Thus Spoke Zarathustra | Study Guide

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

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Thus Spoke Zarathustra | Themes


Overman and Overcoming

Thus Spoke Zarathustra is often considered Nietzsche's masterpiece because it presents his primary philosophical theories, including that of the Übermensch ("overman" or "superman") and the Überwindung ("overcoming"). Zarathustra introduces the idea of the "overman" or "superman" when he says, "I teach you the overman. Man is something that shall be overcome."

For Nietzsche, the "overman" or "superman" is a superior being and the goal of humanity. This superiority is not the result of evolution, but of self-mastery. This being will successfully "overcome" the "herd morality" of organized religion and other false authorities to develop his own values that are derived from earthly existence. By gaining power over the self, the superman self-creates, and the reward is absolute freedom and power.

Will to Power

Nietzsche discusses a "will to power" that drives all beings to seek mastery over internal or external forces: "Where there is life is there also will: not will to life but—thus I teach you—will to power." The idea is first introduced in Thus Spoke Zarathustra in the context of overcoming. In Chapter 34: On Self-Overcoming, Nietzsche writes of it as "the will to power—the unexhausted, procreating will of life." Yet, Nietzsche never advocates tyranny. The ultimate example of the will to power, according to Nietzsche, is self-mastery—the idea that one can master or overcome distractions to achieve one's goals. For Nietzsche, the ultimate goals in life are freedom and power.

The philosopher believes that obedience to any authority—governmental, academic, or religious—will not lead to overcoming: "One repays a teacher badly if one always remains nothing but a pupil." Thus, the creation of a tyrannical government is in opposition to the Nietzsche's objective of overcoming. The will to power enables one to evolve into the overman. Nietzsche writes, "I am that which must always overcome itself." In the ability to consistently overcome the self during a life characterized by struggle, Nietzsche believes that one finds freedom and power in the understanding that nothing is permanent: the only constant in life is change.

While Nietzsche's philosophy anticipates a "Caesar [imperial ruler] with Christ's soul," his ideas were often corrupted by such 20th-century dictators as Adolph Hitler (1889–1945). As the leader of the German Nazi Party leading up to and during World War II (1939–45), Hitler corrupted Nietzsche's ideas to advocate the belief that there existed a super race—a superior white Aryan race that was exemplified by the German people or the Volk, as he called them. All beliefs and practices were judged according to whether or not they benefited the Volk. In Hitler's view, the greatest threat to the Volk was the devil, who was personified by Jewish people. In an effort to protect the Volk, Hitler orchestrated a brutal campaign of genocide against the Jews of Europe.

"God Is Dead"

While the often-misinterpreted statement "God is dead" is attributed to Nietzsche's use in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (prologue and Chapter 25), the idea was first uttered by German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) in an exploration to define God in different terms than had been historically used. For Nietzsche, however, the phrase describes a modern decline in religious belief that was being replaced by nihilism. Nihilism is the philosophical idea that life is meaningless. Therefore, no true moral or ethical system can be valid. Thus, there is no absolute external authority.

Nietzsche believed that this shift toward nihilism would plunge the world into chaos. To avoid this fate, Nietzsche put forth the idea that false moral authority, such as a religion that proposes the purpose of earthly life is to achieve eternal life after death, should be replaced with another purpose that would give new meaning to life. Thus, he proposes his superman theory as a goal for humanity. The purpose of life is to overcome the self and thus achieve absolute freedom and power. In doing, so human greatness becomes possible.

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