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Nietzsche’s Dance With Zarathustra
In 1885 Nietzsche finished writing Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in which he has the prophet proclaim many Nietzschean ideas in parables and epiphets. Constantine Sandis asks why Nietzsche particularly chose Zarathustra.
In M. Night Shyamalan’s superhero film Unbreakable, the fragile-boned Elijah believes that somewhere out there he has an enemy with the exact opposite property, whom he eventually identifies as the ‘unbreakable’ security guard David Dunn. A similar kind of reasoning led Nietzsche to name the protagonist of his religious parody Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-5) after Zoroaster (‘Zarathustra’ is a Westernised version of the name). Nietzsche viewed the Persian prophet as his arch rival: an opponent of similar power and stature, whom he admired but could never fully overcome. In the character of ‘Zarathustra’, Nietzsche attempts to create his own spokesman worthy of Zoroaster’s greatness. As the psychologist Carl Jung put it in his lectures on Nietzsche’s Zarathustra (1934-9), while it is true that “Nietzsche chose a most dignified and worthy model for his wise old man,” he also took him to be “the founder of the Christian dogma” [of moral objectivity] that Nietzsche so vehemently opposed. He also notes that Zarathustra’s recorded age in Thus Spoke Zarathustra is the same as “the legendary age of Christ when he began his teaching career.”
The Mask of Zoroaster
Jung also suggested that Zarathustra manifests a second personality for Nietzsche, which was perhaps awaiting an opportunity to be expressed. This reading is supported by Nietzsche’s claim that during one of his lakeside walks in Sils-Maria in Switzerland, in July 1881, he experienced a vision concerning Zarathustra and the nature of inspiration. He describes the experience as follows in his posthumously-published autobiographical Ecce Homo (which, among other things, is a parody of Wagner’s self-indulgent My Life, which Nietzsche described as ‘an agreed-upon fable’):
“Zarathustra himself, as a type… he stole upon me… Has anyone at the end of the nineteenth century a clear idea of what poets of strong eras called inspiration? If not, I will describe it. If we had the slightest residue of superstition remaining in ourselves, we would scarcely be capable of rejecting outright the thought of being no more than a mere incarnation, a mere mouthpiece, a mere medium of overpowering forces. The concept of revelation in the sense that suddenly, with indescribable certainty and subtlety, something becomes visible and audible, something that shakes us to the core and knocks us over… All of this is involuntary unto the extreme but as in a storm of a feeling of freedom, absoluteness, power, divinity… This is my experience of inspiration; I have no doubt that we would have to go back thousands of years to find anyone who could say to me ‘it is mine too’.”
However, in May 1882, Nietzsche’s friend Paul Rée introduced him to Lou Salomé (with whom he was immediately smitten). Nietzsche soon confessed to her that he had conceived of a figure called Zarathustra partly as a substitute for the son he would never have. Some days later, he told his friends the Overbecks of his aspiration to create “a filial figure artistically.” In a letter to Peter Gast written the following year, Nietzsche again calls himself “the father of Zarathustra.”
It would be a mistake to identify Nietzsche the father with Zarathustra the son. In a letter written to his sister Elisabeth upon the completion of the final part of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche warns against being identified with his character: “By no means believe that my son Zarathustra voices my opinions. He is one of my presentations and an interlude.” (In the same letter, Nietzsche teasingly expresses a wish to send Elisabeth “a colourful private Persian edition” so that she may “set it up as a fetish somewhere in some American jungle.”) Thus, Zarathustra is not so much a mouthpiece for Nietzsche’s views, but a mask he wears with mischievous intent, with the dual aim both of using Zarathustra to express himself and to hide behind.
More tellingly, in an earlier letter, written to Malwida von Meysenbeg shortly after he had completed the first part of the book in April 1883, Nietzsche writes: “I have challenged all religions and produced a new ‘holy book!’ And in all seriousness it is as serious as any, even though it incorporates laughter into religion.” Accordingly, Thus Spoke Zarathustra speaks of “Zarathustra the soothsayer, Zarathustra the soothlaughter.”
Shooter, Dancer, Magician
Nietzsche is often thought of as an extremely original thinker who shoots straight from the hip, often failing to provide arguments or justifications for his assertions. The exact opposite is true: he devoured both classical and contemporary texts, at times using his source material in a fashion which Turnitin anti-plagiarism software would have highlighted in red.
In the prologue to his Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, Diogenes Laertius (fl. Third Century AD) wrote the “date of the Magicians, beginning with Zoroaster the Persian.” Nietzsche defended the actual historical existences of both Homer and Zoroaster, at a time when these were being seriously questioned. He was also inspired by the Greek historian Xenophon, who in Book VI of The Expedition of Cyrus spoke of ‘Persian dance’. Nietzsche told Erwin Rhohde in 1884 that his own style “is a dance, a play of symmetries of various kinds, and a mocking of these symmetries.” Soon after, he also wrote of “Zarathustra the dancer, Zarathustra the light one who waves with his wings” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, IV). A more recent inspiration than Xenophon was Max Müller, who oversaw the first English translation of the Zoroastrian scriptures the Zend-Avesta, in three volumes (1880-1887), as part of his fifty volume series The Sacred Books of the East. In his Essays on Religion, Mythology, and Ethology, Müller writes that “the religion of Zoroaster would have ruled Greece, had [Persian King] Darius not been defeated” – a portentous line copied by Nietzsche into a notebook in September 1870.
From the Histories of Herodotus (c.484 – 425 BCE) Nietzsche takes the line “Persians educate their boys to ride well, shoot straight, and speak the truth” and transforms it in the following way:
“Persians: shoot-well, ride well, do not borrow, and do not lie” & “How the Persians were educated: to shoot with a bow and to tell the truth”
(unpublished notebook fragments, 1874)
“To speak the truth and to handle the bow and arrow well – that seemed both dear and difficult to the people who gave me my name – the name which is both dear and difficult to me”
(Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 1885)
To ‘shoot straight’ is also to tell it like it is. Zarathustra accordingly represents the embodiment of truth. Is this a praiseworthy quality to Nietzsche? Nietzsche was sceptical about the likelihood, honour, and usefulness of having truth as one’s motive or goal, mocking all who value it either for its own sake or for its instrumental use. It was not for his truthfulness, but for his original genius, that Nietzsche valued Zarathustra.
Following Herodotus, in his 1874 book The Story of Culture from its Natural Development to the Present, Friedrich von Hellwald agreed that “it was important for the Iranians to speak the truth about everything.” He also argued that “we find in the ancient Iranians for the first time the delusion of moral world order, an idea which only highly developed peoples reach, and which influence on the development of culture has been of incalculable value.” Nietzsche was clearly influenced by this outlook. And the greatest of all his many debts to Zoroastrian scholarship is owed to the following passage from von Hellwald: “Zarathustra… was born into the city of Urmia by the same-named lake. In his thirtieth year of life he left the homeland and moved East to the province Aria and occupied himself for ten years in the loneliness of the mountain range, busying himself with the drafting of the Avesta. After this time had passed he wandered away…” Between 1881 and 1885 von Hellwald’s introduction to the Persian prophet undergoes the following transformations at Nietzsche’s hand; first as an unpublished fragment (Sils-Maria, August 26, 1881): “Zarathustra, born at Lake Urmi, left his home in his thirtieth year and went into the province of Arya and composed the Zend-Avesta in the ten years of his solitude.” This in turn gets published as: “When Zarathustra was thirty years old, he left his home and Lake Urmi and went into the mountains. There he enjoyed his spirit and his solitude, and for ten years did not tire of that. But at last his heart changed… thus Zarathustra began to go under” (The Gay Science, 1882); then as, “When Zarathustra was thirty years old, he left his home and the lake of his home and went into the mountains. There he enjoyed his spirit and his solitude, and did not tire of that for ten years. But at last his heart changed… thus Zarathustra began to go under” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 1885). Note how Nietzsche retains the reference to Urmi (in north-western Iran) until the very last draft, in which it is replaced by ‘lake of his home’ – thereby creating a calculated distance between the final incarnation of his protagonist and the historical Zoroaster.
In his 1950 volume, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, Walter Kaufmann noted that although Nietzsche remarked that his Zarathustra proclaimed a view that was the opposite of the real Zoroaster’s, it appears to have gone unnoticed “how close Nietzsche himself had come to the real [Zoroaster’s] view.” Both Nietzsche and Zoroaster were inspired by visions that led them to parallel acts of intellectual creation and destruction. The two figures also share a range of similar properties or powers, such as the ability to annihilate and create in the light of a re-evaluation of past thought, the disposition to be inspired through visions manifested in poetry, dance, and song, and the courage to act in accordance with all of these. Moreover, the ‘Three Stages of History’ that Zoroaster took to be embodied in the individual (as ‘birth’, ‘death’, and ‘beyond’) are mirrored in Zarathustra’s ‘Three Metamorphoses of the Spirit’: a trilogy in which the weight-bearing spirit first becomes a load-carrying camel, which in turn becomes a lion – a strong creator of its own values – and finally, a child, whose forgetfulness makes possible a new beginning in its own creative world (see the section in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, ‘Of the Three Metamorphoses’).
Finally, Nietzsche wrote “That’s it!” in the margin of the following passage in his copy of essays by his favourite philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson (Essays: First and Second Series):
“We require that a man should be so large and columnar in the landscape, that it should deserve to be recorded, that he arose, and girded up his loins, and departed to such a place. The most credible pictures are those of majestic men who prevailed at their entrance, and convinced the senses; as happened to the eastern magician who was sent to test the merits of Zertusht or Zoroaster. When the Yunani sage arrived at Balkh, the Persians tell us, Gushtasp appointed a day on which the Mobeds of every country should assemble, and a golden chair was placed for the Yunani sage. Then the beloved of Yezdam, the prophet Zertusht, advanced into the midst of the assembly. The Yunani sage, on seeing that chief, said, ‘This form and this gait cannot lie, and nothing but truth can proceed from them.’”
Emerson variously describes Zoroaster throughout his essays as ‘half-fabulous’, ‘fine genius’, ‘revered’, ‘height of genius’, and ‘wise’, usually mentioning him alongside other great historical figures including Thales, Anaxagoras, Jesus, Moses, Zeno, Confucius, Pythagoras, Mani, Homer, Benjamin Franklin, Copernicus, Cadmus, Vulcan, Watts, Socrates, Mohammad, and Siddhartha (the Buddha). According to Emerson, Zoroaster wrote that “poets are standing transporters… inscribing things unapparent in the apparent fabrication of the world.” In his essay ‘History’, Emerson writes about how “easily these old worships of Moses, of Zoroaster, of Mani, of Socrates, domesticate themselves in the mind. I cannot find any antiquity in them. They are mine as much as theirs.” This sentiment Nietzsche would echo in Ecce Homo with the claim that his Zarathustra is “a voice that speaks across millennia.”
Heroes and Villains
A proper appreciation of Thus Spoke Zarathustra requires the reader to explore Zoroastrianism as it struck Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s undoubted aim was to revalue the prophet Zoroaster, whom he took to be the oldest representation of the (false) values of good and evil. As Ronald Hayman notes in his book Nietzsche: A Critical Life (1982), “Zoroaster had raised an old Aryan folk-religion to a higher level with his doctrine of eternal punishment or eternal death according to the balance between a man’s good and evil deeds on earth.” Or in Nietzsche’s own playful words from Ecce Homo:
“I have not been asked, as I should have been asked, what the name ‘Zarathustra’ means in precisely my mouth, in the mouth of the first immoralist: for what constitutes the tremendous uniqueness of that Persian in history is precisely the opposite of this. Zarathustra was the first to see in the struggle between good and evil the actual wheel in the working of things: the translation of morality into the realm of metaphysics, as force, cause, end-in-itself, is his work. But this question is itself at bottom its own answer. Zarathustra created this most fateful of errors, morality: consequently he must also be the first to recognize it. Not only has he had longer and greater experience here than any other thinker…what is more important is that Zarathustra is more truthful than any other thinker. His teaching, and his alone, upholds truthfulness as the supreme virtue…To tell the truth and to shoot well with arrows: that is Persian virtue. – Have I been understood? The self-overcoming of morality through truthfulness, the self-overcoming of the moralist into his opposite – into me – that is what the name Zarathustra means in my mouth.”
In the same passage Zarathustra is also highlighted as a creature of value-creation:
“Dante is, compared with Zarathustra, merely a believer and not one who first creates truth, a world-ruling spirit, a destiny – that the prophets of the Veda are priests and not even worthy to unloose the latchet of the shoes of a Zarathustra… Zarathustra has an eternal right to say: ‘I form circles and holy boundaries around myself; fewer and fewer climb with me upon higher and higher mountains – I build a mountain range out of holier and holier mountains’… There is no wisdom, no psychology, no art of speech before Zarathustra… Zarathustra feels himself to be the highest species of all existing things… the psychological problem in the type of Zarathustra is how he, who to an unheard-of degree says No, does No, to everything to which one has hitherto said Yes, can nonetheless be the opposite of a spirit of denial; how he, a spirit bearing the heaviest of destinies, can nonetheless be the lightest and most opposite – Zarathustra is a dancer.”
Zoroaster valued truth, created a philosophy of moral opposites (Good vs Evil), gave birth to monotheism, and established a linear theory of time against the circular theory of the Babylonians. By contrast, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra is a sceptic about the value of truth and a destroyer of morality who sings of eternal recurrence in his roundelay. Zoroaster was the first to commit ‘the error’ of morality: consequently, Zarathustra had to be the first to repudiate it. That is why Nietzsche chose Zarathustra as his prophet.
© Constantine Sandis 2012
Constantine Sandis is a Reader in Philosophy at Oxford Brookes University and the author of The Things We Do And Why We Do Them (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).