Thus Spoke Zarathustra | Study Guide

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

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Thus Spoke Zarathustra | Context

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Zoroastrianism

Founder

The Iranian prophet Zoroaster (c. 628–551 BCE), who serves as the inspiration for the main character in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, was also known as Zarathustra (also spelled Zarathushtra). Over 3,500 years ago, he founded a monotheistic (related to belief in a single god) religion called Zoroastrianism. What is known of Zoroaster comes from the Avesta (sacred text of Zoroastrianism). A timeline of his life has been established based upon archaeological evidence and linguistic comparisons with the Rigveda (oldest of the sacred Hindu texts).

According to the Gathas (first section of the Avesta), the prophet was married and produced six children: three sons and three daughters. He was opposed to the sacrifice of animals, polytheism (belief in many gods), and the oppressive class structure of his time. He also opposed the use of hallucinogens for rituals. When he was 30, the prophet had a vision and decided to teach it. However, the prophet's ideas were upsetting to local authorities, and he gathered no followers. After 12 unsuccessful years as a local prophet, he traveled to another country and found a king and queen who embraced his revolutionary teachings.

Belief System

By 2006 Zoroastrianism reputedly had less than 190,000 followers. However, Zoroastrianism, which was the official faith of Persia (modern-day Iran) from 600 BCE to 650 CE, was once was among the most powerful religions globally.

Zoroastrians believe in the god Ahura Mazdā, who created the world. Zoroastrianism is dualistic in nature, meaning there are two opposing forces or principles. The opposing entity to Ahura Mazdā is called Angra Mainyu, a destroying spirit that is sometimes recognized as an allegory for the evil in humanity. Practitioners pray numerous times a day, and their place of worship is called a Fire Temple (or Agiary). The temple contains a sacred fire, which is never extinguished. The fire is a symbol of the divine light of Ahura Mazdā. The recommended spiritual path is based on the mantra "Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds." As they follow this path, Zoroastrians choose how they will worship and pray.

The sacred text of Zoroastrianism is called the Avesta. Within the text are two sections, the first of which includes the Gathas (17 hymns believed to have been written by the prophet Zoroaster). The second section includes both myths and information about rituals. One significant ritual of the faith is the Navjote. This initiation prayer ceremony is completed between the ages of 7 and 12 when a child receives the sacred garments of a sudreh (shirt) and a kusti (cord). Overall, however, the faith is centered on seasonal festivals and prayer. Some of the faithful wear a cord (a kusti) that is knotted three times. These three knots are reminders of the "Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds" mantra.

Comparison to Christianity

Zoroastrianism predates Christianity, although many of the elements of the Christian faith are visible within Zoroastrianism. Similarities include the concepts of heaven and hell, as well as the monotheistic and dualistic natures of Judaism and Christianity. Also, while the prophet Zoroaster was the founder of the faith, he was not viewed as God.

Like Christianity, Zoroastrianism incorporates free will: people have the choice to either follow good or evil paths. The good is called asha, which is "truth." The evil is druj, which is "deceit." In the afterlife a person will either go to heaven (Ahura Mazdā's realm) or hell (Angra Mainyu's realm).

In Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the fictional character is doubted, as was the historical prophet. Also, the character in Nietzsche's book implores his listeners to refuse the system that oppresses or limits them—as Zoroaster did when he rejected the class-based social system of his time.

Nietzsche's Philosophical Terminology

In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche introduces a number of important terms:

  • Eternal recurrence or return: belief that time—past, present, and future—is infinite. Therefore, events must recur or repeat throughout time. This theory supports the idea that time and therefore life is in a constant state of change. There are no fixed moments or states of being. If one achieves the status of overman or superman, this state becomes permanent in its recurrence.
  • Nihilism: belief in nothing. In such a world, life is meaningless. Nietzsche worried that disappearing historical human purposes for living, such as religion, needed to be replaced with other purposes, such as achieving the status of overman or superman, in order to avoid chaos.
  • Overcoming: ability to change the self by overcoming attachments to false authorities such as law, prejudice, or religion to develop one's own values.
  • Overman or superman: superior being and the goal of humanity. The overman or superman frees himself from false attachments to self-create according to his own experience of the world.
  • Will to power: driving force of humanity. Humans are driven to free themselves from false attachments to achieve self-mastery. The reward for such achievement is absolute freedom and power.
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