Truth, Belief and Illusion in Nietzsche’s “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”
In his final and most spirited work, Ecce Homo or ‘Behold the Man’ – a title which pertinently echoes an utterance by Pontius Pilate – written in his very last months of lucidity, Nietzsche gleefully declares that: ‘whoever believed he had understood something of me had dressed something out of me after his own image’ (Ecce Homo, ‘Why I write such excellent books’). This simple claim foregrounds perhaps one of the most fundamental aspects of Nietzsche’s thought; that is, the supreme mercuriality and relative nature of his writing and ideas. It is perhaps this pivotal dimension which makes him such a lastingly prominent philosophical figure, one who transcends the times, and one who is so easily manipulated and reappropriated by agents both good and bad. But if there were to be a singular work by Nietzsche which truly epitomises this idea of mercuriality, it would undoubtedly be Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883), which compiles the dialogues of Nietzsche’s greatest philosophical invention. He declared Thus Spoke Zarathustra ‘the highest book there is… the deepest, born out of the innermost wealth of truth’ (Ecce Homo, p. 219). Zarathustra is in many ways a kind of paradoxical amalgam, at once acting as Nietzsche’s philosophical mouthpiece and his Jungian shadow. He became something of an icon of post-Enlightenment truth: a bolt of lightning in the dark of a prior age, a blinding flash of realisation and condemnation. Yet at the same time, he is of course a ‘prophet’, a spiritual guide for this coming dawn. Nietzsche clearly intended such a paradox, and indeed, this paradox might be located at the very heart of his philosophical polemic.
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Thus Spoke Zarathustra is a text not only borne of a deep inner truth, it is a journey towards finding our own inner truth, a ‘truth to self’ perhaps, which is no doubt why Nietzsche also called it the greatest present ever gifted to mankind. The power of metaphor is a crucial dimension in journeying towards such truth to self, and realizing one’s own philosophical quest. Quoting or perhaps channeling the prophet later in Ecce Homo, in one of his most inspired and capricious passages, Nietzsche at one point speaks of inspiration itself:
“Has anyone at the end of the nineteenth century a clear idea of what poets of strong ages have called inspiration? If not I will describe it. If one had the slightest residue of superstition left in one’s system, one could hardly reject altogether the idea that one is merely incarnation, merely mouthpiece, merely a medium of overpowering forces… Everything happens involuntarily in the highest degree but as in a gale of a feeling of freedom, of absoluteness, of power, of divinity. The involuntariness of image and metaphor is strangest of all; one no longer has any notion of what is an image or a metaphor: everything offers itself as the nearest, most obvious, simplest, expression. It actually seems to allude to something Zarathustra says, as if the things themselves approached and offered themselves as metaphors (‘Here all things come caressingly to your discourse and flatter you; for they want to ride on your back. On every metaphor you ride to every truth’)” (Kaufmann trans., Ecce Homo, pp. 300-301).
It is of great pertinence that, whilst in the very act of speaking on the idea of being a mere ‘mouthpiece’ and ‘medium’, he defers to, or perhaps is overcome by the voice of Zarathustra himself, who provides a means of clarification and sound expression. Zarathustra thus actually performs his function within Nietzsche’s philosophy more broadly: to enlighten through metaphoric obscurity and relativity. Zarathustra, named after the ancient founder of Zoroastrianism, emblematizes the importance of religion’s metaphoric power to Nietzsche’s principle ideas, representing not only ‘divine’ inspiration but also the ability to ‘simplify’ ideas and bring them closer to the realm of truth for the individual. Nietzsche identifies metaphor as a driving force of religiosity, which he too wields with philosophic intent. By the same turn, religion emblematized a fundamental paradox of truth and illusion, but this is a paradox which is also crucial in exposing how religion functions as a means of self-realization and self-mastery.
This particular passage, spoken by Zarathustra, chosen by Nietzsche, is of particular note not just in terms of determining the nature of truth, but also the significance of religious metaphor. English translations vary in their interpretations of the word ‘“metaphor” as it appears here. In its earliest English translation by Alexander Tille (1896) he describes it so that you ride “on every likeness to every truth” (my emphasis); while R. J. Hollingdale instead uses the term ‘image’; and Kaufmann alternately uses both ‘metaphor’ and ‘parable’. In its original German, Gleichnis, the term can be read as either metaphor or parable. However, the use of ‘parable’ is of great significance, and certainly much more in line with Nietzsche’s intent within the text as a whole. Firstly, this is because it falls in with his incessant utilization and open allegory of Biblical form and language throughout Thus Spoke Zarathustra as a means of interrogating the nature of subjective truth. This is especially true within the context of this particular excerpt, which is positively riddled with Biblical imagery.
The entirety of ‘The Return Home’ (Kaufmann) dialogue appears to openly allude to the ‘Second Coming’ of Christ, a kind of Second Coming of Zarathustra, and Nietzsche’s condensed quotation from the text also tellingly describes how ‘the words and word-shrines of all being open up before you’ (my emphasis). Moreover, that other so crucial phrase in the passage, which is contrastingly lucid in meaning and across translations, to ‘ride’ (reitest), (which appears twice in Zarathustra’s dialogues: both to ‘ride’ on the back of parable and is also used to describe how uninhibited thought and feeling ‘rides’ on Zarathustra upon his return) once again harbours Biblical significance, this time in the form of Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem whilst riding on the back of a donkey. The use of ‘caressingly’ (liebkosend) once again, like ‘riding’, denotes a very physical, even sensual, act, and becomes a crucial metaphor for indicating the centrality of form itself, and how form plays a part in evoking some inner truth to the individual. Read as ‘metaphor’, as it certainly welcomes us to do through the seemingly endless proliferation of metaphors within metaphors within metaphors, the phrase implies more of a comment on the very nature of language, a surface hiding some unseen depth which is the very essence of metaphor. This is exemplified of course by the metaphor of ‘riding’ something, and not only in the sense of being atop something but also being in control of something. Secondly, and more pressingly, ‘parable’ implies a didacticism, and crucially reinforces the dialogues as vessels of teaching, an accretion of knowledge through the very act of reading and ‘riding’ towards truth. Indeed, this is the essential didactic structure of parable, where the nature of truth equates self-realisation, a truth to self, which is fundamental to the doctrines of Zarathustra, who attempts to show us the way to achieving self-mastery. For Nietzsche then, these two dimensions are intrinsically intertwined: Zarathustra’s dialogues rely upon their metaphoric power and obscurity for their didactic capacity for self-realization.
Whilst Nietzsche rejects the idea of Zarathustra as a “prophet” in any ordinary sense (“here no ‘prophet’ is speaking, none of these gruesome hybrids of sickness and will to power whom people call founders of religions,” Ecce Homo, ‘Preface 4’), there is no denying that he in many respects embodies the archetypal image of the prophet figure. There is of course one crucial differentiator: where other prophets dedicate their lives to spreading word of the existence of God, Zarathustra of course sets his task as the very opposite: to declare that God is dead. Nietzsche’s well-known antagonism towards Christianity is far more complex than this oft-repeated phrase would lead us to believe, and is thoroughly ideological opposition at its heart. He saw Christianity as promoting and sustaining a ‘slave’ mentality over all that is ‘noble’ (both terms which are distinct from class – you could be a noble beggar for example), centralising its doctrines on ideas of pity, selfless devotion and submission to a ‘higher power’, at the expense of self and ego, and the potential for pushing one’s own capabilities to max capacity.
Nietzsche exposes that any society built upon such selfless laws and inhibitions will inevitably result in radically disempowered subjects. Examples of such views can be found late on in his literary life, when he wrote of Christianity being a “degeneracy movement composed of reject and refuse elements of every kind… founded on a rancor against everything well-constituted and dominant” (Will To Power, p. 154), and further, expressed it as a repression of all the most natural drives in man which were newly interpreted as vices (Will To Power, p. 150). Nietzsche’s infamous critiques of Christianity are fundamentally bound up with his most penetrating approaches into the nature of truth, and although critical, he certainly saw religion as a powerful and even essential means of pushing oneself to its greatest potential heights. This is also no doubt why Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which lies at the very nucleus of his thought, overtly emulates the forms and structures of a Biblical or sacred text, albeit with a hefty amount of satire and allusive mythology. In many ways the text echoes the sentiments of Percy Shelley, who once wrote that “all original religions are allegorical, or susceptible of allegory, and like Janus have a double face of false and true” (A Defense of Poetry).
Nietzsche locates the origin of religion as the need for an agent who enforces the uncontrollable effects of one’s will: “faith is always coveted most and needed most urgently where will is lacking; for will, as the affect of command, is the decisive sign of sovereignty and strength” (Gay Science, p. 347). At this crux then, the very genesis of faith, there lies that other most fundamental Nietzschean conception of the will to power. Nietzsche declares that “the origin of the holy lie is the will to power… the lie as a supplement to power, a new concept of truth” (Will To Power, p. 142). The will to power therefore rejects the inherently submissive requirement of religion, and instead requires a higher authority over self and will; it is, in essence, self-mastery. With religion then, Nietzsche posits we find the inception of a ‘new concept of truth’, and maintaining the ‘holy lie’ becomes a necessary means of achieving self-mastery. The great paradox here then is that by entering this new truth, one only ever achieves self-mastery within the tenets or confines of that religion, so that the will to power is inevitably lost and irrevocable.
Zarathustra’s principle pronouncement that God is dead was driven by the increasing insufficiency of religion to challenge the Post-Enlightenment era’s dogged dedication to logic and reason. Truth no longer resides as it once did on the side of spiritual dogma and faith, but with science, reason and systematic proof. But what Zarathustra offers is a different kind of truth, which retains the positive capabilities of religion but abstains from their inhibitions, a spirituality which centers around God’s absence, and instead focuses inward on the self. As Sue Prideaux explains, Zarathustra’s “freedom from belief enhances his life. His freedom from religious belief is equalled to his resistance to transferring that belief to science. The ubermensch does not need beliefs for a feeling of a stable world” (I Am Dynamite). With Zarathustra, Nietzsche asks what if there were a branch of thought which took the form of religiosity but did not require any great sacrifice of will to some unknowable and altogether far greater power? For if religion has such a power and hold over truth and the truth to self that one would so willingly suffer or sacrifice by it, then what if this was instead redirected as a means to push oneself knowingly to its greatest potential?
Devotion enables humanity to attain their very greatest heights, this is irrefutable, but it also creates great psychological and moral difficulties. The unquestionable belief that killing oneself will enable for an ascension to some higher plane demonstrates a remarkable untapped power of belief in man, which only true religion and absolute faith can achieve, but that is not to say that it is right. Religion offers a new means of perceiving the world, of confronting death and loss, of finding truth. And of course, many of the greatest thinkers throughout history were deeply religious, including the ancient Greeks, whom Nietzsche so revered, as the originators of modern scientific and rational thought. Following such, Nietzsche gifted us with the “caressing discourses” of Zarathustra, which offer new means of self-realization, being as they are so fertile with metaphor, and which percolate with meaning and significance to all who are ready to accept their teachings. Here then we also locate the root of the paradox: Zarathustra is a profoundly theological text – “everything happens involuntarily in the highest degree but as in a gale of a feeling of freedom, of absoluteness, of power, of divinity” (see previous) – and this is of course done with total knowledge and intent, without any hint of irony, because Nietzsche is aware to the immense power religion holds over the individual, and provides perhaps the only (proven) means of tapping into it.
In that other most “fundamental conception” as Nietzsche termed it (Ecce Homo, p. 295), of the eternal recurrence, in which contradiction is, once again, a primary means of unveiling the true nature of the idea, Nietzsche similarly allows us to confront this idea of truth to self. The demon of The Gay Science whispers surreptitiously in our ear to reveal that this life of ours shall be lived again and again, in all its trivialities, on and on into infinity. In confronting this very prospect, we find either an extreme affirmation or condemnation of self. For in the eyes of a content man, to relive one’s life over and over is no toil, rather, it is a blessing. But to suffer again and again endlessly, to be tormented by regret? This, surely, would be damnation.
Once again, the demon’s whisper emblematizes how in order to grasp such Nietzschean ideas we must enter into a metaphorical world, a world of myth and pseudo-spiritual obscurity. This is another contemplation on how metaphor in religion can be used as a directive force, and on how form itself can be harnessed as a means of manifesting some deep and infallible truth in the individual. Nietzsche reveals this as the most powerful form by which to put forward a new philosophy. The form of Zarathustra, at once caricature and embodiment, is centrifugal to upholding the illusion of understanding and significance, and so enabling for subsequent self-empowerment and self-realization.
Another crucial sacred form adopted by Zarathustra is the dithyramb. The dithyramb is inspired outburst and poetic grandiloquence, it is the epiphanic moment of revelation in the speaker, and the unification of the poetic voice with the will to power. Zarathustra’s dithyrambs are as bold and illustrious, as inspired by personal Gods as the images of William Blake. The dithyramb is also significant for Nietzsche as the form adopted by the devotees of Dionysus, and moreover, it denotes the very origin, or rather, the birth of tragedy (following Aristotle). In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche’s first major work, lambasted by those of his time, he describes the Dionysian essence as intoxication: “stirrings which, as they grow in intensity, cause subjectivity to vanish to the point of complete self-forgetting”; a “mystical self-abandon” (The Birth of Tragedy). Nietzsche unsurprisingly proclaimed Zarathustra his “Dionysian Monster” (this he added to the preface of the 1886 edition of The Birth of Tragedy), and so whilst wandering in the Swiss Alpine mountains, lost in the whirling mists of the dithyramb, his and Zarathustra’s ideas became one. Nietzsche proclaimed himself master and even “inventor” (Ecce Homo, p. 306) of the dithyramb, and in many ways it is intrinsic to his central ideas. To grasp what incentivises the mind of the overman or ubermensch, at least in part requires one to similarly submit to and adopt this intoxicated state of mind, and embrace a kind of willed megalomania. Carl Jung once identified Nietzsche’s megalomania as a symptom of his mental decline, but this contradicts the crucial idea of a ‘willed’ path to the overman, as a necessary overcoming.
Zarathustra proposes the capacity to absolve oneself of the lower ‘herd’ instinct in which anxiety festers when set outside of a very neat and contained and explainable unity. The famed image of this transition, from the herd animal to the overman, is famously depicted by Zarathustra as a rope which hangs over an infinite abyss: “man is a rope, fastened between animal and Superman – a rope over an abyss. A dangerous going-across, a dangerous wayfaring… what is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal; what can be loved in man is that he is a going-across and a down-going” (Zarathustra’s Prologue). The abyss can be read as that which lies outside of order, outside of the holy lie, and it is also the great abyssal dread of a self-imposed truth. But the abyss also signifies a necessary confrontation. One must first feel that great abyssal dread and lack of meaning, so that the will to power can then manifest itself. This also means denying oneself the simple act of supplicating to religion in order to find wholeness and consistency. Only then can one walk across to the other side. The megalomaniacal aggrandizement of self is thus an essential step towards self-mastery. Indeed, the concept of megalomania is in many respects fundamental to reading Nieztsche, and identifies the interdependency of truth and illusion within his philosophy. For Nietzsche, megalomania can be viewed as a self-induced state which serves a deeply philosophical purpose. The caressing discourse, the will to power, the eternal recurrence, the path to the overman, all of these key conceptions require one to exercise a great deal of control over one’s unconscious drives, a kind of self-imposed state of mind. The way to achieving this of course, is through metaphor, through one’s own caressing discourse.
In conclusion, the question of the relation of metaphor to truth is no doubt of crucial significance for Nietzsche. He presents us with the idea that truth is only accessible by way of obscurity, and whilst traditionally metaphor in philosophy remains cautionary, ordinarily only for the use of conceptual clarity, for Nietzsche, metaphor is a means of truly realizing an idea or concept. The metaphorical fertility of Zarathustra’s ideas are thus crucially bound up with the self-empowerment in the reader-cum-follower, in establishing there being some underlying, latent truth. In many ways, this is the ‘dangerous wayfaring’ of which Zarathustra, a tight-rope walk over an abyss of potential metaphors into which we might plunge.
One of Zarathustra’s most sublime proclamations is that “one must have chaos within one to give birth to a dancing star,” and this is epitomized by that inner abyss, the chaos of meaning and interpretation and the collision of opposition which leads to the eventual birth of the sublime idea. As Nietzsche elucidates, the superman “promotes opposition within himself” (Will To Power, p. 966), and the dionysian is “an urge to unity” (Will To Power, p. 1050), with Zarathustra serving as the embodiment of such oppositional ideas. As he expresses in the closing lines of the first part of Thus Spoke Zarathustra: “Now I go alone my disciples. You too go now, alone… I counsel you: go away from me and resist Zarathustra! And even better: be ashamed of him!” (‘On the Gift-giving Virtue’).
Lucy Huskinson argues that Nietzsche’s aversion to Christianity also lies in the simple fact that “it provided the metaphysical model of static opposites, so that good and evil never sought unification… the ubermensch is one who has identified with primary unity” (Nietzsche and Jung). Here then we see that chaos equates the primary unity, the unity of opposites. And indeed, what is metaphor if not such a union of opposites? Nietzsche saw great power in chaos, in the irrational, and metaphor has the power to transform it, to harness it, to “ride” it. So as we ramble through these parables, chaotic visions and songs are we to bask in this metaphorical abyss? There is little doubt that Nietzsche himself basked and relished what he saw whilst looking out through the eyes of Zarathustra, where his philosophical mind dances, prances and pirouettes. But in the end it is on the onus of the reader as to whether Zarathustra is the vessel of some deep, inner truth, or rather, as he is seen by many of those who reside in his own mythic world, as a mere “suitor of truth” who is “only screaming colourfully out of fools’ masks, climbing around on mendacious word bridges, on colourful rainbows, between false heavens and false earths” (‘The Song of Melancholy’).