On the remainder of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1885).
How can we keep our spirits up and avoid nihilism? After all (says Nietzsche), there’s no God or other transcendent purpose-giving entity to guarantee that life is worth living. There’s just our complex animality, with its cycles of desire, satiation, and more desire, with our in-built character and maybe the capacity to self-overcome, with our idiosyncrasies that yes, can be parlayed into living artistically but which tend to leave us as freakish even when we manage to rise above the herd.
A lot of this first half of the discussion is taken up by a return to the book 2 section “On Poets” and reflecting on why Nietzsche chooses to write in this style. Following Plato, he says that poets “lie too much,” but in the same section he counts himself a poet too. So what makes it more effective for Nietzsche to use allegory and jokes and shifting advice than to just write down a straightforwardly expository philosophy?
We move on to book 3, in which Zarathustra travels back from the world where he preached to his mountain cave, so we get a bit of a travelogue of his moodiness. Will he (and the world!) be overcome with the “spirit of gravity,” or will he, like his pet eagle, soar to the heights? What are we to make of these persistent metaphors? One pervasive theme in this book is the notion of eternal recurrence, which is the elaboration of the “solution” to nihilism presented at the end of book 2, i.e., coming to peace with the past. First, this is a scary prospect, because if everything recurs, then suffering recurs, pettiness recurs. But eventually he’s able to accept the idea, because moments of joy (of feeling your creative power) are what life is all about. They justify all the suffering and pettiness in between these moments, and “joy wants eternity.”
So, has Nietzsche violated his own passion against “otherworldliness” by emphasizing this cosmological picture, in which, yes, the world of our experience does occur (many times!) but is transmogrified by this transcendental structure (meaning that we don’t actually experience events as recurring)? Is eternal recurrence actually true, and would we even actually care if it were? In The Gay Science, his treatment of the topic was brief and hypothetical: a mind game where you imagine, before you perform an action, that it’ll recur infinitely many times… would you still want to do it? In the present work, he seems to be taking the notion more seriously, recounting through his tale of Zarathustra the real-life-changing effect that this idea was purported to have had on Nietzsche.
Eternal recurrence is introduced right near the beginning of book 3, and that book ends with a climax where the full implications of that idea are realized and accepted. In between, we get more commentary, including the longest section of the book, “On the Old and New Tablets,” which lays out ideas requisite for being able to create new values. You must recognize that current concepts of good and evil that seem so firm only seem that way because your soul (and culture) are in a wintry, frozen state. We must “become hard” and “be evil enough for [the] truth,” which is that these things are not fixed foundations for our lives, but works forever in progress: “There have been only illusions so far, not knowledge, about good and evil.” Killing and robbing we dismiss as totally evil, but “is there not in all life itself killing and robbing?” Our honor should not be rooted where we come from, but where we are going. We firstlings (the first ones to take seriously this challenge to traditional values) are sacrifices to future philosophy, because we’ll inevitably be harmed by those who take themselves to be already good (just like Socrates was killed by the Athenians he challenged).
We don’t talk much here about book 4, which Nietzsche did not originally intend to be the end, but just an interlude. It’s the most overtly comic, and displays a variety of “higher men” like a king, a retired pope, a magician, a voluntary beggar, the ugliest man, and one who calls himself a shadow, all of whom come to become Zarathustra’s new disciples, but they end up worshiping an ass who brays “Yeah-yuh!” (as in Exodus where the Israelites receive the ten commandments but then start worshiping a golden calf). These represent various ways that people can misinterpret Nietzsche’s teachings, only internalizing part of what he’s trying to convey. So, Nietzsche says, “say yes to life!,” and maybe you interpret that in a stupid way, saying yes to everything when Nietzsche has also stressed that there’s a lot of crap out there that you need to say “no” to. Maybe he says that “robbing and killing are parts of life” and you misinterpret that and go out to rob and kill.
The point is that wisdom is complex and fleeting. Were one to try to express it in simple, expository prose, it would inevitably escape, because every circumstance is different, things keep changing, people’s natures differ, and consequently, every piece of wise advice also needs wisdom to apply it properly.
The secondary sources cited in this episode are Walter Kaufmann’s Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, T.K. Seung’s Nietzsche’s Epic of the Soul: Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and Douglas Burhnam’s Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra: An Edinburgh Philosophical Guide . (This is who Seth keeps referring to as “Steadham”).
Nietzsche picture by Charles Valsechi.