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Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900)

Summary Thus Spoke Zarathustra
Summary Thus Spoke Zarathustra

The next morning, Zarathustra steps out of his cave and sees a lion. He takes this as a sign that the overman is coming. He leaves his cave with the triumphant feeling that he has overcome his last weakness: pity for the higher man.


Thus Spoke Zarathustra is one of the strangest books ever to achieve the status of a classic and represents Nietzsche’s boldest attempt to find a literary form appropriate to his revolutionary ideas. Zarathustra, commonly known by his Greek name, Zoroaster, was an ancient Persian prophet who was the first to preach that the universe is engaged in a fundamental struggle between good and evil. Nietzsche appropriates Zarathustra because, as he explains in Ecce Homo, “Zarathustra created this most calamitous error, morality; consequently, he must also be the first to recognize it.” Through Zarathustra, Nietzsche tries to preach a nobler alternative to the Judeo-Christian worldview. Throughout the text, we find Nietzsche playfully subverting elements from the Old and New Testaments, particularly in reference to the life and ministry of Jesus. For example, at the age of thirty, Jesus spends forty days in the wilderness being tempted by the devil. By contrast, Zarathustra happily spends ten years in the wilderness, suggesting that he is more cheerful in spirit and less needful of others. We also see Zarathustra preaching against “the herd,” whereas Jesus portrays himself as a shepherd leading a flock, and toward the end we find a parody of the last supper.

We should be careful not to mistake Nietzsche’s criticism of Christianity, and particularly his proclamation that “God is dead,” for smug atheism. Certainly, Nietzsche has a great deal of venom to expend on Christianity, but he is perhaps even more troubled by the spiritless atheism that he fears will follow it. The claim that God is dead is more of a sociological observation than a metaphysical declaration. Christian morality and its attendant concepts of good and evil no longer have such a powerful hold on our culture as they once did. Nietzsche worries that the world is being increasingly consumed by nihilism, the abandonment of all beliefs. He expresses this worry in the figure of the last man, who represents the triumph of science and materialism. Nietzsche would likely recognize in early twenty-first century consumer culture a perfect expression of the last man, where we direct our tremendous wealth and power to insulating ourselves from all risks and all passions. Zarathustra preaches about the overman not so much to replace Christianity as to fill the void that opens in a culture where fundamental values are eroding.

The overman, sometimes translated as “superman” or rendered in the original German as Übermensch, is Nietzsche’s ideal of a creative, independent, spiritual genius. The overman is often misconceived as any person who has an independent and revolutionary attitude toward ethics or politics, such as a Thomas Jefferson or Martin Luther King, Jr. Most likely, Nietzsche would have criticized these two figures, the first for advocating democracy and the second for advocating Christianity. Nietzsche dislikes both democracy and Christianity for the way they promote equality and defend the weakest in a society. Nietzsche instead has Zarathustra invoke a system of values in which the strongest and most original in a society can rise above the masses and shine. A great artist, then, is a closer approximation to the overman than a political leader. As expressed in the figures of the camel, the lion, and the child, an overman sets aside the values and assumptions he was raised with and develops his own creative vision of the world, much like an artist. However, the overman is more than just an artist in that his creativity is not limited to the page or the canvas. The overman’s work of art is his own life, which he forges and lives according to his own creative will.

The will to power, which lies at the heart of Nietzsche’s concept of the superman and of his mature philosophy generally, is the supreme drive behind all life. Contrary to alternative views—for instance, that we are fundamentally driven by sex or the need for survival—Nietzsche believes that all life is driven by a lust for power. Barbarians might express this will to power by raping and pillaging, whereas Christians might express it by turning the other cheek and showing that they have enough self-mastery to swallow their vengeful instincts, but the principle is the same. In all cases, living things do what they can to assert their power over themselves and over the world around them. Everyone has a will to power, but some have a healthier will to power than others. Nietzsche would criticize a barbarian’s will to power for not exhibiting enough self-mastery and a Christian’s will to power for being mistrustful of our natural instincts. The overman exhibits a supremely healthy will to power. He celebrates his strength of spirit, is free from guilt and resentment, and is profoundly in love with life.

The doctrine of the eternal recurrence is the profoundly life-affirming lynchpin of Nietzsche’s philosophy. The idea is based on the supposition that if there is only a finite amount of matter in the universe, there are only a finite number of arrangements of that matter, so if time is infinite, each arrangement of matter will be repeated an infinite number of times. The idea as Zarathustra expresses it is logically unsound. Even assuming that there is a finite amount of matter and an infinite amount of time, there are still infinitely many possible configurations of matter, so it is by no means necessary that any given moment, let alone all moments, must repeat itself. However, Nietzsche’s main interest in the eternal recurrence is the theoretical one of how a person would come to terms with this doctrine. In a sense, the eternal recurrence is a kind of litmus test for a potential overman. Faced with the prospect that every moment in one’s life will echo for eternity, only an overman would rejoice. Only an overman is so in love with life that he would not take back a single moment.