Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883)
Friedrich Nietzsche (Modern Library, 1927)
368 pp. First reading.
As Zarathustra, the unholy man of the mountain, descends to preach to the people, he meets a saint of the forest wandering the woods and praising God. Zarathustra is polite, but continues his descent in smug astonishment: Has he not heard that God is dead? This proclamation is the seed out of which Zarathustra’s new world grows, like “a forest, and a night of dark trees”. In time the forest bursts with black blossoms.
The fervent affirmation of the death of God is Zarathustra’s sine qua non. His Easter Sunday is Good Friday. And if God isn’t quite dead yet he seems quite willing to lend a hand, for the God he denounces is the cruel and pitiful All-Unworthy Lord, a father to weak and pitiful children, all worthy of contempt. He would tear down and torch not just the heavenly dwelling of the Most High, but all that anchors man in the upper-deep. Zarathustra summons men to “remain true to the earth”, setting their backs resolutely against the heavens, living a life of lofty immanence, governed no longer by the transcendent good and true and beautiful, but by will and power.
Not everyone will survive this revolution, needless to say. Zarathustra knows as much, but has no interest in the survival of the weak and compassionate. Christian man is weak and simpering, favouring the bedwarfing virtues: submission, meekness, pity — which is to say cowardice, mediocrity, comfort. Zarathustra would be free from this man, this rabble,
from all those bawlers and scribe-blowflies, from the trader-stench, the ambition-fidgeting, the bad breath –: fie, to live among the rabble; — Fie, to stand for the first men among the rabble! Ah, loathing! Loathing! Loathing!
Man must be overcome! Those spontaneous feelings of repugnance at his teaching — they are a sign of weakness, and they must be overcome! Those philosophical objections from the wise — such wisdom only flatters the rabble, and must be overcome!
The one who is to come, the Superman, the architect and surviver of the Nietzschean revolution, will be great and powerful, without pity, lofty. He will be strong in will, glorying in his strength. He rejects the doctrine of the equality of men; he calls it a tactic to keep him in chains. He values voluptuousness, selfishness, and malignificent power.
The Superman severs his vertical connection with the transcendent and, in consequence, he no longer knows any authority outside his own will that might constrain him. The hierarchy of power and authority into which humanity enters as a middling power is lopped off directly above him; it is not as though hierarchy is abolished, it is merely that the Superman places himself at the apex. “I shall be as God, knowing good and evil.” If only that were possible, for the Superman is a Patricide, and has therefore disinherited himself of the moral patrimony. To him, good and evil are expressions of will, and it is his will that refashions good and evil in his own image. He is a creator who creates by manifesting the Will to Power, that force at the heart of all life, always pressing for expression, and always seeking to surpass itself. Since good and evil are themselves expressions of Will to Power, they too must surpass themselves. Such is the nature of things. Do not say that the Superman is a monster, a tyrant, an evil-doer, for such are the whimpers of those who lose, who judge by bygone standards.
But how is man to bear up under this weight? The weak will be crushed, but to the Superman that is of no consequence. But, then again, how is the Superman himself to bear up under this weight? If he is truly bound to the earth and rejects as unworthy all hope of redemption, how can he rejoice in the face of his own immanence and inevitable death? If he himself defines the standards of good and evil, how can he truly affirm the goodness of his acts? If all his aspirations and deeds, be they ever so mighty, end in the silence of the grave and nothing else, how can he escape a sense of creeping and cumulative meaninglessness?
It is only the strongest who will survive this challenge, says Zarathustra, and that there may be no soft-peddling of the psychological demands he summons the aspiring Superman to avow, and even celebrate, the ultimate meaninglessness of his acts. He must affirm that those very acts have already been committed in the past, and will be committed again in the future, for an infinite universe in infinite time repeats itself infinitely, and there is nothing new under the sun. Thus, if I have understood the matter rightly, the doctrine of Eternal Recurrence enters as a means of separating the men from the boys. Zarathustra comes that men may have life, and that more redundantly.
All this is a potent brew, needless to say. Nietzsche tries to overthrow the entire Western tradition of thought and feeling. He himself modestly averred that his book was “the deepest ever written”; we may be forgiven for not being convinced, but it is certainly ambitious on a breathtaking scale. Be careful with that intake of breath, though. This air is unhealthy.
Nietzsche’s style is aphoristic and fragmented. There is nothing resembling a formal argument, or even a sustained line of thought, in the book. This is fitting, for his is a comprehensive vision, and he does not wish to argue this or that point. He aims at the gut, not the head. He would, to bend a phrase of C.S. Lewis, unbaptize the imagination, so he deploys wit, sarcasm, fable, allegory, and song.
Having said all this, I report disappointment. I have tried, in the foregoing, to treat Nietzsche as a worthy opponent, a man whose writing is bracing and engaging. Alas, it is not true. Granted, behind the elaborate artifice is a genuinely bold and pathological vision, and I have tried to draw it out here, but in the pages of the book itself I regret to say that it is smothered in tedium. For long, desolate stretches I felt that I could have flipped 50 pages in either direction and continued to read without missing a beat. Apart from occasional flashes, he seems unable to express a clear thought, and goes on not expressing it for page after page. This was unexpected, and not a little dispiriting. His other books, I’m told, are more conventional in style, and though that is not saying much in the present instance, I hold out hope for a more direct and rousing clash when, on an as yet indeterminate future date, I take Nietzsche up again.
‘When your heart overfloweth broad and full like the river, a blessing and a danger to the lowlanders: there is the origin of your virtue.
When ye are exalted above praise and blame, and your will would command all things, as a loving one’s will: there is the origin of your virtue.
When ye despise pleasant things, and the effeminate couch, and cannot couch far enough from the effeminate: there is the origin of your virtue.
When ye are willers of the will, and when that change of every need is needful to you: there is the origin of your virtue.
Verily, a new good and evil is it! Verily, a new deep murmuring, and the voice of a new fountain!
Power is it, this new virtue; a ruling thought is it, and around it a subtle soul: a golden sun, with the serpent of knowledge around it.
– 22 (The Bestowing Virtue)