Saturday, August 11, 2012

A Reader's Commentary on Nietzsche's Zarathustra

[ Back in Aug. 2006, a reader who gave the name "Peggy" offered the following interesting insights on Nietzsche's Zarathustra. ]

            Since I don’t think I know enough about the piece to respond to the blog entry, I thought I'd share with the readers my recent encounter with Zarathustra. I have always read second-hand summaries of the works of Nietzsche, so seeing this blog entry was motivation to decide to read this great epic poem.Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883), directly. I read it along with a few notes from a dated literature book I found it in—that helped. 

            In the introductory notes to the work, the interpreter/textbook author mentioned that it was widely believed that Nietzsche was portraying himself as the character Zarathustra—and his own spiritual journey. This was something I had not known before—or long forgotten.

            So, for those who have not read this, my contribution will be to present a very short—almost absurdly short--summary. I  adapted some of this from Jorn K. Bramann (1988) and added my own notes and interpretations as well. Maybe this will refresh the memories for those who may not have read it for a while.


            1. The story begins as Zarathustra exposes his purpose for developing a philosophy--to solve the problem of the world—a deep spiritual malaise due to the “death of God.”
            2. He believes humanity should overcome their mediocrity and create the “overman” --a kind of super--man/human being.
            3. The masses have no use for this idea. They are interested only in a nice, comfortable life—pleasure—the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people (Utilitarianism).
            4. Zarathustra, realizing this, has nothing but contempt for the masses. All fall short of their personal and human potential. So, he looks around for some outstanding individuals who are truly "seekers". He attracts some. His teaching begins in earnest.

            Part One.

              Twenty-two speeches (made basically of six main points)
            1. Rejection of metaphysics.  He says that priest of metaphysical religions kill true reverence for life because they are afraid of life; they have failed to come to terms with it.
            2. Rejection of the traditional dualism of body and mind. He encourages his followers to acknowledge that their bodies and mind are one.
            3. Self-assertion of individualism. (The most outstanding moral heights and greatest thoughts and deeds come from the force of life within one person. The herd mentality can muffle this.)
            4. The price is struggle—living a warrior’s life (not to be confused with an advocacy of militarism or nationalistic expansion).
            5. Self-determination is crucial at all levels. A moral order cannot be imposed from any external source, authority, social institution, or tradition. Nothing is ‘given’.  This is like creating a world out of chaos. An example is ‘free death.’ A truly autonomous being will not wait until death “sneaks in like a thief,” but freely decides when it is time to go.
            6. Life is a process, not a state. A person is a process, too, not a static entity. Living life is not accomplished by holding on, but accumulating things or knowledge, but by always overcoming oneself, and by transforming or passing on everything that one acquires—impermanence.

            Part Two.

            Zarathustra has a dream—a child holds up a mirror. He doesn’t see himself; he sees a devil laughing. He believes it means he should return to his teaching career.

            He returns to the Blessed Isles where his followers live. He teaches his new concept: “Will to Power”—the most basic force in all living things—more basic than the will to live. This is a concept akin to the unified structure of Newtonian physics.

            Soon, something changes. He begins to sing. Something is missing in his life. He craves darkness. He encounters self-doubts. His message is that ultimately everything is futile and vain. He is in a state of disillusionment from which he cannot escape.

            Other encounters/dreams…mountain castle of death/black coffin torn open.  Conversation with an observant hunchback. He realizes something is wrong. He knows is days as a teacher are numbered. He is deeply depressed.

            Part Three.

            Zarathustra is by himself. He’s a wanderer.  He tries to get ready to meet the most difficult task that he has to face in his life. “I must descend deeper into pain than I ever descended down into its blackest flood.”  He is readying himself to die.  He embarks on a long journey before he returns to his cave. He goes across the sea, through big cities, Many thoughts enter his mind…recurrence…everything will repeat itself. Everything that exists must have existed before; the future is like the past. On a cosmic scale there can be no progress. Time is not linear, but forever moves in circles.

            He is disgusted at the prospect of the eternal recurrence. He achieves the laughter of liberation in an encounter with a Shepherd. He continues his travels through the wasteland of modern civilization He finds no one dealing with the important questions. He thinks the best response is silence. He returns to his cave to work on himself, but instead of subscribing to the traditional virtues of monks—poverty, chastity and obedience, he continues to advocate the vigorous living of life.

            He recovers from his crisis. He recovers the implication of eternal recurrence by emphatically living in the present. “Being begins in every moment. The center is everywhere.”  It is now that the struggle takes place, and now that life manifests itself in the intensity of one’s efforts. The concept of eternal recurrence is not a paralyzing thought anymore, but the joyful vision of a new kind of secular eternity.

            An important sign of Zarathustra’s recovery is the fact that he has learned to sing and dance.  Speaking tends to be a disembodied mode of communication. Singing and dancing involve the not only the intellect, but the body and its passions as well. A person who is capable of singing and dancing is whole, and life is more present in such a person than in a lecturing teacher.

            Zarathustra demonstrates a love of life that encompasses not only its dark sides, but even its ultimate purposelessness. It is a love that is achieved by living life-after a long period of merely thinking and teaching about it. It is a seeing love, a love that feels and knows at the same time.

            Be aware, o man!
            What does the deep midnight declare?
            ‘I was asleep; From a deep dream I woke.
            The world is deep—
            Deeper than the day had thought.
            Deep is its woe.
            But ecstasy is deeper yet than agony.
            Woe says: Be gone!
            But joy aims at eternity—
            At deep, deep eternity.’

            Part Four. (Sometimes not considered part of Thus Spake Zarathustra. I have not included it here.)

            I have to say I had a few surprises as I read this work through.  Unexpectedly, writing has deeply affected my thinking. I could not believe how much of my own philosophy was grounded in a number of these beliefs--without my recognizing where they might come from. It was a little like finding a lost necklace in the back yard that had been dropped some years ago--rusty, a little bent, a little hard to  recognize at first, but clearly my lost necklace. I think now I'll have to read it again. Thanks Brent, and kudos for always raising such interesting questions.

            ...               4 days ago
            I meant to say earlier how funny bookman's response was. I loved his insight and transitions. His ability to connect across literary arenas is quite fascinating to me.
            Another thing that I was reminded of when rereading this reflection was related to an aspect of my own career field--that of teaching English to speakers of other languages (ESOL). One of the the barriers to success in schools for ESOL learners is that their reading of the standard required reading fare is severely hindered by their lack of cultural knowledge with which to use to interact with the content of the reading. They may have the words, the grammar, the fluency down pat, but lack the experience of such things as an American Thanksgiving, A Christmas morning around a tree, snow, a home without an extended family living within, children calling the shots when decisions are being made, tornadoes, industrial family farms, etc.  This slows down or stops reading from being the smooth interactive process that it is for native speakers with those cultural experiences. This also applies to native speakers who come from homes of poverty where experiences are limited. Educators have also documented that standardized tests fail miserably in this regard for children coming from backgrounds of poverty, as well as for those from backgrounds other than middle-to-upper class white or black backgrounds. Students in these categories score well below those in the middle-to-upper class backgrounds on the questions that include experiences familiar to those children. So, who is dumber, the ones taking the tests or the one making the tests?
            ... Show more
            5 years ago

            Georg Christoph Lichtenberg--what an interesting figure, sickly, physically broken, continually fighting depression, but somehow maintaining a sense of humor throughout his life.
            When I read the aphorism cited above, I remembered seeing it in a slightly different version in the preface of a book by Kierkegaard, Stages on Life's Way that I own. That version goes, "Such works are mirrors: when an ape looks into them, no apostle looks out." No big difference, but at that point I got a little curious about what words Lichtenberg had used in the original. While searching, I found yet another version before finding what seems to be the original. The next version was, A book is a mirror; if an ass peers into it, you cannot expect an apostle to peer out. What I think is most likely to be the original,

            A book is a mirror: if an ape looks into it an apostle is hardly likely to look out. [It goes on] We have no words for speaking of wisdom to the stupid. He who understands the wise is wise already.

            Many intellectuals were consumers of Lichtenberg's aphorisms and loyal admirers of his wisdom Goethe, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, and Bertrand Russell to name a few.

            I ran across another of Lichtenberg's aphorisms in this process, which is somewhat of the same mirror-type metaphor. It also captures that characteristic cynicism about life that appears to underlie much of Lichtenberg's aphorisms.
What is called an acute knowledge of human nature is mostly nothing but the observer's own weaknesses reflected back from others.

  [  Aug 10, 2006  ]

    Comments on some comments
A reader has offered as a comment yet another translation of Zechariah 9:6.  This is from the Eugene H. Petersen translation called The Message:

    And a villain will take over in Ashdod.
    "I'll take proud Philistia down a peg; I'll make him spit out his bloody booty and abandon his vile ways."
According to Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, the word translated as "bastard" in the KJV and as "mongrel" in the NRSV is mamzer, which is entry #4464 in Strong's, according to which it is "from an unused root meaning to alienate; a mongrel, i.e. born of a Jewish father and a heathen mother: -- bastard."   The same term, mamzer, also appears in Deuteronomy 23:2.
What makes this reference interesting is the fact that such "mongrels" are forbidden to partake in the Hebrew worship even if they profess the true faith.  Simply their ancestry condemns them to exclusion.  This is an early appearance of ethnocentrism.  These "bastards" are condemned not for any illegality of their birth, but solely for their antecedents.  This fact is totally lost in the Douay and The Message translations.
Another comment suggested that the quotation from Emerson's essay on books might make a suitable epitaph on Univbookman's tombstone.  The only complication here is that he plans on being cremated.   It is interesting that people are returning to cremation as a means of disposing of the dead.  It is a return to an earlier practice, that of our Indo-European ancestors.  According to Carroll Quigley's The Evolution of Civilizations, cremation was the practice of the early Indo-Europeans, while burial was the practice of the early Semites.   Quigley also notes that the early Indo-Europeans believed in skygods while the Semites believed in earth-gods and earth-goddesses. Quigley was one of Bill Clinton's professors at Georgetown University.  Clinton recommends The Evolution of Civilizations as one of the most important books he ever read.   Indeed, it encompasses in not more than 400 pages a wealth of insights into the structure and development of civilizations throughout history.
One other important difference between the ancient Indo-Europeans and the ancient Semites is that the former believed that the soul is liberated immediately at death, without any intervention from the gods, while the Semites, in Abrahamic monotheism (which includes Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) believe that survival after death is due to our bodily resurrection by a god.   Socrates taught that the body is the prison-house of the soul; death frees the soul from the body.  Hence, there is no reason to preserve the body for some future resurrection.
Indo-Europeans are independent in their theological thought, while the Semites stress dependency.  Indo-Europeans believe that the world always was, Semites that the world was created by a god and is dependent for its existence upon a god.   In the so-called New Age movement perhaps we are really seeing a return to the ancient wisdom of the Indo-Europeans.
               This is a beautiful interpretation. It makes me think of what a lovely inscription it might make on the tombstone of a devoted reference librarian (with apologies to Emerson):
            "As a master of books, he appeared from time to time and carried us over dark morasses and barren oceans, into the heart of sacred cities and temples."

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