“Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None” is a novel by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche that was originally published in four parts between 1883 and 1891.
The novel is a philosophical treatise on Nietzsche’s ideals and his idea of the “overman”. Several of the philosopher’s most famous concepts are introduced in the novel. Including the idea that God is dead (meaning that societies old foundations are dead and that the idea of good and evil has changed) and the “eternal recurrence of the same” or the idea that time is an everlasting line and that anything that can happen has already happened and will happen again eventually.
Nietzsche uses the protagonist of the fifth century B.C.E. Philosopher, Zarathustra in order to tell the story. Zarathustra comes down from his mountain top cave to preach to the people about the Overman but is soon rebuked. The book is mainly comprised of Zarathustra’s lessons to the people and to himself. In the end, he battles his final sin: pity and sees a sign that the overman is coming.
The book has been translated into many different languages and as recently as 2005.
Zarathustra goes into the wilderness to live in a cave by himself at the age of thirty years old. Ten years later, brimming with the wisdom that he feels his solitude has provided, he descends from his cave and returns to town. On the way down the mountain, he encounters a saint who tells him that God is dead.
When he arrives in the town, he begins preaching his wisdom and talking about the “overman”. Overman, he suggests, is the final evolution of man. Man is the bridge between the mindless beasts of the forest and the overman. Zarathustra tells the people to revile their human emotions, their happiness, pity and virtue, because the overman will soon be coming to show them the meaning of the earth.
Zarathustra says that humanity is becoming to tame and weak and soon, all that will be possible to evolve into is the “last man”. The last men are like herd animals, enjoying everything that’s put in front of them, afraid to question their world. The people laugh at Zarathustra and ask to be turned into these last men.
Outside, a tightrope walker begins his walk between two towers in the town. A jester comes out and mocks the man as he walks. Suddenly, the jester jumps over the tightrope walker and the tightrope walker falls to the ground. Seeing the dying man, Zarathustra goes to him and comforts him by telling him that there is no hell and no devil. The tightrope walker wonders if this means that life is meaningless. Zarathustra tells him that he has made danger his vocation and there is nothing contemptible in that.
That night, the tightrope walker dies and Zarathustra brings him out of town to bury him in the countryside. The jester comes to him on his way out and warns him to leave because he is not liked by the believers in the true faith. They only keep Zarathustra alive because they believe that he is a raving lunatic. Outside the city, Zarathustra sleeps and when he awakens it is with the conviction that he must give up preaching to the common people and seek out only like-minded people.
Over the next few chapters, Zarathustra’s early sermons in the town called Motley Cow are covered. He talks more about the Overman. There are three steps of progress toward the Overman. The Camel, when one has to renounce one’s comforts and begin exercising self-control, The Lion, when one must assert one’s own independence and The Child, the act of new creation.
Zarathustra talks about achieving inner peace, which he calls “sleep”. “Waking”, the opposite of this is the struggle against self improvement. He believes that God and the afterlife are created as distractions to get through the pain of life and that what we think of as “self” is only the body and not our spirit and reason. Zarathustra feels that a great writer puts so much of himself into his work that others may not be able to understand them. He feels that the spread of literacy has caused writers to dumb down their work.
Some of his other sermons include: His belief that chastity is good for some and bad for others, as the repression of one’s sex drive can corrupt their spirit, his belief that one should not practice loving thy neighbor as it is a distraction and only practice love of the overman, his belief that not everyone is suited to be the overmen, and the perks of releasing and letting go of your anger instead of turning the other cheek as the Bible insists.
At the end of part one, Zarathustra decides to leave Motley Cow and his last sermon is on seeking one’s path and not just blindly following his words.
Zarathustra returns to his mountain and dreams of a small child showing him a mirror wherein he sees the face of the devil. He takes this to mean that his enemies may be corrupting his teachings and descends from the mountain again to see the people. More sermons are shared. Zarathustra believes that believing in God hampers your creative freedom because God would leave nothing left for us to create. Virtue is a matter of putting oneself into one’s good deeds only for self improvement and not for any rewards.
Zarathustra thinks that those who preach equality and justice are “tarantulas” that spread poison of revenge. He thinks that people thrive on conflict and that no one can strive for the Overman if everyone is equal. It is impossible to preach the truth and always serve the people. Philosophers who attempt this will inevitably end up bowing to the popular opinion and giving up on the truth. You have to be prepared that some will not like what you have to say. Zarathustra is saddened by his loneliness and feels that he is always giving his wisdom but never receiving anything. He thinks back to his youth and the strong opinions that he held then and realizes that the only thing that hasn’t changed since then is his will to overcome his losses and keep moving forward.
Zarathustra preaches that a person needs to value kindness and beauty in the world and not just charge toward their end goals with no pause. He values kindness in a person who has to strive for it as there is no virtue in kindness from someone who lacks the will to be cruel. Zarathustra criticizes both contemplative people who claim that they do not wish to interfere in society and scholars who do nothing but hoard knowledge. He feels that both repress their drive to be creative. He also dislikes poets who try to appear to be more circumspect than they are.
In town, Zarathustra overhears a preacher saying that creativity will soon die out and there will, in its place, be left a great emptiness. This depresses Zarathustra. He has a dream that he is watching over a group of coffins in a castle. A gust of wind comes through the castle and the coffin lids burst open, revealing that they are only full of laughter.
Zarathustra’s disciples interpret that the dream means that he will wake them from depression and emptiness with laughter. Zarathustra feels that he has never met a “whole human” who excels in more than one trait. He cannot bear to look forward into the future if all he is ever going to meet are “inverse cripples” who are weak in most traits. He wishes for a future full of whole humans who will make the past worth the trouble.
Zarathustra talks about human prudence, claiming that there are three kinds. First, he says that it is better to be fooled from time to time than to always be guarding oneself against deception. Second, he enjoys vain people because he finds them entertaining. Third, he thinks the things that most people think of as evil are ridiculous and that greatness is sometimes only possible through the use of great evil. Once again, Zarathustra returns to his mountain cave to recharge in the solitude. He knows what the ultimate culmination of his philosophy will be but is, as yet, unable to speak about it.
Zarathustra prepares for a difficult journey, reflecting that in all of one’s journey’s one only journeys into oneself. Zarathustra thinks about courage and it’s effect on overcoming obstacles. Courage helps us overcome things by making us take lightly what might otherwise be serious. Even death can be looked at with courage. Zarathustra suggests that we say to death, “Was that life? Well then! Once more!”
Courage can also help us to confront the inevitable recurrence of certain events. If the past is a straight line that stretches back into infinity, then anything that could happen would have already happened at some point. And, by the same token, if the future is infinite as well then everything we experience must be set to reoccur at some point in the future.
Zarathustra feels that the universe is directed by accident and chance and that the heavens are above purpose and logic. Zarathustra goes down the mountain again and returns to the people, finding them to be smaller than he remembers them. He finds that he must not stoop to speak to them. Their desire to not be hurt and to be content has made them small. They refer to this as “virtue” but Zarathustra thinks that it is cowardice. They constantly try to please everyone and gratify them. Zarathustra loses respect for them because of their inability to assert their true will.
When the winter comes, Zarathustra takes a somewhat vengeful pleasure in the difficulties that it will present to the people. He thinks that if they could only see his endless happiness and depth they would probably resent him but that if they see him suffer over something they will no longer be envious.
At an entrance to another city, Zarathustra sees a large fool who parrots his sermons. The people call him “Zarathustra’s ape”. He tells Zarathustra to stay out of the city because it is full of small people with small minds. Zarathustra tells the ape that he hates these people for the wrong reasons. He hates them because he resents them for not offering enough flattery to his ego but Zarathustra hates them because of what he knows they could be if they tried. Zarathustra tells the ape that he should leave the city if he hates it so much, saying: “where one can no longer love, there one should pass by.”
When Zarathustra returns to Motley Cow, he finds that many of his disciples have returned to worshiping God. They find comfort in their faith. Zarathustra says that when the old gods died, they died from laughing at the idea that there is only one God. Returning to his mountain home, Zarathustra once again finds happiness in his solitude. He thinks about how strange humans are and how they talk so much without saying anything. He feels that the “good” humans are often the most hateful.
Zarathustra feels that the three greatest sins in Christianity, sex, the lust to rule and selfishness have their uses. He feels that sex is only evil for those that hate their bodies and the will to rule is a force that drives changes. Similarly, selfishness is only about taking pride in oneself. Zarathustra urges his followers to love themselves and to not see life as a burden but as a great joy that we create ourselves. We should realize that our way of living is only one way and that others may live differently.
He also talks about different “tablets” as he calls them that he considers his ten commandments. He suggests that the world is in a constant state of changing and what we once thought of as evil has changed. Zarathustra tries to face his own idea of eternal recurrence and falls unconscious. He spends seven days recovering. He decides that humans are cruel animals that assign the word “pity” to the idea that we like to watch others go through pain.
The idea that eternal recurrence will mean that humans will reoccur as well disgusts him. When he recovers, Zarathustra dances with a woman whom the novel portrays as life. He whispers to her that he knows about eternal recurrence. A bell tolls and this makes Zarathustra accept eternal recurrence singing out “For I love you, O eternity!”
Zarathustra ascends further up the mountain to the highest peak and waits there for his people to come to him. He is found by the preacher from part two who tells him that he has to confront pity, his final sin. Zarathustra then hears a cry for help and goes to search for the source.
On the way to help whoever is crying out, Zarathustra encounters several different people. First, he comes upon two kings who have abandoned their kingdom as they have grown sick of people trying to please them. He tells them that he is searching for the higher man and tells them to wait for him in his cave. Next, he encounters a man lying down in a swamp, waiting to attract leeches. He is meant to represent the “conscientious in spirit” or the person who wishes to suck away all of the prejudices that he was raised on. Zarathustra also invites this man to wait in his cave.
Next he encounters a magician who tells Zarathustra that he wants to be a great man and not counterfeit. Admiring his honesty, Zarathustra tells him to wait in the cave. He then meets the last pope who is mourning the death of God. He believes that Zarathustra is the most pious of all the nonbelievers. He says that God died from pitying us and Zarathustra tells him that God should not have made us so poorly and then punished us for not being able to do his will. The pope is impressed with him and Zarathustra tells him to wait in the cave as well.
Zarathustra then encounters the “ugliest man” who is said to be the man who killed God. Zarathustra is overcome by pity but moves past it and realizes that the man killed God because God felt pity for him. Zarathustra tells the man to go to his cave. Zarathustra directs two more people to his cave: A beggar who was once rich and chose to be poor because he hated other rich people and his own shadow who has been following him everywhere.
After this, Zarathustra grows tired and takes a nap under a tree. When he wakes he returns to his cave and once again hears the yell for help. He realizes that the yell came from all of the people that he has sent to the cave. He speaks to them and tells them that he has not been looking for them as they are not the overman. They are too weak and too concerned with the past. They are the bridge to the overman.
The preacher suggests that they all have a meal together. During the meal, Zarathustra speaks to the higher man about the overman, telling them that there is no sense in being sad that they are not the overman. Instead they should enjoy life and laugh and dance. The higher men begin to act separately. The magician sings about not being a seeker of the truth but only a fool. Zarathustra’s shadow sings about a time when he was in the Orient and surrounded by wonderful things.
The man who was laying down in the swamp suggests that science originated in fear. Humans feared other animals and themselves and began studying things to combat this fear. Zarathustra suggests that this means that science was born from courage. Zarathustra steps outside briefly and looks back in to see them kneeling in prayer before the king’s donkey. He rushes back in and stops them, chastising them. But he takes this as a good sign that they are recovering. Everyone steps outside and the ugliest man says that he is satisfied with life for the first time. Everyone thanks Zarathustra. Zarathustra sings a song about the world being full of great sorrows and joys. But all things are connected and we cannot wish for joy without wishing for the sorrow that accompanies it.
The next morning, Zarathustra awakens to find a lion outside his cave. He takes this as a sign that the overman is coming. He realizes that he has overcome his pity for the higher man.
Zarathustra – the main character of the novel. The real life Zarathustra was a Persian prophet who preached in the fifth century B.C.E. He was the first philosopher to consider that the universe was created and defined by the struggle between good and evil. Nietzsche used him as a protagonist in order to make the first man that preached about good and evil be the first man to go beyond good and evil.
Zarathustra ‘s main drive in the book is to preach to the people about the overman. The overman has moved beyond good and evil and preaches about the eternal recurrence, or the idea that time is a straight line and constantly repeats itself. Everything that can happen has already happened and will happen again. Zarathustra goes through so many different lessons in the book even as he intends to be the teacher of everyone in Motley Cow.
He learns that he cannot help the people if they won’t help themselves. He learns that his final sin is pity and he must battle it alone. It is not clear if Zarathustra is supposed to be the Overman himself. If he is, he only evolves into the overman at the end of the novel when he overcomes his final sin and sees the sign of the lion.
Friedrich Nietzsche Biography
Friedrich Nietzsche was born on October 15th, 1844 in Rocken, near Leipzig, Germany. He was the son of a Lutheran pastor and a former teacher who went on to have two other children. When Nietzsche was only five years old, his father passed away from a brain illness. His younger brother passed away only six months later. Nietzsche’s family then moved to Naumburg to live with his maternal grandmother, later moving to their own house in 1856.
During his time in school, Nietzsche became interested in poetry and specifically in the works of more uncommon and looked down on poets like Friedrich Holderlin, a poet who committed suicide. Nietzsche graduated in 1864 and began studying theology at the University of Bonn. His intention was to become a minister like his father had been, however after one semester he decided that he no longer had faith and stopped his studies. Nietzsche than began studying philology under the professor Wilhelm Ritschl. Later, Nietzsche became the professor of classical philology at University of Basel at the age of only 24 years old.
In moving to Basel, Nietzsche had to renounce his Prussian citizenship. But he later served for the Prussian forces during the France-Prussian war for one year from 1870 to 1871. He served as a medical orderly. Nietzsche published his first book in 1872. ‘The Birth of Tragedy’ was not a great success until it was touted by fellow philologist Ulrich von Wilamowitz in his book.
In 1878, he published “Human, All Too Human” a book of aphorisms about morality and religion that the public responded to more positively. That same year, Nietzsche became ill and resigned his teaching post. He began traveling to climates that were said to be more conducive to his health like France and Switzerland.
For the next ten years, Nietzsche published many of his most popular books such as “The Gay Science” (1882) and “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” (1883-1891). It was also during this time that Nietzsche became addicted to opium and chloral hydrate, a sedative. Throughout the 1880’s, Nietzsche suffered many bouts with poor health both physical and mental. In 1889, he suffered a mental breakdown after which he had to be dealt with by two policemen.
During Nietzsche’s time, his mental diagnosis was tertiary syphilis but many scholars today believe it to have been manic-depressive illness with periodic psychosis. In 1898 and 1899, Nietzsche suffered several strokes that partially paralyzed him and left him immobile. After another stroke on the night of August 25th 1900, Nietzsche died and was buried by his sister in Rocken, the town where he was born. His sister went on to publish many of his unfinished works posthumously.