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Thus Spoke Zarathustra | Page Crimps
Key Takeaways from Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra
When I'm reading a book, I crimp the corner of pages with ideas or passages that stick out to me. When I finish reading a book, I take note of these passages and ideas in a separate notebook. To extract further value out of this practice, I'm going to start pooling the most broadly valuable ideas into a format like this for consumption. My notes here however are no substitute for a good book. My highest hope would be not that this series be used as an alternative to engaging a good read, but as a tease to pickup the book and enjoy the ride yourself. Don't worry about spoilers. As my friend Vance Crowe says,
Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra is one of the most influential philosophical works ever created. It chronicles the recurring emergence and reclusion of the main character as he struggles to communicate a new mode of living to the masses. Whether you know it or not, you've read or seen the ideas from this book hinted at in countless resurrected forms from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Fight Club among many others. This abstract is no substitution for taking the journey yourself, but a presentation of the ideas I found most valuable so you can consume them in 15 minutes if it's disparate from your reading shelf.
All pages reference my copy, which you can find HERE.
On page 9, the story presents Nietzsche's famous 'God is Dead!' quote and introduces the reader to the idea of the Übermensch. An idea he also introduces on this same page that is a branch from the latter 2 concepts is the idea that man is a transitory animal. What is man but where he is headed and if he is headed nowhere or doesn't have an ideal he or she is striving towards then as a whole, the human species will be left to stagnation or regression.
I reject the primitivist ideal and so was appreciative of the call to action here for man to 'Instead of revert to beast, see what he can become next.'
Shortly after his passages on the Übermensch, on page 13 Nietzsche through Zarathustra pivots to the opposite ideal, The Last Man. The story does a good job of laying out the crisis of the becoming of the last men, who seek a life of endless comfort that in turn nulls their growth. The call to action in turn is for humanity to set itself a goal.
Comfort without a goal may not sound all bad to the lay reader, and it doesn't sound too bad to the audience in the story either, who rather than choose to strive for growth ask instead mockingly, 'Where is this Last Man?' desiring instead to embody this character.
Further on, on page 26, Nietzsche's idea of the 3 metamorphoses is presented in the metaphor of a spirit which becomes a camel which then becomes a lion and then from the lion, the transcended individual becomes a child.
What do these stages mean? The spirit originates as itself and then navigates it's first steps bearing the context of that which it interacts with. It only knows what is outside itself and therefore is an amalgamation of that which is outside of it. The camel becomes a lion when it realizes that it has the power to impart change on that which is outside itself. At numerous points in the book, Zarathustra is quoted in calling people to their 'Will to Power' which is the innate desire to be active in imparting the changes of the lion. In the child state, the individual has maximized their freedom and creative power. The lion becomes a child because it realizes the vastness of it's capability to alter the truths of the world external to itself.
I appreciated an interaction Zarathustra has with a 'wise' teller which in and of itself could be extracted as a parable. On page 28, this teller preaches his knowledge of acquiring sleep and his secret: Staying up until it's near impossible to not sleep. Zarathustra in his monologue critiques this model of 'Wisdom by default' presenting the alternative in this case, to pursue worthy goals and wear oneself out.
"With a century of readers, the earth would grow stale..." says Zarathustra on page 37. His point I believe is to illustrate that if we only consume the knowledge of the past, we can never create new knowledge to entertain a life born in the future which would leave the human race stagnant.
On page 44, Zarathustra criticizes the idea of the state, saying, "It is the destroyers who lay traps for the many & call them state."
Traps may carry a negative connotation, but I believe a main point here is that laws created to govern man, put man in a box that is not easy to escape. A state searches for values like least common denominators and sets them in stone which in turn acts to prevent the opportunity for new values to arise in the future.
On page 50, Zarathustra outlines the risk and benefit of friends. The cost of a friend may be similar to the above in that to have a friend is to align ideals enough to establish a relationship. This is good however when not taken to an extreme state(pun intended), because when the ideals are the right ideals, friendship is a mechanism to propagate them and keep an individual from the depths of aperspectival madness.
When talking about the search for equality on page 88, Zarathustra outlines what I feel is an accurate risk in that cries for equality can quickly turn to cries of envy once a semblance of equality is achieved. This is because once that power to achieve goods in the name of equality is claimed, it will not stop.
A page later on 89, Zarathustra proposes a counter to the idea that all men are equal, suggesting that while all men and women are created equal, beyond birth through our actions and environments, we become inherently separated by a number of different variables. Instead of regressing to the goal of equality, the ideal path presented is to strive with all one can towards the best of these highs and lows.
One more page later on 90, there is a quote that I appreciated which in short suggests to beware of wise men who are famous, because famous wise men serve the people's superstitions and not the truth.
On page 99, Zarathustra draws the line between the will to power and the will to truth by saying that the will to truth is to aim to make all thinkable, which while noble, will not continue to divulge new truths, only add depth to existing truth. The will to power where one imparts their will into the world is what generates new truths through creativity and action.
Nietzsche must have been on a roll for me in this section of the book, because I've got another crimp a page later on 100 as Zarathustra is riffing on what it means to obey vs command.
"All that lives obeys." → "He who cannot obey himself is commanded."
Zarathustra goes on to say that most obey because commanding means assuming a risk whether it be of others' time and energy or even their own ego.
The idea I like here even more so though is one that's hinted at earlier in the book but not really fleshed out until here in the 2nd of the 2 one liners above. The reason that the west and many other developed and democratic nations have been so successful is because rather than enslaving themselves to others(mostly, there's an argument that this has become the case economically), we instead have developed the discipline to enslave ourselves to our own goals.
I crimped page 115 because there was a hint of irony to the modern day in the quote that it's "a folly to throw salt to the sea and statues to the mud." The main idea in this metaphor as Zarathustra continues is that if you remove the erected staples of the past however flawed, we will continue to forget the past, context and all that may prevent us from repeating it.
Another parable worthy encounter between Zarathustra and someone he bypasses on page 153 depicts a man on the side of the road warning Zarathustra not to enter a city nearby. When asked why, the 'fool' as the story calls him, fails to offer valid reasoning and so Zarathustra continues on his way. He depicts the error of many in this individual when he highlights that some people have chosen to preach of impending danger, if not for valid reason, just for something to say at all.
Some more modern day irony when Zarathustra uses 'mob' terminology on page 171. He states, "He who is of the mob wants to live for nothing." Rather than match his opponent's step however and only highlight the error in society, Zarathustra presents the alternative which is to give what you can in exchange for a better future.
On page 247 is one of many quotes that can be taken from Nietzsche out of context to paint a darker picture, "Man must become better and more evil."
What I liked about this quote was that it implies the 1:1 nature of our capability for good and evil. Zarathustra and Nietzsche in general are sometimes highlighted for their propensity to highlight evil. This is a mistake compared to the true nature of Nietzsche's work because the implied meaning read in context is simply as mentioned above, that when one's capability to do good grows, so too does their capability for evil and so Nietzsche in much of his work has elected to go 'Beyond Good and Evil' as one of his non-fiction philosophical books is aptly titled.
My last crimp comes on page 277 as Zarathustra is riffing on the values of joy and woe. Joy he suggests brings about complacency while woe prompts one experiencing it to be courageous and bring about change to enter a better state.
This is human nature, and why I believe in something I'll refer to as the 'suffering budget.' No matter how objectively severe the suffering one experiences, individuals have a consistent budget for attention to allocate to things that cause suffering or 'woe' to match the book's terminology, because we arrogant creatures are always working to bring about a better state. It's why I believe also that Nietzsche among other philosophers mock the notion of a successful utopia. Even in a perfect world, our psyche will spend it's suffering budget, looking for things that it can highlight for improvement.
This ties nicely back to the beginning of the book which I like as a note to end on. Recall above when Nietzsche expresses the importance of finding a goal for humanity and for oneself, rather than allocate our suffering budget to smaller and smaller opportunities to squeeze out remaining suffering. After a point, this is more likely to create problems, harping on the small, than make life better. Pursue woe paired with fulfilment through worthy assumption of risk rather than complacency and stagnation as an afterthought to joy.
I’m exploring doing this format on a regular basis, offering a ~ 15 minute read on the key takeaways from a full book. I’m curious — Did you find this valuable?
If you have thoughts on what would make this something you’d look forward to consuming, I would love to hear them. Comment on this post or reach out to me on Twitter at @BenAnderson421
Next week, I’m going to talk about the difference between heading towards quality and instantiating it.
Keep getting better.