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Want an overview of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra? What are his views about life and philosophy?
German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote Thus Spoke Zarathustra to present his philosophical views on life. Through Zarathustra’s teachings, Nietzsche explains what he believes humans are, what they can become, and how to live if you want to participate in the advancement of humankind.
Read on for an overview of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra
German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra is a creative presentation of his views about life and philosophy. Written in the 1880s, the book is a fictitious, poetic story about a prophet named Zarathustra, who is an avatar for Nietzsche and through whom he expounds his philosophy.
Zarathustra lives in a cave in the mountains with an eagle and a snake for companions. At one point he feels compelled to share his wisdom with others and visits a nearby village. He tries speaking to the crowd in a marketplace, but they aren’t interested in his teaching. Later he gathers a group of disciples and teaches them his philosophy. Much of the book consists of monologues that Zarathustra delivers to his disciples. Eventually, Zarathustra sends his disciples away, after which he continues to monologue, talking to himself, his animals, and people whom he encounters near his home.
(Shortform note: Zarathustra is another name for Zoroaster, the founding prophet of Zoroastrianism. However, any resemblance between the historical Zarathustra and Nietzsche’s Zarathustra is either coincidental or satirical, as what Nietzsche teaches through Zarathustra has almost nothing in common with Zoroastrianism. For example, Zoroastrians believe in a spiritual afterlife where people are rewarded or punished for the good or evil deeds they did in life. As we’ll discuss later, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra believes that the spirit dies with the body and there is no objective difference between good and evil.)
Zarathustra’s monologues span a wide range of topics and are organized only by stream of consciousness. Nietzsche also makes extensive use of literary devices and symbolism (the meaning of which has caused much disagreement among experts). In this guide, we’ll focus on the book’s most prevalent themes. We’ve organized Nietzsche’s ideas (as presented by his character Zarathustra) topically and drawn additional connections and inferences based on what Zarathustra says about certain issues in different parts of the book. We’ll also compare Nietzsche’s ideas with the perspectives of other great thinkers, such as Stephen Hawking and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
What Humans Are
In Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, his avatar Zarathustra argues that a human being is made up of a human body—not a body and soul, as some people believe. Zarathustra teaches that your soul, spirit, and consciousness are just parts or features of your body.Zarathustra doesn’t believe in an afterlife in the usual sense, but he does believe in what he calls “eternal recurrence.” In his view, time is infinite in both directions: No matter when you live, there is always an infinite amount of time before and after you. He reasons that on this infinite timeline, everything that can happen eventually will happen. And eventually, it will all happen again. So after you die, someday in the eternal future, the same chain of events that led to your birth will happen again, and you will live again.
And What They Can Become
Zarathustra believes in ongoing human evolution and sees it as the ultimate solution to humans’ problems and weaknesses. He doesn’t think evolutionary progress is inevitable, though: The human race could either advance or stagnate and die off. According to Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Friedrich Nietzsche writes that your highest purpose in life is to live in a way that contributes to the evolutionary progression of humans into superhumans—a future species as far superior to modern humans as humans are to animals.
How Humans Should Act
According to Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, unique individuals contribute the most to human progress. We can infer that this is based on Darwin’s theory that a combination of natural selection and random variation drives evolutionary progress: The more variation there is in a population, the more natural selection will favor the superior individuals and the more rapidly the species will evolve. Zarathustra never discusses this mechanism explicitly, but he does repeatedly assert that uniformity—especially compulsory conformity to social norms—hinders the evolution of humans into superhumans.
This leads Zarathustra to a kind of relative morality: As a unique individual, what’s good for someone else may not be good for you and vice versa. He denounces any objective distinction between good and evil as a concept that humans invented for the purpose of controlling others, usually in ways that promote conformity and thereby hinder progress.
For example, suppose someone is fascinated with stealing. If she cultivates this passion and becomes an expert thief, her children might become even better thieves because of what they learn from her and inherit genetically. So stealing would become an increasingly refined trait for natural selection to either favor or weed out. But if she suppresses her inclination to steal for fear of criminal punishment, that won’t happen, and natural selection will be less effective because the population will be more uniform.
(Shortform note: Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra doesn’t seem to differentiate between genetic traits and learned behaviors when it comes to evolutionary progress. Biologists tend to view genetic traits as the primary driver in evolution because they are heritable. But the science of genetics didn’t really take off until a few decades after Friedrich Nietzsche wrote Thus Spoke Zarathustra, so he wouldn’t have been as familiar with genetics as we are today. And humans can “inherit” non-genetic skills by learning them from their parents or from others who pass on information to them.)
- Individual Virtues: Zarathustra doesn’t teach that you can arbitrarily decide what’s right and wrong for you, as some proponents of moral relativism do. Instead, he teaches that you should identify and cultivate your personal virtues: your innate strengths and passions.
- Joy and Self-Love: Zarathustra models an attitude of nearly continual joy and exuberance and encourages others to follow his example. Zarathustra also emphasizes the importance of self-love. He asserts that most people invest too much of their energy in loving others while they themselves are miserable. He advises them to focus less on others and more on being happy themselves.
- Strength and Endurance: While he encourages people to pursue happiness, Zarathustra warns them not to pursue comfort. On the contrary, he emphasizes the importance of cultivating strength by enduring hardship. For humans to make evolutionary progress, life must become harder over time so that humans become stronger over time.
- Free Will: Zarathustra says the essence of life is the “will to power.” This is what drives animals to compete with each other, making evolutionary progress possible. But Zarathustra’s “will to power” isn’t just about gaining authority over others—it has even more to do with having power over yourself. Human free will gives you the power to think for yourself and act according to your desires. Free will also makes creativity possible because you have to think for yourself to create anything new.
Criticism of Christianity
In Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Zarathustra probably spends more time warning his hearers what not to do and be than he spends teaching them how to act. And most of his warnings hinge on his criticism of the Christian church and all the “good people” who endorse and enforce the social values taught by Christianity. So now that we’ve discussed Zarathustra’s philosophical teachings, let’s contrast them with what he says Christians believe and practice.
Criticizing the Christian Idea About What Humans Are
Christianity teaches that your body and soul are distinct from one another. Your body is the part of you that exists in the physical realm, while your soul exists in a spiritual realm, where it can live on after your body dies. But Zarathustra argues that trying to separate the physical from the spiritual is unhealthy because it leads Christians to emphasize the importance of spiritual wellbeing while de-emphasizing the importance of physical wellbeing. We can infer that in his view, you can’t have a healthy spirit without having a healthy body, since Zarathustra believes your spirit is just part of your body.
Criticizing the Christian Concept of Virtue
When Zarathustra discusses how humans ought to live, he often contrasts his perspective with that of the Christian church. We’ve already discussed Zarathustra’s perspective on virtue, but we’ll recap his values briefly here to show the key contrasts with Christianity that he discusses:
- Zarathustra promotes individuality, arguing that right and wrong are not the same for everyone.
- Christianity promotes conformity to an objective standard of right and wrong.
- Zarathustra teaches self-love. Christianity teaches selflessness.
- Zarathustra advises you to be joyful and passionate. Christians tend to be solemn and temperate.
- Zarathustra thinks the concept of justice is counterproductive. Christians believe in moral and civil justice.
- Zarathustra believes that the desire for power is not only wholesome but crucial to the advancement of humankind. Christians warn that desiring power is unwholesome.
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- Friedrich Nietzsche's views about life and philosophy
- How you should live if you want to participate in the advancement of humankind
- Why you should never let others do something for you that you can do yourself