. Individuals whose thoughts and deeds are to reach great heights have to go into real depths: "With a person it is as with a tree. The more he aspires to the height and light, the more strongly will his roots strive earthward, downward, into the dark, into the deep-into evil." Outstanding spirits need to disregard the moral rules and sensibilities of the "herd." "And beware of the good and the just! They like to crucify those who invent their own virtue for themselves-they hate the lonely one." The more uncompromisingly people dare to follow their own individual inspiration, the more significant will be the results. A true view and appreciation of life is not "clouded" by moral categories at all: Life in its purest and highest manifestations exists "beyond good and evil."

4. The price for this sort of individualism is a pervasive antagonism of forces and people, perhaps even "a war of all against all"(to use Hobbes's phrase). But that is nothing bad in Zarathustra's eyes. Every living being is motivated by a "will to power," by a will to assert itself, and struggle is an inevitable expression of being alive. "War is the father of all things," Heraclitus once wrote, and in agreement with this Zarathustra thought that nothing worthwhile would ever come about without strife. "Live dangerously!" is the advice that he gives to his friends. Even in love relationships risks must be taken. Getting hurt in a love relationship is nothing to be afraid of or bitter about, but rather an opportunity to grow and to respond creatively. "War" is not only an acceptable means, but also an important end in itself: "You say it is the good cause that hallows even war? I say: It is the good war that hallows every cause." To live a warrior's life is a supreme way of being.

This must not be misunderstood, however, as an advocacy of the sort of militarism and nationalistic expansionism that began to run rampant toward the end of the 19th century. The "warrior" that Zarathustra praises is not a man in uniform, and not part of the mechanized fighting machinery that has become the hallmark of modern warfare. In his speech "On the New Idol" Zarathustra explicitly repudiates such things as patriotism or identification with a particular nation state as a vulgar form of self-alienation: "Only where the state ends, there begins the human being who is not superfluous."

5. Self-determination is crucial at all levels of Zarathustra's philosophy. Self-determination has been an important ideal in other philosophies as well, to be sure, particularly in the philosophy of the Enlightenment, a movement that is in several ways incompatible with the thought of Zarathustra. What the Enlightenment and Zarathustra have in common is the idea that a moral order cannot be imposed on human beings from the outside-by authorities, social institutions, or traditions, for example. But in Zarathustra's philosophy self-determination becomes a much more radical concept than it is in the writings of Kant or other Enlightenment thinkers. For in Kant's ethics the goal is still to find moral rules and guidelines that are "objectively" valid, rules that are binding for all rational beings because they are grounded in the very nature of rationality. For Zarathustra there is neither a divine authority that could impose binding values, nor a recognizable cosmic order on which objective values could be based, nor a rationality that is common to all human beings. Thus human beings are not only independently responsible for living up to moral standards, but also for creating such standards in the first place. For Zarathustra nothing is "given," neither a moral order, nor a pre-established meaning of life or of the universe. Any such thing has to be brought about by the creative will of individuals who are capable of such feats, such as Moses or similar lawgivers. Self-determination, in other words, is not just a matter of exercising autonomy in a structured and established world, but almost something like creating a world out of chaos.

A sign of such far-reaching self-determination is free death. A truly autonomous being will not wait until death "sneaks in like a thief," but freely decides when it is time to go-which should not be either too early or too late. The time of one's death ought to be connected to one's meaningful tasks, to the things that one has chosen to accomplish. When these goals have been reached, and when nothing significant can be done anymore, then a sovereign person will say farewell to people and life, and not wait until his or her life will degenerate into nothingness. The important point is to be active where formerly people have been passive. Fewer things are given than had always been presumed. A future humanity would be in command of itself to a degree that had never been imagined in the past.

6. Life is a process, not a state. A person is a process, too, not a static entity. To conceive of oneself as an entity, as a substance, is a mistake. To live life as if one were a being, rather than a becoming, is a falsification of one's existence that is connected with the illusion of an everlasting life in a "transcendent" world. Living life is not accomplished by holding on, by accumulating things or knowledge, but by always overcoming oneself, and by transforming or passing on everything that one acquires.

"Everything impermanent is but a symbol" (of something eternal), Goethe once wrote. "Everything permanent is but a symbol," Zarathustra counters. And for good measure he ads: "The poets lie too much. It is of time and becoming that the best similes speak: Let them be a praise and a justification of all impermanence."

"You must want to burn up in your own flames," Zarathustra tells his followers--a Heraclitean idea that is paralleled in Nietzsche's poem "Ecce Homo":

Yes, I know from where I come!
Insatiable like the fire Do I glow, consume myself.
Light is everything that I seize,
Ashes everything that I leave:
Fire am I without fail.

At the end of Part One Zarathustra leaves his followers to return to his mountain cave. His main reason for doing so is the necessity of his disciples to find themselves-to cease being followers. Part of the idea of the overman is, after all, the idea of radically living out of one's own self, and not out of any doctrine or consensus of a community. To be true to his teaching Zarathustra has to stop being a teacher. All he can do as the prophet of the overman is sow the seed of his idea, and then see what will develop.

Part Two. Years later Zarathustra has a dream: A child holds a mirror up to him. In this mirror Zarathustra does not see himself, but a derisively laughing devil. Zarathustra is deeply disturbed by that vision. He interprets it as meaning that his teaching is being distorted. He eagerly decides to return to his followers to talk to them again-and to his enemies as well. He feels he is full of wisdom that he wants to impart. "Too long I have belonged to solitude; thus I have forgotten to be silent." The reader gets the impression that Zarathustra is just a bit too eager to resume his teaching career. Zarathustra may, in fact, have given a wrong interpretation to his dream, and his eagerness to give more lectures to his followers may cover up something that tried to make itself manifest by the vision of the mirror.

Zarathustra descends to the Blessed Isles, the place where his followers live, and where he is welcome to further develop the ramifications of his philosophy. A major new strand of his thoughts is the concept of the "Will to Power," the concept that dominates all of Part Two.Zarathustra sees the Will to Power as the most basic motive force in all living beings, surpassing in importance even such basic a drive as the will to live. It manifests itself in innumerable ways--in the way certain people assert themselves in society, as well as in the power of an ascetic priest over his own appetites or an artists mastery over the elements of his or her work. Even science is seen not so much as a disinterested reflection of what is the case, but as a forceful construction of data along the lines of certain preconceived concepts (such as the unified structure of Newtonian physics).

Halfway through Part Two, however, in the "Nightsong," Zarathustra changes his tune, so to speak. Instead of lecturing he begins to sing. What he sings at first is a lament about being too much a carrier of light, too much a giver of wisdom. Something important is missing in his life. Zarathustra is craving for darkness-presumably for the instinctual or unconscious side of human existence. He conducts himself too much like Apollo, and too little like Dionysus. Instead of being the teacher of a new civilization he needs to experience the extacies and agonies that come with the intoxicated submersion into the primal spheres of life.

In the following "Dancing Song" Zarathustra deepens his self-doubts. While admiring and encouraging the dance of a group of young women he asks himself whether he really understands life. Implicitly he calls into question the validity of his strident teaching. And in the "Tomb Song" he tentatively acknowledges that the truth of life will not reveal itself to him through philosophizing and teaching, but in such instinctual expressions as singing and dancing.

After this crisis experience Zarathustra resumes his usual lecturing for a while, but in the section on "The Soothsayer" he encounters his self-doubts once more. The Soothsayer is a persuasive spokesman for the nihilism that besieges modern humanity. His message is that ultimately everything is futile and vain. He represents a pervasive weariness and a state of disillusionment that Zarathustra himself cannot escape: What sense is there, indeed, for working so hard to bring about the overman? Is his project really different from all the other cultural efforts that now constitute a dead past?

In a lugubrious dream Zarathustra sees himself as the warden of the remnants of past cultures in "the mountain-castle of death." In this dream a sudden storm tears open the gate of the castle, overturning a black coffin from which escape grimacing "children, angels, owls, fools, and huge butterflies." Terrorized, Zarathustra awakens. He wonders what the dream may mean. A disciple suggests that the storm symbolizes the work of Zarathustra-the destruction of a dead culture, and the release of new energies. Zarathustra is doubtful, however. He is not sure whether he may not rather be part of "the castle of death." Even as the teacher of the overman he may be more part of the old civilization than part of the liberating forces of the future.

Continuing his journey with his followers Zarathustra has occasion to converse with a rather observant hunchback. This hunchback tells Zarathustra to his face that "Zarathustra talks differently to his disciples than he talks to himself." This finally brings home to him that something is seriously wrong. There is something that he does not tell his followers, something that he does not even admit to himself, even though he seems to have an inkling of it. It is clear that the days of Zarathustra as a teacher are numbered.

In "The Stillest Hour," the last section of Part Two, Zarathustra is arguing with a "voiceless voice," a voice that brings him to the realization that "Zarathustra's fruits are ripe, but that Zarathustra is not ripe for his fruits." There is a discrepancy between his teachings and his being, and it becomes clear to him that he has to change. In a deeply depressed state he decides to leave his followers once more.

Part Three. From now on Zarathustra is by himself. He is a "wanderer" who tries to get ready to meet the most difficult task that he has to face in his life. "Before my highest mountain I stand and before my longest wandering. To that end I must first go down deeper than ever I descended-deeper into pain than I ever descended, down into its blackest flood." Although Zarathustra never describes it that way, he is, in fact, readying himself to die to his old self as the teacher of the overman and to become that new kind of being. "And if you now lack all ladders, then you must know how to climb on your own head; how else could you want to climb upward? On your own head and away over your own heart up until even your stars are under you!"

Zarathustra does not return to the solitude of his mountain cave right away, but rather embarks on a long journey across the sea and through the big cities. While crossing a mountain range to reach the next seaport, he begins to deal with the "Spirit of Gravity" that keeps weighing him down-"my devil and archenemy, half dwarf, half mole, lame, making lame, dripping lead into my ear, leaden thoughts into my brain." What the spirit represents at this point is the thought of the futility of Zarathustra's project, the futility that the Soothsayer had already hinted at earlier: "You philosopher's stone," the Spirit of Gravity whispers mockingly, "you threw yourself very high, but every stone that is thrown must fall."

Zarathustra gets the dwarf off his back by confronting him and himself with the thought that he had been so reluctant to think, but which seemed to have been on his mind for some time--the thought of the eternal recurrence of everything. That thought and its unsettling implications are the predominant concern of Part Three of Thus Spoke Zarathustra. According to this philosophical concept everything in the universe is bound to repeat itself endlessly because time is endless, while the amount of matter that exists in time is finite. The number of possible configurations of the constantly changing elements of matter may be enormous, but eventually they will have to repeat themselves. Everything that exists must have existed before; the future is like the past: On a cosmic scale there can be no progress. Time is not linear, but forever moves in circles. "All that is straight lies," the dwarf agrees. "All truth is crooked. Time itself is a circle."

The thought is profoundly disturbing to Zarathustra, for it means that even a successfully created culture of overmen is not something like a new plateau from which ever new heights of human accomplishments can be reached, but only a phase in a cycle which in time will bring back even the lowest stages of human development. The thought that everything recurs seems to take away any incentive for effort. Why work toward the overman if after that nothing but the old degeneracy looms?

Zarathustra's profound disgust with the prospect of the eternal recurrence of low forms of humanity finds expression in his vision of a young shepherd who is gagging on a black serpent that has crawled into his throat. Attempts to dislodge the serpent are futile. "Bite off its head!" Zarathustra finally yells, and the Shepherd does as he is told. Spitting out the head the Shepherd is a new man, a man who laughs a tremendous laugh of liberation. From the moment of this vision on Zarathustra has one over-arching desire: To achieve this laughter of liberation, and thus be rid for good of the Spirit of Gravity.

Zarathustra continues his travel--a journey through the wasteland of modern civilization. In the end he finds the shallow and escapist culture of his contemporaries not even worthy of critique or rebuttal; neither scholars nor the literati (let alone the journalists) come even close to dealing with the really important questions of life. Passing everything over in silence seems to him to be the most adequate response. He returns to the mountains to resume work on himself. While becoming a hermit again, Zarathustra is careful to not turn his back on life. Instead of subscribing to the traditional virtues of ascetic monks-poverty, chastity, and obedience-he continues to advocate the vigorous living of life with everything that that may imply. Zarathustra is still in agreement with what he had said in Part Two: "I do not permit the sight of evil to be spoiled for me by your timidity. I am delighted to see the wonders hatched by the hot sun-tigers, and palms and rattlesnakes. Among men, too, a hot sun hatches a beautiful breed. And there are many wonderful things in those who are evil." Zarathustra still aims at the goal of the overman.

Part Three ends with Zarathustra's recovery from his crisis. The way he overcomes the debilitating implication of eternal recurrence is by emphatically living in the present. If time is a circle, it does not really matter in which part of the circle one exists, or in which phase of its development humanity finds itself. "Being begins at every moment. The center is everywhere," Zarathustra's archetypal animals, the snake and the eagle, sing, and Zarathustra agrees. Most people live in the past, i.e., under the constraints of traditions, inherited moralities, etc. And Zarathustra used to live in the future, i.e., in expectation of a culture that has never existed before, and which would be part of a never-ending progress. But by now the teacher of the overman knows that ultimately past and future are irrelevant, that living one's life is something that has to happen now, and not at any other time. It is now that the struggle takes place, and now that life manifests itself in the intensity of one's efforts. The concept of eternal recurrence is not a paralyzing thought anymore, but the joyful vision of a new kind of secular eternity.

An important sign of Zarathustra's recovery is the fact that he has learned to sing and to dance. Singing and dancing, compared to speaking, are ecstatic modes of expression. Speaking tends to be a disembodied mode of communication, while singing and dancing involve not only the intellect, but the body and its passions as well. A person who is capable of singing and dancing is whole, and life is more present in such a person than in a lecturing teacher. It is in the light of this newly found wholeness that one can see why Zarathustra felt at one point that in spite of his upbeat teachings he was part of "the castle of death."

The first part of Thus Spoke Zarathustra is dominated by Zarathustra's vision of the overman, the vision of a bright and heroic future. It can be called Apollinian, as it aims at the building of a civilization out of the chaos of cultural entropy. No civilization is eternal, however. The dark and chaotic underside of every order cannot be ignored, and it will eventually assert itself. The day of Apollo does not exist without the night of Dionysus. The night, in fact, is darker and more powerful than day-consciousness cares to think. Because the dark forces of life are so frightening, people have a tendency to shun life, to look at it as something painful or even evil-something to overcome. It is part of Zarathustra's teaching to affirm life in spite of its frequent darkness and potential terrors. The transformation of the protagonist that dominates the last part of Thus Spoke Zarathustra demonstrates a love of life that encompasses not only its dark sides, but even its ultimate purposelessness. It is a love that is achieved by living life-after a long period of merely thinking and teaching about it. It is a seeing love, a love that feels and knows at the same time:

Be aware, o man!
What does the deep midnight declare?
'I was asleep. From a deep dream I woke.
The world is deep--
Deeper than the day had thought.
Deep is its woe.
But ecstasy is deeper yet than agony.
Woe says: Be gone!
But joy aims at eternity--
At deep, deep eternity.'

Part Four. Scholars are debating whether Part Four should be seen as an integral component of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, or rather as the beginning of a longer continuation that Nietzsche never got around to writing. It is fairly evident that the first three parts constitute a beginning, middle, and an end, to which the fourth part is in some ways something like an appendix. The first three parts could easily stand by themselves. The fourth part is interesting, however, in that it shows Zarathustra as an old man who is still intent on teaching the overman. Throughout Part Four he never leaves the mountains: He has adopted the strategy of letting interested people find him. And they come. The cultural situation in the lowlands has become so bad that seekers are desperate to find a way out. Zarathustra converses with a number of "higher men" who have begun to look at him as a spiritual authority. Zarathustra gives advice to these figures, and in the process further analyzes the general situation of modern humanity, but in the end he concludes that even these leading intellectuals are hopeless: "These are not my proper companions. It is not for them that I wait here in my mountains."

The book ends with the appearance of a lion, which Zarathustra takes to be a sign that the time has come for him to go to the people once more. Zarathustra is ready: "He left his cave, glowing and strong as a morning sun that comes out of dark mountains."

(Copyright 1998 by Jorn K. Bramann)

The complete on-line text of Thus Spake Zarathustra: eserver/philosophy

Nietzsche: The Darkness of Life

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