Zarathustra’s Prologue: 1
Right away, on the first page of Zarathustra’s Prologue, there is a lot of depth that may not be seen on the first read.
There is reference to the “real” Zarathustra of Persia, as Graham Parkes has pointed out from older texts, this being the thirty year old going to the mountains near a lake. There are also similarities with Jesus, Buddha, and Nietzsche himself.
Nietzsche was going on forty midway through writing Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and he spent years in the Swiss Alps near a lake in small dimly-lit rooms that could be likened to a cave.
This cave in the mountains near a lake with the sun shining is also the place where the book ends, at the beginning, a nod at Eternal Recurrence.
We get our first gem of Existentialism with this first line of monologue – “You great star, what would your happiness be had you not those for whom you shine?”
This is the meaning of life that Nietzsche supports throughout the book. Nietzsche was big fan of Schopenhauer, who was a true pessimist, but Nietzsche made his break. He offers the solution in that first monologue for the dire problem with Nihilism. What would a human’s happiness be without those he/she helps? Same for Zarathustra. What’s the use of his wisdom and knowledge?
The snake and the eagle are Zarathustra’s friends. There is the obvious connection of Good and Evil there. But this goes deeper, and I believe Nietzsche understood this, since he was philologist, he knew many ancient religious texts. Even if he didn’t, he made the connection to worldwide symbolism that each culture treats them differently.
In Zoroastrianism, like Abrahamic religions, the snake is evil and the eagle is good. Zarathustra at this point, coming out of his cave and greeting the sun, is ready to correct a mistake he had made; dividing the world in two, good and evil.
There is also another thing to consider here at the cave. From The Gay Science, Nietzsche says this about Buddha’s Shadow.
After Buddha was dead, his shadow was still shown for centuries in a cave – a tremendous, gruesome shadow. God is dead; but given the way of men, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown. -And we- we still have to vanquish his shadow, too.
We should also consider the story of Buddha and his shadow as I feel it is relevant. Buddha tamed a destructive dragon in a cave named after Naga Gopala (‘naga’ means snake), a shepherd in a past life, bent on revenge for a slight against him. The dragon, essentially, is part eagle and serpent. These are important elements that exist in human myth and psychology, and I feel Nietzsche intentionally put this vast depth into Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
There is a tricky German word here that is very important to the meaning of this book’s philosophy. Here’s a list of the meanings of untergehen:
- to sink
- to perish
- to go down
- to founder
- to be destroyed
The cup is also an important symbol with many mythical meanings, but there is an obvious one I think of in regards to philosophy. That’s the difference of perception of reality, the old cliché of ‘the cup being half-empty or half-full.’ In Zarathustra’s case, it’s overfull.
Zarathustra’s Prologue: 2
“Zarathustra left alone”, without his two friends, serpent and eagle, good and evil. This is important.
“Do you not fear being punished as an arsonist?” The reference to the phoenix, bird of fire and born of ashes, has many relative meanings, such as Eternal Recurrence itself or simpler, the creation and destruction of the self as a human during one’s lifetime.
The saint says, “Does he not walk like a dancer?” Two things come to mind. Nietzsche’s famous aphorism – “Life’s a dance.” And Shiva’s cosmic dance, the dance of creative destruction, or one full turn of the cosmic wheel, not sure if Nietzsche had this in mind.
The saint could be any saint of any religion. There is a criticism here of such saintly-hood; it is a purely selfish act to have wisdom and enjoy it only for oneself, like the sun shining for itself.
The saint is also the bearer of God’s Shadow, the one that lives on after its death, like Buddha’s shadow.
Zarathustra’s Prologue: 3
In English, our word is ‘tightrope walker’. In German, it is ‘seiltanzer’, or literally in English, rope-dancer. This is one of the times I agree with Common’s translation. The rope-dancer is symbolic of one who balances through life, and the rope is the fine line between Good and Evil. This is the problem with mankind that Zarathustra wants to bring to light, and since Zarathustra brought this dichotomy to mankind, he would like to be rid of it.
Nietzsche uses one of the words for ghost, ‘gespenst’, which is the more literal form which differs from the other ‘geist’ which holds more weight with this book. I’m not sure what he meant by ‘plant’ and ‘ghost’. But it could be simply a reference to evolution, since Nietzsche did admire Darwin, with the final stage evolution of an intellectual person of the time to become a ‘ghost’, or hyperbolically, a scary apparition left behind to haunt the earth, say in books and critical thinking.
In this section, we are introduced with ‘übermensch’, the translation of this word, ‘superman’, has been used and abused so Kaufman uses ‘overman’ and Parkes uses ‘overhuman’.
The symbol of lightning is also an ancient and universal symbol for the heavens and sky-gods. Not a coincidence here, nor do I think that there are any symbolic accidents in this book. Nietzsche was well versed in many theological texts of the world. It is no surprise that the overman is lightning.
Zarathustra’s Prologue: 4
There are many or these “I love him…” lines that represent some of Nietzsche’s aphoristic style of philosophy.
One of my favorites:
“I love him who is abashed when the dice fall to make his fortune, and asks, ‘Am I a crooked gambler?” For he wants to perish.
I appreciate this concept, it reminds me of the ubiquitous and overused maxim of Nietzsche’s “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Ignoring the pop music references, we can interpret to mean that suffering promotes growth. As humans we know this to be true in abstract and in spirit (Nietzschean sense of the word). Certainly there are things of suffering that do not make you stronger physically such as frostbite and sunstroke, but spiritually you can become the better for it.
I could dissect many more of these, but I’ll move along.
He closes with the reference to the overman as lightning again of which Zarathustra is the herald.