Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Monday, February 02, 2015

NIETZSCHE: Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Nietzsche and the Great Books)

Some random thoughts on Nietzsche and some of our recent Great Books readings.

The Bible.  Ecclesiastes.  The Preacher did great things.  He tried to become Nietzsche’s Over-man.  Instead of living by society’s rules he did whatever he wanted.  But this philosophy didn’t work for him.  In the end the Preacher concludes: “Then I commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry: for that shall abide with him of his labour the days of his life, which God giveth him under the sun.”  This is the kind of thinking Nietzsche despised as mediocrity.   

Sophocles.  Oedipus the King.  Oedipus tried hard to live by society’s rules.  He believed in the Greek gods and he tried hard to avoid the awful fate of killing his father and marrying his mother.  But the will of the gods proved stronger than the will of Oedipus.  Everything the oracles predicted came true.  Killing your father was a Greek taboo.  Marrying your mother was a Greek taboo.  Nietzsche wrote that the Over-man is “the man who breaks their tables of values, the breaker, the lawbreaker…”  The Over-man isn’t bound by laws and taboos.  So what, he says.  But Sophocles doesn’t agree with Nietzsche.  When Oedipus finds out what he’s done he blinds himself.  For Sophocles it’s important to respect the laws of man and have proper reverence for the gods.           

Freud.  On Dreams.  In general Freud agrees with Nietzsche’s analysis of the psychology of religion.  Freud wrote, “prescientific men had no difficulty in finding an explanation of dreams… it was either a favorable or a hostile manifestation by higher powers, demonic and divine… all this ingenious mythology was transformed into psychology and today only a small minority of educated people doubt that dreams are a product of the dreamer’s own mind.”  And it’s not just dreams.  Freud and Nietzsche agree that religion is also a product of the believer’s own mind.

Goethe.  Faust, Part One.  Faust would make an excellent candidate to become a disciple of Zarathustra.  In Goethe’s play Faust says, “There’s nothing we can know!  And that’s what eats my heart out… I’m not afraid of Hell or the Devil…  Not even a dog would go on living this way!  So I have turned, instead, to Magic.”  Replace the word Magic with Zarathustra and Faust would be well on his way to becoming an Over-man trainee.

Kant.  First Principles of Morals.  Nietzsche would not approve.  Kant wrote, “Act as if the maxim of thy action were to become by thy will a universal law of nature.”  In other words, what if everybody did it?  He goes on, “We will now enumerate a few duties, adopting the usual division of them into duties to ourselves and to others…”  It would be hard to find a better example of what Nietzsche calls the herd mentality.

Flaubert.  A Simple Heart.  Felicite is a better example of Nietzsche’s herd mentality.  She goes to church daily but understands very little about religion: “Of dogma she understood nothing; did not even try to understand.”  And yet she kept on going, year after year.  When Felicite considered Jesus “she wept when she heard the story of the Passion.  How could they have crucified him like that?”  But Nietzsche wrote: “He died too early; he himself would have recanted his teaching, had he reached my age.” 


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