A Winter Adventure with Nietzsche: Commentary for Thus Spoke Zarathustra: Part One

Hello friends and fellow humans.  Let us prepare for this epic journey.

There are a few things to consider before reading Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra:  A Book for All and None.

  • Make sure your copy is translated by either Walter Kaufmann or R.J. Hollingdale, I’d advise against reading Thomas Commons’ which I think is awful
  • Read Kaufmann’s preface before going into Zarathustra’s prologue, you should know a little bit about who Nietzsche was before reading this book
  • Read slow, even if it’s two pages a sitting
  • Take the time to consider all footnotes and comments
  • If you’re looking to buy a copy and are in Milwaukee, go to Downtown Books, they’ve got a bunch of Kaufmann translations for cheap
  • If you’re at all religious, you will get offended.  But I encourage you to persist.  As literal as Nietzsche was in all other works, Zarathustra is like no other.  It’s a superrich body of prose filled with word tricks and philosophical diamonds, and like the sub-title suggests it’s for all and nobody.
  • I’m not writing this in a proper format for the university, so anything I have to say is either coming from Kaufmann or Hollingdale or is my own original thought

On a personal note:

I received this book when I was sixteen from a guy who talked it up as a life-changing book, a super-hard read, and that Nietzsche wrote the first part in ten days; with all three he was right.   The copy he gave me still exists, without a cover and in the safe hands of a lifelong friend.  Back then, I was a poor reader, so with difficult reading I could barely get through a page.  But I persisted, through the first part at least.  I didn’t finish the entire book until I was in my twenties.  This is partly the cause of why I’m writing this blog, to help some get through the first part.

The first time I had completely finished Thus spoke Zarathustra front to back, I had read the entire book riding the bus fifteen minutes at a time and while sitting on the toilet.  That pace got me through the last half, which was foreign to me the years prior.  For good and fast readers, I definitely suggest slowing it down some. It’s easy to get lost in the beauty of the prose, but if you’re mindful, you can grab up more of the layers of meaning.  Also, I’ve noticed that people don’t retain philosophical concepts when reading fast, myself especially.

Naturally, my perception of the voice in this book has changed drastically over the years, not that this doesn’t happen with everything.  But it is worthy of note because there is a psychological transference that can be insulting at first, especially given the perception of the reader.  No one likes to be criticized, we turn sour and nasty at the sound of it.  And Nietzsche spares no one, including a himself.  All and none.   So if one isn’t ready for criticism of one’s self, culture/religion, and existence, you just might throw the book into the fire as many have in the past.

The Title:

There are several different essays that Walter Kaufmann has written about that includes info on the title, but I’ll sum up what it means in my own version.

Zarathustra was, as you may know, the prophet of Zoroastrianism, an ancient Persian religion.  The key reason for this character is the declaration of the separation of evil, Angra Maiynu, from the all-good universal creator god, Ahura Mazda.  Zarathustra of Persia prophesied that Ahura Mazda will ultimately overcome and the cycle will renew once again.

This is an important choice for Nietzsche for many reasons.  Philosophically speaking, the Zoroastrian Cycle can be likened to Eternal Recurrence which is, simply put:  Matter is finite, time is infinite, thus everything occurs and recurs infinitely.  Eternal Recurrence is an ancient notion that Nietzsche paid homage to.  The Greek concept of ‘loving one’s fate’, amor fati, is expressed in this excerpt from The Gay Science.

I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who make things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love henceforth! I do not want to wage war against what is ugly. I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse those who accuse. Looking away shall be my only negation. And all in all and on the whole: someday I wish to be only a Yes-sayer.

This is idea part of the backbeat in Zarathustra.  In my own view, this is an element that keeps Nietzsche weirdly positive, in perspective.  I’ll mention this now and probably bring it up later many times, Nietzsche was not a fan of nihilism, at all.  This is important, I feel, because many/most of the suggestions made by Zarathustra are meant to advise one to destroy their cultural/moral constructs through and through, but drastically unlike nihilism, he gives concrete solutions.  This is a major difference between him and his major influence, Arthur Schopenhauer.

Consider this bit from The Gay Science:

“What if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more’ … Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.’ ” 

This isn’t a huge philosophical revelation in terms of Philosophy, but this is a major theme that addresses the metaphysical issue in Thus Spoke Zarathustra.  This is also important because it shows us, in my opinion, why Nietzsche chose to use the symbols he did.  The symbols aren’t just Persian, they’re human.  We see them in all ancient religions, Hinduism and Jainism, Greek and Germanic.   The eagle and the serpent.  The sun and moon.  All these basic things important to our existence as humans.

I’ll try to point out all these gems that might get overlooked if one is getting sucked into the childish beauty of Nietzsche’s prose.  And hopefully, this excerpt helped you begin this journey, my friends who needed the push to dive into this murky book.

The next post will cover Zarathustra’s Prologue which I believe is the most important part of this book.

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