Note: Part I contains a series of sermons and stories of Zarathustra in the town called the Motley Cow. The summaries below contain very brief synopses of what Nietzsche is getting at in each chapter, and the commentaries in the commentary section will connect some of the dominant themes.
There are three stages of progress toward the overman: the camel, the lion, and the child. In the first, one must renounce one's comforts, exercise self- discipline, and accept all sorts of difficulties for the sake of knowledge and strength. Second, one must assert one's independence, saying "no" to all outside influences and commands. Lastly comes the act of new creation.
Zarathustra criticizes the ideal of practicing virtue and restraint in order to find inner peace. This inner peace, which he calls "sleep," is antithetical to the "waking" struggle against oneself for improvement and independence.
We are made of flesh, and not spirit, and our physical needs dictate our values and desires. A sick or dissatisfied person will claim to be essentially spirit, and will create a God and an afterlife as distractions from the pains of this life.
What we call "self" is nothing more than the body, and it underlies all reason, spirit, and sense, directing our passions and our thoughts. Those who assert that the self is really spirit are "despisers of the body" who have a sick body that hates life and wants to die.
We learn and grow most from our moments of suffering and intense feeling. They make us unique, and they should not be shared for fear of losing this uniqueness. Someone who is driven by more than one intense passion will suffer great inner conflict.
This section paints the portrait of a criminal who then confesses his guilt. He secretly wanted to kill, but convinced himself that he wanted only to rob, and therefore committed a murder-theft. Though he was perfectly capable of murder, he is repelled afterward by the thought of what he's done. His crime is not so much that he murdered but that he was driven to it by his weakness and was subsequently racked with guilt. At least his crime makes him aware of his weakness, which is more than can be said for most.
A great writer puts so much of himself into his work, and writes at such an elevated level that most people cannot understand him. Though we might be inclined to think of such writers as serious, Zarathustra characterizes them as bearing a spirit of levity and laughter. He bemoans widespread literacy, since it has encouraged writers to simplify (or "dumb down," in our modern- day parlance) their work for the masses.
Zarathustra speaks to a youth who feels isolated and frustrated in his struggle for independence. As he distances himself from others, he earns their contempt, and often feels self-contempt as well. Zarathustra encourages the youth, urging him never to give up hope.
Those who preach about an eternal life preach that life is suffering, but that it must be endured in preparation for the afterlife. As such, they are preaching a renunciation of this life, and so are preachers of death.
Those who pursue knowledge must do so relentlessly and with great discipline. Zarathustra likens this pursuit to war, and claims that it is in itself noble, having done far more for humanity than Christian virtues.
The chapter "On the Three Metamorphoses" gives us some insight into what Zarathustra means by "overman." The three metamorphoses seem to follow quite closely the path of a creative genius. Let us take the example of a painter. In the first stage, he must burden himself, like a camel, with the long and careful study that will lead to a technical mastery of his art and a deep understanding of his tradition. Next, like a lion, he must assert his independence, ridding himself of the influence of other artists. Finally, he must develop his own distinct style of expression, creating something totally new and personal. In this stage, the painter becomes like a child, because he has acquired a new innocence: any sign of past struggle is absent, and we see only what is new and fresh.
When Zarathustra talks about the overman creating new values, we might understand this not so much as the creation of a new moral code as much as the creation of a new way of seeing. While we might have a hard time precisely articulating what new "values" we find in a ##Kafka##, a ##Picasso##, a Wittgenstein, an ##Einstein##, a Stravinsky, or a ##Beckett##, these twentieth-century geniuses certainly saw the world in a new light. It would be presumptuous to say that Nietzsche would consider any of these people overmen, but they are certainly far more deserving of that title than most people.
We might now understand why Nietzsche so regularly talks about the struggle, suffering, and self-overcoming necessary for becoming an overman. We master the technical aspects of an art form only by learning the rules and the ways that people have done things in the past. It takes a great deal of flexibility of mind to then question these rules, to push on them, and to break free from the influence of one's teachers. It is much easier to rest content with what one knows than to be always dissatisfied with it, always looking for something better and newer. Progress toward the overman demands a constant struggle, where a new self overcomes an old one.
In the chapter "On War and Warriors," Zarathustra likens this struggle to a war, and contrasts the "saints of knowledge"—presumably the overmen that have achieved their goal—with the "warriors" that still struggle toward it. This chapter is one of the most misquoted in all of Nietzsche's works. Lines such as "You should love peace as a means to new wars—and the short peace more than the long" have been cited as evidence that Nietzsche was a proto-Nazi warmonger. Those who read such passages out of context must be reminded that Nietzsche is talking about an intellectual, inner struggle, and not a literal war of violence and bloodshed.
More commonly, Nietzsche likens this struggle to climbing a mountain. We see this imagery most especially in the chapter "On Reading and Writing," where Zarathustra speaks of the overman as standing on a mountain peak and looking down. This looking down from mountain heights is likened to a superior looking down on an inferior person. The overman has risen so high that there is nothing that he doesn't look down upon. Thus, everything—even the saddest of tragedies—is for him the subject of ridicule and laughter. Zarathustra praises levity and laughter because the overman has nothing left to look up to, nothing to take seriously. Instead, he can take everything lightly, and enjoy his freedom. This levity and freedom is frequently expressed in dancing.
With regard to Zarathustra's claims regarding the body, "the body" can be seen as representing the physical world generally. Metaphysics and religion frequently assert the existence and supreme importance of some supra-sensible world of spirit, be it the Christian heaven or Platonic Forms. Zarathustra counters that this earth is the only earth and that it is fundamentally composed of physical things. Our mental lives, including the things we value, feel, and believe in, are all responses to the needs of our bodies. Thus, he suggests that a belief in an afterlife or in God is the invention of a sick body that wants some relief from this life. A healthy body has no need of gods or of other worlds: it is sufficient unto itself. We should be clear, though, that "healthy body" is not meant to refer primarily to someone who eats well and who gets a lot of exercise. Rather, it describes people who are happy seeing themselves as primarily bodies, who are content with this life and this world. This contrasts with the chapter "On the Preachers of Death," which contains a direct criticism of the Buddha's assertion that all life is suffering, interpreting it as the utterance of a sick body.