HomeLiterature Study GuidesThus Spoke ZarathustraPart 1 Zarathustras Prologue Summary

Thus Spoke Zarathustra | Study Guide

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

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Thus Spoke Zarathustra | Part 1, Zarathustra's Prologue | Summary

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Nietzsche breaks Thus Spoke Zarathustra into four parts. This study guide breaks those parts further into chapter groupings.

Summary

Zarathustra's Prologue includes 10 short segments in which Zarathustra, age 30, leaves his home to live in a cave in the mountains for 10 years. One morning, he greets the sun and feels the need to empty himself of the honey of his accumulated wisdom, saying "I would give away and distribute, until the wise among men find joy once again in their folly, and the poor in their riches."

On his way down the mountainside, Zarathustra meets a saint/old man who warns him the townsfolk are suspicious of hermits. Zarathustra arrives in the marketplace and begins speaking of the "overman," saying, "What can be loved in man is that he is an overture and a going under." However, he is interrupted by the performance of a tightrope walker. Midway through the performance, a mocking jester walks along the rope from behind and leaps over the tightrope walker. The walker voluntarily throws away his pole and falls to his death, landing in front of Zarathustra. The dying man tells Zarathustra, "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." Zarathustra carries the dead body and hides it in a hollow tree to protect it from wolves. The next morning, he is joined by his eagle and serpent as he continues on his journey.

Analysis

The collection of 10 short episodes in "Zarathustra's Prologue" serves to set the tone for both the story and Nietzsche's philosophical explorations into overcoming the self, religion, and relationships within the body and the spirit. Zarathustra's passage out of solitude so that he can interact with others is not only a physical journey, but also a spiritual progression. His encounter with the saint/old man along the way is the first of many in which other characters serve as contrasting internal voices for both Zarathustra and Nietzsche. In this instance, the saint/old man questions Zarathustra's interest in the town nearby, where the townsfolk mistrust wandering hermits and are therefore unlikely to listen to him. In a sense, this warning also reflects Nietzsche's purpose in writing the book, suggesting that even as he writes it, he does so in spite of the fact he believes hardly anyone reading it will understand.

The "honey" Zarathustra has accumulated over 10 years of solitude is the wisdom he wishes to impart to others. Honey is also bait to draw the "higher men" to be his guests in his cave beginning in Chapter 61: The Honey Sacrifice, but while it is "sticky" to get people to listen to him, Zarathustra also finds it "sticky" to overcome his own vanity, pride, and especially pity.

The statement regarding the wise finding joy in their folly and the poor in their riches is among the first of many Zarathustra makes throughout the book that present pairs of opposites for the purpose of illumination. For example, Zarathustra's pronouncement of a "going under" as a means by which the seeker is enabled to "overcome" the self is a reversal of orientation that recurs in later chapters. The character of Zarathustra is loosely based on Zoroaster, the middle-eastern founder of one of the world's oldest religions, Zoroastrianism. Zoroaster (Greek for Zarathustra) believed in a single deity (monotheism) and drew distinctions between the opposites of good and evil. These ideas are believed to have influenced the development of Judaism. The implication is that the quality of light is defined by the quality of darkness and vice versa. Thus, the act of creation becomes not so much a matter of bringing something into reality as it is of defining a division between what a thing is and what it is not. This becomes important later in Thus Spoke Zarathustra when Zarathustra attacks the dragon's scales as a series of "Thou shalt" assumptions.

Two references in Zarathustra's Prologue connect Thus Spoke Zarathustra to the works of German composer Richard Strauss (1864–1949). Strauss wrote an 1896 orchestral concerto titled Also sprach Zarathustra, in which the Encyclopædia Britannica claims "the entities of man and nature are illustrated and contrasted by opposing tonalities." This music was used in the 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The second connection is that both Strauss and Nietzsche made use of the mocking jester, a familiar folk character in German literature who sows chaos. The Encyclopædia Britannica asserts that "Strauss found the exact instrumental sounds and colors to depict the 14th-century rogue ... mocking the clergy to his death-squawk on a D clarinet on the gallows" in his musical poem, Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks (1894–95). The name "Eulenspiegel" means "Owlglass," and the character is likely based on a historical person. The prankster of many cultures offers release from the strictures of ordered community life. In this instance, "the stupid yet cunning peasant demonstrates his superiority to the narrow, dishonest, condescending townsman, as well as to the clergy and the nobility." The episode of the jester and the tightrope walker presents a literal example of Nietzsche's idea of self-release from social and religious restrictions even at the risk of "falling off the tightrope."

The dying tightrope walker's statement about having not been much more than a beast is later reflected in Zarathustra's observation in Chapter 1: On the Three Metamorphoses that the first stage of the spirit is one of a camel carrying burdens across a desert. Had the tightrope walker not allowed himself to fall to his death, he might have been capable of moving to the next transformation of the spirit. It is this loss that moves Zarathustra to honor the tightrope walker.

Zarathustra's two animal companions who remain with him throughout the book are well-chosen opposites. While the eagle soars high above to symbolize aspiration and ideals, the serpent is a creature of the ground, significantly shedding its skin in a kind of rebirth. Together, these two creatures serve to keep Zarathustra focused on his goal when he becomes sidetracked by events that take place around him as he travels.

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