Was Zarathustra an/the overman?
Difference of course being "an overman" allows for other, distinct overmen (and I suppose overwomen too) and I contest that Z was AN overman, though not THE. Of course, there's reason to believe he was not. I'm curious what you all think, and here is the paper I wrote on it, so you can know what my reasons are, and then, perhaps, I can learn your reasons for agreeing/disagreeing.
Thus Spoke Zarathustra is Nietzsche’s most popular work. It is also his most often misunderstood work—of course most of Nietzsche’s work gets misunderstood and mistranslated, but Zarathustra is of paramount importance to the entire philosophy of Nietzsche.
In Zarathustra Nietzsche explains both the concept of the overman and the concept of the eternal recurrence. I hold that Nietzsche intended Zarathustra to be an overman, the first overman, the first of many. I also hold that Nietzsche’s ethics share characteristics of Aristotle’s ethics. Lastly, I believe that Nietzsche, although unaware of much Eastern philosophy, writes of an overman who is akin to Buddha.
First we must look at Nietzsche’s philosophy as a whole and where it came from. In Keith May’s Nietzsche on the Struggle between Knowledge and Wisdom, May shows Nietzsche’s “will to power” to be a descendant of Aristotle’s “being”. Aristotle’s Being was the unnamed mass of all things, which was refined by Spinoza (he called it God/Nature) which was further refined by Schopenhauer (he called it Will) which ended up as Nietzsche’s will-to-power. “Being is will to power, and, if we had the confidence to do so, we could now discard the empty word ‘Being’.” The reason this is important is that Nietzsche refined and added definition to the vague terms that came before him.
The will-to-power operates in all things living, however in different degrees. The basest human may have no more will-to-power than a dog or a cat, while the noblest human is blessed with an overflowing will-to-power. The overman uses will-to-power to comprehend the universe—including himself and his past, which he overcomes.
The intermediate step between Nietzsche and Aristotle is of great importance. For it was Spinoza who called everything “God” and Nietzsche talks a great deal about God and gods. Spinoza however, was not your traditional religious follower; he was in fact excommunicated from the Jewish church because of his philosophy. Spinoza called everything God but he also said, “I believe in God only I spell it Nature.” This heavy emphasis on the natural world is visible in Nietzsche, although in a slightly different way. The overman can be seen as a god among men, a god made from men, from nature.
Nietzsche has often been quoted as saying “God is dead!” This is one of the many misunderstandings of Nietzsche. Nietzsche claimed God to be dead, but his aim was not all religion but Christianity—indeed, religions that “stay true to the earth” may have been part of Nietzsche’s goal.
Nietzsche says in Zarathustra, “Precisely this is godlike that there are gods, but no God.” Nietzsche is not denying all gods, indeed he says, “I would only believe in a god who can dance.” And there are such gods amongst Eastern religions. Nietzsche’s claim of God’s death is only the Christian God. Nietzsche believes that there are gods within us; in Daybreak Nietzsche states, “To trust one’s feelings – means to give more obedience to one’s grandfather and grandmother and their grandparents than to the gods which are in us: our reason and our experience.” Clearly, Nietzsche was not a complete disbeliever; agnostic is truer description of him than atheist. He simply refused to embrace the morality of his time, which was overwhelmingly Christian.
The ethics of Nietzsche are that of the overman. The overman was, as stated in the first of Zarathustra’s speeches, a child. This child was an “innocence and forgetting, a new beginning, a game, a self-propelled wheel, a first movement, a sacred ‘yes.’” Thus the child creates new morality and is in Aristotelian terms an unmoved mover.
So if the overman must become a child (an unmoved mover), what evidence is there that Zarathustra is a child? Well, if one looks at Zarathustra’s Prologue it is clear Nietzsche’s intention was to paint Zarathustra as an overman, if not necessarily the overman:
“Yes I recognize Zarathustra. His eyes are pure, and around his mouth there hides no disgust. Does he not walk like a dancer?
“Zarathustra has changed, Zarathustra has become a child, Zarathustra is an awakened one; what do you now want among the sleepers? You lived in your solitude as in the sea, and the sea carried you. Alas, would you now climb ashore? Alas, would you again drag your own body?”
Zarathustra answered: “I love man.” –From Zarathustra’s Prologue
Not only does the saint in the woods call Zarathustra a child, but Zarathustra speaks of his love of man. Love is an essential component in Nietzsche’s philosophy. Later in Zarathustra Nietzsche pens these words, “Where one can no longer love, there one should pass by.” Due to Nietzsche’s perpetual solitude, love was elevated to a lofty status: “What is done out of love always takes place beyond good and evil.” Thus Zarathustra loves man, and brings to them a gift—the gift of the overman. Also, one must note that going “beyond good and evil” is leaving behind the slave morality, and embracing the master morality, which only has “good and bad”.
Zarathustra is also a virtuous man and has what Aristotle desires: a “second nature” for doing that which is virtuous. Second nature is an interesting term, considering the importance of nature in Spinoza and Nietzsche’s writing. Indeed, perhaps this “second nature” is a “second god”—a Buddha perhaps.
The link between Nietzsche’s overman and Aristotle’s ethics grows clearer as we consider the similarity of goals. Nietzsche wants humanity to overcome “the spirit of gravity” and be light footed and joyous. Nietzsche wants an affirmation of life, a happy man. Aristotle claims that Happiness is humanity’s final cause. It seems that the life of the virtuous man, the overman and the exemplary person in China, all ought to culminate in a happy existence.
Zarathustra also meets Aristotle’s criteria for what becomes of the virtuous man; that is, Zarathustra was in a state of Happiness. In “Involuntary Bliss” Zarathustra is unable to shake his happiness no matter how hard he tries. “He waited for his unhappiness the entire night, but he waited in vain. The night remained bright and still, and happiness itself came closer and closer to him. Toward morning however, Zarathustra laughed in his heart and said mockingly, ‘Happiness runs after me. That is because I do not run after women. For happiness is a woman.’” Zarathustra’s never ending happiness is one more piece of corroborating evidence towards Zarathustra being the overman.
Further evidence, supporting Zarathustra as the overman can be found in the passage, On The Adder’s Bite. Zarathustra is bitten by a snake, and the snake is gloating over his kill, while Zarathustra calmly responds, “When has a dragon ever died of the poison of a snake?” This may seem like Nietzsche taking artistic license, but in the passage “On the Three Metamorphoses” Nietzsche writes that one must become a lion, a lion which fights the dragon of traditional morality. Only when that dragon has been defeated could one become a child, an overman.
One must question where the dragon comes from. Logically, it would have to come from children of a previous time, for children are the creators of morality. Thus Zarathustra is the child-like overman, who creates the dragon for others to fight against on their way to creating their own dragons.
The words of the Saint in the forest aside and the happiness of Zarathustra ignored, many people claim Zarathustra is not the overman; there are explicit passages where Zarathustra claims to be the herald of the overman, and not the overman himself. I see things differently. Zarathustra, as an overman, is leading the way to the overman, since he himself is walking it. Anytime a change occurs, one man must begin it, in this case, the change into the overman is lead by Zarathustra.
Much like how Confucius thought the exemplary person would inspire those around him to become exemplary, Nietzsche believed that the overman would inspire others to overcome. Indeed, Zarathustra encounters a youth by a tree on the mountainside that sees Zarathustra as the lighting and the frenzy of the overman. The youth says, “Yes, Zarathustra, you are speaking the truth. I longed to go under when I aspired to the height, and you are the lightning for which I waited.” The youth, although not the overman yet, waited for Zarathustra to spur him into a frenzy; Zarathustra recognizes the youth’s longing and his flaws. Zarathustra is saddened by this youth, but offers advice, “By my love and hope I beseech you: do not throw away the hero in your soul! Hold holy your highest hope!”
Zarathustra says at one point, “It is nobler to declare oneself wrong that to insist on being right—especially when one is right. Only one must be rich enough for that.” Thus Zarathustra might be only playing with us when he claims not to be the overman. Perhaps it is Zarathustra’s overflowing rightness that allows him to say he is wrong. Perhaps Nietzsche did not want Zarathustra becoming a new idol, because the last thing Nietzsche wanted was to become a tablet of goods that others would embrace. If Zarathustra was to become a tablet, Nietzsche would have wanted us to break it—so instead he built flaws into it, so as to prevent idolization.
While it is true that Zarathustra does exhibit melancholy throughout much of the book this is not conclusive in itself. At the ending of the third book (which is the real ending of the tale of Zarathustra, since part four is intended as an entertaining interlude, not a conclusion) Zarathustra is a blessed yea-sayer. The story of Zarathustra ends with the seven seals or “the yes and amen song”. In that passage, Zarathustra is found to be blessing eternity and the eternal recurrence. For my money, Zarathustra was an overman, an overman we can learn from—but like all teachers, he too can trap us.