Nietzsche’s Dance With Zarathustra
In 1885 Nietzsche finished writing Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in which he has the prophet proclaim many Nietzschean ideas in parables and epiphets.Constantine Sandis asks why Nietzsche particularly chose Zarathustra.
In M. Night Shyamalan’s superhero film Unbreakable, the fragile-boned Elijah believes that somewhere out there he has an enemy with the exact opposite property, whom he eventually identifies as the ‘unbreakable’ security guard David Dunn. A similar kind of reasoning led Nietzsche to name the protagonist of his religious parody Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-5) after Zoroaster (‘Zarathustra’ is a Westernised version of the name). Nietzsche viewed the Persian prophet as his arch rival: an opponent of similar power and stature, whom he admired but could never fully overcome. In the character of ‘Zarathustra’, Nietzsche attempts to create his own spokesman worthy of Zoroaster’s greatness. As the psychologist Carl Jung put it in his lectures on Nietzsche’s Zarathustra (1934-9), while it is true that “Nietzsche chose a most dignified and worthy model for his wise old man,” he also took him to be “the founder of the Christian dogma” [of moral objectivity] that Nietzsche so vehemently opposed. He also notes that Zarathustra’s recorded age inThus Spoke Zarathustra is the same as “the legendary age of Christ when he began his teaching career.”
The Mask of Zoroaster
Jung also suggested that Zarathustra manifests a second personality for Nietzsche, which was perhaps awaiting an opportunity to be expressed. This reading is supported by Nietzsche’s claim that during one of his lakeside walks in Sils-Maria in Switzerland, in July 1881, he experienced a vision concerning Zarathustra and the nature of inspiration. He describes the experience as follows in his posthumously-published autobiographicalEcce Homo (which, among other things, is a parody of Wagner’s self-indulgent My Life, which Nietzsche described as ‘an agreed-upon fable’):
“Zarathustra himself, as a type… he stole upon me… Has anyone at the end of the nineteenth century a clear idea of what poets of strong eras called inspiration? If not, I will describe it. If we had the slightest residue of superstition remaining in ourselves, we would scarcely be capable of rejecting outright the thought of being no more than a mere incarnation, a mere mouthpiece, a mere medium of overpowering forces. The concept of revelation in the sense that suddenly, with indescribable certainty and subtlety, something becomes visible and audible, something that shakes us to the core and knocks us over… All of this is involuntary unto the extreme but as in a storm of a feeling of freedom, absoluteness, power, divinity… This is my experience of inspiration; I have no doubt that we would have to go back thousands of years to find anyone who could say to me ‘it is mine too’.”
However, in May 1882, Nietzsche’s friend Paul Rée introduced him to Lou Salomé (with whom he was immediately smitten). Nietzsche soon confessed to her that he had conceived of a figure called Zarathustra partly as a substitute for the son he would never have. Some days later, he told his friends the Overbecks of his aspiration to create “a filial figure artistically.” In a letter to Peter Gast written the following year, Nietzsche again calls himself “the father of Zarathustra.”
It would be a mistake to identify Nietzsche the father with Zarathustra the son. In a letter written to his sister Elisabeth upon the completion of the final part of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche warns against being identified with his character: “By no means believe that my son Zarathustra voices my opinions. He is one of my presentations and an interlude.” (In the same letter, Nietzsche teasingly expresses a wish to send Elisabeth “a colourful private Persian edition” so that she may “set it up as a fetish somewhere in some American jungle.”) Thus, Zarathustra is not so much a mouthpiece for Nietzsche’s views, but a mask he wears with mischievous intent, with the dual aim both of using Zarathustra to express himself and to hide behind.
More tellingly, in an earlier letter, written to Malwida von Meysenbeg shortly after he had completed the first part of the book in April 1883, Nietzsche writes: “I have challenged all religions and produced a new ‘holy book!’ And in all seriousness it is as serious as any, even though it incorporates laughter into religion.” Accordingly, Thus Spoke Zarathustra speaks of “Zarathustra the soothsayer, Zarathustra the soothlaughter.”
Shooter, Dancer, Magician
Nietzsche is often thought of as an extremely original thinker who shoots straight from the hip, often failing to provide arguments or justifications for his assertions. The exact opposite is true: he devoured both classical and contemporary texts, at times using his source material in a fashion which Turnitin anti-plagiarism software would have highlighted in red.
In the prologue to his Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, Diogenes Laertius (fl. Third Century AD) wrote the “date of the Magicians, beginning with Zoroaster the Persian.” Nietzsche defended the actual historical existences of both Homer and Zoroaster, at a time when these were being seriously questioned. He was also inspired by the Greek historian Xenophon, who in Book VI of The Expedition of Cyrus spoke of ‘Persian dance’. Nietzsche told Erwin Rhohde in 1884 that his own style “is a dance, a play of symmetries of various kinds, and a mocking of these symmetries.” Soon after, he also wrote of “Zarathustra the dancer, Zarathustra the light one who waves with his wings” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, IV). A more recent inspiration than Xenophon was Max Müller, who oversaw the first English translation of the Zoroastrian scriptures the Zend-Avesta, in three volumes (1880-1887), as part of his fifty volume series The Sacred Books of the East. In his Essays on Religion, Mythology, and Ethology, Müller writes that “the religion of Zoroaster would have ruled Greece, had [Persian King] Darius not been defeated” – a portentous line copied by Nietzsche into a notebook in September 1870.
From the Histories of Herodotus (c.484 – 425 BCE) Nietzsche takes the line “Persians educate their boys to ride well, shoot straight, and speak the truth” and transforms it in the following way:
“Persians: shoot-well, ride well, do not borrow, and do not lie” & “How the Persians were educated: to shoot with a bow and to tell the truth”
(unpublished notebook fragments, 1874)
“To speak the truth and to handle the bow and arrow well – that seemed both dear and difficult to the people who gave me my name – the name which is both dear and difficult to me”
(Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 1885)
To ‘shoot straight’ is also to tell it like it is. Zarathustra accordingly represents the embodiment of truth. Is this a praiseworthy quality to Nietzsche? Nietzsche was sceptical about the likelihood, honour, and usefulness of having truth as one’s motive or goal, mocking all who value it either for its own sake or for its instrumental use. It was not for his truthfulness, but for his original genius, that Nietzsche valued Zarathustra.
Following Herodotus, in his 1874 book The Story of Culture from its Natural Development to the Present, Friedrich von Hellwald agreed that “it was important for the Iranians to speak the truth about everything.” He also argued that “we find in the ancient Iranians for the first time the delusion of moral world order, an idea which only highly developed peoples reach, and which influence on the development of culture has been of incalculable value.” Nietzsche was clearly influenced by this outlook. And the greatest of all his many debts to Zoroastrian scholarship is owed to the following passage from von Hellwald: “Zarathustra… was born into the city of Urmia by the same-named lake. In his thirtieth year of life he left the homeland and moved East to the province Aria and occupied himself for ten years in the loneliness of the mountain range, busying himself with the drafting of the Avesta. After this time had passed he wandered away…” Between 1881 and 1885 von Hellwald’s introduction to the Persian prophet undergoes the following transformations at Nietzsche’s hand; first as an unpublished fragment (Sils-Maria, August 26, 1881): “Zarathustra, born at Lake Urmi, left his home in his thirtieth year and went into the province of Arya and composed the Zend-Avesta in the ten years of his solitude.” This in turn gets published as: “When Zarathustra was thirty years old, he left his home and Lake Urmi and went into the mountains. There he enjoyed his spirit and his solitude, and for ten years did not tire of that. But at last his heart changed… thus Zarathustra began to go under” (The Gay Science, 1882); then as, “When Zarathustra was thirty years old, he left his home and the lake of his home and went into the mountains. There he enjoyed his spirit and his solitude, and did not tire of that for ten years. But at last his heart changed… thus Zarathustra began to go under” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 1885). Note how Nietzsche retains the reference to Urmi (in north-western Iran) until the very last draft, in which it is replaced by ‘lake of his home’ – thereby creating a calculated distance between the final incarnation of his protagonist and the historical Zoroaster.
In his 1950 volume, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, Walter Kaufmann noted that although Nietzsche remarked that his Zarathustra proclaimed a view that was the opposite of the real Zoroaster’s, it appears to have gone unnoticed “how close Nietzsche himself had come to the real [Zoroaster’s] view.” Both Nietzsche and Zoroaster were inspired by visions that led them to parallel acts of intellectual creation and destruction. The two figures also share a range of similar properties or powers, such as the ability to annihilate and create in the light of a re-evaluation of past thought, the disposition to be inspired through visions manifested in poetry, dance, and song, and the courage to act in accordance with all of these. Moreover, the ‘Three Stages of History’ that Zoroaster took to be embodied in the individual (as ‘birth’, ‘death’, and ‘beyond’) are mirrored in Zarathustra’s ‘Three Metamorphoses of the Spirit’: a trilogy in which the weight-bearing spirit first becomes a load-carrying camel, which in turn becomes a lion – a strong creator of its own values – and finally, a child, whose forgetfulness makes possible a new beginning in its own creative world (see the section in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, ‘Of the Three Metamorphoses’).
Finally, Nietzsche wrote “That’s it!” in the margin of the following passage in his copy of essays by his favourite philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson (Essays: First and Second Series):
“We require that a man should be so large and columnar in the landscape, that it should deserve to be recorded, that he arose, and girded up his loins, and departed to such a place. The most credible pictures are those of majestic men who prevailed at their entrance, and convinced the senses; as happened to the eastern magician who was sent to test the merits of Zertusht or Zoroaster. When the Yunani sage arrived at Balkh, the Persians tell us, Gushtasp appointed a day on which the Mobeds of every country should assemble, and a golden chair was placed for the Yunani sage. Then the beloved of Yezdam, the prophet Zertusht, advanced into the midst of the assembly. The Yunani sage, on seeing that chief, said, ‘This form and this gait cannot lie, and nothing but truth can proceed from them.’”
Emerson variously describes Zoroaster throughout his essays as ‘half-fabulous’, ‘fine genius’, ‘revered’, ‘height of genius’, and ‘wise’, usually mentioning him alongside other great historical figures including Thales, Anaxagoras, Jesus, Moses, Zeno, Confucius, Pythagoras, Mani, Homer, Benjamin Franklin, Copernicus, Cadmus, Vulcan, Watts, Socrates, Mohammad, and Siddhartha (the Buddha). According to Emerson, Zoroaster wrote that “poets are standing transporters… inscribing things unapparent in the apparent fabrication of the world.” In his essay ‘History’, Emerson writes about how “easily these old worships of Moses, of Zoroaster, of Mani, of Socrates, domesticate themselves in the mind. I cannot find any antiquity in them. They are mine as much as theirs.” This sentiment Nietzsche would echo in Ecce Homo with the claim that his Zarathustra is “a voice that speaks across millennia.”
Heroes and Villains
A proper appreciation of Thus Spoke Zarathustra requires the reader to explore Zoroastrianism as it struck Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s undoubted aim was to revalue the prophet Zoroaster, whom he took to be the oldest representation of the (false) values of good and evil. As Ronald Hayman notes in his book Nietzsche: A Critical Life (1982), “Zoroaster had raised an old Aryan folk-religion to a higher level with his doctrine of eternal punishment or eternal death according to the balance between a man’s good and evil deeds on earth.” Or in Nietzsche’s own playful words from Ecce Homo:
“I have not been asked, as I should have been asked, what the name ‘Zarathustra’ means in precisely my mouth, in the mouth of the first immoralist: for what constitutes the tremendous uniqueness of that Persian in history is precisely the opposite of this. Zarathustra was the first to see in the struggle between good and evil the actual wheel in the working of things: the translation of morality into the realm of metaphysics, as force, cause, end-in-itself, is his work. But this question is itself at bottom its own answer. Zarathustra created this most fateful of errors, morality: consequently he must also be the first to recognize it. Not only has he had longer and greater experience here than any other thinker…what is more important is that Zarathustra is more truthful than any other thinker. His teaching, and his alone, upholds truthfulness as the supreme virtue…To tell the truth and to shoot well with arrows: that is Persian virtue. – Have I been understood? The self-overcoming of morality through truthfulness, the self-overcoming of the moralist into his opposite – into me – that is what the name Zarathustra means in my mouth.”
In the same passage Zarathustra is also highlighted as a creature of value-creation:
“Dante is, compared with Zarathustra, merely a believer and not one who first creates truth, a world-ruling spirit, a destiny – that the prophets of the Veda are priests and not even worthy to unloose the latchet of the shoes of a Zarathustra… Zarathustra has an eternal right to say: ‘I form circles and holy boundaries around myself; fewer and fewer climb with me upon higher and higher mountains – I build a mountain range out of holier and holier mountains’… There is no wisdom, no psychology, no art of speech before Zarathustra… Zarathustra feels himself to be the highest species of all existing things… the psychological problem in the type of Zarathustra is how he, who to an unheard-of degree says No, does No, to everything to which one has hitherto said Yes, can nonetheless be the opposite of a spirit of denial; how he, a spirit bearing the heaviest of destinies, can nonetheless be the lightest and most opposite – Zarathustra is a dancer.”
Zoroaster valued truth, created a philosophy of moral opposites (Good vs Evil), gave birth to monotheism, and established a linear theory of time against the circular theory of the Babylonians. By contrast, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra is a sceptic about the value of truth and a destroyer of morality who sings of eternal recurrence in his roundelay. Zoroaster was the first to commit ‘the error’ of morality: consequently, Zarathustra had to be the first to repudiate it. That is why Nietzsche chose Zarathustra as his prophet.
© Constantine Sandis 2012
Constantine Sandis is a Reader in Philosophy at Oxford Brookes University and the author of The Things We Do And Why We Do Them (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).
Nietzsche’s Übermensch: A Hero of Our Time?
Eva Cybulska dispells popular misconceptions about this controversial figure.
“Man is a rope, fastened between animal and Übermensch – a rope over an abyss.”
Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Prologue
The term Übermensch, often translated as Superman or Overman, was not invented by Nietzsche. The concept of hyperanthropos can be found in the ancient writings of Lucian. In German, the word had already been used by Müller, Herder, Novalis, Heine, and most importantly by Goethe in relation to Faust (in Faust, Part I, line 490). In America Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote of the Oversoul, and, perhaps with the exception of Goethe’s Faust, his aristocratic, self-reliant ‘Beyond-man’ was probably the greatest contributor to Nietzsche’s idea of the Übermensch. Nietzsche was, however, well familiar with all the above sources.
The first public appearance of Nietzsche’s Übermensch was in his book Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-5). As a teenager Nietzsche had already applied the wordÜbermensch to Manfred, the lonely Faustian figure in Byron’s poem of the same name who wanders in the Alps tortured by some unspoken guilt. Having challenged all authoritative powers, he dies defying the religious path to redemption. Nietzsche’s affinity with Manfred culminated in him composing a piano duet calledManfred Meditation, which he sent to his musical hero, the conductor Hans von Bülow. The maestro’s verdict on this ‘masterpiece’ as “the most irritating musical extravagance” put a decisive end to Nietzsche’s career as a music composer.
For Nietzsche, the idea of Übermensch was more like a vision than a theory. It suddenly surfaced in his consciousness during the memorable summer of 1881 in Sils-Maria (Swiss Alps), born out of that epiphanic experience that also gave rise to Eternal Return, Zarathustra and God is Dead. It was a timeless moment of ecstasy at the boundary between the conscious and the unconscious, of past and present, of pain and elation. Nietzsche entered his own inferno in “the middle of life, so surrounded by death”, haunted by memories of his father’s death, and also of his shattered friendship with Wagner, the most significant relationship in his life. He never explained what he meant by Übermensch, only intimated:
“The Übermensch shall be the meaning of the earth!
I entreat you my brethren, remain true to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of supra-terrestrial hopes! …
Behold, I teach you the Übermensch: he is this lightning, he is this madness! …
Behold, I am a prophet of the lightning and a heavy drop from the cloud: but this lightning is calledÜbermensch.”
Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Prologue
Nietzsche’s reluctance to spell out exactly what he meant has provoked numerous interpretations in the secondary literature. Hollingdale (in Nietzsche) saw in Übermensch a man who had organised the chaos within; Kaufmann (Nietzsche) a symbol of a man that created his own values, and Carl Jung (Zarathustra’s Seminars) a new ‘God’. For Heidegger it represented humanity that surpassed itself, whilst for the Nazis it became an emblem of the master race.
There have been problems with translating Übermensch. It has been rendered as a ‘Beyond-man’ (Tille, 1896), ‘Superman’ (G.B. Shaw, 1903) and ‘Overman’ (Kaufmann, 1954). The difficulty hinges on the prefixüber (over, above, beyond) and ultimately the word proves untranslatable. Although it is gender-indifferent, for the sake of simplicity I shall be using a masculine pronoun in its stead.
What the Übermensch is Not
“Above all do not confuse me with what I am not!”
The Übermensch is not a Nazi. Nietzsche’s anti-semitic sister Elisabeth invited Hitler to her brother’s shrine in Weimar in 1934 and essentially made an offering of his philosophy. The Führer, who never read the philosopher’s works, took to the selected snippets that Elisabeth provided like a proverbial fish to water and adopted the Übermensch as a symbol of a master-race. Little did he know that Nietzsche had written that he “would have all anti-Semites shot”, not to mention his strong anti-nationalistic and pan-European tendencies. Provocatively, he also talked of himself as “the last anti-political German” (Ecce Homo, Why I am so Wise).
Some anarchists appropriated Übermensch to their cause, latching onto its aspects of strength and individualism. But Nietzsche never advocated abolishment of the state or legislation in pursuit of selfish aims. Quite the opposite: he argued for a well-ordered soul and a well-ordered society.
Übermensch is not a tyrant. If anything, he is someone capable of tyranny who manages to overcome and sublimate this urge. His magnanimity stems not from weakness and servitude, but from the strength of his passions. He is rather like “the Roman Caesar with Christ’s soul” (Will to Power; 983), a value-creating and value-destroying free spirit who disciplines himself to wholeness. It’s important to stress that there has never yet been an Übermensch; it remains an ideal.
The Hero’s Quest for Wholeness
“It returns, what finally comes home to me is my own Self and what of myself has long been in strange lands and scattered among all things and accidents.”
Thus Spoke Zarathustra, The Wanderer
The word ‘hero’, coined in English in the fourteen century, derives from the Greek Ἥρως (hero, warrior). Nietzsche had a deeply heroic streak in his soul, and a hero archetype became a motivating drive in his life and in his philosophy. He confessed in Ecce Homo: “I am by nature warlike. The attack is among my instincts… I attack only causes that are victorious… where I stand alone.” It may well have been the heroism of exceptional men that appealed to him in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and in Shakespeare’s tragedies, which he read as a young teenager. He later rediscovered the hero’s mythical journey in the musical dramas of Wagner.
Jung believed that the archetype of a hero is the oldest and the most powerful of all archetypes, and considered religious figures such as Buddha, Christ or Mohammed to be its various personifications (in The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious). The hero’s journey is ultimately a journey towards self-integration. The final destination, which Jung called ‘individuation’, is a state of wholeness and completeness, and it involves the unification of opposites. Indeed, coincidentia oppositorum (coincidence of the opposites), a concept borrowed from Heraclitus, is a propelling force in becoming the Übermensch. The constant tension and energy of the conflict becomes a source of inspiration and creativity; the strife leads to “new and more powerful births”. The superabundance of any force inevitably produces its opposite and an inner balance can be achieved by uniting (or overcoming, to use Nietzsche’s term) these opposites. The restoration of equilibrium is the essence of healing. The Übermensch advocates a new ‘great health’ which he equates with an all-embracing totality whereby “all opposites are blended into a unity” (The Gay Science, 382). The conscious and the unconscious, good and evil, the earthly and the spiritual synchronize in contrapuntal harmony. A noble soul is no longer divided; it becomes an ‘individual’ not a ‘dividual’, as Nietzsche has stressed. The element of transformation (or resurrection) lies at the heart of the hero’s message. The great hero (der Überheld) overcomes himself, sublimates his impulses and passions, and owes nothing to anyone, not even to God. In the process of ‘becoming what one is’, the Übermensch unites reason and passion, order and chaos, discipline and ecstasy. But to become ‘all one’, and be free, ultimately means to be alone, taking full responsibility for one’s life. There is no scapegoat to take the blame for one’s misfortunes; not the Jews, not the Christians, not the Muslims, not even the Devil himself. One is sentenced to freedom and its aloneness:
“During the longest period of human past nothing was more terrible than to feel that one stood by oneself. To be alone, to experience things by oneself, neither to obey nor to rule, to be an individual – that was not a pleasure but a punishment; one was sentenced ‘to individuality’. Freedom of thought was considered a discomfort itself.”
The Gay Science
Reclaiming the Divine
“The beauty of the superman came to me as a shadow: what are gods to me now!”
Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Prologue
Nietzsche has earned a reputation of being the most audacious of God-assassins. In his Gay Science(fragment 125), a madman announces that “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him”. He then asks a question: “must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?” The image of a ‘dying god’ is millennia old: Egyptian Osiris, Greek Dionysus, as well as Jesus Christ suffered death, followed by a form of resurrection. Perhaps humanity’s yearnings to create gods have been intertwined with an urge to destroy them?
In The Phenomenology of the Spirit, Hegel proposed that alienation of human essence as divinity, and its subsequent re-appropriation, had accounted for the emergence and decline of religions. ‘Young Hegelians’, among them Ludwig Feuerbach and Karl Marx, took up the theme. Feuerbach saw God’s creativity as a projection of human failure to realize full potential, and God’s omnipotence as a projection of human sense of finitude and vulnerability. “Atheism is a secret of religion” – he claimed in The Essence of Christianity. Once humanity achieves mature self-consciousness, there will be no need for such projections. Nietzsche’s own departure from Christian faith coincided with his reading of Feuerbach, later augmented by his immersion in Schopenhauer. His mission was to reclaim the god-like part of humanity, and Übermensch can be seen as an attempt to do just that.
The quest for wholeness is a quest for cosmic unity; it is also a quest for God. Jung believed that the emergence of the archetype of the Self is a revelation of religious nature; a revelation of God and also of man. The revelation of the Self is experienced as a transpersonal power which he called the ‘God within’, and this is “an intelligible sphere whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere” (C.G. Jung Mysterium Coniunctionis). The Übermensch craves “nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity”. The Eternal Return turns into an ultimate test of total self-acceptance; it is also a manifestation of amor fati (love of fate), which became Nietzsche’s ultimate life-affirming formula. Zorba’s defiant Dionysian dance on the Cretan beach in Kazantzakis’ novel Zorba the Greek is the most compelling condensation of this thought.
The Übermensch is a true ‘poet of his life’. He is no longer a plaything in the hands of God or gods, but a master of his own fate. In self-creating and self-destroying, he ‘becomes what he is’, a symbol in which “the creator and the creature are united” (Beyond, 225). In Nietzsche’s moral universe, evil is a necessity and something to be overcome. The ‘will to power’ is a will to master one’s own instincts, one’s own evil and resentment, and has nothing to do with subjugating others. In the process of perpetual self-overcoming, the Übermensch transcends the limits of human existence; man becomes a lord upon himself. “I teach you the Übermensch. Man is something that should be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?” (Zarathustra, Prologue). To the Christian doctrine of ‘original sin’ that divided the perfect God from the imperfect human being, Nietzsche opposed the Übermensch, a symbol of unification. Completeness, not perfection, is the ultimate Holy Grail in the hero’s journey.
The Übermensch as a ‘Good European’
“Europe wants to become one.”
Beyond Good and Evil
“To lure many away from the herd – that is why I come.”
Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Prologue
As an adolescent, Nietzsche wrote: “We are pilgrims in this world: we have our homeland everywhere and nowhere: the same sun shines over us all. We are citizens of the world – the earth is our realm.” (Juvenilia, 1:100). Later, in Human All Too Human, he urged writers to be ‘good Europeans’ who could “guide and oversee civilization on our Earth”. Good Europeans are homeless ‘free spirits’ who are “too multiple and too mixed in race and descent… to participate in that mendacious racial self-aggrandisement and ill-breading that proclaims itself a sign of the German way of life…” (The Gay Science, 377). If this would have caused Hitler a serious headache, then Nietzsche’s views of the Jews could have brought about an attack of apoplexy: “The problem of Jews exists only within national states, in as much as their energy and higher intelligence, which accumulated from generation to generation in the long school of their suffering … As soon as it is no longer a matter of preserving nations, but rather of producing the strongest possible European race, the Jew becomes as useful and desirable an ingredient as any other national quality” (Human, 475). Whilst promoting the idea of the ‘good European’, Nietzsche de facto advocated the destruction of nationalism.
However, the free-spirited Übermensch would not succumb to the herd mentality and become a nonentity in some monstrous super-state. Released from the chains of tradition and ideology, such an individual would be free to create new values with a sense of uniqueness and passion for life. In the mood of Greek agon, he would go beyond (über) the narrowness of national divisions and parochial resentments.
Nietzsche lived as he preached. After being appointed to the chair of classical philology in Basel, he relinquished his Prussian citizenship and remained stateless for the rest of his life. Retiring from this post at the age of 35, he embarked on a ten-year odyssey, travelling throughout Europe and writing. This homeless free spirit, almost a vagabond, lived for philosophy, and not off it. His sense of identity rose above (über) any national borders, so that by claiming the ancestry of Polish nobility he referred to spiritual not tribal affinity.
A Journey to the Dark Bottom of the Sea
“Still is the bottom of my sea: who would guess that it harbours sportive monsters.”
Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Of the Sublime Man
“He lived as he wrote… he lifted his hands and placed his feet as though this existence were a tragic drama into which he had been born to play a hero.”
Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks
If Heraclitus talked about coincidentia oppositorum (coincidence of the opposites), Nietzsche lived it. A man of passion and an advocate of Dionysian existence, he led the life of an ascetic hermit; a man of deeply religious nature he became known as one of God’s most famous assassins. In his writings, the hyperbola of his attacks only matched the sublime tone of his exaltations. Nietzsche’s tragic flaw was his urge to erect and “consecrate altars in the deepest depth of his heart”, equalled by his fervour to smash them. Two antithetical forces of his psyche – that of separation and that of the unification of opposites – seemed to have entered a truly gladiatorial agon. Living by the Heraclitean motto “all things come into being through conflict” (Fragment 8), he turned his most cherished ideals (such as Christianity) into monsters to be overcome. By ‘taking sides against himself’, he waged an almighty war against himself; his philosophy not only became “a confession on the part of the author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir” (Beyond, 6), but a war diary! He gradually turned into a tragic mythical hero, destined for his own destruction.
In the manner of Oedipus, Nietzsche was searching for the essence of humanity that was sentenced to freedom in all its ‘existential aloneness’. As befits a tragic hero, he perished while fully conscious of the danger involved in such undertaking. His Columbus-like adventure into the unchartered territory of the human soul became a journey to the dark bottom of the sea. But he left us this Dionysian message:
“I shall return, with this sun, with this earth, with this eagle, with this serpent – not to a new life or a better life or a similar life:
I shall return eternally to this identical and self-same life, in the greatest things and in the smallest, to teach once more the eternal recurrence of all things,
to speak once more the teaching of the great noon-tide of earth and man, to tell of the Übermenschonce more…”
Thus Spoke Zarathustra, The Convalescent
© Dr Eva Cybulska 2012
Eva Cybulska, formerly a psychiatrist, is an independent scholar and writer. Please visit:www.thoughtsatthemeridian.blogspot.com.
David Frost considers Nietzsche’s diet and lifestyle tips.
Most of us want to do the right thing and make the right decisions. But what is the morally right thing? And what makes it morally right?
Traditionally, these questions have belonged to the discipline of moral philosophy. So what is the thoughtful reader of Philosophy Now to make of amoralism, the philosophical school of thought that undermines the whole enterprise of philosophical ethics? After all, there are some strong arguments for skepticism about morality, for relativism about morality, and even for the harmful effects of morality. How does one accommodate, for example, the arguments and exhortations of arch relativist Friedrich Nietzsche?
Nietzsche is perhaps most widely known for having written that God is dead, (“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him” The Gay Science, Section 125), and for the dubious distinction of having been Hitler’s favorite philosopher. However, the interpretation of Nietzsche, put forth by Bertrand Russell, the historian Paul Johnson, and many others, which sees him as a proto-Nazi, was thoroughly debunked by Walter Kaufmann in the 1960s. It need not delay us today. (See What Nietzsche Really Said by Robert Solomon and Kathleen Higgins for a recent treatment.)
Many readers interpret Nietzsche as an amoralist. That may be true. However, it is important to note that his critique of Christian morality was a psychological one, in which he argued there are more life-affirming ways to think and live. Nietzsche’s genealogy of Christian morality is most interesting, I think, as an illustration of his theory of human nature. Among other psychological insights he wanted to illustrate that resentment (to Nietzsche the source of a Christian desire to denigrate strength) is an extremely powerful drive.
The way Nietzsche saw it, the death of God meant that all the old ways of distinguishing a superior humanity from inferior beasts had been taken away. If God is dead, then we are reduced to being just another animal. As Nietzsche colorfully puts it in Daybreak, Section 49:
“Formerly one sought the feeling of the grandeur of man by pointing to his divine origin: this has now become a forbidden way, for at the portal stands the ape, together with other gruesome beasts, grinning knowingly as if to say: no further in this direction!”
Was there any direction for humanity to turn for moral answers, or for what Nietzsche sometimes called “metaphysical comfort”? God’s death implies a ‘no’ answer. This lack of metaphysical comfort can be called ‘nihilism’.
It would be misleading to suggest that Nietzsche advocated nihilism. Indeed, he saw the death of God as a danger to individuals and to society. In a relatively early work he wrote that if “the lack of any cardinal distinction between man and animal – a doctrine which I consider true but deadly – is thrust upon the people for another generation… no one should be surprised if the people perishes of petty egoism, ossification and greed, falls apart and ceases to be a people; in its place systems of individualist egoism, brotherhoods for the rapacious exploitation of non-brothers” (Untimely Meditations, Essay II, section 9). However, more than many contemporary moral skeptics, Nietzsche has an idea about what to do next – what to do in the face of nihilism. Nietzsche’s books include his prescription for what to do and how to think in the light of the condition of modern life.
Nietzsche in Nature
Naturalism, the idea that everything can be explained without reference to the supernatural, for Nietzsche is both the cause of nihilism and the only path to take as we struggle on after the death of God. It is therefore from a naturalistic perspective that we will best understand some of Nietzsche’s otherwise strange exhortations about how to go on living – his advocacy for a certain diet and climate, for instance. What is basic for humanity is not theology and philosophy, but physiology and psychology. For example, Nietzsche says he is interested in one question “on which the ‘salvation of humanity’ depends far more than on any theologians’ curio: the question of nutrition” (Ecce Homo, ‘Why I am So Clever’).
Nietzsche had a picture of people as instantiating different psychological and physiological types. He even suggested that he could explain any particular philosopher’s philosophy as a product of that philosopher’s neurosis or some other aspect of his psychology. His interest in physiology and psychology puts Nietzsche squarely within a naturalist tradition that includes Hume and Darwin. Indeed, interesting recent literature on Nietzsche interprets him in these terms. (See for example Brian Leiter’s Nietzsche on Morality, 2002, or Peter Kail’s ‘Nietzsche and Hume: Naturalism and Explanation’, in Journal of Nietzsche Studies, vol 37, 2009.)
Nietzsche’s insights are very much consonant with, and even anticipate, some of the research in the last 10 or 20 years in psychology, social psychology and behavioral neuroscience. His doctrine of ‘drives’ or ‘wills to power’ is a naturalistic theory in which unconscious drives are the basic explanation for almost all aspects of human behavior and psychology. If this looks Freudian, that’s because it is. Freud said he had to stop reading Nietzsche for fear of finding his own idea presaged there.
In terms of contemporary psychology, Nietzsche is more or less in line with the ‘automaticity’ literature, and with Kahneman and Tversky’s theories of our cognitive biases. There’s also the contemporary ‘dual-process’ theories of judgment and action – a Nietzschean school of thought if ever there was one. According to dual-process theories, humanity’s conscious intellect is like a small monkey on the back of an elephant. The elephant would be our affective (emotional), intuitive, relatively strong ‘System 1’, and the monkey would be our conscious, effortful, relatively weak ‘System 2’. What System 1, the elephant, wants, it gets, even if it has to co-opt System 2 to find reasons for what it has already decided to do. (See Steven Sloman’s, ‘The empirical case for two systems of reasoning’ in Psychological Bulletin, 1996; and Keith Stanovich and Richard West’s, ‘Individual Differences in Reasoning: Implications for the Rationality Debate?’ in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 2000.) Perhaps with considerable effort, System 2 can resist the desires or drives of System 1. But more often, our reasoning is co-opted and directed to find a justification after the fact for what, through our elephantine instincts, we already want to do or already have done. This post hocrationalization was recognized by Nietzsche as one system of wills co-opting another.
We must keep in mind that most of our thinking and actions are caused by the ‘elephant’, our non-conscious drives, which are not themselves responsive to reasons, but only to other System 1 interventions. If we wish for the monkey of our higher reason to be more successful, Nietzsche says, then the monkey needs to ‘trick’ the elephant into putting its momentum in a different direction.
A passage in Daybreak lists six ways to combat a drive that’s getting the best of your (System 2) will-power. One way is to over-satiate the drive, to produce disgust at the thought of what the drive wants. For example, if you wish to quit smoking but you’re addicted, a good strategy is to smoke a whole carton of cigarettes in one sitting so that your ‘elephant’ will forever in the future be disgusted by smoking, and this emotional repugnance will overpower the addiction in a way that conscious will power could not. Antabuse, the first medicine approved by the US Food and Drugs Administration for treatment of alcohol abuse, works in exactly this way, by causing disgust whenever alcohol is consumed, essentially starting the hangover immediately.
But, as Nietzsche points out, even the conscious decisions we make to resist our ‘elephant’ are most often unconscious ‘wills’ or ‘drives’ themselves. Nietzsche says the fact “that one desires to combat the vehemence of a drive at all… does not stand within our own power; nor does the choice of any particular method; nor does the success or failure of this method. What is clearly the case is that in this entire procedure our intellect is only the blind instrument of another drive which is a rival of the drive whose vehemence is tormenting us… While ‘we’ believe we are complaining about the vehemence of a drive, at bottom it is one drive complaining about another” (Daybreak, 109). The elephant goes where it wants, and the monkey says, “I meant to do that.” Here Nietzsche presages Jonathan Haidt’s application of the dual-process theories in his ‘The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail’, and Daniel Wegner’s thesis in The Illusion of Conscious Will.
The N-Plan Diet
Nietzsche’s description of humanity is thoroughly naturalistic, and so is his prescription for humanity. Nietzsche, indeed, has a positive, not merely critical, project for us – a project for how to live and flourish.
Nietzsche’s autobiography, Ecce Homo (1888, posthumously published) is, on my reckoning, a discussion of how to learn to recognize your psychological type – basically, how to recognize the psychological properties of your unconscious System 1, and to manipulate its energies towards doing what your System 2, the conscious part of us, the monkey, wants to do. In it, Nietzsche talks (otherwise incomprehensibly) about the diet and the weather that are best for him.
“I, an opponent of vegetarianism from experience, just like Richard Wagner, who converted me, cannot advise all more spiritual natures earnestly enough to abstain entirely from alcohol. Water is sufficient.
A few more hints from my morality. A hearty meal is easier to digest than one that is too small. That the stomach as a whole becomes active is the first presupposition of a good digestion. One has to know the size of one’s stomach… Everyone has his own measure, often between the narrowest and most delicate limits.”
(‘Why I am So Clever’)
Nietzsche’s ‘morality’ is one of self-realization and a flourishing unique to each individual. In a world without values, Nietzsche suggests we make our own values – values that will lead to our individual flourishing based on our unique unconscious characteristics and conscious personalities. This is not so much a recipe for change as a recipe for coming to terms with oneself. The otherwise-incomprehensible subtitle to Ecce Homo is ‘How one becomes what one is’.
© Dr David Frost 2012
David Frost, Ph.D., is an Associate Instructor of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point. He tweets at @doctorfrosty.