“He who said ‘God is a Spirit’—made the greatest stride and slide hitherto made on earth towards unbelief: such a dictum is not easily amended again on earth!” – Thus Spake; Zarathustra, Chapter LXXVIII: The Ass-Festival. Thomas Common translation.
Nietzsche’s philosophical novel was an amazing read. At the time I began to read it, I hadn’t really been captivated by a novel since the Harry Potter series (which I love) and I found most fantasy stories to be really boring. I had first become familiar with it after reading a philosophical analysis of one of my favorite video games, Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne. I knew Nocturne was conveying some philosophy, but I didn’t know what at the time. I discovered Nocturne is a spiritual re-telling of certain portions of the novel.
I didn’t expect much at the time, it was mostly curiosity in relation to the game. I suspected that I’d find it boring. To my surprise, it was initially quite a laughable read. Zarathustra is humiliated in front of a crowd whom he tries to speak with as equals. The crowds throughout the novel are always seen as hateful and resentful of anything outside of their small town or village community, they resent and fear any change to better themselves, and spend their days not having a clear opinion on what they want from life or any direction on how they seek to motivate their own improvement, but rather live in indolence seeking only self-gratification and nothing else. This is one of the recurring themes of the novel when Zarathustra travels. Zarathustra seeks to be honest with himself and philosophizes his views, but doing so means he’s ridiculed, ostracized, and labeled dangerous for criticizing core beliefs that are held as sacrosanct. People just don’t want to listen to him and instead make spurious personal attacks based upon the most haphazard of claims.
Nevertheless, the beginning portion goes from particularly inspiring with his evocative words about teaching people of the Ubermensch in the beginning of the novel to a bizarre sort of tragicomedy immediately after. Zarathustra speaks to a crowd that doesn’t wish to understand him and instead ask him about the Last Man which he warns about; the Last Man being the aforementioned indolent dweller who doesn’t care about anything but self-gratification. The tightrope walker falls off from their circus act and severely injures himself which scares the crowd into fleeing. Nobody from the crowd helps the dying tightrope walker except Zarathustra who listens to his dying request to be buried. Zarathustra takes his body, which people in other parts of the village use as shortsighted “evidence” to accuse Zarathustra of grave-robbing, and leaves it up a tree to avoid wolves eating the dead man’s flesh. He sits down and gets absorbed into his own thoughts for awhile before leaving the dead body in the tree. I had laughed at this at first because Zarathustra clearly misunderstood the man’s request and didn’t really follow through with it despite convincing himself that he had. It was really peculiar and apart from being comical, I don’t see much on what that specific scenario was meant to convey. By contrast, the chapter immediately after about making good habits was immediately clear and brought back the interest.
Throughout his journey, Zarathustra extols some very interesting perspectives, but it’s always with the pernicious culture of vitriol and hatred for his teachings by various small town or small village communities who refuse to engage and don’t care to change their habits. Zarathustra points out that people prefer simplistic narratives of good and evil based on their culture or community instead of evaluating right and wrong for themselves. This is particularly evident in religious cultures. They claim to be about their own justice and goodness, but put their brains to sleep when faced with corruption or just blame humanity in general instead of fighting back against such corrupt individuals and corrupt institutions. He guides the reader into asking, if these religious teachings of your community are truly so moral and wonderful, if their values are universally correct as your religion might claim them to be, then why doesn’t it stop abusive behavior from happening? And on the charge of blaming humanity in general when they fail, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra argues that this is responding to genuine criticisms with pure hatred. Theologians and the herd who argue that humans will always be violent or abusive by nature in this circular reasoning argument that “humans are humans” are actually expressing pure hatred for humanity. It doesn’t challenge or confront people who harm you or who harm those you love, it’s just a way of throwing away an argument by refusing to listen and instead opting for a nihilistic hatred for all of humanity as a sort of divine answer.
His criticisms of religion, which are his most salient and paradoxically his most ignored contentions, seem to have gone completely unchallenged. I’ve looked for critiques online and nobody mentions his criticisms on religion. In fact, when I join Nietzsche groups online (which usually have 2000+ members) and begin discussing his criticisms of religion, I am immediately banned from such groups. So-called Nietzsche fans like saying that he contradicted himself or didn’t really say anything, but no one ever seems to be aware or brings up his criticisms of religion. So-called readers of Nietzsche never once speak of it. The closest I’ve seen to an honest critique is Alain de Bottom and a lecture video by Jordan Peterson in one of his classes. By contrast, Christian theologians are notoriously dishonest; repeatedly claiming Nietzsche said things that he never did. I even read an online book in which the author cited Nietzsche by cutting out half the words in a aphorism to claim Nietzsche said something that he never advocated for. I’ve seen Nietzsche quotes pages on facebook full of quotes that Nietzsche never once wrote. Most other scholars of Nietzsche, even on Quora, seem to have read critiques of Nietzsche but never Nietzsche’s actual works. They don’t read to form their opinions on Nietzsche, they read criticisms of Nietzsche and believe those criticisms to be absolute fact and never bother to actually read Nietzsche. Some might argue its due to the confusion over Elizabeth Forster-Nietzsche appropriating his works for her Nazi ideologies, Heidegger’s own appropriation in which he created a Strawman, or perhaps the strawman delusions of Bertrand Russell; but in all honesty, these sorts of strawman depictions exist for every famous person. Even the US Founding Fathers are constantly misinterpreted. I think what underlies all this confusion is the human capacity of heuristics. People believe they can judge and know everything about a single human being from a few short excerpts and judge their entire life based on a few short sentences they read. This does have evolutionary benefits like spotting really dangerous people like Adolf Hitler, but it can be misused and people can be manipulated into seeing hatred, dishonesty, or evil from people who want to criticize bad beliefs. Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi seem more like exceptions than the rule, where the character assassinations against them eventually backfired. But for people criticizing ideas without civil disobedience or in a context where civil disobedience isn’t a factor, it becomes much harder to be listened to from others.
Within the context of chapter 57 titled The Convalescent, Zarathustra is acknowledging, whether people have small lives or great lives, petty lives or truly amazing ones, that it’s all meaningless because there is neither a purpose nor any point since death comes to all. However, even if we grant that life is ultimately meaningless, you shouldn’t just go and kill yourself or commit to wrongdoings, but instead you should live your best life by learning, growing, and focusing your life on your dreams. In essence, even if life is meaningless without an eternity as a reward, we should focus our sights, efforts, and struggles upon suffering for our own self-given purpose in life. Once you exhaust that though, and you will, you should either focus on a new dream or focus on making your dream goal better after feeling you’ve satisfied your initial dream. This is different for different people; for instance, if you wanted to be a scientist and cure some form of cancer and have succeeded, then either focus on something new if that’s what you want or focus on some other form of cancer. Moreover, even if you fail in your pursuits, you are still the culmination of all the research up to your point in history and you’re still inspiring future generations who will see you as either a hero or someone who truly gave it their all and they may just “finish” your dream based on upgrades in technology that you had never had the opportunity to be privy to. You are still living by your own standards, fulfilling your dreams, and making a calling for future generations. If, however, your specific dream is something like the arts, such as being an author, then it simplifies things (as Nietzsche generally meant the arts for the Ubermensch philosophy, but was open to people living their own dreams and standards since he didn’t want to be seen as perfect, but rather just wanted to pass on the torch of his philosophical insights); you can, within the context of being an author, just focus on another book, if you so wish.
A focal point within the context of the whole is to avoid nihilism and be your best self in a subjective, moral worldview that Nietzsche saw coming. Take time to relax and enjoy leisure life like journeying to a forest, hiking, or going on vacation or so forth – if need be – when you feel exhausted or too overwhelmed. But otherwise sharply focus on your dream goals. Your selfish desires aren’t always evil or wrong, or egotistical. They’re the only aspect of your life that’ll keep you going when you lose everything. You will always feel burdened in life with suffering; you can either live in nihilism and feel it is all meaningless, living under the thumb of the powerful, or allowing religion to dictate your life for the sake of worshiping death by calling it heaven and God, or you can strive to suffer for your own goals and dreams based on your own standards of how you evaluate your life. To become what you are: To be your best self by pursuing your own personal goals. It is your commitment and hard work for your passionate subject that’ll lead to a fulfilling life and not living by archaic traditions that demand you fit specific roles in the service of a God, the ideas of needing parental figures, or blind obedience to demagogues or others.
Nietzsche depicts his fictional Zarathustra explain that readers shouldn’t strictly adhere to his teachings as if he were a prophet or a God in one portion of the novel. He even suggests in the passage that you should consider that he’s deceived you or misguided you, because he didn’t want his teachings to be taken as absolute. He didn’t want to be venerated and instead seemed to imply that he wanted people to take what they could from his arguments and teachings to create their own path. Nevertheless, he was adamant about warning people of ever following a religious order. He refers to priests as preachers of death and uses the terms almost interchangeably. If there is any doubt on this point, despite his copious and explicit details on priests being worshipers of death, further evidence of his views can be corroborated with his other books such as On the Genealogy of the Morals, The Dawn / Daybreak, and The Anti-Christ. To Nietzsche, despite his positive views on Buddhism – which he views as entirely superior to Christianity – he views all religion as the worship of death itself. He argues heaven, God, Son of God, Christ, Eternity, and other such types of veneration within Christianity are cursed words that are in praise of death. Those symbols and teachings only deceive to make one submit to death. Religion, in effect, is a ritualized worship of death. It had no inherent meaning or any moral goodness within its teachings; religion, and especially Christianity in particular, was just a pointless and self-loathing worship of death. It held no values whether moral or otherwise and did nothing positive for people’s growth and development.
There are two specific sections of this work that I feel are entirely misunderstood and I don’t mean in the context of interpretation differences, I mean that the understanding and arguments by people seem to be entirely false. The PDF version that I read came with a explanatory section by Anthony M. Ludovici and his views on the work seem to be entirely incongruous with what the text is suggesting. In fact, when judging Ludovici by his explanations, I am under the impression that he had no idea what Buddhism was and he probably hadn’t had a firm understanding of Christianity either. In the chapter titled “The Voluntary Beggar“, the preacher that Zarathustra meets is clearly a depiction of Jesus Christ. The joke and punchline of the entire meeting is that Jesus was so misunderstood, that when he came back upon the Second Coming, he decided to preach to cows who brayed at him in response to his preaching. This is because, in context of the story, Jesus was having better luck with cows mooing back at him than he was with people understanding his teachings. For a clearer piece of evidence for this, the preacher is referred to as “The-Preacher-on-the-Mount” which is an obvious reference to Jesus Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. I have to honestly question Ludovici’s claim that he read several translations of Nietzsche in different languages, if he didn’t catch this clear indication of who this portion of the story is about. There are even explicit references to the Kingdom of Heaven in this chapter too, so I’m left confused why he thought that Nietzsche was referring to the Buddha in this section. Having read-up on his background, Ludovici’s Nazi apologetics and racial supremacist beliefs likely distorted whatever views he had on Nietzsche’s work despite wanting to be a self-proclaimed expert on Nietzsche.
Nevertheless, Nietzsche does reference the Buddha in an earlier segment titled “XXXVII. Immaculate Perception” in which the title strongly infers the Buddha’s Eightfold path. Ludovici erroneously argues that we need to understand Nietzsche’s life before understanding specific chapters — including Immaculate Perception — but this is clearly wrong. None of these stories require reading into Nietzsche’s past as it is a fantasy story that Nietzsche wanted people to read as a complete story. It’s possible that he wanted people to infer their own metaphors and allusions, but it is grounded in comparing his Ubermensch philosophy to other belief systems in a philosophical and metaphorical sense within the context of the story. It is not necessarily the Buddha himself who is being critiqued, unlike Jesus Christ in the Voluntary Beggar, but rather the teachings of Buddhism. The fictional Zarathustra is refuting Buddhism and this segment shows that the fictional Zarathustra isn’t just Nietzsche’s mouthpiece to criticize other beliefs in a polemic fashion, but instead Zarathustra is his own character separate from Nietzsche. Nietzsche himself agreed with aspects of Buddhism and celebrated it as mostly healthy for ones physiology and for a culture that is nearing its end. The fictional Zarathustra refers to Buddhism as shunning and running away from life. He makes allusions to a moon and how Buddhists, like the moon, simply watch the world go by as if they were Gods and by doing so, they simply enact a form of death worship like other religions. Buddhism teaches to be apart from desire and to see desire as a form of suffering, Zarathustra acknowledges at having been a Buddhist once before reversing his views. He teaches people to find meaning in suffering by following their creative desires such as artistic exploits, the passion for science, running our own business, or perhaps even – if we follow a more loose interpretation – advocating for human rights. Buddhist detachment is an aversion to life and not an affirmation of it in Zarathustra’s view.
Zarathustra constantly teaches to find a meaning to ones suffering through their creative passions. The entire story is about that. From my own interpretation of the story, downgoing refers to facing adversity for ones creative pursuits and overgoing seems to refer to achieving a objective that is either part of your creative pursuit or accomplishing the creative pursuit. Zarathustra explains that he strives after his work via building a purpose for oneself. By contrast, the purpose of religion is to meaninglessly worship death. The fictional Zarathustra provides the alternative to both religion and nihilism by suggesting that we find a goal in life to strive for and suffer for as the meaning to our existence. Essentially, to find a personal dream goal to strive towards as the purpose of our existence. He establishes throughout the story that hatred for materialism and this belief in materialism being evil or unambiguously selfish is a psychotic, narcissistic, and misanthropic view of the world which seeks to hate, complain, and kill all joy that you have for your life and within your life. His objections to the herd are due to indolence and having aimlessness in life; his objections to religion are that it creates a purpose that seeks to destroy, harm, and ruin people with nonsensical and superstitious beliefs. There’s no ambiguity on this point and his other writings simply affirm it even more clearly: to Nietzsche, the belief in religion is a psychotic and misanthropic delusion. There’s no pride or happiness to be found in it; religion is fundamentally a hatred for life itself. To Nietzsche, religion simply sought war, death, and destruction for all rational reasoning faculties and for humanity itself. That’s why Nietzsche referred to his philosophy and his contempt of religion as life-affirmation.
I’ve seen videos of some philosophy scholars and professors argue that Nietzsche would have disagreed with the New Atheists about Christianity. This claim can’t be substantiated when you read his writings, especially Thus Spake; Zarathustra. If anything, all his writings indicate that he would have disagreed with them on arguing for the equal rights of women and for the human rights of the poor. Otherwise, he’d be celebrating Hitchens criticisms of religion, Sam Harris’s more psychological critique of religion, and – judging from what I’ve read of Nietzsche – he’d probably be wondering why a sophisticated and intelligent scientist like Dawkins was wasting his time speaking in front of rabble against a raving lunatic, also known as a priest, who belonged to the insane asylum. Nietzsche would never have defended religion and least of all Christianity from the criticisms of the New Atheists. He’d probably have celebrated Hitchens argument that religion poisons everything judging from his own body of work.
Did that sound extreme? If anything, Nietzsche’s views on Christianity have been entirely vindicated. Just last year in 2018, there was wave after wave of child rape cases that were discovered to have been hidden by the Catholic Church for decades. If people back in the 1900s had listened more closely to Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity, would it have been as widespread? One of his foremost arguments was that priests are liars and charlatans; he repeats this charge throughout Thus Spake; Zarathustra and The Anti-Christ. They lie about cause and effect by arguing nonsense like prayer, they believe in the psychotic idea of a soul which to Nietzsche is a narcissistic belief in personal immortality, and their equality involves demanding you obey their rules while they hold control over what you do once a week, what you spend some of your discretionary money on, and they have control over your sex life. That’s “equality” to a priest. Why should a priest even be more moral? To Nietzsche, all they do is celebrate themselves as a God once a week by using their faith in Jesus as a tool and all priests do is believe more strongly than the average person in the raving insanity of the Bible. Why would believing more strongly in insanity make them a more moral person? A stronger faith in Jesus as God and Son of God is simply a stronger delusion into insanity. A lesser known contention that’s since vindicated about Christianity in particular is that it’s completely anti-Semitic. In fact, speaking to Catholics who reside in Eastern Europe and Pakistan, these groups immediately agreed upon blaming the Jews as having somehow infiltrated and conspired to rape children in the Catholic Church. Yes, seriously, this is a recurring belief among some Eastern European and Asian Catholics. Yet again, Nietzsche pointed to how utterly vapid and stupid Christianity is because it is practically programming people to become anti-Semites through its horrible teachings. Jews have nothing to do with the Catholic Church’s troubles, but they’re instantly the scapegoat. It’s pathetic and disgusting; it is providing more evidence that Nietzsche was right about Christianity being a hateful belief system.
Sadly though, Nietzsche also shows himself to be a person of his time in this regard. The Third Part of Thus Spake; Zarathustra was evidently not part of the original text. To the best of my knowledge, Nietzsche had never publicly published it and it was instead published as part of the novel long after his death. He shared Part III with close friends, among them the composer Richard Wagner who rediscovered and accepted Jesus Christ into his heart; becoming a firm believer in Jesus Christ. Just as soon as Wagner started celebrating Jesus Christ, he became a devoted anti-Semite at the same exact time and began sharing and spreading his anti-Semitic views everywhere because he believed the Jews were responsible for Jesus Christ’s death. Wagner’s love for Jesus made him an anti-Semite. Nietzsche seemed to try to appeal to Wagner in this way; although Nietzsche never publicly celebrated anti-Semitism and denounced it regularly in public whenever the topic came-up, Part III of Thus Spake; Zarathustra contains some anti-Semitic remarks about Jews with the connotations that they’re dirty. I am of the opinion he was trying to appease Wagner with this addition in the beginning of Part III to keep their friendship, but we can never know for sure. However, if it is any consolation, Nietzsche went on to break the friendship with Wagner and denounced anti-Semitism to the point where he refused to take part in his sister’s wedding to a notorious anti-Semite. Nietzsche never published Part III and I don’t believe that it is necessarily the case that he was “hiding” any anti-Semitism during a time period where anti-Semitism was not only the norm of his time period in Germany, but heavily encouraged by the culture. I would like to think that perhaps he was simply ashamed that he allowed his friendship with Wagner to nearly corrupt his own moral code. I think that the majority of his writings express this, because he affirms his antipathy towards anti-Semites and celebrates the Jews as the Warrior Race capable of taking on any challenge in The Anti-Christ and states that Jewish people are the closest to his desired revaluation of values in forming a culture that celebrates life-affirmation and prosperity. The only thing, in Nietzsche’s mind, that kept Jews oppressed aside from rabid anti-Semitism was the worship of the Jewish God whom Nietzsche decried as unworthy of the Jewish people. Upon getting rid of the Jewish God, Jewish people would be the closest in bringing about Ubermensch (creative and hardworking people) to increase the prosperity of people and culture in the Western world.
As for the finale of Part III, despite claims about how it shows the novel is unfinished, the entire section is foreshadowed in Chapter XVII. The Way of The Creating One, each of what would be Higher Men are found to be lacking in a quality according to Zarathustra near the end. As Zarathustra departs to journey for the Ubermensch, leaving them in the cave, his lion goes into the cave presumably to eat them. The ghastly metaphor was alluded to in the chapter I just mentioned; the lion eats the 7 devils that Zarathustra warned about to self-conquer and make the Creating One — The Ubermensch. Zarathustra’s journey is implied to restart with him undergoing eternal recurrence from when he had left the cave in the beginning; eternally redoing everything in the journey forever in search for the Ubermensch. The last few lines indicate that the coming of the children are nigh — further supporting the 3 metamorphoses of camel, to lion, and then to a child (creative and hardworking person) as foreshadowed in The Way of the Creating One.
While that sounds all well and good, readers might be confused; where was the Ubermensch? Shouldn’t we have seen a child manifest from the cave? Why did Zarathustra have to redo everything? What was the point of it all? The answer I concluded when I first read and completed the novel: The Ubermensch was the reader of the novel. Yes, that’s correct. We, the readers, become the Ubermensch if we decide to take and practice any of his philosophy and general system from the novel. Whether as inspiration or as a general guiding philosophy, we take what parts we like and continue on after reading the entire philosophical novel. The fictional Zarathustra offers the reverse of Jesus Christ; Christians argue adamantly about “finding Christ” and “finding God” from prayer. In this case, from the intellectual pleasure of reading, Zarathustra has found you and if you’ve accepted any of his views and challenges within the novel then you’re the Ubermensch that he was waiting for. And, since we’re not to rely upon him as an absolute guide and he’d rather we pursue creative exploits or personal dreams on our own, he goes off to the next reader at the end of the novel to restart the teachings and journey for a newcomer or someone who would like to revisit the novel. The Ubermensch is the person who reads the entirety of the philosophical novel, accepts portions of the philosophy within the novel, and strives to work on their own personal dream goals from then on with the willingness to undergo adversity for their dreams and work on attaining objective outcomes in pursuit of their dreams. The only real qualifier is that they don’t waste their lives on death worship which is synonymous for religion, because it’s a waste of their time, talents, and personal growth.
If you’re interested in the novel, I strongly recommend the Thomas Common version (Also on Gutenberg for free). It seems to be the most accurate depiction and most detailed of Nietzsche’s philosophical lectures and views in the novel itself.
And here is a nice ASMR reading of the beginning passages of Thus Spake Zarathustra: