My personal investigations of Friedrich Nietzsche’s works have been enlightening yet somehow frightening. My first sample of Nietzsche was a reading assignment for a college German class. We were to read a chapter from Also Sprach Zarathustra: Ein Buch für Alle und Keinen, in the original German. The book was a West German edition, printed in gothic text. Here was not only an intimate scholastic practice of the German language but also to a controversial concept called “Übermensch”.
Following the assignment and resulting essay, I decided to purchase the English edition, Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None so that I could catch the flow of the novel in my native language. The work outlines the mythical travels and philosophical teaching of the prophet, Zarathustra (Zoroaster in English), the founder of Zoroastrianism in Persia.
The reader is presented with the prophet’s thesis of how the fight between good and evil has been transposed into a metaphysical context. Humanity has made this struggle an end unto itself. Nietzsche writes that the prophet Zarathustra was the first to recognize the error of this thinking. Nietzsche’s version of the prophet presents the bravery of truthfulness as the highest of virtues. The polar opposite is shown as the cowardice of the idealist who justifies a flight from reality. The Übermensch is the man who embodies this highest of truthfulness.
“…Behold, I show you the last man. ‘What is love? What is creation? What is longing? What is a star?’ thus asks the last man, and blinks.
The earth has become small, and on it hops the last man, who makes everything small. His race is as ineradicable as the flea; the last man lives longest.
‘We have invented happiness,’say the last men, and they blink. They have left the regions where it was hard to live, for one needs warmth. One still loves one’s neighbor and rubs against him, for one needs warmth…
One still works, for work is a form of entertainment.
But one is careful lest the entertainment be too harrowing. One no longer becomes poor or rich: both require too much exertion.
Who still wants to rule? Who obey? Both require too much exertion. No shepherd and one herd!
Everybody wants the same, everybody is the same: whoever feels different goes voluntarily into a madhouse….” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra- Kaufmann’s translation)
At the time I was absorbing this viewpoint from the book, I was still a spiritual idealist. While I deeply understood what Nietzsche had written, it clashed, at a fundamental level, with my waning adolescence. By the time I finished my reading of the work, I fell into an existential crisis. To my dismay, I discovered that I had a lot of unfinished growing up to do. Also, I had seen my own hidden nihlism and was alarmed. The impact was so profound that I was afraid to pick up any more Nietzsche for more than a decade.
Friedrich Nietzsche was born in a tiny village near Leipzig, Germany called Röcken bei Lützen. He was born on October 15, 1844, the 49th birthday of the Prussian King, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, his namesake. The king had appointed Nietzsche’s father as the town minister of Röcken bei Lützen. Nietzsche’s grandfathers and an uncle were Lutheran ministers. His paternal grandfather was also an esteemed protestant scholar.
When the young Friedrich was around five years of age his father died then, shortly afterwards, his two year old brother also passed away. The remaining family moved to the neighboring village, Naumburg an der Saale, to live with the maternal grandmother. During his teens Nietzsche attended a first class boarding school as he readied himself for university. He led a small cultural club called “Germania”. At this time, Nietzsche fell in love with Richard Wagner’s music.
At the University of Bonn, Nietzsche studied philology which, at that time, was centered upon classical and biblical writings. At age 23 he entered his mandatory military service and was assigned to an equestrian regiment near Naumburg. Once, Nietzsche attempted to leap-mount onto a horse. He suffered a serious chest injury and was placed on sick leave.
During that time, he enrolled at the University of Leipzig and soon met his idol, Richard Wagner. Nietzsche enjoyed a quasi-familial relationship with the fatherly Wagner. Wagner’s sister was married to an Orientalist, Hermann Brockhaus who specialized in Sanskrit and Persian. Brockhaus had just published his edition of the Vendidad Sade. That is a Zoroastrian religious text. Here we have Nietzsche’s introduction to Zarathustra.
In brief, Nietzsche went on to become a philosopher, poet, cultural critic, philologist, writer, and musical composer. His philosophical writings included the dichotomy of Apollonialism and Dionysianism, perspectivism, eternal recurrance and the Übermensch. His influence has continued to be felt in the fields of post-structuralism, postmodernism, and existentialism.
Since my cautious return to studying Nietzsche, I’ve been most interested in his writings on truth and knowledge, values and morals, and the Übermensch. I’ve found that once I got past Nietzsche’s biography, his writings have become an enriching part of how I can analyze the world.
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes Nietzsche, “We are like shop windows in which we are continually arranging, concealing or illuminating the supposed qualities others ascribe to us – in order to deceive ourselves.”