Summary: Part II: Chapters 19-22

Chapter 19: The Soothsayer

Zarathustra hears a soothsayer predicting a great future emptiness, where we will feel incapable of creating anything new, nor even capable of dying out. This prediction puts Zarathustra into a deep depression, during which he dreams that he is a watchman in a castle full of coffins. Suddenly, a wind comes and bursts the gates open and a coffin bursts open full of laughter. One of Zarathustra's disciples interprets this dream as meaning that Zarathustra will awaken us from our gloom and emptiness with his life and laughter.

Chapter 20: On Redemption

Zarathustra complains that he has never yet found a complete human being, only "inverse cripples" who excel in one attribute, but who are weak in everything else. He could not bear the present and the past if he could not look forward to a future of whole human beings that redeem this past. The trouble with the past is that we cannot change it. The will suffers, because, no matter how much change and creation it may effect in the future, it cannot change the past. We come to see this suffering of the will as a kind of punishment, and so see all life as suffering and punishment, and seek to cease trying to will anything in order to escape from this punishment. Zarathustra suggests that this pessimism results from seeing the past as an immovable thing that simply occurred without human influence. If we can come to see the past as something that we willed, we can find redemption from our suffering and punishment.

Chapter 21: On Human Prudence

Zarathustra claims to have three kinds of human prudence. First, he suggests that it is better to be deceived from time to time than always to be on guard for deceivers. Second, he admires vain people, because their efforts to please are entertaining and because they are unaware of their own modesty. Third, he scoffs at the small things that people call "evil," suggesting that greatness is only possible through great evil.

Chapter 22: The Stillest Hour

Zarathustra leaves the people once more to strengthen himself in solitude. He knows, but is still unable to speak about, the culmination of his philosophy (which we shall see in Part III is the eternal recurrence).

Analysis: Part II: Chapters 19-22

The chapter "On Redemption" revisits the theme of the will to power. Seeking power over—and freedom from—everything external to it, our will finds itself stumped when it confronts the past. I can act in the present to direct my future, but there is nothing that I can do to change my past. All life thrives on change, and the past is a permanent, immobile reminder of our seeming powerlessness.

Zarathustra gives us two analyses of the will when it is confronted with this impediment. In the first analysis, the will suffers because it is unable to overcome this obstacle. Because the past is an immovable feature of life, we come to see all life as unchangeable suffering. The will cannot touch the past, and it suffers so long as this is the case. The only way to overcome this suffering, according to this first analysis, is to stop the act of willing entirely. Thus, the will is turned against itself in a spiritual equivalent to suicide. In this analysis, Nietzsche is almost certainly thinking primarily of Buddhism. Buddhist meditation is essentially an attempt to extinguish the self, and all the desires and passions fueled by selfishness. The ideal of nirvana is a total extinction of the self that Nietzsche would see as the undesirable self-destruction of the will.

Nietzsche views Buddhism as a retreat from life, but he does not give us enough information about Buddhism to justify his position thoroughly. Nietzsche actually knew a great deal about Buddhism, especially for a 19th-century German, so it is surprising that he gives no notice of the forms of Buddhism that preach a suppression of selfish desires in order to engage more fruitfully with this world. Such a view seems to express a healthier version of Nietzsche's will to power. Nietzsche's view of Buddhism is deeply influenced by Schopenhauer's interpretation, and so we are seeing more of a caricature of Schopenhauer's views. This lack of detail is not unique to Nietzsche's treatment of Buddhism either: when talking about both democracy and Christianity, Nietzsche often simplifies matters somewhat.

The second analysis that Zarathustra gives us is that the will should take responsibility for the past, and thus no longer see it as an obstacle. A person subscribing to this outlook would say, I may no longer be able to affect the past, but my past is the past I created, and so it is a permanent testament to the power of my will.

Nietzsche says that his contemporaries cannot presently take responsibility for their past because they are all what he calls (using an offensive phrase) "inverse cripples." Those who seem great merely exceed in one particular attribute, but they are far from being whole human beings. Someone may be vastly creative in one aspect of his or her life, but then fail entirely to be creative in others. For instance, T.S. Eliot revolutionized poetry and was a creative genius, but he was also apparently an unpleasant person, an anti-Semite, a snob, and he clung to Christianity and other traditions that Nietzsche would have considered contemptible. (Nietzsche himself is impaired by his sexist attitudes.)

All these infirmities of what Nietzsche calls "inverse cripples" imply that people lack the full-bodied individuality and creativity of an overman. As a result, we are not in complete control of our destiny and thus not in complete control of our past. Until we can take full responsibility for ourselves, by gaining complete power over ourselves, we cannot redeem our past by claiming responsibility for it.

The key to the "redemption" that Zarathustra longs for is the idea of the eternal recurrence. This idea will become more and more central in parts three and four, and so we will discuss it more in depth when we get to those parts. For now, we should note the ways in which eternal recurrence has been foreshadowed throughout Part II. For instance, the ghost of Zarathustra in the chapter "On the Great Events" and the dream in "The Soothsayer" chapter both predict a coming revelation. Zarathustra's depression, which is alluded to at the end of the "Dancing Song" and in "The Soothsayer" also suggests that he has not yet found the final key. At the end of Part II, he returns to solitude precisely to discover the eternal recurrence.

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