Zarathustra goes into the wilderness at the age of thirty and enjoys his freedom and solitude so much that he remains there ten years. Finally, he decides to return to society and share his wisdom. On his way down from his mountain, he encounters a saint, who has devoted his life to God. Zarathustra is startled that this man has not heard that God is dead. Zarathustra then descends into the town and preaches about the overman. Man, Zarathustra claims, is only a bridge between animals and the overman, and we must hasten the arrival of the overman by being faithful to this world and this life and abandoning the values that lead us to distrust them. Zarathustra also warns about the “last man,” who is afraid of everything extreme and dangerous and lives a life of contented mediocrity. The people in the town are not very receptive to Zarathustra’s teaching, so he resolves to seek out like-minded individuals who might break away from the herd rather than preaching to the herd itself.
Zarathustra gives a number of sermons in a town called the Motley Cow. He emphasizes the struggle and the suffering necessary to become a stronger person and encourages people to embrace this struggle and suffering cheerfully. He characterizes the progress toward the overman as proceeding through three stages. First is the stage of the camel, where we renounce comfort and discipline ourselves harshly. Second is the stage of the lion, where we defiantly assert our independence. Third is the stage of the child, where we find a new innocence and creativity. Achieving this stage is like reaching the summit of a mountain: we can look down on everything around us and find lightness and laughter rather than seriousness and struggle. To become overmen, we must isolate ourselves from the mob. Our only companions should be friends who provide us not with comfort but with a constant goad to improve ourselves. The goal of the overman is to create his own values. To date, there have been a thousand peoples with a thousand different conceptions of good and evil. Each race’s conception of good expresses the will to power of that race, or the goals it hopes to achieve. Everyone must obey something, and if one cannot command oneself, one will be commanded by others. The overman has sufficient will to power to create his own good and evil.
Zarathustra also preaches against those who promote ideas that are contrary to life. His primary target is religion, which focuses on the spirit and the afterlife. We are creatures of flesh and blood, and those who wish to turn attention elsewhere are fundamentally opposed to life. Meekness and pity are the virtues of the weak, promoted by those who resent the power of the strong. There is no virtue in being meek if one is too weak to be capable of being otherwise. Zarathustra praises the three things religion condemns the most: sex, the lust to rule, and selfishness. All three, when pursued with a good conscience, are celebrations of one’s life and power. Religion, however, is not the only threat to leading a free and healthy life: the state, too, tries to mold people into a mediocre mob, and the egalitarian spirit of democracy is bred from the same resentment and hatred of life as religion.
Zarathustra asserts that life and wisdom are like dancing women: constantly changing, always seductive. A healthy attitude toward life and truth enjoy their constantly changing nature. People who see truth as fixed have grown tired of life. The only constant that Zarathustra can identify in his own life is his will: its constant drive to improve him and re-create him has changed every other aspect of him.
Zarathustra struggles to confront the idea of the eternal recurrence. If time is infinite, he reasons, then the present moment must have occurred in just this way an infinite number of times in the past and will recur an infinite number of times in the future. Therefore, each passing moment is not fleeting but is bound to be repeated eternally. It takes tremendous courage to accept the full implications of this idea. Zarathustra is troubled, for instance, by the thought that humanity in all its mediocrity will be repeated through eternity. Ultimately, he learns to accept the eternal recurrence joyfully, proclaiming, “I love you, O eternity!”
In book 4, Zarathustra encounters nine characters, each of whom has some obvious flaws but also shows potential for greatness. Zarathustra directs these characters one by one to his cave in the highest mountain. He then meets them in his cave where they have a “last supper,” at which Zarathustra preaches to them about the overman. Now that God is dead, man is something that must be overcome, and this self-overcoming requires courage, evil, self-motivation, suffering, and solitude. Despite the difficulty of the task, the overman himself is characterized by lightness, enjoying laughter and dancing. Stepping into the evening air, Zarathustra sings a song out of a feeling of complete satisfaction with his life. Because all things are interconnected, our suffering and our joy are inseparable. We cannot wish for joy without also wishing for suffering. In this, Zarathustra finds a positive affirmation of all life.
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