What Nietzsche Can Teach'ya

Thus Spoke Zarathustra

If you ask someone to name some philosophers, Nietzsche will often be one of the first they think of.

Which is odd because so few people ever get around to reading him.

I knew he had some interesting ideas but I had barely any idea what they were. And I knew he was hard to read, and the couple times I had tried in the past to push myself through his books, namely Zarathustra, I wasn’t able to finish it.

But then a few references to Nietzsche came up in Straw Dogs which I covered last week, and I thought hey maybe now is the time to give it another try.

So, having gotten through Zarathustra now and combing through the online philosophy encyclopedia to try to parse some of the more confusing parts, that’s what I’ll share with you here today.

These are some of Nietzsche’s more interesting ideas to maybe make you pause and look at some of your pre-existing beliefs a little more closely.

  • The Death of God

  • Worshipping Our Highest Self (Ubermensch)

  • Our Motivation for Power

  • The Myth of Equality

  • The Perils of Comfort

  • Eternal Recurrence (Everything has Happened Before)

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The Death of God

When Zarathustra was alone, however, he said to his heart: "Could it be possible! This old saint in the forest hath not yet heard of it, that GOD IS DEAD!" (2)

Nietzsche opens Zarathustra with the statement that God is Dead, which leads to a central question of the book. Now that God is dead, what do we worship or strive for?

He doesn’t, of course, literally mean God died. But rather that we’ve started to move away from a Christian faith-based morality as a society, and we need to figure out what to replace it with.

Nietzsche suggest that should be a striving towards “The Superman”

I TEACH YOU THE SUPERMAN. Man is something that is to be surpassed. What have ye done to surpass man? All beings hitherto have created something beyond themselves: and ye want to be the ebb of that great tide, and would rather go back to the beast than surpass man? (2)

And he goes so far as to say there is no soul either, there is only your body, and everything you think is separate from your body is actually contained within it:

I conjure you, my brethren, REMAIN TRUE TO THE EARTH, and believe not those who speak unto you of superearthly hopes!.. the awakened one, the knowing one, saith: "Body am I entirely, and nothing more; and soul is only the name of something in the body." (8)

It’s not clear in my read if he thinks we have a self-directing free will, but he does crticize the idea more explicitly in other books. So when he talks about his idea of the “will” it’s not so much a conscious free acting will as it is a natural instinctual impulse.

And the answer to this question of “what do we worship” for Nietzsche is that we should be worshipping or striving towards the highest form of ourselves, the “Ubermensch” or Uberman or Superman.

Worshipping Our Highest Self

The great sin now is not violating god’s laws, but being self satisfied. It’s not striving to be or help create the best of humanity.

It is not your sin, it is your self-satisfaction that crieth unto heaven. (3)

As a little bit of cultural context, the era that Nietzsche lived in was moving away from a faith based morality and was trying to defend the existing precepts of Christian morality using logic and reason. But Nietzsche is trying to argue for a potentially new morality, not transferring the existing morals onto a new base. We need a new set of sins and virtues to worship.

And a lot of his new virtues and morality here focus on worshipping the best of humanity, not the mass of humanity.

Once they thought of becoming heroes; but sensualists are they now. A trouble and a terror is the hero to them. But by my love and hope I conjure thee: cast not away the hero in thy soul! Maintain holy thy highest hope! (12)

But to do that, we need to recognize that striving for equality is impossible if we also want to strive to be the best.

Myth of Equality

And 'Will to Equality'-that itself shall henceforth be the name of virtue; and against all that hath power will we raise an outcry!.. Ye preachers of equality, the tyrant-frenzy of impotence crieth thus in you for "equality": your most secret tyrant-longings disguise themselves thus in virtue-words!.. Fretted conceit and suppressed on envy-perhaps your fathers'… conceit and envy: in you break they forth as flame and frenzy of vengeance. (35)

We’re trying to enforce the old god-based morality on a godless world, but that doesn’t make sense. Nietzsche says we need to recognize these ideas like “we’re all equals” are not just wrong but are actually the opposite of being virtuous, at least in his morality.

“The most careful ask to-day: "How is man to be maintained?.. Zarathustra however asketh, as the first and only one: "How is man to be SURPASSED?.. The Superman, I have at heart; THAT is the first and only thing to me-and NOT man: not the neighbour, not the poorest, not the sorriest, not the best.”

And in addition to dispensing with this focus on equality, we also need to dispense with prioritizing a comfortable, happy life.

The Perils of Comfort

“So much kindness, so much weakness do I see. So much justice and pity, so much weakness… Round, fair, and considerate are they to one another, as grains of sand are round, fair, and considerate to grains of sand… In their hearts they want simply one thing most of all: that no one hurt them. Thus do they anticipate every one's wishes and do well unto every one, That, however, is COWARDICE, though it be called "virtue."And when they chance to speak harshly, those small people, then do I hear therein only their hoarseness-every draught of air maketh them hoarse… Virtue for them is what maketh modest and tame: therewith have they made the wolf a dog, and man himself man's best domestic animal.” (64)

The myth of equality and neighborly love have made us individually soft, we’re more focused on balancing everyone out instead of creating the best of us, and we’re so afraid to upset anyone that we say nothing.

We’ve become soft, round, grains of sand among the masses. Instead we need to welcome fear and face greater difficulties. We need to reclaim our strength.

“Cold souls, mules, the blind and the drunken, I do not call stouthearted. He hath heart who knoweth fear, but VANQUISHETH it; who seeth the abyss, but with PRIDE. He who seeth the abyss, but with eagle's eyes, he who with eagle's talons GRASPETH the abyss: he hath courage.” (114)

And we also need to dispense with the idea of “loving your neighbor.”

Don’t Love Your Neighbor

Nietzsche says that trying to always “love your neighbor” actually gets in the way of bringing about our greatest selves.

“Thus demandeth my great love to the remotest ones: BE NOT CONSIDERATE OF THY NEIGHBOUR! Man is something that must be surpassed… There are many divers ways and modes of surpassing: see THOU thereto! But only a buffoon thinketh: "man can also be OVERLEAPT.".. Surpass thyself even in thy neighbour: and a right which thou canst seize upon, shalt thou not allow to be given thee!” (76)

This is why he’s not a humanist… He doesn’t believe in the inherent value or specialness of humans in general, he seems to think pretty lowly of most humans. But he does want the best of us to be able to rise to the top.

And he actually argues that an essential part of that is marriage and family.

Marriage and Family

“Thou art young, and desirest child and marriage. But I ask thee: Art thou a man ENTITLED to desire a child? Art thou the victorious one, the self-conqueror, the ruler of thy passions, the master of thy virtues? Thus do I ask thee.

Or doth the animal speak in thy wish, and necessity? Or isolation? Or discord in thee?

I would have thy victory and freedom long for a child. Living monuments shalt thou build to thy victory and emancipation. Not only onward shalt thou propagate thyself, but upward! For that purpose may the garden of marriage help thee!”

I really like this idea of marriage and children as being part of bringing out the greatest expression of yourself, and I found it somewhat surprising to see it given how individualistic the other arguments in the book tend to be.

I do like how he higlights though that a marriage and family should be to enhance the life you’ve already conquered. It shouldn’t come from fear or loneliness or desperation.

But a lot of this comes back to why do we do what we do.

Why We Do What We Do: The Will to Power

I think ethics is only useful insofar as it helps you better understand the world.

And there are two interesting forms of ethical exploration in philosophy. Basically why do we do what we do, and why should we do what we do. They’re often not the same, and while we need a good framework for the latter, it’s also good to at least try to understand the former.

“Only where there is life, is there also will: not, however, Will to Life, but-so teach I thee-Will to Power!” (42)

Nietzche says the desire for life is insufficient to explain our behavior. Rather, we are fundamentally driven by power over ourselves, our world, and each other.

That is your entire will, ye wisest ones, as a Will to Power; and even when ye speak of good and evil, and of estimates of value… Ye would still create a world before which ye can bow the knee: such is your ultimate hope and ecstasy… The ignorant, to be sure, the people-they are like a river on which a boat floateth along: and in the boat sit the estimates of value, solemn and disguised… Your will and your valuations have ye put on the river of becoming; it betrayeth unto me an old Will to Power, what is believed by the people as good and evil.” (41)

Good And Evil Don’t Exist

And as a consequence of our fundamental motivation by power, good and evil don’t exist, they’re just manifestations of the will to power. “Good” is what helps you or your tribe get and keep power, “Evil” is everything opposed to that motivation.

“Much is reckoned higher than life itself by the living one; but out of the very reckoning speaketh-the Will to Power!"Thus did Life once teach me: and thereby, ye wisest ones, do I solve you the riddle of your hearts… Verily, I say unto you: good and evil which would be everlasting-it doth not exist! Of its own accord must it ever surpass itself anew… With your values and formulae of good and evil, ye exercise power, ye valuing ones.” (42)

Everything has already happened

Finally, we get to the oddest concept in the book, the idea of eternal recurrence.

“"Everything straight lieth," murmured the dwarf, contemptuously. "All truth is crooked; time itself is a circle.".. "Thou spirit of gravity!" said I wrathfully, "do not take it too lightly! Or I shall let thee squat where thou squattest, Haltfoot,and I carried thee HIGH!".. "Observe," continued I, "This Moment! From the gateway, This Moment, there runneth a long eternal lane BACKWARDS: behind us lieth an eternity.c Must not whatever CAN run its course of all things, have already run along that lane? Must not whatever CAN happen of all things have already happened, resulted, and gone by?” (59)

It’s not clear (and there’s debate) on whether Nietzsche thought this was actually true metaphysically, or a thought experiment.

In the potentially true sense, it’s an acknowledgement that every moment is always happening, has happened, and will happen.

Which is also a very old idea. You see it in Hindu religion, the continual birth and death of the universe, and you also see it in the Stoic physics, which also talk about a suspiciously similar cycle of birth and death of the universe.

It might be most interesting as a thought experiment:

Are you willing to live your life like this, or is this the life you want to live, if every moment of your life is always occurring. If you had to live this moment over and over again forever, would it be a good moment? Or a good life? And perhaps a characteristic of the Uberman is someone who honestly desires eternal recurrence, as Zarathustra does at the end of the novel


Thank you so much for reading.

If you learned something, please forward this to a friend.

I’ll return next week with another fascinating book to share.