To say that Nietzsche is not an easy philosopher to read is an understatement of monumental proportions. Nietzsche despised systems and theory and his perspectivist approach to epistemology doubts even the veracity of truth itself as a final arbiter of an argument’s worth. To read his works is to engage in an agonistic contest. While his texts are as much works of literature as they are works of philosophy, reading Nietzsche is not like reading a novel or even a poem; it is more like engaging in a contest with an opponent – an opponent who also happens to be one of the greatest geniuses of all time.
Back in the Philosophy Department at Silliman University, I have had some opportunities of studying the conditions under which Nietzsche is read – and, in some cases, misread – and I have found that students of his philosophy (including myself), as if actuated by precisely similar motives and desires, and misled by the same mistaken tactics on the part of most sophomoric philosophy professors, all proceed in the same happy-go-lucky style when “taking him up”. (How many times have we heard it said that Nietzsche wrote “without any system”)? Quite naturally, many conclude that it does not matter in the least whether to begin with his first, third or last book, provided that few vague ideas as to what his leading and most sensational principles were can be grasped.
Obviously, the book with the most mysterious, startling or suggestive title will always stand the best chance of being read by those who have no other criteria to guide them in their choice than the aspect of a title page; and this is tantamount in explaining why Thus Spoke Zarathustra seems almost always the first and often the only one of Nietzsche’s books that falls into the hands of the impressionable and uninitiated.
The title itself suggests all kinds of mysteries; a glance at the chapter-headings quickly confirms the suspicions already aroused, and the subtitle “A Book for All and None” generally succeeds in dissipating the last doubts the prospective reader may entertain concerning his fitness for the book or its fitness for him. And then what happens?
I was 18 when I first read Thus Spoke Zarathustra in 2007, and I knew no more concerning Nietzsche than, say, what a chapter or a handful of paragraphs in a watered-down philosophy textbook has told me. I tried to read it and, understanding less than half of what I read, lost my vivacity and did not get farther than the second or third part – only to feel convinced that Nietzsche himself was rather ambiguous as to what he was talking about.
Learning from experience (it is my third time to read the text now), Thus Spoke Zarathustra, though it is unquestionably Nietzsche’s magnum opus, is by no means the first of Nietzsche’s works that the beginner ought to undertake to read. I myself have read Beyond Good and Evil first, read it with much gusto, with much curiosity, hunger and thirst, shortly after a backbreaking introductory course on the history of Western Philosophy, and I hastily proceeded to reading Zarathustra – and was left much confused.
Nietzsche himself refers to Thus Spoke Zarathustra as the deepest work ever offered to the German public (and to mankind), and, in Ecce Homo, speaks of his other writings as being necessary for the understanding of it. But remembering that in Zarathustra we are not only offered the history of his most intimate experiences, friendships, feuds, disappointments, triumphs and the like, but that the very form in which they are narrated is one which tends rather to obscure than to throw light upon them, the difficulties which plague the reader who starts quite unprepared will be seen to be that difficult.
Zarathustra, this shadowy, allegorical personality – this demiurge – speaking in allegories and parables, and at times not even refraining from relating his own dreams, is a figure we can understand but very imperfectly if we have no knowledge of his creator.
Karl Jaspers once wrote that you have not read Nietzsche completely unless you find somewhere else in his work the contradiction to the sentence or thought glaring before you. There can be many instances of these contradictions – some trivial (various interpretations of reading generated under the prismatic lens of literary criticism), and some relevant – namely, Nietzsche’s own conceptions of the nature of writing, language, and philosophical thought.
It is a noble art to hold silence at the right time in such things [religion and philosophy]. ‘The word’ is dangerous – and it is rarely the right word when we speak of religion or philosophy. There are many things which one may not say, and precisely fundamental religious and philosophical viewpoints belong to the pudendis. They are the roots of our thinking and willing: for that reason they are not to be dragged out into the harsh light.
– letter to Carl von Gersdorff, 18. September 1871
In contrast with the essentially Enlightenment notion that we want the whole truth expressed fully and explicitly, Nietzsche holds to the classical (Platonic/Renaissance) attitude that not everything – most particularly the most central or important things – needs to be said “out loud” or explicitly. Indeed, on this view, one says more by saying less – by leaving some things unsaid, but hinted at, or by articulating things through a higher art, such as poetry, in order to allow the reader to uncover a hidden, higher meaning.
This is part of why Zarathustra is both delightful to read and difficult to understand. Even as its enchanting images and metaphors draw us in, they often leave us puzzled about its philosophical content.
That said, there are techniques that make reading Nietzsche’s works, particularly Thus Spoke Zarathustra, less of a daunting prospect. Through years of reading and rereading, I have learned to approach Nietzsche with someone else’s road map, and with it, to characterize Nietzsche and interpret his works in response to that characterization. This allows me to orient Nietzsche’s text against something solid. As one’s reading progresses (and it takes several readings of any of his books to really ‘get it’) one can then critique the map against the territory of Nietzsche’s texts. One can then read Nietzsche with the aid of that perspective. A plethora of perspectives are possible and include Nietzsche as Nazi, as existentialist, as misogynist, as antichrist, as pre-Socratic, as Stoic, and the list goes on. That Nietzsche has such a long list of possible interpretations is testament to the breadth of his vision, the depth of his analysis and the difficulty one has in reading him.
But in regard to the actual philosophical views expounded in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, perhaps the only way of clearing up any difficulties they may present is by an appeal to Nietzsche’s other works. Again and again, of course, he will be found to express himself so clearly that all reference to his other writings may be dispensed with. But where this is not the case, the advice Nietzsche himself gives is after all the best to be followed here, which is to say, to regard such works as The Gay Science, Beyond Good and Evil, The Genealogy of Morals, The Twilight of the Idols, The Antichrist, The Will to Power, and Ecce Homo, as requisite textual artifacts for Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
A central theme in Zarathustra is the “Death of God” – a cultural, not metaphysical, phenomenon. Zarathustra witnesses men’s fading belief in God, but the belief is not being replaced by anything that motivates action. His countrymen are becoming the “Last Man,” Nietzsche’s conception of a completely tame human who avoids all risk and just seeks to exist in comfort. To counter this, Zarathustra preaches the Ubermensch, a term translated as “Superman” or Overman,” which is the antithesis of the Last Man and a new purpose for humanity.
The central question underpinning Thus Spoke Zarathustra, then, is the problem of reconstructing a society capable of flourishing within a culture where “God is dead” – wherein all moral, religious, and philosophical certainties have evaporated. In other words, how can we think, value, and live a new post-Christian culture?
To catch a glimpse of this ideal is how Thus Spoke Zarathustra could be a book for all. That such an ideal is unreachable is how it’s a book for none.