Friedrich Nietzsche was born in 1844 in Rocken, Germany, the son of a Lutheran minister. His father went insane and died while Nietzsche was quite young, and he grew up the only boy in a household of women. He was an excellent student, and so impressed his professor at university that he was granted a doctorate and a professorship in philology at the age of twenty-four, before he had even written a dissertation. At this time, he was deeply impressed with the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and Arthur Schopenhauer, though he would later come to criticize both these figures.
In 1870, the young Nietzsche served as a medical orderly in the Franco-Prussian War, where he contracted dysentery, diphtheria, and perhaps syphilis. He suffered from increasing ill health, migraines, indigestion, insomnia, and near blindness for the rest of his life.
While the Germany of Nietzsche's day was marked by an unbridled optimism in the future of science, knowledge, and the German people, Nietzsche characterized his age as "nihilistic." The Christian faith no longer held sway over European thought as it once had (a fact Nietzsche famously expresses in the phrase "God is dead"), and the rise of science and Darwinian evolution had led people to see the world increasingly as a meaningless and chaotic jumble. Nietzsche recognized the need for a set of positive values to direct the energy and will of Europe. Prophetically, he predicted that if European nihilism were to run unchecked, the following century would see wars of a kind this earth had never before experienced.
Nietzsche's first book, The Birth of Tragedy, was published in 1872, in which he praised the composer Richard Wagner, whom he had befriended. Nietzsche's admiration for Wagner cooled during the 1870s, largely owing to Wagner's anti-Semitism, nationalism, and Christianity. Because of Wagner's early influence, and also the influence of Nietzsche's sister, who was also a virulent nationalist and anti-Semite, Nietzsche was particularly outspoken against German nationalism and anti-Semitism (not to mention Christianity) throughout his career.
Nietzsche's mature period began with the publication of Human, All-Too- Human in 1878, and culminated with Thus Spoke Zarathustra, published in four parts between 1883 and 1885. Nietzsche wrote each of the first three parts in ten-day spurts, while living alone in modest conditions and battling horrendous ill health. They were each published separately, and the fourth part did not reach the general public until 1892. While his writing and thinking were incredibly energetic, he was miserably lonely and continued to suffer from indigestion, migraines, and insomnia.
As Nietzsche's health quickly declined, his writing became more and more prolific. He wrote ##Beyond Good and Evil##, ##On The Genealogy of Morals##, The Twilight of the Idols, The Antichrist, Ecce Homo, The Case of Wagner, and Nietzsche Contra Wagner between 1886 and 1888. In January 1889 he collapsed in the street and became insane. He remained in an incapacitated state for the last eleven years of his life, and died in 1900.
Nietzsche's sister was his literary executor, and she used her brother's fame to advance her own proto-Nazi views, distorting Nietzsche's opinions and publishing selectively to make Nietzsche seem to support her cause. For the first half of the twentieth century, Nietzsche was largely misconstrued as being the primary philosopher of Nazism even though he is quite explicit about his hatred for German nationalism and anti-Semitism in many of his writings.
Nietzsche has influenced twentieth-century thought more than almost any other thinker has. He has been an inspiration to almost every new movement in European philosophy in this century, and his critiques and methodology were far ahead of his time. Among those who owe a debt to Nietzsche are Martin Heidegger, Michel Foucault, Thomas Mann, George Bernard Shaw, W. B. Yeats, ##James Joyce, Jacques Derrida, Sigmund Freud, and Jean-Paul Sartre.
The novel opens with Zarathustra descending from his cave in the mountains after ten years of solitude. He is brimming with wisdom and love, and wants to teach humanity about the overman. He arrives in the town of the Motley Cow, and announces that the overman must be the meaning of the earth. Mankind is just a bridge between animal and overman, and as such, must be overcome. The overman is someone who is free from all the prejudices and moralities of human society, and who creates his own values and purpose.
The people on the whole seem not to understand Zarathustra, and not to be interested in the overman. The only exception is a tightrope walker who has fallen and who dies shortly thereafter. At the end of his first day among people, Zarathustra is saddened by his inability to move this "herd" of people in the marketplace. He resolves not to try to convert the multitudes, but rather to speak to those individuals who are interested in separating themselves from the herd.
The bulk of the first three parts is made up of individual lessons and sermons delivered by Zarathustra. They cover most of the general themes of Nietzsche's mature philosophy, though often in highly symbolic and obscure form. He values struggle and hardship, since the road toward the overman is difficult and requires a great deal of sacrifice. The struggle toward the overman is often symbolically represented as climbing a mountain, and the light-hearted free spirit of the overman is often represented through laughter and dance.
Zarathustra is harshly critical of all kinds of mass movements, and of the "rabble" in general. Christianity is based upon a hatred of the body and of this earth, and an attempt to deny them both by believing in the spirit and in an afterlife. Nationalism and mass politics are also means by which weary, weak, or sick bodies try to escape from themselves. Those who are strong enough, Zarathustra suggests, struggle. Those who are not strong give up and turn to religion, nationalism, democracy, or some other means of escape.
The culmination of Zarathustra's preaching is the doctrine of the eternal recurrence, which claims that all events will repeat themselves again and again forevermore. Only the overman can embrace this doctrine, since only the overman has the strength of will to take responsibility for every moment in his life and to wish nothing more than for each moment to be repeated. Zarathustra has trouble facing the eternal recurrence, as he cannot bear the thought that the mediocrity of the rabble will be repeated through all eternity without improvement.
In Part IV, Zarathustra assembles in his cave a number of men who approximate, but who do not quite attain the position of the overman. There, they enjoy a feast and a number of songs. The book ends with Zarathustra joyfully embracing the eternal recurrence, and the thought that "all joy wants deep, wants deep eternity."
Zarathustra - Zarathustra was a Persian prophet (called "Zoroaster" by the Greeks, and most of the Western world) who lived and preached in the fifth century B.C.E. He was the first philosopher to conceive of a universe that is fundamentally defined by a struggle between good and evil. Nietzsche uses him as his protagonist, since, Nietzsche supposes, the first prophet to preach about good and evil should also be the first to move beyond good and evil. In the book, Zarathustra preaches about the overman who has moved beyond the concepts of good and evil, and has embraced the eternal recurrence. It is unclear whether or not Nietzsche means Zarathustra himself to be an overman, though if this is the case, he only becomes so in the fourth part of the book, when he finally embraces the eternal recurrence.
Overman - The goal of humanity. The overman is someone who has overcome himself fully: he obeys no laws except the ones he gives himself. This means a level of self- mastery that frees him from the prejudices and assumptions of the people around him, a creative will, and a strong will to power. Zarathustra suggests that no overman has yet existed, but that we must try to breed one. As a race, we are only justified by the exceptional people among us.
Nihilism - Essentially, nihilism means the belief in nothing. Nietzsche characterized late nineteenth century Europe as nihilistic, and would probably consider the late twentieth century even more so. He generalizes that we no longer believe that God gives meaning and purpose to our lives, but we have found nothing to replace God. As such, we see our lives as essentially meaningless, and lack the will to create or to become anything new. Nietzsche worried that without a purpose we would slide deeper and deeper into a dream world of mediocrity and comfort. He also rightly foresaw that nihilism might lead to a rabid nationalism that would cause horrific wars.
Eternal Recurrence - The doctrine that all events will be repeated over and over again for all eternity. Zarathustra outlines his vision of the eternal recurrence in Part III: If the past stretches back infinitely, then anything that could have happened must have happened already at some time in the past. By that logic, this very instant must have occurred at some time in the past. And similarly, if the future is infinite, everything—including this moment—must recur again sometime in the future. Walter Kaufmann reads this as a scientific hypothesis that is mistaken. Gilles Deleuze reads this as a fundamental expression of the fact that the universe is in a constant state of change and becoming, and that there is no moment of fixity, or being. Nietzsche would probably agree with Deleuze. The overman can look at his past and himself as something entirely willed by himself, and be delighted by the thought that this process (which includes changes) will recur forever.
Dance - Nietzsche often uses dancing as a metaphor for a lightness of spirit. Those who are too serious, and too bogged down by absolutes, such as God, truth, or morality, will be unable to dance. An overman, or a free spirit, who has freed himself from these absolutes will not be weighed down by any seriousness, and will be able to dance. Dancing also metaphorically suggests a kind of mental flexibility and agility that allows a creative spirit to think freely and for himself.
Will to Power - Nietzsche calls the fundamental force that drives all life a "will to power," though he might just as well call it an instinct for freedom. It is the drive to be as free from constraints as possible and to command the wills of others as much as possible. A refined will to power also learns to command and obey itself. The constant struggle for power and overcoming between wills means that nothing in the universe can remain fixed in place for long. Thus, all the universe is in flux.
Overcoming - The words "overcoming" and "overman" are only two of a number of "over-" words that appear throughout Zarathustra. The concept of overcoming is probably the most central, however. Any improvement in a person is made at the expense of what that person used to be. Thus, in order to improve myself, I must learn to overcome myself. In ##Beyond Good and Evil##, Nietzsche speaks of humans as being part creature and part creator, and that our refinement consists in the fact that the creator in us can torture and re-shape the creature in us. The overman is someone who has fully overcome himself so that he can claim to be all creator and in no way a creature: he is fully responsible for everything he is.
Nausea - In Zarathustra, the feeling of nausea, or disgust, is usually associated with contemplating the common people. In particular, Zarathustra has a hard time in part three facing the full consequences of the eternal recurrence, because he is overcome with nausea at the thought that the mediocrity of humanity must recur eternally without change.
Evil - This word is often given a meaning contrary to what we normally take it to mean. Something is "evil" only within the context of a given morality. In particular, anything that challenges or tries to destroy a morality is considered "evil" by that morality. Thus, for Zarathustra, "evil" is quite often good. It means doing away with older moralities in favor of something new. He often associates evil with freedom of spirit, and claims that it is essential to creating the higher man.
Laughter - Like dancing, laughter is a common characteristic of the overman. Nietzsche considers laughter to be the activity of someone looking down on someone or something else. As such, it denotes superiority. The overman has risen above everything and everybody, so there is nothing, including himself, that he does not laugh at.
Pity - One of Nietzsche's, and Zarathustra's, pet peeves. A person who shows pity is displaying a perverse and inappropriate amount of interest in the suffering of others. Furthermore, pity harms the person who is suffering, as it makes the sufferer feel pitiful and shamed.