Book Review: “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” by Friedrich Nietzsche


Okay, before the fun (?) starts rolling (?) on this one, it’s confession time. The original book is four volumes long, so I read a boiled-down version in the “Penguin 60s Classics” series which comes in under 100 pages. I make no apologies about this. Firstly,  I don’t think I missed much of the “plot” by doing this (basically, the prophet Zarathustra comes down from the mountain he’s been living on for ten years, delivers speeches on various topics to various people and groups, wins over some disciples, then buggers off again), and as far as I can tell the editing process didn’t radically distort the author’s views.

Secondly, the Superman doesn’t make apologies.

So does a work by a late 19th century German philosopher count as any kind of MachoLit? Portrait_of_Friedrich_Nietzsche

Well, I think the moustache he sports in the portrait above answers that question in itself. And if you don’t think Herr Nietzsche’s facial hair was manly enough, there are his…er…retro views on women.”Man should be trained for war and woman for the recreation of the warrior: all else is folly.” “Are you visiting women? Do not forget your whip!” – both from “Thus Spoke Zarathustra.”  THE PROBLEMATICNESS!

Hell, there’s even a Mike Cernovich connection with the book. His website, Danger and Play, appears to be named after another of its aphorisms  – “The true man wants two things – danger and play.” I promise you, I had absolutely no idea about that before I started reading.

Really though, the rampant misogyny to be found in these pages is more or less by the way. “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” is basically “Friedrich Nietzsche’s Meaning of Life.” And that meaning can be summarised as follows: God is dead. He was only ever a creation of humanity anyway, and the Judeo-Christian God was the creation of a slave mentality, invented by the weak who despised their physical reality and longed for death. Christian virtues, and indeed all the modern secular ideals that are indebted to them, liberalism, socialism, democracy and so on, are thus life-detracting, obsessed with holding back any who would rise above the herd and ultimately creating in those who believe only a willingness to die.

Against this, Nietschze proposes The Superman, a solitary man (as the quotes on women above might suggest, this is pretty much a boy’s club), who is prepared to rise above the herd, keep pursuing the way upward and live by a life-enhancing morality that goes beyond good and evil as we understand them. Don’t love your neighbour, love the person most distant from you, and above all, love yourself.

As a vision of life, it has been an enormously influential one. Every edgy teen who posts a video on YouTube about his atheism and how much he hates everyone around him has Nietzsche among his spiritual ancestors (probably unknowingly on his part and unwillingly on Nietzsche’s – “the youth loves immaturely and immaturely too he hates man and the earth” is also from “Thus Spoke Zarathustra.”) The book inspired Richard Strauss to write his tone poem with the same title, and so, of course, to provide music for “2001: A Space Odyssey.”  The whole idea of superhuman beings, and so all of the comic book and film superheroes ever, also owes a debt to Nietzsche. It isn’t a coincidence that one of the most famous of them ended up with the same name as his ideal human.

This kind of wide popular influence is rare in a major philosopher. People often (rightly) quote Bertrand Russell’s unfavourable views on Nietzsche, but then no-one was ever inspired to turn Russell’s philosophy into a comic. There just isn’t as much inherent drama in “deriving the whole of arithmetic from pure logic” as there is in “The Superman.” Analytic philosophy, for long the dominant school in the English-speaking world, tends to be very sniffy about Nietzsche (and his European successors), but, face it guys – he sells more books than you.

Partly that’s because Nietzsche addresses topics non-philosophers actually care about – the “meaning of life” stuff as opposed to the “how does logic work?” stuff. Partly it’s in his style. I’ve already quoted from”Thus Spoke Zarathustra” several times, and that’s because it is deliberately written to be highly quotable. Nietzsche wrote in aphorisms – he actually defends doing this at one point – and the result is a book that, as the schoolboy said about “Hamlet”, is full of quotes. You can sneer at him posing as the prophet coming down from the mountain to preach wisdom all you like, but you can’t deny it’s an effective literary technique.

And yet, for all this cultural influence, you won’t find many people nowadays who would stand up and declare themselves a Nietzschean. You’d undoubtedly find more who were happy to say they were Marxists, even today. And a lot of that is due to the impact one group I didn’t mention as spiritual descendants of Nietzsche – the Nazi Party. A lot of my summary of Nietzsche’s views above probably sounded, well, kind of fascist, didn’t it? The weak holding back the strong…Christianity/liberalism/socialism, the religion of slaves…forget compassion and pity, you should go out and be about the biggest badass you can…women being inferior to men…supermen.

Well, the Nazis thought so too, and the perception that Nazi Germany was just Nietzsche made flesh had about the same effect on his credibility as the perception that Soviet Russia was just Karl Marx made flesh did for Marx’s. His modern defenders tend to put a lot of effort in trying to de-Nazify him. They point out, mostly correctly, that he was not anti-Semitic or interested making in racial distinctions generally and rather despised the German nationalism of his day, if not Germans in general. The sort of superman he had in mind was more one who had developed himself into a spiritually or intellectually superior being and could thereby give to mankind than a physically or militarily superior one who could conquer it.

There is truth in this. To me, the fascists who adopted Nietzsche as their hero fall into the same camp as some of the fundamentalists who claim Jesus as theirs. They both just go to show how wrong you can go on a literal interpretation. Nietzsche talks about warriors and supermen, and gets interpreted as calling for Germans to go out and wage war on those deemed racially inferior. Jesus makes some fairly vague comments about the end of the world and you end up with various sects of evangelical Protestants each with their own ludicrously detailed version of the End Times (and who don’t talk to the other guys with a slightly different version).

For all that, whilst he may not have been seeking to inspire fascism, Nietzsche did help do so, and you can’t label all the fandom as misaimed. It isn’t much of a step from “our culture’s belief in human equality leads to stifling mediocrity and its belief in fulfilment in a next world leads to a failure to truly live in the one we have” to “So yay for elitism and the pursuit of life through obtaining worldly power”, and Nietzsche cannot be entirely freed of blame for the actions of those who eventually took that step.

Nor is it really possible to water down his anti-religious views. You can reconcile Nietzsche and Christianity  to some extent by seeing him as a necessary corrective to versions of it (like the middle class 19th century Protestantism he was raised in) that really pile on the “never mind what happens to anyone in this life, just wait for pie in the sky when you die.” However, the whole idea of a next world of some kind is central enough to Christianity that in the end you really do have to either choose it or Nietzsche’s worldview.

Perhaps, as on Harry Hill’s TV show, the only solution is to make the two of them fight. Even ignoring the divine aspect, my money would be on Jesus. As Bertrand Russell also pointed out, for a man who advocated being a Superman, Nietzsche in person was a pretty weedy, sickly nerd (Russell did not use that exact word, but he certainly meant it). He did do lots of long Alpine hikes though, so you never know.



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