Friedrich Nietzsche

Thus Spake Zarathustra: A Book for None and All

Review by Hong Jong Wook , 2009

Thus Spake Zarathustra: A Book for None and All. By Friedrich Nietzsche, Barnes and Noble Books, 2005. 315 pages. $7.95.

Friedrich Nietzsche pretentiously makes obvious by the subtitle A Book for None and All that this book is both perspicuous and arcane. Using the voice of a 7th century Persian prophet, Zarathustra or Zoroaster, Nietzsche sets out to challenge and overcome the dichotomy of good vs. evil that shapes the morality by the Abrahamic faiths. Zarathustra was a major proponent of this worldview, which is why Nietzsche saw it fitting that he recognizes its utter absurdity. Challenging the ideas like religious life and supernaturalism, Nietzsche is prepared to attack society with an impassioned anger and repugnance. He is proposing a radical change in consciousness, changing how we perceive ourselves within and separate from reality.

In the Prologue, the reader is introduced to Zarathustra, who at the age of thirty left his home to seek solitude in the mountains. He spends ten years there, only to emerge one day feeling as though he needs to spread the wisdom that his has gained to humanity. Walking down the mountain and entering the forest, he encounters a holy man. Zarathustra tells of how he has come to give a gift to humanity. The holy man laughs, telling him to love God and stop wasting time on humans, for they are imperfect and unreliable; it is the reason he accepted eremitism. The holy man asks what Zarathustra gives to humanity, but Zarathustra quickly departs telling him that he could not offer anything to a man who already knows everything. After leaving this man, Zarathustra confusingly says, "Could it be possible! This old saint in his forest has not yet heard of it, that God is dead” (9)! As the crux of Zarathustra's message, the statement "God is dead" is Nietzsche's solution to the spiritual crisis that afflicts his contemporary society.

Continuing into the nearest town, Zarathustra finds a crowd assembled to watch a tightrope walker. Addressing the crowd, he begins to speak of the ‹bermensch, a concept that calls for the overcoming of the self and finding meaning in the Earth or reality, rather than focusing on the "after-worldly" or supernatural. Zarathustra describes this step for humanity in terms of human evolution saying: "What is the ape to man? A laughing-stock or a painful embarrassment. And just the same shall man be to the ‹bermensch: a laughing-stock or a painful embarrassment” (9). Seeing that the crowd is not paying attention to his preaching, Zarathustra goes on to speak about "the last man," which he thinks will provoke an emotional response. "The last man" is the ultimate apathetic individual in Nietzsche’s view. Creating this caricature of utilitarianism, Nietzsche pokes fun at the idea saying that what it really perpetuates is a feeling of contentment and indifference. The crowd praises the idea of the "last man" asking Zarathustra to teach them its ways. Sorrow and helplessness fill Zarathustra's heart, as he believes that these people are not ready for his gift.

Right at that moment, a jester taunts and follows the tightrope walker out on the rope, causing him to fall and land next to Zarathustra. Bloodied and disfigured, Zarathustra speaks to this man. The man tells of how he always knew that the devil would get the best of him and asks Zarathustra to prevent him from going to hell. Zarathustra responds “there is nothing of all that you speak of: there is no devil and no hell” (15). The man questions Zarathustra, saying that he is nothing more than a trained animal, obeying commands. Zarathustra comforts him explaining, “Not at all…you have made danger you calling; there is nothing contemptible in that. Now you perish by your calling: for I will bury you with my own hands” (15). On his way to bury this man, Zarathustra realizes he cannot appeal to the masses, therefore he must seek disciples or like-minded individuals.

The First Part or Zarathustra’s Speeches are a series of lectures that Zarathustra uses to explicate his wisdom to his disciples by directly rejecting and insulting supernaturalism and other religious virtues. In the lecture On the Afterwordly, Zarathustra describes the fools who believe in a heavenly or “beyond” man and the religious leaders who only perpetuate this concern for the heavenly realm. Upset with this perversion, Zarathustra begs his disciples to turn away and pull their heads out of the realm of heavenly things. It is better to pay attention to the voices of healthy bodies, for “it is more honest and purer in voice” (31).

The lecture On Enjoying and Suffering the Passions addresses the idea that religion decides what is and what is not virtuous. Zarathustra preaches that it is better to have only one virtue, which is to hold nothing as virtuous. It only leads to contradiction and hypocrisy. He illustrates this by saying, “are war and battle evil? But this evil is necessary, necessary are the envy and mistrust and calumny among the virtues” (34). Eventually humans contradict what their religion holds as virtuous, thus turning their virtues against their tradition. If that is the case, what is the value of a tradition? It is better to hold personal or situational virtues, not sharing them with anyone.

The most direct attack on religious leaders comes in the lecture On the Preachers of Death where Zarathustra rejects anyone who preaches a repudiation of life. To Zarathustra, this perspective is utterly meaningless, for what good does pity and piety do when changing people’s minds? Zarathustra’s annoyance causes him to articulate their self-denying view saying, “Thou shalt kill yourself! Thou shalt steal away from thyself” (41)! How can go to their neighbor out of pity? What does suffering with a person change? Zarathustra speaks of these people as, “were they consistently pitiful then they would make their neighbors sick of life” (42). We are not to teach by “suffering with,” but to address suffering with tough love, offering advice, but not sympathizing with their situation. If they do not understand or accept this, then leave them, for they do not want their situation to change.

On Love of the Neighbor, Zarathustra views the phrase “love thy neighbor as thyself” is problematic. He explains that the love of the neighbor is not enough. It is better to have the love of the farthest. Coined by Jesus, the phrase presupposes we love ourselves. Zarathustra finds this troublesome saying, “you cannot endure to be alone with yourselves and do not love yourselves enough: so you want to mislead your neighbor into love and gild yourselves with his error” (54). It is better to have the love of the farthest. We are to love the future as not to deceive our neighbor with our intentions. The future that Zarathustra speaks of is our “overcoming” or ‹bermensch, which shows our real love for humanity.

This series lectures eventually ends with Zarathustra telling his followers that he must be alone. He wills that they be alone, as well. He tells them that they are not to revere him, for that will be in opposition to everything that he has taught. One’s morals and ‹bermensch are to be personal and unique. He understands the need for their journey and leaves them saying, “Dead are all gods: now we want the ‹bermensch to live” (69).

The Second Part begins with Zarathustra in his cave, longing to be with humanity. After having a dream, he feels like his teaching is in danger and that his enemies have distorted his message. Feeling this danger, Zarathustra decides to descend from the mountain to humanity again. Much like the First Part, Zarathustra begins with a series of lectures, reiterating the rejections and affirmations that he made earlier in the book. However, it ends differently. Zarathustra decides he must leave humanity, but he objects to his own decision. He is forced to leave because he lacks the ability to command the people, to rise above their needs. In conversation with this voice, which seems to be a reflection of his deeper consciousness, he says “To do great things is difficult: but the more difficult task is to command great things. This is the most unforgivable thing in you: you have the power and you will not rule” (127). He has fallen victim to exactly what he is preaching against by pitying these people too much, causing him to suffer with them instead of teaching them to overcome their lives. With pain and sadness, Zarathustra returns to his solitude, to learn how to command.

It is in the Third Part that Zarathustra comes to terms with his own existence, applying his own teaching to himself. He formally addresses and begins to understand the implications of his preaching. Not returning home right away, he is lost, wandering a mountain range in search of something he cannot describe. Along the way, Zarathustra encounters a dwarf who provides the next step in his transformation. The dwarf climbs on his back constantly badgering him with mockery and despair as he climbs. Zarathustra finally has enough and throws the dwarf down, challenging him to test his spirit. This happens to be right in front of a gateway, embroidered with word “Moment”, with two roads leading in an opposing directions. Zarathustra asks the dwarf if “these roads would eternally be opposed.” (136). The dwarf answers “Everything straight lies, all truth is crooked, time itself is a circle.” (136). This startles Zarathustra to the point of disgust and outrage. He realizes the cyclical nature of time, never beginning new. This is the concept of “eternal recurrence.” Zarathustra desperately struggles to find the meaning of the ‹bermensch. If it is just a step in the cycle, something that recurs, then it is not an accomplishment for humanity. After despairing and contemplating, Zarathustra discovers new meaning in the ‹bermensch. Focusing too much on the future before and preaching against the traditions that advocate living in the past, Zarathustra realizes the value of the present. Living for the moment does not disrupt the teachings of the ‹bermensch instead; it acknowledges value of living to one’s highest potential in the moment, making the past and future irrelevant. Songs and dances praising the goodness and wonder of eternity follow this realization. Eternity gives hope to Zarathustra, knowing that what is happening has already happened, is happening, and is going to happen, thus gives an exact purpose of the “moment.”

There is a debate as to whether the Forth Part should be considered part of the book as a whole. Written later, it seems to be a more an afterthought. The story continues with people coming to seek out Zarathustra. Zarathustra is tempted to descend into humanity again, hearing their “cries of desperation.” He meets a range of people in his descent such as, the voluntary beggar, the ugliest man, and the seeker. Each of these people Zarathustra invites to have dinner with him. In conversation, Zarathustra pieces together the state of humanity from these intellectual men and concludes, “…they are not my proper companions! Not for them do I wait here in my mountains” (279). It ends with Zarathustra leaving the cave, looking for the ones who he is to find company with and spread his wisdom.

The addition of the Forth Part does detract from the natural conclusion of the book. However, it does not change the power of the story. Thus Spake Zarathustra is a compelling rejection of religion, begging humanity to de-center their religious perspective to look at its pernicious and limiting effects. Nietzsche is willing to acknowledge the importance and power of religion within society. That is why he calls for a total shift in consciousness, radically altering and overcoming what it means to be human. With an ardent love for life, Nietzsche has handed believers the scissors to cut the umbilical cord from the religion that bore them; beginning a new life concerned with the present, allowing people to make their own decision and follow their desires.