Book Summaries Philosophy

On Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra Summary

Leo Strauss was a German-American political philosopher, and in this book records his oral commentary of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

Chapter 1: Introduction (Nietzsche’s Philosophy, Existentialism, and the Problem of Our Age)

There is a connection between Nietzsche and fascism. Although Nietzsche was not a fascist, his philosophy is an extreme version of conservatism, and fascism was the inevitable result of this.

There is a view that nature could be bad, but that reason cannot be bad. This is reflected in Hobbes, he begins with a state of nature, where man is pre-social, and man’s life is nasty, brutish, and short. Man is, by nature, evil. Nature has dissociated from man, and since nature is bad, it is something to be overcome.

Rousseau’s idea was that man is a brute, stupid animal, who is not naturally rational, but can become rational. He called this potential “perfectibility” or malleability.

Chapter 2: Restoring Nature as Ethical Principle

Nietzsche said there were two different kinds of truths: objective and subjective. Science is concerned with objective truths, but this does not give us the real content of history, it only gives us the outside. The true understanding can only be gained as a subjective truth gained through experience.

Zarathustra was a both the wooer of truth and a madman or poet. What sets Nietzsche apart from other existentialists was his admiration for the Greeks. The Greeks saw culture as idealized nature, or perfected nature.

But here, there is a problem that has never been solved. And it is: the truth about man and justice must have the character of a free project, but this goal of man must be rooted in nature.

But why should we assume that nature can give us this standard? Is it not just a dogmatic idea that the Greeks had, or is there a necessity to return to nature as the guiding principle for this problem?

Objective truth, which is found in science, is ethically neutral. The only project that can give meaning to life is subjective.

Who is Zarathustra?

Zarathustra was the founder of a religion, and Nietyzsche’s Zarathustra was the founder of a religion beyond Christianity and the Bible. There is an imitation of the Bible that is ironic, and there is a faith that is half serious, which is expressed in Zarathustra’s speeches. But this would seem inevitable, since Nietzsche was a philosopher, and a philosopher cannot be the founder of a religion.

To Zarathustra, a God who created a world with heaven and hell cannot be a perfect God. This marks the beginning of the death of God, and the start of Nietzsche’s atheism. The implication of this is that all love must be love of men.

The Last Man

Nietzsche describes the lowest form of man, who is content with a life where all men must be the same, and one concerns themselves only with the mundane. This was made possible by the death of God. But the death of God also makes it possible for superman to emerge.

Zarathustra does not love man as he is but loves his potential. Man must move away from the brutes, but not towards pure spirituality. If men believe in God, they will long for the other life, and not this one. They are filled with a sense of sin, and mistakenly see themselves as good.

Man is something that must be overcome. That is how one becomes the superman: a Caesar with the soul of Christ.

Thus, Nietzsche posits two extremes of the human experience, the highest and lowest. The highest is the Superman, the lowest is the Last Man.

Zarathustra talks about three stages: the first is when man is obedient to “thou shalt.” The second is revolt and culminates in nihilism (Nothing is true, everything is permitted). The third, the stage of the Superman, is beyond revolt and is once again positive.

The creation of new values is marked by the child. Why the child? There is no revolt, and there is no awareness of the past. There is oblivion. In this sense, creation is radically new.

The creation of new values does not serve an old purpose, these new values define the purpose. Creation is purposeless, it is like a game, but the realization that it is guided by nothing, that the old values have failed, is enough to create new values. Another reason to create new values is the consequence of the failure of the old values (The Last Man).

Chapter 3: The Creative Self

It is critical to understand the last man to understand why Nietzsche cared so much about the antithesis of the last man.

To live, securely and happily, and protected but unregulated, is man’s simple but supreme goal. This is what Nietzsche means by the last man: the death of the state, no government of men but only administration of things. The human race concerns itself only with production and consumption. The creativity of man goes on but takes place under the parameters of production and consumption. Art loses its original meaning.

The consequence of the death of God is that mean is unprotected and exposed. Suffering remains. Change occurs through the progress of technical civilization, but men become shallower because of the infinite destruction that takes place. There is no one to tell man what to do, or what is right and wrong. Man becomes concerned only with entertainment, and with exciting and stimulating things.

The death of God first leads towards the last man, and then to nihilism.

The Three Metamorphoses in Symbols

The first is the camel: belief in the living God as the most perfect being. Men’s greatness is in his obedience.

The second is the lion: the revolt stimulated by the Christian conscience, which becomes “intellectual probity” and turns against the faith. The danger is the abandonment of everything superhuman – a life where the last man is an object of disgust, nihilistic, or has no goal at all. “Men will rather will nothing than not will at all.” The nihilist wills nothingness.

The third is the child: the creation of new values. Instead of “though shalt” or “I will”, the formula becomes “I am.” The creation of new values requires chaos in the soul, and not peace in the soul, as advanced by the Last man ethic. Creativity, in general, can only come from a mind that is in chaos.

“I am” implies a connection to the Self, the core of man’s personality. This is where meaning originates, not the ego. The ego lives in the world of roles and universals, what is common to all men. But the Self is essentially elusive, unlike the ego. The self is the productive core of man and is inseparable from the body. Each person has a different spirituality that is unique to their physical constitution.

Unlike Freud, Nietzsche thought that the subconscious can never be made fully conscious. This implies that psychoanalysis is a science or claims to be a science, but science moves towards infinite knowledge, but since the subconscious can never be made fully conscious, there can never be final scientific knowledge about the human mind.

Further, the self and the id is creative, according to Nietzsche. The soul takes the place of a mysterious God – thus, in that sense, it becomes the self. The self can be thought of the abyss of freedom of the soul. Creativity means the ability to produce the unpredictable.

“Once you suffered passions and called them evil. But now you have only your virtues left: they grew out of your passions. You commended your highest goal to the heart of these passions: then they become your virtues and passions you enjoyed.”

Nietzsche says “your highest goal” not “the highest goal” which means that the highest goal must be defined by the individual. Virtue is sublimated passion towards the individual’s highest goal. This definition is different from Freud’s.

Chapter 4: The Individual as the Highest Goal

For Nietzsche, man is a rope over an abyss. But the criticism to this is that, if man must will his own values, and that each person has different values, then does not Nietzsche contradict himself? Since he says that man is a rope over an abyss, he sets a standard by which to act, thus he must act with the knowledge that he is “a rope over an abyss” and does not really choose his own values. But Nietzsche would argue that something that is imposed by nature cannot be a value.

Nietzsche says that objective (or scientific) knowledge rests on hypothetical suppositions, and if this is true, then all knowledge is ultimately hypothetical. Then what is the value of these hypotheses relative to others? The popular view asserts that these hypotheses must be judged by their capacity to enable men to predict phenomena with accuracy. But why is this a criterion rather than simply a dogmatic assumption? Why shouldn’t the hypothesis be judged according to what it does for the highest in man, rather than man’s controlling man?

Chapter 5: Postulated Nature and Final Truth

As Nietzsche put it, he looks at science from the perspective of art, and at art from the perspective of life.

This is a value judgement, many would say, but is the view of science as predictive also not a value judgment? Furthermore, to say that man needs science for survival in the age of the nuclear bomb and other threats from technology may also be a value judgement. Man may survive much better without science.

Nietzsche refuses to acknowledge that objective truth is needed, and this is linked with his refusal to believe that there is an essential difference between men and brutes. If men are different from brutes, in that they are rational, then there is a need for objective truth.

Nietzsche does well to criticize social scientists, and points to flaws in the social sciences, but he still must contend with the Ancient Greeks, which he does in the second part of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “On the Chairs of Virtue.”

Nietzsche caricatures traditional moral doctrine by suggesting that the goal of that doctrine is sleep. Virtue, according to the Ancient Greeks, is something like moderation, quiet contemplation. But for Nietzsche, creativity opposes this, and it presupposes the opposite of peace, chaos.

Chapter 6: Truth, Interpretation and Intelligibility

Nietzsche opposes equality, since he believes that the highest development of the individual can come from dissimilarity. Inequality is a necessary condition for high achievement. This is contrast to Marx’s vision, which is of a society of plenty, where no individual should do low chores, and everyone can lead a life of leisure. 

Nietzsche’s vision of the last man is guiding what is called the social sciences.

There is a conflict between technocracy and democracy. If science becomes the authority on a subject, then it is not the people that are the decision makers but the scientist. Economics as a science is not enough to make the individual well-off since there are many people who have wealth and security but commit suicide. So then, the crowning science, that makes men more balanced, and normal, must be psychoanalysis.

There is an example of a student who was frustrated because he felt like a cog in a machine, and that he could not do what he wanted to do as a political scientist. He went to a therapist; his worries went away. But is he better off? He isn’t worried, but he has lost the values that gave his life meaning.

Chapter 7: Will to Power and Self-Overcoming

Has the doctrine of the will to power become conscious in Nietzsche, or is the doctrine a direct expression of Nietzsche’s own will to power? In any case, unlike other philosophical ideas, this one does not claim to be objectively true.

There is a difference between contemplative knowledge and creative knowledge. Nietzsche understands, unlike the contemplative philosophers who seek the truth no matter how ugly, that at the root of his will to truth is his will to power.

There are three men who determine modern man, as described in Nietzsche’s Untimely Meditations.

Rousseau is the tarantula, the preacher of equality, and is thus rejected from the start.

Goethe is rejected for being too contemplative and too concerned with preserving.

Schopenhauer is the true educator, but the true Schopenhauer is the pessimist, who was also rejected at the beginning.

Nietzsche characterized modern morality and the biblical tradition as “the spirit of resentment.” He has linked the egalitarian revolution to the spirit of revenge. In a vulgar, it bas been said that the poor are envious of the rich.

Nietzsche believes that an egalitarian society cannot be made of supermen, that the dynamic of inequality is an eternal one, and is a part of the order of nature.

Chapter 8: Summary and Review (Fusing Plato and the Creative Self)

Nietzsche criticizes communism for the same reason it was created, “God is Dead.” This death is the greatest event in the life of man and is his supreme crisis.

Communism stipulates that the freedom of man will be the precursor to his creativity, whereas Nietzsche thinks that freedom is utterly incompatible with creativity.

The superman has a creative consciousness and knows that values are created by man, and not by gods or nature.

Philosophy is the spiritual form of the will to power.

All thinkers before Nietzsche share a common feature, they all think that their ideas are the absolute truth. But Nietzsche knows that all knowledge, even his own, is perceptivity.

The great creative act is not to compose a poem or music, but to create a value system.

Life has no direction, it is meaningless. It is a specific type of man that finds meaning in this void, it is an expression of their will to power.

Chapter 9: Greek Philosophy and the Bible (Nature and History)

Positivism leads to an abyss of freedom, and it is one that cannot be described or measured, other than to call it “existentialism.”

Higher notions of life were made possible because of Greek texts and the Bible.

Chapter 10: Eternal Recurrence

The French Revolution had failed to show that democracy was a stable solution, it was necessary to use the U.S as a model.

According to Tocqueville, people who are guided by what others think and do, rather than stand on their own feet, is the biggest danger of democracy, while the aristocracy was better for the development of rugged individualism.

Chapter 11: Survey (Nietzsche and Political Philosophy)

Man is guided by nous (reason) and logos (true speech). Thus, man is social by nature, but that does not mean that man is nice. Even the greatest criminal is social, or rather antisocial, but never asocial.

Chapter 12: The Goodness of the Whole

Nietzsche says that “Nature is always valueless.” But if the most comprehensive truth is deadly, how can we live? The first answer is to live in delusion, in the world of appearance. To say that science should be rejected in the name of art.

This answer has been accepted in some parts of Europe (not the Anglo-Saxon parts) but Nietzsche is not satisfied with it. He thinks it is impossible to live under a delusion, that intellectual honesty imposes itself – we must accept the ugly truth.

The self-preservation of man can only be possible when conditions are good.

Chapter 13: Creative Contemplation

True contemplation is nature, and nature, in its fullness is by virtue of true contemplation.

Animals are an expression of the eternal return. Nietzsche insists that we must return to the nature of animals. If animals could use language, they would tell us how to live without suffering, to accept each moment as the center, and despite the peaks and valleys, to accept the eternal return. Animals can accept this because they are cruel, but is man not cruel? In fact, man is the cruelest animal.

Thus the superman must be evil, but what he means by evil here is simply what is different from tradition. What is ‘good’ is what is in line with tradition. The superman must be evil, he must deviate from what is conventional in the most extreme way.

When applied to science, this approach becomes problematic, because science is no longer seen as the answer to all previous worldviews but becomes a comprehensive worldview itself. Is science not a human phenomenon? It does not exist in a vacuum, it is part of the historical process of man, and is the myth of a certain kind of man. It is, of course, superior than other myths because of its standard for truth. Is this standard intrinsically right? This is point made in Spengler’s Decline of the West.

Chapter 14: Restoring the Sacred and the Final Question

The doctrine of the will to power is an attempt to understand history.

Leo Strauss on Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra (The Leo Strauss Transcript Series)On Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra Summary 1

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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