Sunday, May 22, 2011

On the Prologue of 'Thus Spake Zarathustra'

Curious about this Nietzsche fellow I've heard so many bad things about, I recently read the prologue of Thus Spake Zarathustra. I was pleasantly surprised to find a literary style that sounds like Homer crossed with a King James Bible. Take a look (Wikisource) or listen (Librivox).

What follows is my summary and understanding of what Nietzsche was trying to say.

The story starts with Zarathustra finishing a decade of meditation in the mountains. He now feels the need to tell the people what he's learned. So he sets out on a journey back to civilization.
Lo! I am weary of my wisdom, like the bee that hath gathered too much honey; I need hands outstretched to take it.
On the way back, he comes across another hermit. Only this one is focused on worshipping God in the wilderness and advises Zarathustra try nothing more among the people than making their lives a little easier, since they distrust sages otherwise. Zarathustra leaves the hermit on friendly terms, but secretly thinks poorly of him for bothering with the idea of God.

When he does reach the people in the marketplace, he begins to tell them about the 'superman.' This is a challenge to the idea that humanity is already the perfect pinnacle of living creatures. It's a condemnation of such vanity. Instead, Zarathustra believes humanity is — or can be — only a stepping stone to something greater, something better than mankind.
All beings hitherto have created something beyond themselves: and ye want to be the ebb of that great tide, and would rather go back to the beast than surpass man? What is the ape to man? A laughing-stock, a thing of shame. And just the same shall man be to the Superman: a laughing-stock, a thing of shame.
But humanity's complacency and false religious disdain for the natural world threatens the chance of producing the superman. As the hermit predicted, the people in the marketplace weren't interested. They just wanted to be entertained by a rope dancer.

Zarathustra tries again to get his message across, using a rope dancer analogy. He gives a Beatitudes-like speech about the virtue of humans who devote themselves to being part of the rope bridge to the superman, or being raindrops heralding the thunderbolt of the superman to come. And he warns against humans who might instead become 'the last man': content, timid, and a dead-end.
Alas! there cometh the time when man will no longer launch the arrow of his longing beyond man--and the string of his bow will have unlearned to whizz!
I tell you: one must still have chaos in one, to give birth to a dancing star.

It's a bold vision, but low on the details. I do find it strange how often I've heard Nietzsche accused of arrogance or chauvinism, when he's pretty obviously preaching against human arrogance and chauvinism. He's the one suggesting we aren't — or might not prove to be — the pinnacle of living creatures.


  1. I think the charges of arrogance stem from a few things:

    1) He asserts that mankind has no higher intelligence to answer to. To people who think he's mistaken about that fact, he certainly would be considered arrogant. Even if we consider it to be an open question (were we put here by a superintelligent alien species? are we part of a sim?) his absolute black-and-white certainty seem arrogant.

    2) He asserts that mankind will be the launching pad for the next level of evolution. This seems at least mildly arrogant and chauvinistic. Last week, I watched a live broadcast of Johanson (discoverer of ancient hominid Lucy) from AMNH. He pointed out that the vast majority of hominid species leading out from our common ancestor were evolutionary dead ends, and suggested that the odds were high that humans would be an evolutionary dead end. For this reason, he suggests that we should protect the remaining species, since after we wipe ourselves out, it could be 50 million years for some other primate species to evolve to our level of sentience, and we don't want to kill off that possibility entirely.

    3) Finally, he makes bold assertions about how humans ought to behave in order to usher in the next stage of evolution. This is tremendously arrogant, especially considering how simple-minded his proposals are. According to the best current evolutionary theory, our uniquely human ability to reason was the evolutionary result of living in large social groups and having to keep track of deception, competing agendas, hypocritical rule evasion, and so on. By that measure, Nietzsche's call for rugged individualism and shedding of hypocrisy could be terribly counterproductive.

    Personally, I redeem Nietzsche by telling myself that he didn't believe a damn thing he said. He was playing a joke on everyone else by being a caricature of himself (like Ayn Rand did), and some people took him seriously. :-)

  2. JS Allen:
    The speaker in your 2) reason also makes bold assertions about how humans ought to behave in order to usher in the next stage of evolution. How is it not similarly arrogant to suggest that humans should protect other species so that they can thrive after we die out?

  3. Hi James,

    I didn't say that Johanson wasn't arrogant! I agree it's kind of arrogant to assume that we can bring about future intelligent beings simply by refraining from killing primates today. It seems a bit like trying to take credit in advance for someone else's success.

    It could be argued that Johanson is a tiny bit less arrogant than Nietzsche, since Johansen leaves open the possibility that it could be humans or other life forms who lead to the superintelligence. So, at a minimum, he's less exclusive about what might best usher in the superintelligence.

    IMO, humans are the best shot at creating the superintelligence, but not because of any mountain-climbing heroes of sincerity like Nietzsche. It'll be because of the cryptonauts, money launderers, and deepening hypocrisy/mistrust that motivates obsessive puzzlers like Alan Turing and Claude Shannon. Of course, I might be wrong, but that's my best guess.