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Reading Nietzsche's Zarathustra

Lecturer: Paul Daniels

Originally Taught: Summer School 2005

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900) is by far one of the most provocative, deep, innovative and extensive philosophers in history. His work demands constant re-reading to grasp the richness of his message, and it has surely underpinned much of 20th century continental philosophy, at least in terms of the possibilities that it created. Despite this influence he is all too easily misread, be it by the Nazi regime or Bertrand Russell; he described his worst readers as “those who behave like plundering troops.” His style set a new benchmark for rhetoric, literature, and philosophy, and for this reason the encounter with Nietzsche is both a challenge and a philosophical adventure. This course aims to engage with Nietzsche charitably via reading ‘Zarathustra’s Prologue’ in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. It also serves as an introduction to the main themes throughout his work and how they fit together, as well as Nietzsche’s place in the history of philosophy.

Throughout the week we will discuss various issues that we come across while reading the 'Prologue' of Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The prologue consists of ten short sections, of which two will be covered each day of the course. A course reader will be provided (which includes ‘Zarathustra’s Prologue’) to give students exposure to key passages throughout Nietzsche’s works that are thematically related.

Discussion will generally be untethered to any formal structure; rather, the interests of the students involved will determine which aspects of Nietzsche are delved into, with a view to also providing the groundwork to appreciate the depth and reach of his philosophy. Any reading will be done during the scheduled two hour sessions. An emphasis in the course will be reading Nietzsche charitably by directly engaging with passages from his works.

The course will open on the Monday with a short sketch of Nietzsche’s life and main works. From there we will look at the first two sections of ‘Zarathustra’s Prologue’ and discuss his relationship to the history of philosophy. We will also consider the literary style of his philosophy – and its importance to his philosophical message.

Throughout the rest of the week (except Friday) we can address themes that run throughout ‘Zarathustra’s Prologue’ as we encounter them, or diverge to other areas. Possible topics for discussion can include:

Nietzsche’s Qualm with Socrates – Nietzsche argued that Socrates’ legacy in philosophy is one of the most harmful things in history: namely, that under Socrates philosophy became essentially life-denying and a slave to reason. This is closely related to Nietzsche on morality.

Morality and Ethics – Nietzsche proclaims himself as the first immoralist, but what does this mean? He argues that morality in history is life-denying and the mark of the ‘herd mentality’; the strong person will destroy all values for himself so that he can become a creator in values and discover the creative good. Nietzsche had strong responses to both Kant and the Utilitarians which underpin central themes in his philosophy of life.

The Übermensch, or Superman – One of Nietzsche’s puzzling statements throughout Thus Spoke Zarathustra is that “man is something that should be overcome.” The notion of the superman is easily usurped to forward some elitist conception of a powerful and dominating few. Far from this, the superman is a complex theme which we can understand by glimpsing exactly what, for Nietzsche, is involved in ‘overcoming’ man, and why such a move should be undertaken.

The Self and the Will to Power – The picture of the self in Nietzsche is simultaneously rich and at times disturbing. He considers us as consisting fundamentally of a multiplicity of drives, of which only one makes itself manifest at any time through the mask of the self. In amongst this picture, he holds that our orientation in life is not primarily will to existence, will to survival or will to life, but will to power. Does this mean a tyrannising domination over the world, or mastery over the one’s encounters with the world and oneself? We can also consider here Nietzsche’s preference of the body over transcendent concepts such as ‘ego’ and ‘soul’, contra Descartes.

Religion and Christ/ianity – Especially in his later works, Nietzsche’s attacks on Christianity and institutional religion became increasingly intense and vehement. He thought it possibly the worst blunder in history that has retarded man’s ethical and life-enhancing natures. In amongst this picture, he paints a somewhat admiring picture of Christ – whom he held to be his equal. Christianity and religion was an enduring interest of Nietzsche’s, and one that is as many faceted as it is interesting.

Other topics include Nietzsche’s genealogical approach to morality and history, his thesis of eternal recurrence, the relationship to pre-Socratic Greece, the psychological approach to philosophy, theory of perception and language, nihilism and aesthetics.

On the Friday we will read the last two sections of ‘Zarathustra’s Prologue’ and open discussion to freely reflect on the themes encountered during the week.

Course text

A course reader will be provided including as explained above. However, if possible it would be great for students to have their own copy of Thus Spoke Zarathustra (either the R. J. Hollingdale or Walter Kaufmann translation) which should be easily available at bookstores for under $15. This is not a necessary item though.