Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Walking the Tightrope

Note: As the heading of this post implies, this is the inspiration for the title of this blog. I had the tightrope walker of Zarathustra in mind when this attempt at philosophic biography began in 2008. For me, this singular metaphor represents, as much as any other possiblity, the essence of Nietzsche’s life and philosophy.

Thus Spoke Zarathustra is different from most of Nietzsche’s previous philosophic works. For one thing it is presented in chapters, not in aphorisms. For another, like his series of lectures entitled On the Future of Our Educational Institutions back in 1872, it is a kind of parable, a story with fictitious characters used to metaphorically express his philosophy. It is not a detailed style of philosophic inquiry, as much of his earlier work. Nevertheless, various rational concepts are advocated, and contemporary European culture is critiqued and found irrelevant due to the “god is dead!” proclamation.

It is noteworthy that Zarathustra himself is first mentioned in the final aphorism (as of 1883, he would write another section in 1886) of The Gay Science. It was in the former work Nietzsche first contended god is dead. The two works are undeniably stitched together. To what extent Nietzsche may have conceived of the present work in the former is mildly debatable. But, I think, Zarathustra is an inspired work and, therefore, writing it was a bit surprising to Nietzsche. I do not believe he contemplated his next book when completing his last. The Lou Salomé affair consumed him as The Gay Science first emerged. Nietzsche did not think of further writing philosophic works, as I have already indicated. What follows is my highlight tour of the work in its entirety, all four parts.

After years of solitude on a mountaintop, Zarathustra decides to go down into the human world to profess his beliefs. He proclaims several things, but most obviously he proclaims and examines the √úbermensch, or “overman” as translated by Walter Kaufmann.

“When Zarathustra came into the next town, which lies on the edge of the forest, he found many people gathered together in the market place; for it had promised that there would be a tightrope walker. And Zarathustra spoke thus to the people: ‘I teach you the overman. Man is something that shall be overcome.’

“’All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do what you want to be the ebb of this great flood and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man? What is the ape to man? A laughing-stock or a painful embarrassment. And man shall be just that for the overman: a laughing-stock and a painful embarrassment. (Part I, page 124)

“The overman is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the overman shall be the meaning of the earth! I beseech you, my brothers, remain faithful to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of otherworldly hopes!’” (I, page 125)

“’Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman – a rope over an abyss. A dangerous across, a dangerous on-the-way, a dangerous looking-back, a dangerous shuddering and stopping. (I, page 126) Here Nietzsche metaphorically introduces the connection between the pre-overman and the tightrope walker soon to come. The journey from man to overman is a tightrope walk.

Many times this work is a parody of the Christian Bible. One example of this is found in a couple of Zarathustra’s longer speeches, which read somewhat in the style of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount”.

“’What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end: what can be loved in man is that he is an overture and a going under.

“’I love those who do not know how to live, except by going under, for they are those who cross over. I love the great despisers because they are the great reverers and arrows of longing for the other shore. I love those who do not first seek behind the stars for a reason to go under and be a sacrifice, but who sacrifice themselves for the earth, that the earth may someday become the overman’s. I love him who lives to know, and who wants to know so that the overman may live some day. And thus he wants to go under.’” (I, page 127)

“For meanwhile the tight-rope walker had begun his performance: he had stepped out of a small door and was walking over the rope, stretched between two towers and suspended over the market place and the people. When he had reached the exact middle of the course the small door opened once more and a fellow in motley clothes, looking like a jester, jumped out and followed the first one with quick steps….he uttered a devilish cry and jumped over the man who stood in his way. This man, however, seeing his rival win, lost his head and the rope, tossed away his pole, and plunged into the depth even faster, a whirlpool of arms and legs.

“Zarathustra, however, did not move; and it was right next to him that the body fell, badly maimed and disfigured, but not yet dead. After a while the shattered man recovered consciousness and saw Zarathustra kneeling beside him. ‘What are you doing here?’ he asked at last. ‘I have long known that the devil would trip me. Now he will drag me to hell. Would you prevent him?’

“’By my honor friend,’ answered Zarathustra, ‘all that of which you speak does not exist: there is no devil and no hell. Your soul will be dead even before your body: fear nothing further.’

“The man looked up suspiciously. ‘If you speak the truth,’ he said. ‘I lose nothing when I lose my life. I am not much more than a beast that has been taught to dance by blows and a few meager morsels.’

‘By no means,’ said Zarathustra. ‘You have made danger your vocation; there is nothing contemptible in that. Now perish of your vocation: for that I will bury you with my own hands.’” (I, pp.131-132) Thus, interestingly, the metaphor for the pre-overman is to be buried by Zarathustra himself. But, Zarathustra does not bury him in a strict sense.

“So he laid the dead man into a hollow tree – for he wanted to protect him from the wolves – and he himself lay down on the ground and the moss, his head under the tree.

“For a long time Zarathustra slept, and not only dawn passed over his face but morning too. At last, however, his eyes opened: amazed, Zarathustra looked into the woods and the silence; amazed, he looked into himself.

“’To lure many away from the herd, for that have I come. The people and the herd shall be angry with me: Zarathustra wants to be called a robber by the shepherds.’” (I, page 135) Zarathustra’s revelation is for a social bond with other overmen. Very specifically, Nietzsche makes clear Zarathustra does not seek worshipers but fellow creators.

“’Companions, the creator seeks, not corpses, not herds and believers. Fellow creators, the creator seeks – those who write new values on new tablets. Companions, the creator seeks, and fellow harvesters; for everything about him is ripe for the harvest.” (I, page 136)

“When your heart flows broad and full like a river, a blessing and a danger to those living near: there is the origin of your virtue. When you are above praise and blame, and your will wants to command all things, like a lover’s will: there is the origin of your virtue. When you despise the agreeable and the soft bed and cannot bed yourself far enough from the soft: there is the origin of your virtue. When you will with a single will and you call this cessation of all need ‘necessity’: there is the origin of your virtue.” (I, page 188)

“God is a conjecture; but I desire that your conjectures should not reach beyond your creative will. Could you create a god? Then do not speak to me of any gods. But you could well create the overman. Perhaps not you yourselves, my brothers. But into fathers and forefathers of the overman you could re-create yourselves: and let this be your best creation.

“God is a conjecture, but I desire that your conjectures should be limited by what is thinkable. Could you think of a god? But this is what the will to truth should mean to you: that everything be changed into what is thinkable for man, visible for man, feelable by man. You should think through your own senses to their consequences.” (Part II, pp.197-198) Nietzsche grounds the overman firmly in the physical, animal realm. In this way he is very existentialist and you can see his influence on that philosophy which came after him.

“And life itself confided this secret to me: ‘Behold,’ it said. ‘I am that which must always overcome itself. Indeed, you call it a will to procreate or a drive to an end, to something higher, farther, more manifold: but this is one, and one secret.” (II, page 227) Self-overcoming, literally facing your intimate challenges and mastering them rather than allowing life to control you, is a fundamental characteristic of the overman.

Part of self-overcoming is to grasp the larger aspects beyond your intimate existence. “One must learn to look away from oneself in order to see much: this hardness is necessary to every climber of mountains.” (Part III, page 265) Nietzsche gives a great example of what he means by “hard” here. It is a technique for clarity of perspective. It is forcing yourself to do something which allows you do something more, the ability to create your own values and experience a guiltless, superior existence.

“Courage also slays dizziness at the edge of the abysses: and where does man not stand at the edge of abysses? Is not seeing always – seeing abysses? (page 269) The abyss is more prominently mentioned by Nietzsche here than in his previous works. The tightrope walker is in a precarious place. The overman succeeds in tight roping and, moreover, he creates.

“But this is my blessing: to stand over every single thing as its own heaven, as its round roof, its azure bell, and eternal security; and blessed is he who blesses thus. For all things have been baptized in the well of eternity and are beyond good and evil; and good and evil themselves are but intervening shadows and damp depressions and drifting clouds.” (III, pp. 277-278) Nietzsche opens up a vast expanse with his “well of eternity” that is either a void or a freedom. Perhaps both.


Regardless, the freedom/void is enormous, far beyond the abilities of any human being’s experience, but nevertheless without lessening the experience of the overman. The overman is comfortable with the vast freedom and, in fact, thrives within it. That is the tightrope to be balanced here. Creators over an abyss.

“…what is good and evil no one knows yet, unless it be he who creates. He, however, creates man’s goal and gives the earth its meaning and its future. That anything at all is good and evil – that is his creation.” (III, page 308)

“The most comprehensive soul, which can run and stray and roam farthest within itself; the most necessary soul, which out of sheer joy plunges itself into chance; the soul which, having being, dives into becoming.” (III, page 320)

“And if your hardness does not wish to flash and cut and cut through, how can you one day create with me? For creators are hard. And it must seem blessedness to you to impress your hand upon millennia as on wax. Blessedness to write on the will of millennia as on bronze – harder than bronze, nobler than bronze. Only the noblest is altogether hard. This new tablet, O my brothers, I place over you: become hard!” (III, page 326)

“Whether it be a god’s pity or man’s – pity offends the sense of shame. And to be unwilling to help can be nobler than the virtue which jumps to help.” (Part IV, page 377) The twisted nature of morality, how some traditionally “evil” qualities are actually healthy, is a theme Nietzsche develops in much more detail in future works. The overman is clearly not tied to any traditional cultural morals.

“All creators are hard” (IV, page 378) The Lou Salome affair had this particular accentuating effect on Fritz - life is emotionally brutal. It hardened his already instinctually Prussian character and demeanor. But, this hardness led to the strength of becoming the creator of a new world of values in a godless universe.

“Brave is he who knows fear but conquers fear, who sees the abyss, but with pride. Who sees the abyss with the talons of an eagle – that man has courage.” (IV, page 400) The courage of the tightrope walker that Zarathustra buried in a hollow tree.