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Review of Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Nietzsche

Thus Spoke Zarathustra may be Nietzsche’s most important and brilliant piece of writing, and Walter Kaufmann’s translation, with its insight translation notes, may be the most significant version. Though the overarching theme of this book is fairly evident, there is a tremendous amount of confusion not only about the book, but even its central theme. In concise terms, the thesis of this book is that people must overcome themselves. Nietzsche speaks of this in terms of the overman, which is often translated as superman.

The traditional translation of superman, according to Kaufmann, may account for much of the confusion. Superman, in Western thought, easily becomes imbued with super powers or godlike qualities; however, this was not Nietzsche’s intent. The overman is less about super qualities and more about the courage to face himself or herself. The overman is willing to take responsibility for his or her life while creatively engaging the world. Included in this engagement is the willingness to not accept the values of one’s world, culture, and even religion; instead, the overman critically examines these worldviews while creating their own values.

In concept of overcoming oneself, Nietzsche takes on one of his most controversial and misunderstood topics: religion. It is clear that Nietzsche is not religious and to attempt to reconcile him as a man of faith would significantly misrepresent his thought. However, Nietzsche is neither pro-religion nor the as much an enemy as he is often portrayed. The main concern Nietzsche has with religion is blind faith and conformity. This type of religion, Nietzsche is adamantly opposed to. However, a religion in which the individual has struggled to attain is not seen as dangerous.

Two important quotes may help understand Nietzsche’s view of God:

“Alas, my brothers, this god whom I created was man-made and madness, like all gods! Man he was, and only a poor specimen of man and ego: out of my own ashes and fire this ghost came to me, and, verily, it did not come to me from beyond. What happened, my brothers? I overcame myself, the sufferer; I carried my own ashes to the mountains; I invented a brighter flame for myself.” (p. 31)

“In their hostilities they shall become inventors of images and ghosts, and with their images and ghosts they shall yet fight the highest fight against one another. Good and evil, and rich and poor, and high and low, and all the names of values – arms shall they be and clattering signs that life must overcome itself again and again.” (p. 101)

The first quote demonstrates some bitterness toward religion, though it does not rule out the possibility of healthy religiosity. Nietzsche’s position is not that different from Freud (1927/1961), and quite possibly contributed to Freud’s perspective. Essentially, Nietzsche viewed God as a projection of our wishes (will-fulfillment) and our pathology; not a metaphysical reality. Because of this, God’s characteristics are dependent upon the individual and the culture. This helps to explain Nietzsche’s controversial claim that “God is dead.” Frequently, this is interpreted as a metaphysical statement; however, this was not the nature of Nietzsche’s claim. Instead, Nietzsche was stating that the cultural and individual understanding or creation of God is dead. It is a critique of culture and individuals, not God.

A review of Thus Zarathustra Spoke would not be complete without some notes on the literary style. If nothing else, the literary style of this book demonstrates Nietzsche’s brilliance. He utilized a tremendous understanding of religious literature with he often mocked through his style of writing. A person familiar with the Bible will quickly recognize his frequent indirect references to Biblical ideas, stories, and quotes. It is through these that Nietzsche shows his wit and command of literary style. It is also where Nietzsche likely offends and drives away many of his readers. This is unfortunate. Even if one does not agree with Nietzsche’s appraisals of religion, or care for his clever mocking; there is still important messages in this book for the religious and the non-religious.

To the religious, Nietzsche challenges people to become more than sheep. However, it is clear that he believes most people chose to be sheep: “No shepherd and one herd! Everybody wants the same, everybody is the same: whoever feels different goes voluntarily into a madhouse” (p. 18). If one chooses to be religious, they should know what that choice entails! One should take the time to learn if it what they truly believe or if it is what they seek to achieve security escaping the fears and anxieties of life. Escapist religion is dangerous religion; however, religion achieve through struggle and genuine belief may be a responsible choice.

Added 2004; Never been updated.

Review of The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker

This is an existential classic and must read for anyone interested in existential theory. However, most people do not understand the profoundness of this book in their first reading. This, in part, is due to the the complexities of the thought in this book. Yet there is more to it than that. This book is a difficult emotional read. Becker, writing not long before his own death, directly deal with an issue most people wish would just go away. Yet, Becker approaches the issue in a manner that makes it impossible for it to go away. In approaching the topic, Becker provides a powerful overview and synthesis of the work of Otto Rank and Soren Kierkegaard. Ranks idea of the heroic serves as an ongoing theme throughout the book and carries over into his next book, The Escape from Freedom, which is an important companion volume to The Denial of Death. The heroic is part of our nature, but also part of our demise. Becker helps for us to be able to see the heroic desire in ourselves — in its beauty and its ugliness. Reading tips for The Denial of Death: 1. It is common for people to complain that Becker is both attacking and complimenting Freud at the same time. While this is accurate, it is generally tied to a misperception. Becker is complimenting Freud’s frame or structure of psychoanalysis while critiquing his content. In essence, part of what Becker does is  take Freud’s frame, remove Freud’s sexual theory, and replace it with Becker’s own death theory. 2. Don’t read “death” as being used only literally. While Becker certainly does use it in a literal sense and arguably never goes beyond that. However, there is much which can be added to Becker’s theory if it is also interpreted symbolically. Death is a symbol of human finiteness and limitedness. If Becker can be read in this context, the power of his book is greatly expanded.3. Read this book slowly and discuss it as you go. Better yet, read it with a group of other people interested in the topic. Many find this book to be terribly depressing and, at times, overwhelming. I’ve found that through time I’ve come to see it as a book full of hope, but this was not my first read of the book. Maybe Becker’s own theory could help explain why this book is such a difficult read for many readers. Maybe the audience of the 70’s, when the book was first published, was more open to the issue of death. However, now, maybe our culture has lived in an ever-increasing denial of death that makes a book like this so much more of a difficult read.


Original Version added 2004. Never been updated.