I was given a copy of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra, or to be more accurate Alexander Tille’s translation Thus Spake Zarathustra, by a good friend of mine in the spring of 1986 (he’d written the date, with “love and best regards”, at the front), but had never got around to reading it. I’d always thought it would be better to try to read it in German, or perhaps to start with another of his books (another friend, who knows something about Nietzsche, recommends Die fröhliche Wissenschaft ), but when that first friend died a couple of years ago I decided I really ought to finally make use of his present. When I looked the book up in Wikipedia I got the distinct impression that this translation is the oldest and generally regarded as the worst of all the English translations, but (at least partly because of the emotional connection) I decided to give it a try anyway.
Reading it turned into a bit of an open-ended project. Having read Roy Pascal’s intelligent and well-written 1957 introduction followed by Alexander Tille’s 1896 translation, frequently consulting the German original and Thomas Common’s 1909 translation, I read Anthony Ludovici’s notes and Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche’s introduction to the Thomas Common translation, then re-read the Roy Pascal introduction with which I’d begun. Along with all that I’d spent many an hour in Wikipedia reading about Nietzsche, his philosophy in general and Also sprach Zarathustra in particular, along with all the people mentioned above and much else besides. It was partly for this reason that I’d spent longer on this book than on any other I can think of, but also because of the fact that I’d simultaneously been looking into and reading about Jeremy Griffith and his World Transformation Movement.
It was interesting reading those two together. I wasn’t at all surprised to find Griffith quoting Nietzsche, and the two do share certain ideas – generally very right-wing ones. Just to give one (not especially right-wing) example, the concept of Apollonian and Dionysian dichotomy which Nietzsche (among many others) found useful: Apollo representing the thinking, self-controlled, rational, logical and ordered side of man and the celebration of human order and culture, while Dionysus represents feeling, passion, irrationality, instinct and the celebration of nature. Just like yang and yin, the two are associated with male and female respectively, and can be recognised in Jeremy Griffith’s ideas regarding the roles of men and women in human development: men going out searching for knowledge and promoting individual consciousness and rational thought, while women stayed home to look after the kids and preserve our link with our innocent, instinctive nature. Camille Paglia (not a popular person among feminists) says more or less the same thing, attributing “all the progress of human civilization to masculinity revolting against the Dionysian forces of nature, and turning instead to the Apollonian trait of ordered creation.” (Wikipedia). Anyway, back to Also sprach Zarathustra. Not that this will just be about that book, but rather a general commentary on Nietzsche and his ideas, based on my recent reading. After literally decades of reading about Nietzsche, seeing him quoted and listening to music inspired by his texts, I’d now finally got round to reading one of his books, if only in translation. Judging by what I read now and then of the original, reading it would have been very hard work (my German is OK for everyday purposes, but not quite up to the level of Zarathustra ). If I’d come across this book without any previous knowledge or expectations I’d probably have regarded it first and foremost as poetry, and judging only by this work I’d definitely classify Nietzsche as a poet rather than a philosopher, an artist rather than a scientist. The style and structure reminded me very much of Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Gibran had been inspired by this book, although perhaps more by its form than by its content. While The Prophet is filled with many wise words and the occasional statement that some people might find controversial, Zarathustra contains much wisdom and even more controversy. Nietzsche isn’t worried about offending anyone, in fact the vast majority of the human race come into categories which for Nietzsche deserve all the offence he can throw at them, and more. He enjoys waking people up out of whatever sort of complacency they’ve fallen into, and although I read much here that I strongly disagreed with, it’s been a long time since I read anything so thought-provoking. Or maybe that ‘although’ should have been a ‘because’… Zarathustra is full of contradictions and vague images, but is still more than just poetry, more than just an inspired person playing with ideas and producing a work of art which is fully open to interpretation. Seen in the context of the rest of Nietzsche’s life and work it’s just as much an exposition of his philosophy and politics, and they can only be described as extreme right wing in the deepest meaning of the term. Reading this book, it’s not difficult to see why the Nazis liked him. His is essentially a macho, militaristic philosophy, suited to warriors, explorers and conquerors, and the book often sounds like a Laibach song text:
He glorifies the individual, but his highest ideal is courage and his ideal individual is one who cares nothing for his own survival but offers himself up for the group or for an idea. Of Chapter XV, The Thousand and One Goals, Ludovici says:
Verse 12 states:
Interesting to read that now, two world wars later! I’m sure Nietzsche would have thoroughly disapproved of Hitler (he absolutely hated anti-semitism for a start), and while I don’t think the Nazis really misused his work, they certainly quoted from it selectively. However, the elements of his philosophy which I would describe as fascist (with a small f) are not incidental but essential. They cannot (like Carl Gustav Jung’s racism) be explained by putting them in the context of the prevailing ideas of the period. Nietzsche cared nothing for the ideas of the society he lived in, but made up his own and was 100% responsible for them. He was very much an elitist and frequently talks about ‘the rabble’ and (ominously, in hindsight) about ‘the superfluous ones’:
He divides mankind into Master and Slave classes, each with its own morality, designed to suit its own ends, and compares them to the lion and the antelope, or the eagle and the lamb. But whereas few people would consider lions and eagles to be better than antelopes and lambs, Nietzsche certainly considers the Master class and its morality better than the Slave class and its morality. Not that he would want the Slave class to disappear (he undoubtedly recognises that the Master class of mankind is as dependent upon the Slave class as the lion and the eagle are upon the antelope and the lamb), but he finds it essential that the Master class should continue to rule, and should impose their morality on the majority, simply because he believes that their morality is better, in the long term, for mankind as a whole:
Nietzsche makes many statements which would certainly qualify as misogynistic nowadays, in fact I’m sure they would also have done so at the time. Not that he actually has anything against women as such, it’s just that he feels that men and women have specific and totally different roles to play in society, and that they should stick to them. The role of men happens to be to lead and be warriors, and that of women happens to be to follow, obey and serve their men-folk; that’s the way nature designed things, so that’s how we should be living. In fact I’d go so far as to say that he generally believes that once we realise the general trend in nature we should endeavour to go ever further in that direction:
Nietzsche often speaks disparagingly of what he sees as ‘effeminate’; what would he say about homosexuality?! So, all things considered, I would tend to describe him as misanthropic rather than just misogynistic. Nietzsche certainly wasn’t an everyday conservative, in other words he wasn’t someone who disliked change or was satisfied with the way things are. If fact, as far as wanting to change the world is concerned, he could more justifiably be described as a revolutionary than as a conservative. On the other hand I would definitely say he was a reactionary, in that he resisted, or wanted to turn back, what Ludovici calls ‘the general democratic movement of modern times’. As well as being a reactionary, he was an artist and a mad genius – but he was also a great thinker. He was far too intelligent, far too honest, and came out with far too many wise, perceptive, original and generally brilliant statements for left-wing thinkers to write him off as just another old reactionary. No, his right-wing ideas are based on much deep and honest thought, and have to be taken seriously. However, I don’t think it’s that difficult to point out where he went wrong, and I will now attempt to do so… Let’s begin with the fact that Nietzsche understands certain things which few before him understood – or dared to say even if they did. For a start he understands that ‘good’, ‘evil’ and morality are relative, man-made concepts, and sees them as
When he says that ‘God is dead’, he’s saying that God is a man-made concept, and one which is no longer useful. He rejects any sort of absolute or God-given morality, in fact he rejects morality as a force which ought to rule human affairs. He rejects any idea of a ‘natural moral order’:
I agree completely: the strongest entities do tend to be victorious over the weak (that’s why we call them “strong”), so if life can be said to have a direction or a will, it is a will to power; it certainly isn’t a will to weakness! In other words, life isn’t fair. ‘Fairness’ is a human invention, very much related to morality, and (just like morality), something which cannot be found in nature. The natural state of affairs has always been that the strong triumph over the weak: it’s only man-made civilisation which attempts to change this. In my opinion Nietzsche is guilty, to a certain extent, of a ‘naturalistic fallacy’ or ‘appeal to nature’: life isn’t fair, therefore we shouldn’t try to pretend it’s fair or to make it fair. I’d say that it’s pretty obvious that life isn’t fair and there’s no point pretending that it is, but that isn’t a reason for not trying to make it so. It’s up to us to decide whether ‘fairness’ is a useful concept and something we want, and if so then to work to bring it about. In other words Nietzsche seems to be rejecting ‘fairness’, in part at least, for the totally inadequate reason that it isn’t natural. Nietzsche also recognises that inequality is more conducive to a strong and triumphant group than is equality. It’s no coincidence that armies have a dictatorial rather than a democratic structure, nor that the societies responsible for the most progress in the ancient world included his Master and Slave classes. Societies with a high degree of division of labour, and therefore of inequality, where the desires of the individual are subservient to those of the group, tend to be more competitive, innovative and productive, and therefore stronger and more successful than those which aim towards equality. This is certainly not the only reason for the failure of the ‘communist experiment’, and not even the most important direct explanation. But the fact that communist countries had to compete, militarily and economically, against societies which rejected equality, in practice if not in theory, meant that they couldn’t afford too much equality themselves, a fact which the theoretically equal were bound to notice sooner or later. But anyway, back to Nietzsche… This, then, is another reason why he rejects ‘fairness’: he cares nothing for individual happiness, and everything for victory and progress. But what’s so wonderful about any particular group being triumphant over other, weaker groups? Nietzsche doesn’t say so, at least not in this book, or not in any form that I could recognise. He certainly wasn’t just a product of his time, unable to see beyond the level of the nation state, but even if he disliked nationalism and patriotism and considered himself ‘a good European’, he still thought in terms of competing groups, of ‘us and them’, and found it important that ‘the good side’ (i.e. the strongest and most ‘noble’ side) wins. Maybe he couldn’t see beyond the level of Europe: the greatest civilisation the world has ever known, destined to triumph over the rest of humanity. He might have been ‘a good European’, but I don’t think he’d have made a very good world citizen! As well as being conducive to group victory, inequality could justifiably be said to be good for the progress of humanity as a whole. I am neither a historian nor an anthropologist, but I find it at the very least conceivable that if our ancestors had sought after equality and happiness, and had shared and cooperated rather than competed and enslaved each other, we might well not be where we are today in terms of what most people refer to as ‘progress’. But what’s so wonderful about human ‘progress’, no matter how it’s defined, that we should decide, as a species, to sacrifice so much individual happiness in order to achieve it? Why shouldn’t mankind choose individual happiness instead? Again, Nietzsche doesn’t seem to offer any answer to this question. For him the progress of humanity from animal to Übermensch is simply our rightful destiny, and a destiny which must be followed:
What it eventually comes down to is this: in spite of having declared God dead, what Nietzsche is offering in his place is really a religious philosophy. He’s placing something above the level of humanity, even if it’s only ‘an ascent in the line of life’, evolution towards a new kind of man. His concept of ‘the Eternal Recurrence of all things’ also comes into this category, not just because of its similarity to certain existing religion doctrines, but also because it consists of speculation beyond the scope of our actual experience, beyond what we can really know, and is therefore something in which we can only believe. Also, like every philosophy which puts something above the level of man, it opens the way to all kinds of dangerous possibilities for sacrificing knowable present good for some unknowable ‘supernatural’ concept which theoretically might be better or more important. It is often said that Nietzsche’s great contribution to the thought of his time was to offer a new sort of meaning, a new direction, in a world which had lost its old meanings and directions. At the time he was writing old certainties based on religion were rapidly disintegrating, and he not only analysed and described this phenomenon but did his best to give these old structures a final push: good riddance to bad rubbish. He says God is dead, and that ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are man-made concepts, and this is certainly progress. But rather than trying to help mankind come to terms with this loss and to learn to live in a world where there are no certainties and where everything is relative, he tries to set up a new set of ‘certainties’. He rejects belief in God, religion and morality, but doesn’t realise that these concepts in themselves weren’t really the problem, and that the real problem was belief itself. He rejects the old myths, but rather than teaching mankind to live without myths he’d rather create new ones. To sum up… Nietzsche’s philosophy is a mixture of often contradictory ideas working at different levels. At his best, he encourages people to ‘become themselves’, to live by their own rules, and not to follow any leader, especially him. Not that he was ever an anarchist politically: he had too much respect for hierarchy and leadership for that, and too much distaste for democracy and ‘the rabble’. At his worst, however, he encourages people to sacrifice themselves and their fellow beings to an ideal which, as far as I’m concerned, is no better than the old religious ideals he so rightly rejected. To a certain extent he was just part of what’s been called the Counter-Enlightenment, along with the romantics, the hippies and everyone else who rejects mankind’s over-emphasis on rationality at the expense of emotion and instinct. That’s certainly the part of his philosophy which most appeals to anyone who isn’t extremely right-wing. He is, in any case, a very interesting character, and this won’t be the last of his books that I read.
And finally a few words on the two introductions. Ludovici starts his with a long exposition on the fact that most people start their study of Nietzsche with Also sprach Zarathustra (as indeed I did), whereas it’s his most difficult and abstruse work and should not be attempted until one has read “some authoritative book on Nietzsche’s life and works”, plus “such works as: Joyful Science, Beyond Good and Evil, The Genealogy of Morals, The Twilight of the Idols, The Antichrist, The Will to Power, etc., etc.”, in other words pretty well everything else he wrote! Roy Pascal, on the other hand, starts his introduction by describing this book as Nietzsche’s “most accessible work”. It’s interesting to compare the views of Pascal, writing twelve years after the end of the second world war, with those of Ludovici, writing before the first. Whereas Pascal is very conscious of the negative aspects of Nietzsche’s thought, and where they might, and to some extent did, lead mankind, Ludovici has no such problems. At first I assumed that Pascal was just benefiting from ‘die Gnade der späten Geburt’ (not that late, as he seems to have been born c. 1904 – but in the right country), or at least ‘die Gnade der späten Schrift’. Gradually, however, I discovered that Ludovici is unashamedly right-wing, in fact fairly extreme right-wing in a way you could still get away with in 1909. He certainly doesn’t like “revolutionists and anarchists”!:
Speaking about Chapter LVI, Old and New Tables, paragraphs 11 and 12, he says:
Arthur de Gobineau could be described as the father of racism. According to Wikipedia he “believed the white race was superior to the other races in the creation of civilized culture and maintaining ordered government”, and he even “questioned the belief that the black and yellow races belong to the same human family as the white race and share a common ancestor”. Like Nietzsche, he was very popular with the Nazis, but, as in Nietzsche’s case, they had to edit his works heavily to make them acceptable, especially concerning his great admiration for the Jewish race. Speaking about Chapter LVI, Old and New Tables, paragraph 21 he says:
Interesting that anyone should consider Herbert Spencer too democratic! The least that can be said about Ludovici is that he couldn’t resist the temptation to use what is meant to be a scholarly introduction to a book by Nietzsche as a platform for his personal political views. When I finally looked him up in Wikipedia I discovered that he was well known before the war as a fairly extreme right-wing writer. He began as an artist, painting and illustrating books, and was private secretary to Auguste Rodin before moving on to writing, Nietzsche, philosophy and politics. He wrote enthusiastically about Hitler in 1936, was openly hostile to Jews and wrote an anti-Semitic work under a pseudonym, none of which made him very popular after the war. Having read his comments on Also sprach Zarathustra, I didn’t find any of this very surprising. So am I being unfair to Nietzsche by giving so much weight to the interpretation of his works by such a notorious extreme right-wing character? I don’t think so. The fact that I’ve quoted so much from him in this essay, rather than from Roy Pascal’s introduction to the Alexander Tille translation, is simply that I was reading Roy Pascal’s introduction on paper and Ludovici’s notes on a computer, which made quoting from the latter a lot less work. And if I didn’t quote much from the original text, it was because Nietzsche’s writing is so poetical and open to interpretation, and I found Ludovici’s interpretation to be honest, reasonable and very much in line with my own. I don’t think Ludovici is putting any ideas into Nietzsche’s text which aren’t really to be found there. On the contrary, in fact, I think his political views and the time that he’s writing cause and allow him to enthusiastically expound upon elements in Nietzsche’s thought which more mainline thinkers, especially those writing after the Nazi period, are likely to sweep under the carpet.
|title||Also sprach Zarathustra|
|translator||Alexander Tille, Thomas Common|
|read||03/10/2010 – 24/11/2010|
|download / read online||Thomas Common’s 1909 translation, with notes by Anthony Ludovici and introduction by Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche|
|English and German side by side|