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I’m almost done with Part One of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the first cohesive long form work in The Portable Nietzsche. That’s not to say it’s as cohesive as I was expecting—there doesn’t seem to be much of a narrative arc, and if there’s a thematic arc, then it hasn’t fully revealed itself yet. Once the pariah-prophet Zarathustra descends from his mountain to deliver his message to the people, the book turns into a series of his speeches.
Pretty much any of them can be taken individually, but taken as a whole I think they’re starting to offer a pretty good summary of the overarching themes in Nietzsche’s philosophy. They might also offer some insight into the psychology of the man who would develop this philosophy, though psychoanalyzing philosophers is a dangerous—and often unnecessary—game.
I’m going to try and keep my distance from that angle unless it becomes unavoidable. After all, this isn’t The Republic—whereas you can argue (as Kaufmann indeed does in the introduction to The Portable Nietzsche) that we can never know for sure what Plato actually thought of the arguments he presented, Zarathustra seems a pretty obvious surrogate for his creator here. True, this means you could use the book as a way of investigating how Nietzsche viewed himself, but I find that a whole lot less interesting than just critically assessing the philosophy Zarathustra preaches.
So far it seems to be based on two central pillars, which I’m increasingly considering central to Nietzsche’s philosophy:
1.) Society needs threat and conflict.
Nietzsche and Zarathustra are both bomb-throwers, and they both spend a considerable amount of time glorifying other bomb-throwers. In the long run, the people who are “evil” according to the traditions of their place and time are the ones who will advance—or “inoculate“—human civilization.
2.) The fully realized self is that which rejects society’s values and imposes its will upon the world.
The first of Zarathustra’s speeches is on what he calls “the three metamorphoses of the spirit, those being:
1.) The camel, which accepts tremendous burdens (those burdens being moral obligations, both to others and to capital-T Truth) and carries them into the desert.
2.) “A lion who would conquer his freedom and be master in his own desert.” Nietzsche describes the lion as engaged in mortal combat with a dragon named “Thou shalt.” The dragon is, in other words, the traditions, values and social mores of the age.
3.) A child: “innocence and forgetting, a new beginning […] the spirit now wills his own will.”
As far as I can tell, the creation of this child is essentially the birth of the übermensch—“overman” in this translation, but “superman” elsewhere—that is first introduced as a key concept in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and championed as humanity’s ultimate goal.
Because there’s an implicit rejection of all moral law encoded into this philosophy, it’s tempting to call it “nihilism,” but I’m not convinced that’s accurate. The overman is still very much a normative imperative, one which can only be reached by exercising a number of different virtues. The thing I’m still not clear on—and which Nietzsche himself might not be clear on, at least at this point—is what sort of values come after the overman.