Lecture Ten: Life 10.1

10.1 Introduction

The self is a hermeneutic construction aimed at mastering uncertainty. However, one might wonder whether mastering is what uncertainty really demands. In the last lecture, we began to reflect on a possible alternative, which Nietzsche derives from his interpretation of Attic tragedy. Tragedy represents life as dissonant, and selfhood as contradictory. Tragic characters are usually trapped between different and irreconcilable drives. Tragic plots do not have a happy ending. Tragic heroes succumb to their fate. And yet, in the very process of representing this predicament, tragedy offers a way of withstanding uncertainty, listening to it, perhaps even making peace with it. This ability to listen to the dissonance of life exposed in the tragic enaction transforms the dissonance itself from an unbearable problem into an insight in the rich and contrastive nature of reality. Nietzsche’s approach invites three questions: (i) Where is the dissonance experienced? (ii) How can we unveil it and fully perceive it? (iii) How can we develop the ability to listen to it, without attempting to either solve or dissolve it?

The best context for (i) encountering the dissonance of reality is the experience of the self. The self is a tragic character who embodies dissonance. Each human being is a tragic character in their own way. Looking at one’s own self, the dissonance is not only experienced most vividly, but is also encountered with an immediacy that makes its relevance and urgency completely apparent. Any dissonance in reality is first of all the dissonance of my own being, this self, who struggles to remain what it wants to be and ultimately fails to maintain control over this precarious identity.

We also discussed how Nietzsche finds a potential tragic component in science as well. On the one hand, science can become a way of dissolving the dissonance of reality, explaining it away, and covering its potentially threatening meaning (or meaninglessness) behind the shadows of Apolline optimism. Perhaps oversimplifying, this is what Nietzsche imputes to Socrates and Plato, and to the whole rationalistic understanding of scientific knowledge that took hold in Western thought in their wake (from Aristotle to some of Nietzsche’s own contemporaries). However, science can also play the opposite role. By focusing on the philosophy of nature of presocratic thinkers, especially Heraclitus, Nietzsche envisions (ii) a way of interpreting the natural world that is specifically aimed at uncovering and revealing its impermanent and contrastive nature. Instead of attempting to reconstruct natural phenomena in a way that would present them as instances of an underpinning rationality, science can equally offer conceptual and empirical tools for appreciating how any shadow of rationality in nature is just that; a shadow, a fleeting epiphenomenon, something that emerges from more fundamental, a-rational, and possibly irrational drives. This kind of science will not match the standards of immutable and eternal knowledge sought by Plato, but it will meet the standards of honesty and authenticity that Nietzsche himself values as the only truly genuine and loyal life.

In this lecture, we focus on the third question (iii), how is it possible to develop this ability of listening to the dissonance of existence, by fostering the new attitude that Nietzsche recommends as the basis for the rebirth of a tragic culture in our contemporary world. This point is perhaps the most ambitious and the most problematic in Nietzsche’s thought. It takes central stage in Nietzsche’s own tragic work, namely, Thus Spoke Zarathustra. A Book for Everyone and Nobody (1883-1885). Nietzsche’s Zarathustra is admittedly difficult to read, more difficult to understand, poetic and bluffing, deep and irritating. We are confronted with a prophetic character, Zarathustra, who announces the coming of a new form of humanity (the ‘overhuman,’ German Übermensch) who will eventually be able to fully listen to dissonance of life and celebrate it.

Nietzsche’s Zarathustra is profoundly ironic. The historical Zarathustra was an Iranian (Persian) prophet who is likely to have lived between the seventh and the sixth centuries BCE. He was a radical reformer of the Iranian religion of that time, which was (by some accounts) similar to the old Vedic cults we discussed in Lecture Five. Zarathustra impressed a strong monotheistic turn on that religion, a profound ethicization of its practice based on a sharp dualism between good and evil, and a more linear view of history that advances from God’s initial creation of the world to its final destruction (contrary to the more cyclical view common in ancient cultures).[1] Nietzsche’s Zarathustra presents a systematic reversal of all these features. Zarathustra, in Nietzsche’s work, is the prophet of the death of God, who rejects the established values of good and evil, and finds ultimate salvation in saying ‘yes’ to this earth and its suffering, by endorsing the idea of eternal recurrence of the same.

Thus Spoke Zarathustra consists of four parts. Nietzsche originally published the first three independently and added the fourth later. Laurence Lampert, in his Nietzsche’s Teaching. An Interpretation of Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1986), has provided an exhaustive running commentary to the work. To summarize just the outline of the plot designed by Nietzsche, the first part begins at the end of Zarathustra’s ten-years of solitary retreat in his cave, during which he conceived of the ideal of the overhuman, and eventually resolved to announce that publicly. However, the action in the first part shows that Zarathustra’s public teaching is a failure which people misunderstand and despise. As a result, Zarathustra decides to return to his cave again.

In the last lecture, we introduced some of the underpinning ontological and anthropological views that shape Zarathustra’s teaching in the first part. We left the discussion suspended on the problem of how it is possible for the child to develop its creative will to the point of freeing it from the cage of past conditionings that seem to constrain and determine it. The second and third parts of Thus Spoke Zarathustra are devoted to articulating the solution to this problem. The dramatic unfolding of Zarathustra’s tragedy is meant to stress that this solution is not going to be easy to accept or digest, and even harder to practice. In fact, while Zarathustra eventually understands it, he himself cannot fully practice it. Zarathustra remains only the prophet of the overhuman, but does not himself become an overhuman. Such a dissonance makes apparent the tragic nature of Zarathustra as a character. The solution so difficult to understand and to practice is based on the doctrine of the ‘eternal recurrence of the same.’ The practice that unfolds from this doctrine is encapsulated in the idea of amor fati, the resounding ‘yes’ said to the whole of life, including its most horrible and painful aspects.

The second part presents Zarathustra as once again attempting to spread his teaching among the people, but this time he seeks only a receptive audience and manages to attract some disciples. Zarathustra hopes his disciples will prepare the soil for the advent of the overhuman, but by the end of the second part he is disillusioned about this plan. The core insight gained in this process is the explicit understanding of the will to power and its relation to both life and wisdom. This also allows Zarathustra to diagnose his own problem, namely, being affected by the spirit of revenge. The third part introduces the core teaching of the eternal recurrence, which is seen as the only possible way of  overcoming revenge and paving the way for the overhuman. Thanks to this discovery, Zarathustra has a possibility for redemption from revenge and realizes that it is his own task to fully overcome himself and become the overhuman. However, this is still only an intellectual realization, albeit a profound and deeply transformative one. Zarathustra does not achieve this goal just yet.

The third part ends with Zarathustra coming back to his cave again, while the fourth part constitutes a satirical addendum (in the sense in which a satire play used to follow the play of a tragedy in Greek festivals and constitutes a sort of ironic reversal of the tragedy). In this last part, Zarathustra receives several visitors in his cave, who represent various intellectual characters, all sharing the burden of living in the wake of the death of God. While the third part represents the theoretical culmination of Nietzsche’s work, the fourth ironically deconstructs the heroic picture of Zarathustra’s own achievement, by stressing the need for Zarathustra to progress even further, hence hinting at the fact that having understood eternal recurrence is still not enough. Zarathustra needs to descend one more time among human beings and embody his teaching in a way that will actually transform existing human life. But when and how this will eventually happen is not presented in Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

For present purposes we shall focus our discussion on two core themes only: the will to power and its eternal recurrence.


  1. For a historical reconstruction of the emergence and development of Zoroastrianism see Robert Zaehner, The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism (1961).

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The Tragedy of the Self by Andrea Sangiacomo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.