Durant 1926: The Song of Zarathustra (Nietzsche)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter IX Section 4 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The  contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.

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IV. The Song of Zarathustra

And now from art, which seemed to have failed him, he took refuge in science—whose cold Apollonian air cleansed his soul after the Dionysian heat and riot of Tribschen and Bayreuth—and in philosophy, which “offers an asylum where no tyranny can penetrate.” Like Spinoza, he tried to calm his passions by examining them; we need, he said, “a chemistry of the emotions.” And so, in his next book, Human All Too Human (1878-80), he became psychologist, and analyzed with a surgeon’s ruthlessness the tenderest feelings and the most cherished beliefs,—dedicating it all bravely, in the midst of reaction, to the scandalous Voltaire. He sent the volumes to Wagner, and received in return the book of Parsifal. They never communicated again. 

And now from art, which seemed to have failed him, Nietzsche took refuge in science—whose cold Apollonian air cleansed his soul after the Dionysian heat and riot of Tribschen and Bayreuth—and in philosophy, which “offers an asylum where no tyranny can penetrate.” 

And then, at the very prime of life, in 1879, he broke down, physically and mentally, and sank into the vicinity of death. He prepared for the end defiantly: “Promise me,” he said to his sister, “that when I die only my friends shall stand about my coffin, and no inquisitive crowd. See that no priest or anyone else utter falsehoods at my graveside, when I can no longer protect myself; and let me descend into my tomb as an honest pagan.” But he recovered, and this heroic funeral had to be postponed. Out of such illness came his love of health and the sun, of life and laughter and dance, and Carmen’s “music of the south”; out of it too came a stronger will, born of fighting death, a “Yea-saying” that felt life’s sweetness even in its bitterness and pain; and out of it perhaps a pitiful effort to rise to Spinoza’s cheerful acceptance of natural limitations and human destiny. “My formula for greatness is Amor fati (love of one’s fate): … not only to bear up under every necessity, but to love it.” Alas, it is more easily said than done. 

And then, at the very prime of life, in 1879, Nietzsche broke down, physically and mentally, and sank into the vicinity of death. But he recovered, and out of such illness came his love of health and the sun, a stronger will, and a cheerful acceptance of natural limitations and human destiny.

The titles of his next books—The Dawn of Day (1881) and The Joyful Wisdom (1882)—reflect a grateful convalescence; here is a kindlier tone and a gentler tongue than in the later books. Now he had a year of quiet days, living modestly on the pension his university had given him. The proud philosopher could even thaw into a pretty frailty, and find himself suddenly in love. But Lou Salome did not return his love; his eyes were too sharp and deep for comfort. Paul Ree was less dangerous, and played Dr. Pagello to Nietzsche’s de Musset. Nietzsche fled in despair, composing aphorisms against women as he went. In truth he was naive, enthusiastic, romantic, tender to simplicity; his war against tenderness was an attempt to exorcise a virtue which had led to a bitter deception and to a wound that never healed. 

After his recovery, Nietzsche felt grateful. He displayed a kindlier tone and a gentler tongue than in the later books. He even fell in love; but his love was not returned Nietzsche fled in despair, composing aphorisms against women as he went. 

He could not find solitude enough now: “it is difficult to live with men, because silence is difficult.” He passed from Italy to the heights of the Alps at Sils-Maria in the Upper Engadine,—loving not man nor woman neither, and praying that Man might be surpassed. And there on the lonely heights came the inspiration of his greatest .book. 

I sat there waiting—waiting for nothing,
Enjoying, beyond good and evil, now
The light, now the shade; there was only
The day, the lake, the noon, time without end.
Then, my friend, suddenly one became two,
And Zarathustra passed by me.

Now his “soul rose, and overflowed all its margins.” He had found a new teacher—Zoroaster; a new god—the Superman; and a new religion—eternal recurrence: he must sing now—philosophy mounted into poetry under the ardor of hIs inspiration. “I could sing a song, and will sing it, although I am alone in an empty house and must sing it into mine own, ears.” (What loneliness is in that phrase!) “Thou great star!—what would be thy happiness, were it not for those for whom thou shinest? … Lo! I am weary of my wisdom, like the bee that hath collected too much honey; I need hands reaching out for it.” So he wrote Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883) and finished it in that “hallowed hour when Richard Wagner gave up the ghost in Venice.” It was his magnificent answer to Parsifal; but the maker of Parsifal was dead. 

It was then, alone on the lonely heights of Alps that Nietzsche found his inspiration. So he wrote Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883) and finished it in that “hallowed hour when Richard Wagner gave up the ghost in Venice.”

It was his masterpiece, and he knew it. “This work stands alone,” he wrote of it later. “Do not let us mention the poets in the same breath; nothing perhaps had ever been produced out of such a superabundance of strength. … If all the spirit and goodness of every great soul were collected together, the whole could not create a single one of Zarathustra’s discourses.” A slight exaggeration!—but assuredly it is one of the great books of the nineteenth century. Yet Nietzsche had a bitter time getting it into print; the first part was delayed because the publisher’s presses were busy with an order for 500,000 hymn-books, and then by a stream of anti-Semitic pamphlets; and the publisher refused to print the last part at all, as quite worthless from the point of view of shekels; so that the author had to pay for its publication himself. Forty copies of the book were sold; seven were given away; one acknowledged it; no one praised it. Never was a man so much alone. 

Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883) is one of the great books of the nineteenth century. Yet Nietzsche had a bitter time getting it into print. He had to pay for its publication himself. Very few copies were sold and no one praised it. Never was a man so much alone. 

Zarathustra, aged thirty, comes down from his meditative mountain to preach to the crowd, like his Persian prototype Zoroaster; but the crowd turns from him to see a rope-walker perform. The rope-walker falls, and dies. Zarathustra takes him upon his shoulders and carries him away; “because thou hast made danger thy calling, therefore shall I bury thee with my own hands.” “Live dangerously,” he preaches. “Erect your cities beside Vesuvius. Send out your ships to unexplored seas. Live in a state of war.” 

Nietzsche preaches to others to live dangerously, “Erect your cities beside Vesuvius. Send out your ships to unexplored seas. Live in a state of war.”

And remember to disbelieve. Zarathustra, coming down from the mountain, meets an old hermit who talks to him about God. “But when Zarathustra was alone, he spake thus with his heart: “Can it actually be possible? This old saint in his forest hath not yet heard aught of God being dead!” But of course God was dead, all the Gods were dead. 

For the old Gods came to an end long ago. And verily it was a good and joyful end of Gods!
They did not die lingering in the twilight,—although that lie is told! On the contrary, they once upon a time—laughed themselves unto death!
That came to pass when, by a God himself, the most ungodly word was uttered, the word: “there is but one God! Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”
An old grim beard of a God, a jealous one, forgot himself thus.
And then all Gods laughed and shook on their chairs and cried: “Is godliness not just that there are Gods, but no God?”
Whoever hath ears let him hear.
Thus spake Zarathustra.

All gods probably died when the most ungodly word was uttered, “There is but one God! Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”

What hilarious atheism! “Is not just this godliness, that there are no gods?” ”What could be created if there were Gods? … If there were Gods, how could I bear to be no God? Consequently there are no Gods.” “Who is more ungodly than I, that I may enjoy his teachings?” “I conjure you, my brethren, remain faithful to earth, and do not believe those who speak unto you of super terrestrial hopes! Poisoners they are, whether they know it or not.” Many an erstwhile rebel returns to this sweet poison at last, as a necessary anesthesia for life. The ”higher men” gather in Zarathustra’s cave to prepare themselves to preach his doctrine; he leaves them for a while, and returns to find them offering incense to a donkey who has “created the world in his own image—i. e., as stupid as possible.” This is not edifying; but then, says our text: 

He who must be a creator in good and evil—verily, he must first be a destroyer, and break values into pieces.
Thus the highest evil is part of the highest goodness. But that is creative goodness.
Let us speak thereon, ye wisest men, however bad it be. To be silent is worse; all unuttered truths become poisonous.
And whatever will break on our truths;. let it break! Many a house hath yet to be built.”
Thus spake Zarathustra.

There is so much ungodly and stupid thinking goes on in the name of God and religion. Let it all destroy itself.

Is this irreverent? But Zarathustra complains that “nobody knoweth any longer how to revere,” and he calls himself “the most pious of all those who believe not in God.” He longs for belief, and pities “all who, like myself, suffer from the great loathing, for whom the old God died and no new God yet lieth in cradles and napkins.” And then he pronounces the name of the new God: 

Dead are all Gods; now we will that superman live. …
I teach you superman. Man is a something that shall be surpassed. What have ye done to surpass him? …
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 transition and a destruction.
I love those who do not know how to live except in perishing, for they are those going beyond.
I love the great despisers because they are the great adorers, they are arrows of longing for the other shore.
I love those who do not seek beyond the stars for a reason to perish and be sacrificed, but who sacrifice themselves to earth in order that earth may some day become superman’s. …
It is time for man to mark his goal. It is time for man to plant the germ of his highest hope. …
Tell me, my brethren, if the goal be lacking to humanity, is not humanity itself lacking? …
Love unto the most remote man is higher than love unto your neighbor.

The old God has died for us. Man is the bridge to a new God. Man must evolve by perishing. Man must have a great longing for what lies beyond. Man must not be satisfied with what exist. There must be a higher goal.

Nietzsche appears to foresee that every reader will think himself the superman; and tries to guard against this by confessing that the superman is not yet born; we can only be his fore-runners and his soil. ”Will nothing beyond your capacity. … Be not virtuous beyond your ability; and demand nothing of yourselves contrary to probability.” Nat for us is the happiness which only the superman will know; our best goal is work. “For a long time I ceased not to strive for my happiness; now I strive for my work.” 

That higher goal must be real and achievable. Just do your work that is within your capacity, ability and reach. The superman will come.

Nietzsche is not content with having created God in his own image; he must make himself immortal. After the superman comes Eternal Recurrence. All things will return, in precise detail, and an infinite number of times; even Nietzsche will return, and this Germany of blood and iron and sack-cloth and ashes, and all the travail of the human mind from ignorance to Zarathustra. It is a terrible doctrine, the last and most courageous form of Yea saying and the acceptance of life; and yet how could it not be? The possible combinations of reality are limited, and time is endless; some day, inevitably, life and matter will fall into just such a form as they once had, and out of that fatal repetition all history must unwind its devious course again. To such a pass determinism brings us. No wonder Zarathustra feared to speak this his last lesson; feared and trembled and held back, until a voice spoke to him: “What matter about thyself, Zarathustra? Say thy word and break in pieces !”

Beyond the will to survive is the will to evolve.

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