Book Review: Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Thus Spoke Zarathustra is perhaps Nietzsche’s most enduringly well-read work with non-academics. In it, Nietzsche chooses to express his ideas through the voice of the ancient Persian prophet Zarathustra (aka Zoroaster). Nietzsche says in Ecce Homo that he chose Zarathustra as the voice for his philosophy because Zarathustra was the first to see within the battle between good and evil the essence of many other arguments and for upholding truthfulness as a supreme virtue.

Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Before we can even discuss the content of the book, we must discuss the style of the book that the reader will be confronted with from the first page. RJ Hollingdale, who translated and wrote the introduction to this edition, describes it as an “eruption of manner”. Here, “the eruption of words, metaphors, figures and wordplay suggests an eruption of feeling”. This is in contrast to Nietzsche’s other work; “there concision, brevity, directness of statement are present”.

The style has been described as ‘mock Biblical’. It is, after all, the story of a prophet’s journey; sharing wisdom, telling parables, encountering interlocutors and observing the behaviour of others. As such, it can also be an evasive, beguiling, and incomplete work.

I name you three metamorphoses of the spirit: how the spirit shall become a camel, and the camel a lion, and the lion at last a child.

There are many things for the spirit, for the strong, weight-bearing spirit in which dwell respect and awe: its strength longs for the heavy, for the heaviest.

What is heavy? thus asks the weight-bearing spirit, thus it kneels down like the camel and wants to be well laden. […]

Is it not this: to debase yourself in order to injure your pride? […]

The weight-bearing spirit takes upon itself all these heaviest things: like a camel hurrying laden into the desert, thus it hurries into its desert.

But in the loneliest desert the second metamorphosis occurs: the spirit here becomes a lion; it wants to capture freedom and be lord in its own desert.

It seeks here its ultimate lord: it will be an enemy to him and to its ultimate God, it will struggle for victory with the great dragon.

What is the great dragon which the spirit no longer wants to call lord and God? The great dragon is called ‘Thou shalt’. But the spirit of the lion says ‘I will!’ […]

But tell me, my brothers, what can the child do that even the lion cannot? Why must the preying lion still become a child?

The child is innocence and forgetfulness, a new beginning, a sport, a self-propelling wheel, a first motion, a sacred Yes. […]

I have named you the three metamorphoses of the spirit: how the spirit became a camel, and the camel a lion, and the lion at last a child.

Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

You see what I mean.

Translation brings with it other issues. There is much of the book that gets lost though Hollingdale does his best to make the reader aware of it. A frequent loss is Nietzsche’s wordplay, a good example of which appears when Zarathustra talks about marriage. Here he plays with the words Versprechen (promise) and Versehen (mistake) when he says:

I want honest people to say to one another: ‘We love each other: let us see to it that we stay in love! Or shall our promise be a mistake?’

Other losses are more subtle. For example, in a section where he metaphorically makes use of the idiom ‘Water is not planked over, Praise the sea but keep on dry land’, he then uses the phrase ‘ins Wasser fallen’, which means to melt away, to come to nothing or, literally, to fall into water. The phrase works with both sides of his metaphor but obviously does not come through in translation. As Hollingdale puts it; “This method of reducing an abstract idea to a concrete image by means of everyday idioms is of the essence of Nietzsche’s art – and one reason why the vividness of his style is often dimmed in translation.”

The book begins with the prophet Zarathustra returning from his self-imposed exile in the wilderness, eager to renter the society of man and share his insights. What he finds is that people are far from receptive to his ideas. He is mocked, but it is pointed out to him that if people understood what he said, they would be violently offended. Zarathustra thus decides he must seek out more open-minded and likeminded people for his message.

As much as I might like to provide a description of the travels of Zarathustra in this book, at least for completeness, I would admittedly be relying heavily on the analysis of other people. The book is mysterious, elusive, perhaps ironic and, according to some, unreadable. The same goes for its major themes and arguments. The ones I could gather include an urge to appreciate and accept life and the universe as it really is, rather than succumb to superstitions for emotional reasons, and to find meaning in the pursuit of self-empowerment.

I say Thus Spoke Zarathustra is incomplete because, in a sense, it is a mid-career work. Some of its core ideas, such as Zarathustra’s ‘God is dead’ assertion, were actually initiated in his earlier works. Other ideas introduced in Thus Spoke Zarathustra are further developed in his following work such as Beyond Good and Evil. Even then, some remained poorly defined at his death. Thus Spoke Zarathustra is, therefore, far from a compendium of his life’s work or key ideas despite being his most widely read book with non-experts.

When I think of Nietzsche’s philosophical life (aided by an analogy by RJ Hollingdale), I imagine him walking down a road in a wealthy part of town, surrounding by the enormous mansions of a former age. Where others may be impressed by the size and opulence of these mansions, and more so by their durability, Nietzsche begins deconstructing them in his mind. Stripping them down, he finds their foundations to be lacking, their opulence a façade, their size oppressive. One by one, Nietzsche destroys the mansions of longstanding lines of reasoning, conventional morality, religion and God. It is an experience that I think he found to be both depressing and liberating. But with this purely destructive thinking there eventually comes an end to the road – nihilism.

But rather than progressing no further, Nietzsche simply turns around. Nihilism is not the end point, but the middle; the road is a cul-de-sac; nihilism, and man itself, is to be overcome. Or, to use the metaphor from the early parts of Thus Spoke Zarathustra; he went holding ashes and returned holding fire.

Returning the way he came, Nietzsche views the same mansions from a different perspective and, in his mind, constructs his alternative vision. A preference for an eternal heavenly second life is replaced with an affirmation of an earthly life so profound you would not wish it to end. A submission to, and sacrifice for, divine will is replaced with a very human will to power. And God is replaced with the Superman.

Like the perspective of the mansions, there are, I believe, two sides to the Nietzsche coin. One side is tremendously positive, life-affirming and proactive. This is the side where Nietzsche tells us that there is no truth to the world, no meaning to our lives, except that which we create for ourselves. To avoid those who would enslave us by making us conform to their version of truth, their version of morality and meaning. That happiness requires no justification; it is its own justification.

Again, I did not find the mood of the book to necessarily be pessimistic, depressing or ultimately nihilistic, but cheerful and life-affirming. But Nietzsche, who never enjoyed great health, became insane within a few years of completing Thus Spoke Zarathustra and never recovered. My impression is that Nietzsche never completed his alternative vision, his return from nihilism, or that it did not receive the same level of attention as the first half of his journey and therefore the association of Nietzsche with nihilism is somewhat justified as is a certain sense of incompleteness in his work.

The difficulty I found in reviewing this book is that there is so much more that can be said – comparing and contrasting Nietzsche with Machiavelli, the false association of atheism with nihilism, Nietzsche’s sexism, prophesising the rise of Hitler and Stalin, the appropriateness of his philosophy to the issues of his time as opposed to ours – but I have to leave these off as being too far beyond the scope of this one book and certainly too far beyond my expertise.

One that I will include comes from Bertrand Russell’s assessment of Nietzsche in his History of Western Philosophy. Russell has a reputation as a great logician and I therefore expected he would critique Nietzsche on those grounds. Instead, Russell admits Nietzsche’s philosophy enjoys a certain internal logical consistency and instead suggests that the best arguments against Nietzsche are emotive – by appealing to compassion that Nietzsche lacks.

I can’t say I found Thus Spoke Zarathustra an enjoyable or enlightening read. But if, like me, you have a layman interest in philosophical matters, then Thus Spoke Zarathustra is a book that will taunt you until you make the effort to read it. In the end I am glad I did, if only to exorcise that taunt.


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