Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900 CE) wrote Thus Spake Zarathustra, a book through which many Europeans became familiar with the name Zarathushtra. Nietzsche's work is known more by how it was misinterpreted than by a careful examination of his life and writings. In Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche developed the concept of the übermensch or overman, a word incorrectly translated into English as the superman. Born in Rocken, Germany, the son of a Polish Lutheran minister and a German mother, Nietzsche declared there was nothing German about him. He intensely disliked Imperial Germany and the growing German nationalism of his day. Yet Nietzsche would be quoted years after his death to justify German Nazi ideology. In addition, Nietzsche repudiated Christian ideology and morality, and was a notable free-thinker. For these and other positions and ideas of his, the academic elite of Imperial Germany developed a strong antagonism towards Nietzsche. Unfortunately, Nietzsche did use inflammatory language and expounded concepts that many found disturbing. Nietzsche's provocative style may have also obscured some of his central themes. This page seeks to develop an understanding of Nietzsche's core philosophy as he espoused them and not through the commentary of others. It also seeks to explore the connections, if any, between Nietzsche's philosophy and Zoroastrianism.
Note: We will use the spelling Zarathustra with reference to Nietzsche's character, and Zarathushtra with reference to the original Zarathushtra.
Nietzsche & Zoroastrianism
Friedrich Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra introduced the name of Zoroastrianism's founder, Zarathushtra, to many Europeans. The book contained bold concepts that greatly influenced twentieth century philosophical thought. It also contained other ideas that led to a host of misconceptions about Zoroastrianism. While Nietzsche may have based some of his ideas on Zoroastrian precepts as Europeans of his time understood them, he also made Zarathustra the mouthpiece for many of his own ideas - ideas that were greatly misconstrued by others. Since Zarathustra's name is connected with many of Nietzsche's ideas, it behoves us on to examine some of Nietzsche's ideas as also the links those ideas may or may not have with Zoroastrianism.
Nietzsche writes in Ecce Homo, his autobiography (and is quoted by his sister below in her introduction to Thus Spake Zarathustra), "People have never asked me, as they should have done, what the name Zarathustra precisely means in my mouth... ." Nietzsche starts his answer to the question that had not been asked till then by saying, "Zarathustra was the first to see in the struggle between good and evil the essential wheel in the working of things." By reading the rest of Nietzsche's answer, we understand that Nietzsche was inspired by (the original) Zarathushtra and then began to develop and add his own insights to what he understood as Zarathustra's message.
[We note Nietzsche's use of the phrase "essential wheel in the working of things" as what "Zarathustra was the first to see in the struggle between good and evil". In Zoroastrianism the wheel of existence, ras, is essential to the workings of the entire cosmos, and manifests itself in human beings as the struggle between good and evil, cf. our discussion on Ras, The Wheel of Existence at God, Time & Creation.]
We should add that Nietzsche's description of the person of Zarathustra and the setting in which Nietzsche placed his Zarathustra are to a great extent a product of Nietzsche's imagination, though they do contain some interesting parallels which we note in our comments.
Biographies about Nietzsche make the considerable claim that he influenced twentieth-century thought more than any other philosopher. They say that Nietzsche's critiques and methodology were far ahead of their time. Indeed, the claim is that Nietzsche was the inspiration for almost every twentieth century movement in European philosophy, notably existentialism and postmodernism, and those philosophers influenced by Nietzsche included Martin Heidegger, Michel Foucault, Thomas Mann, George Bernard Shaw, W. B. Yeats, James Joyce, Jacques Derrida, Sigmund Freud, and Jean-Paul Sartre. We are also given to understand that Nietzsche's ideas were used by the Nazi regime of Germany's Third Reich as justification for their ideology.
Friedrich Nietzsche was born in Rocken, Germany, the son of a Polish Lutheran minister and Franziska Ochler, his German mother. He began his career as a classical philologist before focusing on philosophy. At the age of 24 Nietzsche was appointed to the Chair of Classical Philology at the University of Basel, a position he resigned in 1879 because of health problems - problems which would plague him for the rest of his life. In 1889 Nietzsche began to exhibit symptoms of insanity after which he lived under the care of his mother and sister until his death in 1900.
Nietzsche - Anti-Semitism & Nazism
On his death, Nietzsche's sister became his literary executor and she used her brother's fame to advance her own proto-Nazi anti-Semitic views. She distorted Nietzsche's opinions and published his works selectively in order to make it appear that Nietzsche supported the cause and ideas she espoused. (However, we are also grateful to her for some unique insights into his seminal work Thus Spake Zarathustra.)
For the first half of the twentieth century, Nietzsche was largely misconstrued as being the primary philosopher on which Nazism later based its ideology - even though Nietzsche was in many of his writings quite explicit about his dislike and disdain for German nationalism and anti-Semitism. However, the inflammatory language Nietzsche used in his writings provided ample opportunity for others to amplify those ideas that they wished to selectively promote.
In Nietzsche's first book, The Birth of Tragedy (published in 1872), he praised his friend the composer Richard Wagner. However, subsequently Nietzsche's friendship and admiration for Wagner waned as Wagner's anti-Semitism, nationalism, and Christianity increased. Perhaps in response to Wager, Nietzsche became an outspoken advocate against anti-Semitism, German nationalism and Christianity (even calling himself the Anti-Christ).
Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883-1885)
Nietzsche's philosophy achieves a certain maturity in his book Thus Spake Zarathustra. The book's complete original title in German was Also sprach Zarathustra: Ein Buch für Alle und Keinenin which translates into English as Thus Spake Zarathustra: A Book for All and None.
In his auto-biographical Ecce Homo (a name used by Pontius Pilate in the Vulgate translation of the Gospel of John and translated in the King James Version of the Christian Bible as 'Behold the Man') - his last prose work - Nietzsche writes, "The whole of my Zarathustra is a dithyramb (a passionately emotional speech or piece of writing) in honour of purity. Not, thank heaven, in honour of 'pure foolery' (disparaging Wagner dedicating his opera Parsifal to a 'pure fool')."
The book starts with the Prologue, a section that contains some central themes of Nietzsche's philosophy. The introduction is written by Nietzsche's sister, Mrs. Forster-Nietzsche.
[Note: The translated quotations below are adapted from Thomas Common's translation of Thus Spake Zarathustra.]
Nietzsche's Understanding of Zarathushtra
Introduction by Mrs. Forster-Nietzsche
In Thus Spake Zarathustra's Introduction (dated December 1905 at Weimar), Nietzsche's sister Mrs. Forster-Nietzsche writes:
"Zarathustra is my brother's most personal work; it is the history of his most individual experiences, of his friendships, ideals, raptures, bitterest disappointments and sorrows. Above it all, however, there soars, transfiguring it, the image of his greatest hopes and remotest aims. My brother had the figure of Zarathustra in his mind from his very earliest youth: he once told me that even as a child he had dreamt of him. At different periods in his life, he would call this haunter of his dreams by different names; 'but in the end,' he declares in a note on the subject, 'I had to do a Persian the honour of identifying him with this creature of my fancy. Persians were the first to take a broad and comprehensive view of history. Every series of evolutions, according to them, was presided over by a prophet; and every prophet had his Hazar - his dynasty of a thousand years.'
"All Zarathustra's views, as also his personality, were early conceptions of my brother's mind. Whoever reads his posthumously published writings for the years 1869-82 with care, will constantly meet with passages suggestive of Zarathustra's thoughts and doctrines. ...
"During the month of August 1881 my brother resolved to reveal the teaching of the Eternal Recurrence, in dithyrambic and psalmodic form, through the mouth of Zarathustra. Among the notes of this period, we found a page on which is written the first definite plan of Thus Spake Zarathustra:
" 'Midday and Eternity. Guide-Posts to a New Way Of Living.' Beneath which is written:
" 'Zarathustra born on Lake Urmia; left his home in his thirtieth year, went into the province of Aria, and, during ten years of solitude in the mountains, composed the Zend-Avesta.'
" 'The sun of knowledge stands once more at midday; and the serpent of eternity lies coiled in its light: It is your time, you midday brethren.'...
"Already at the beginning of this history I hinted at the reasons which led my brother to select a Persian as the incarnation of his ideal of the majestic philosopher. His reasons, however, for choosing Zarathustra of all others to be his mouthpiece, he gives us in the following words: 'People have never asked me, as they should have done, what the name Zarathustra precisely means in my mouth, in the mouth of the first immoralist; for what distinguishes that philosopher from all others in the past is the very fact that he was exactly the reverse of an immoralist. Zarathustra was the first to see in the struggle between good and evil the essential wheel in the working of things. The translation of morality into the metaphysical, as force, cause, end in itself, was his work. But the very question suggests its own answer. Zarathustra created the most portentous error, morality, consequently he should also be the first to perceive that error, not only because he has had longer and greater experience of the subject than any other thinker - all history is the experimental refutation of the theory of the so-called moral order of things: the more important point is that Zarathustra was more truthful than any other thinker. In his teaching alone do we meet with truthfulness upheld as the highest virtue i.e. the reverse of the cowardice of the 'idealist' who flees from reality. Zarathustra had more courage in his body than any other thinker before or after him. To tell the truth and to aim straight: that is the first Persian virtue. Am I understood? ... The overcoming of morality through itself - through truthfulness, the overcoming of the moralist through his opposite - through me: that is what the name Zarathustra means in my mouth."
Morality & the Lie
(The original) Zarathushtra: did seek to expose the established order of the times in which he lived as druj - the lie - an order based on deception that deluded the masses into thinking that the established order was a moral order. He asked people to develop independent, sovereign, wise minds so that they could see the established order for what is was - an order that sought to stifle free thought under the guise of morality - a false morality. Zarathushtra sought to replace the false order that deluded and oppressed people with asha, a righteous order based on individual wisdom and truthfulness.
In Ecce Homo, Nietzsche wrote, "In proportion as an ideal world has been falsely assumed, reality has been robbed of its value, its meaning and its truthfulness. ...Hereto the lie of the ideal has been the curse of reality; by means of it the very source of mankind's instincts has become a lie and false; so much so that those values that have come to be worshipped which are the exact opposite of those which would ensure man's prosperity, his future, and his great right to a future."
Nietzsche became acutely conscious that he - a sovereign person who had elected to think for himself - was surrounded by all sorts of imposed conditions of behaviour, speaking and even thinking, a so-called moral order that the bulk of humankind were content to accept ready-made - without any critical thinking, questioning or protestation. But he, Nietzsche, would accept no creed, social doctrine or norms of behaviour without investigation.
We are led to understand by Nietzsche that the edifice of the established social order in Europe, embodied in the prevailing concept of God, was so corrupt that it could not be modified - it could not evolve to a higher order. For a higher order to emerge, the old order would first need to be demolished, the ground cleared of rubbish, and a completely new order built on a new foundation.