In stark stylistic contrast to almost any work of philosophy you care to name ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra’ dances from the pages with a florid exuberance which can border on the embarrassing. Its scope, as well as its tone, is immense, with Nietzsche’s thoughts leaping from mountaintop to mountaintop, refusing to halt and be restrained by explanations. The final book, comprising of four parts written between 1883-1885, originally had just forty copies produced, such was the author’s belief (and probably desire) that so few would understand it.
It is not a work that follows the analytical tradition of drudging salva veritate pedantry. It is, at core, a joyous outburst of creation. Nietzsche until this point in his life was something of a microcosm of certain consequences of the Enlightenment, with the erosion of religious truths and traditions creating despondency and a fear that values like ‘truth’ and ‘good’ would lose meaning. In Zarathustra is seen a rejection of this Schopenhauerian worldview, and his earlier unsatisfactory attempts to surmount it, towards a genuine optimism that new values could be fashioned and couched in human terms, not mystical.
The central theme of the book for me, the ubermensch (the over- or superman), is key to this revaluation. As with much in the book, too-literal readings of what is often very figurative can lead to gross distortions, as occurred after Nietzsche’s death with selectively edited portions of various works. The ubermensch is a target, not a eugenics project: a goal potentially never to be reached, and in striving ever higher to leave behind so many of the negative encumbrances with which religion, primarily, or just blind, unquestioned human tradition weighs us down.
Not a particularly popular view a century ago, and not much more so now, despite so much current focus on ideological disputes. Certainly a shallow reading could inculcate the idea that this is some excuse simply to behave immorally within existing systems of morality. But what Zarathustra is truly striking us so forcefully with is that settling, for mediocrity, for poor pre-scientific traditions, for the laziness evinced in not advancing ourselves, is appalling. This creates a forever ongoing project of betterment, of struggle, of, in the author’s voice, war, that makes the book perennially relevant.
The secondary title of the book is ‘a book for everyone and no one’. That can be read in so many ways and beautifully encapsulates how openly the book can be interpreted. But if one can look past the skeletal plot, manic enthusiasm and casual misogyny, there is much to find in a work of such breadth and depth. It has affected me very personally, directed me into philosophy, and has given me the wry pleasure of attempting to promote a book written by a man who expressed a belief that universal literacy would ruin the value of writing itself.