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Considered by many to be the most important philosopher of modern times, Friedrich Nietzsche influenced twentieth-century ideas and culture more than almost any other thinker. His best-known book, Thus Spoke Zarathustrapublished in four parts in the last two decades of the nineteenth centuryis also his masterpiece, and represents the fullest expression of his ideas up to that time.
A unique combination of biblical oratory and playfulness, Thus Spoke Zarathustra chronicles the wanderings and teachings of the prophet Zarathustra, who descends from his mountain retreat to awaken the world to its new salvation. Do not accept, he counsels, what almost two thousand years of history have taught you to call evil. The Greeks knew better: Goodness for them was nobility, pride, and victory, not the Christian virtues of humility, meekness, poverty, and altruism. The existence of the human race is justified only by the exceptional among usthe “superman,” whose self-mastery and strong “will to power” frees him from the common prejudices and assumptions of the day.
These and other concepts in Zarathustra were later perverted by Nazi propagandists, but Nietzsche, a despiser of mass movements both political and religious, did not ask his readers for faith and obedience, but rather for critical reflection, courage, and independence.
Kathleen M. Higgins and Robert C. Solomon are both professors of philosophy at the University Texas at Austin. Together, they have written What Nietzsche Really Said and A Short History of Philosophy and co-edited Reading Nietzsche.
Read an Excerpt
From Kathleen M. Higgins and Robert C. Solomon’s Introduction to Thus Spoke Zarathustra
Friedrich Nietzsche published the first part of his Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spoke Zarathustra) in 1883, and it became his best-known book. He considered it his most important work, and toward the end of his life he immodestly described it in Ecce Homo (1908) as “the greatest present” that had been made to humanity so far. In the same book, he no less outrageously proclaims that it is “not only the highest book there is . . . but it is also the deepest, born out of the innermost wealth of truth.” So we should not be surprised to find that Zarathustra is an extremely enigmatic and often pretentious work and by no means easy to understand or to classify. It is not clearly philosophy, or poetry, or prophecy, or satire. Sometimes it seems to be all of the above. It is also difficult because it is filled with learned allegories and allusions—to the Bible, Plato, Shakespeare, Goethe’s Faust, Ludwig Feuerbach, Arthur Schopenhauer, Nietzsche’s former friend Richard Wagner, and others—references that might not be readily recognizable by most contemporary readers. Zarathustra’s subtitle, “A Book for All and None,” also sounds like a challenge, if not a direct affront, suggesting that while anyone might pick it up and read it, no one can really understand it. In the then anxious world of modern Europe, already preparing for the calamities and traumas of the twentieth century, Zarathustra would find itself curiously at home.
The basic format of Zarathustra is familiar. It tells a story in biblical style. Zarathustra is an epic that resembles no other book so much as the New Testament, a work that Nietzsche, who had originally intended to enter the ministry (and whose father and grandfathers had all been ministers), knew very well. Like Jesus in the New Testament, the titular character of Nietzsche’s book goes into solitude at the age of thirty and returns to humanity with a mission—to share his wisdom with others, to challenge them to reform their lives. But like Jesus, Zarathustra is seriously misunderstood. The book thus chronicles the protagonist’s efforts and wanderings, his coming to understand who he is and what he stands for, by way of his interactions with the various and often odd characters he meets along the way.
Nevertheless, there are obvious and dramatic differences between Zarathustra and the Gospels. To begin with, unlike Jesus, who returns from solitude after forty days, Zarathustra enjoys solitude for ten years before beginning his mission. And while the story of Jesus is completed with his death and resurrection, Zarathustra’s story is never finished. Indeed, the book starts exactly as it begins, with Zarathustra’s leaving his mountain cave and descending once again to humanity. While Jesus is presented as enlightened throughout his teaching mission, Zarathustra matures only gradually. His whole story can be understood as an instance of the popular German genre of Bildungsroman—that is, a novel chronicling the education of its protagonist. Most important, the “gospel” that Zarathustra brings contrasts sharply with the teachings of Jesus. In Nietzsche’s version, Zarathustra utterly rejects the distinction between good and evil, and with it the basic premise of Judeo-Christian morality. He also denounces the “otherworldly” outlook of Christianity, its emphasis on a “better” life beyond this one. Zarathustra’s philosophy, summarized in a single phrase, is a celebration of what is “this-worldly.” It is a “yes-saying” to life, this life; for Zarathustra (like Nietzsche) thinks that there is no other. The combined allusions to and discrepancies from the New Testament in Zarathustra make it appropriate to think of it as a parody, although it should not be thought of just as satire, which ridicules its target. On the blasphemous side, however, Zarathustra is treated as a figure whose seriousness and importance are comparable to those of Jesus.
Many readers may not know that Nietzsche’s titular character is a very important historical religious figure. Zarathustra, also known as Zoroaster, probably lived in the seventh century b.c.e. (possibly from 628 to 551). He was a Persian who founded his own religion. Zoroastrianism, in turn, had a profound influence on both Judaism and Christianity. Zarathustra remained a fantasy figure in the West for many centuries, long before his writings were translated in the eighteenth century. Central to the teachings of the historical Zarathustra was the idea that the world is a stage on which cosmic moral forces, the power of good and the powers of evil, fight it out for dominance over humanity. This conflict between good and evil is central to both Judaism and Christianity, and given Nietzsche’s rejection of this dichotomy, it is highly significant as well as ironic that Nietzsche chose the supposed originator of that distinction as his central character and ostensibly as his spokesman. Nietzsche tells us in Ecce Homo that as the first to invent the opposition of good and evil, Zarathustra should be the first to recognize that it is a “calamitous error,” for he has more experience and is more truthful than any other thinker. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra is the historical religious leader updated, offering insight into the modern world, as the original Zarathustra addressed the circumstances of his era.One could argue that Nietzsche used his fictional Zarathustra much as Plato used his teacher, Socrates (who never wrote down his teachings), to express his own views. And given that Nietzsche had a doctorate in classical philology and taught the classics for many years, we should not be surprised to find that Nietzsche’s book makes extensive references to Plato’s dialogues and their hero. Socrates, along with Jesus, remained one of the focal points of Nietzsche’s philosophy from his first book to his last. Socrates is a figure of profound importance to the Western tradition. In Nietzsche’s first book, Die Geburt der Tragödie (1872; The Birth of Tragedy), he called Socrates “the one vortex and turning-point” of Western culture. In one of his last books, Die Götzen-Dämmerung (1889; Twilight of the Idols), he devotes an entire chapter to “The Problem of Socrates,” which is nothing less than the problem of Western civilization as such. In his life, Socrates was a self-styled gadfly to his contemporaries, provoking them to question their basic beliefs, which for the most part they held just because others held them too. His unrelenting challenge to common morals and public authority ultimately led to his being convicted on trumped-up charges and executed. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra is similarly devoted to challenging both “common sense” and the authority of tradition, and he similarly arouses hatred in those committed to them.