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Saturday, January 24, 2015

NIETZSCHE: Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Prologue & Aristotle’s Vision)

Friedrich Nietzsche is most famous for one short phrase: “God is dead.”  Besides that, what else does he have to say?  Flaubert spoke by telling a story and Hume spoke through philosophy and reason.  Nietzsche does both.  In Thus Spoke Zarathustra he tells a story with a philosophical flavor.  Zarathustra is an unusual man.  He’s what Nietzsche calls an “overman” or what we might call a super-man.  Zarathustra’s not like us.  He’s stronger than we are and smarter too.  He went up into the mountains for ten years to meditate and then one morning he woke up and it literally dawned on him: “I am weary of my wisdom.”  What wisdom had he discovered after many years of meditation?  He discovered that society’s values are worthless.  The things people say they admire and respect are worthless.  Using Zarathustra’s own words, what does he think of Happiness?  “It is poverty and filth and wretched contentment.”  Reason?  “It is poverty and filth and wretched contentment.”  Virtue?  “…poverty and filth and wretched contentment.”    

Nietzsche knew this would not be a popular message.  In the story he writes, “Behold, I teach you the overman…”  And what was the result”?  “When Zarathustra (Nietzsche) had spoken thus… all the people laughed…”  This was predictable.  Before anyone had ever read the story Nietzsche had already built in his response: “They do not understand me.”  Why not?  It may be because he’s just plain hard to understand; the story is difficult.  But Nietzsche also suspected people wouldn’t want to hear what he had to say.  And he was right.  Most people like comfort; Zarathustra (Nietzsche) has only contempt for bourgeois comfort: “We have invented happiness, say the last men, and they blink.  They have left the regions where it is hard to live, for one needs warmth.  One still loves one’s neighbor and rubs against him, for one needs warmth.”  He thinks this need for neighbors and warmth makes us weak; it keeps us from becoming super-men.  We huddle together for comfort and soon “Everybody wants the same, everybody is the same.”

What is an ordinary person supposed to make of all this?  As Nietzsche says, “Dark is the night, dark are Zarathustra’s ways.”  He’s right.  What do we have in common with a super-man who thinks happiness is only “poverty and filth and wretched contentment?”  Aristotle agrees with Nietzsche that everybody wants to be happy.  But he thinks everybody wants happiness for a good reason: happiness is a good thing to have.  Reason and virtue are also good things to have.  They’re not poverty and filth, as Nietzsche says.  Reason and virtue are values that lead us out of poverty and filth.  They help us to live better lives.  To live better lives we don’t need to go off to the mountains and meditate.  We need to settle down and live with our neighbors.  This is not a weakness.  It’s what human beings were made to do.  A man who lives outside a social network is either a beast or a god.  Aristotle thinks it’s beastly to live outside of society; Zarathustra thinks it’s god-like.  Since “God is dead” Nietzsche thinks we need new super-men to become new gods and create new values.  “To lure many away from the herd” is Nietzsche’s goal.  For Aristotle this is not good.  Man is a social being.  At his core Man is a political being, a creature whose natural habitat is the polis, or city.  Even Nietzsche admits “companions I need, living ones.”  What he objects to is the herd mentality of values.  He wants to create new values and recruit new Zarathustras to join him.  This message appeals to many college students.  That’s why Aristotle says young people aren’t prepared to study politics.  Building society is hard work and needs the very values Nietzsche rejects.


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