“With a torch in my hand, the light of which is not by any means a flickering one, I illuminate this underworld of ideals with beams that pierce the gloom.” – Nietzsche, Ecce Homo.
In The Gay Science, Nietzsche announces to the reader that “common goal is to erect a new image and ideal of the free spirit,” in reference to the middle period of his work. In Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche does indeed “erect a new image and ideal of the free spirit” in his pursuit of the higher man, the Übermensch. Zarathustra is as a whole a compendium of unleashed, overflowing thoughts of the deep, formulations of mythological figures and fearsome archetypes, brimming in an ocean of paradox and contradiction. The doctrine of the “higher man” as proposed by Zarathustra sounds strangely reminiscent to the Indian formulation of the Atman, the the true self that exists in everyone; the small thumbling in the heartbeat of life. This is the equivalent to the inner core, the pneumatic spiritual seed that is the seat for gnosis that the ancient Gnostics recognized as the spiritual marrow of the soul. I won’t go into every aspect of Zarathustra, but only a few notable excerpts that I think I relevant to the topic of this essay. In Chapter 61, The Honey Sacrifice of Zarathustra, the speaker is depicted as a “fisher” of men, similar to Jesus’s proclamation in Mark 1:17 or even the Hermetic figure of Poimandres the “Man-Shepherd”, seeking those who are in search of the truth of the higher man:
The best bait, as huntsmen and fishermen require it. For if the world be as a gloomy forest of animals, and a pleasure-ground for all wild huntsmen, it seemeth to me rather – and preferably – a fathomless, rich sea; – A sea full of many-hued fishes and crabs, for which even the gods might long, and might be tempted to become fishers in it, and casters of nets, – so rich is the world in wonderful things, great and small! Especially the human world, the human sea: – towards it do I now throw out my golden angle-rod and say: Open up, thou human abyss!
In the first chapter of Zarathustra, “The Higher Man” the speaker and sage of the text contemplates the fate of mankind and his predicament in his dwelling place on a mountain.
Altered is Zarathustra; a child hath Zarathustra become; an awakened one is Zarathustra: what wilt thou do in the land of the sleepers?
The Atman personified subsequently decides to descend from a mountain after 10 years of meditation and down into the market place of the mob to proclaim the truths that he discovered out of his own innate altruism and compassion to his fellow man.
Zarathustra answered: “I love mankind.” “Why,” said the saint, “did I go into the forest and the desert? Was it not because I loved men far too well? Now I love God: men, I do not love. Man is a thing too imperfect for me. Love to man would be fatal to me.” Zarathustra answered: “What spake I of love! I am bringing gifts unto men.”
To his dismay, he realizes he spoke too soon when his words fall upon dead ears from those in the market place and even spurns his attempts to proclaim the gospel of the higher man in mockery and scorn in order to maintain their mediocre status-quo.
“You higher men,” — so sputters the crowd — “there are no higher men, we are all equal; man is man, before God — we are all equal!” Before God! — Now, however, this God has died. Before the crowd, however, we will not be equal. You higher men, go away from the market-place!
Nevertheless, he gives his speech:
Lo, I teach you the Superman! The Superman is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: The Superman shall he the meaning of the earth! I conjure you, my brethren, remain true to the earth, and believe not those who speak unto you of superearthly hopes! Poisoners are they, whether they know it or not. Despisers of life are they, decaying ones and poisoned ones themselves, of whom the earth is weary: so away with them! Once blasphemy against God was the greatest blasphemy; but God died, and therewith also those blasphemers. To blaspheme the earth is now the dreadfulest sin, and to rate the heart of the unknowable higher than the meaning of the earth!
Here, Zarathustra through the conduit of Nietzsche’s (and yes I totally flipped that dichotomy on purpose) deepest concern is to show that neither the “death of God”, nor the demise of all faiths predicated upon otherworldly hopes or this-worldly optimisms, give the last word on man’s existential drama; and to find a way beyond it without recourse once again becomes vulnerable to disillusionment which was a real concern to Nietzsche. More controversially: the death of God eliminated the idea of some despotic divinity judging human beings and weighing down upon them as some oppressive force. But with this weight gone some began to speak of the unbearable lightness of being, as if with the absence of God, and thus with the permission to do anything and everything, life seemed to lack the gravitas of ultimate significance. The eternal recurrence is Nietzsche’s way for the self to generate its own gravitas in the absence of God. It is only though the virtues of the higher man that the “great nausea” of the emptiness and shallow reality of the mob, the rabble, the herd can be solved and wholly transcended. It is Zarathustra who cannot ignore the great distress of humanity; he is the Atman personified, always ready and able to run the source of the cry for self-realization. In the Subala Upanishad, it describes the spiritual man’s roots as a foundation to “Narayana [one of the names for the Hindu deity, Vishnu], the indwelling spirit of all”:
There abides for ever the one unborn in the secret place within the body. The earth is his body; he moves through the earth but the earth knows him not. The waters are his body, but the waters know him not. Light is his body, he moves through the light but the light knows him not. Air is his body, he moves through the air but the air knows him not. Ether is his body, he moves through the ether but ether knows him not…Thinking mind is his body, he moves through thinking mind but thinking mind knows him not. He alone is the indwelling spirit of all beings, free from all evil, the one divine, radiant Narayana.
However, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra differs in the values of both the Buddhist and the Vedantic mystic:
“Good and evil,” says the Buddhist, “are both fetters: the perfect one became master over both.”; “what’s done and what`s not done,” says the man who believes in the Vedanta, “give him no pain; as a wise man he shakes good and evil off himself; his kingdom suffers no more from any deed; good and evil – he has transcended both” – an entirely Indian conception, whether Brahman or Buddhist. (On The Genealogy of Morals, What Do Ascetic Ideals Mean?)
Zarathustra is the higher man who masters duality and the fetters of nihilism and disillusionment. Zarathustra is his own god, and runs counter to the Brahman or Advaita Vedantic mystic who’s aim is to achieve mystical union with the One, Brahman or the collective Atman, communicating his sarcasm and ire against such teachings as asserted in In The Happy Iles in Zarathustra:
“Evil do I call it and misanthropic: all that teaching about the one, and the plenum, and the unmoved, and the sufficient, and the imperishable! All the imperishable—that’s but a simile, and the poets lie too much.—”
This so-called unity to Nietzsche was merely a doctrine of the “oldest and most venerable script” in which is to be rejected in favor of a more life-affirming script in support for his gospel of the Superman. It isn’t just a condemnation of one type of mysticism in favor for other stripes but a wholesale rejection of its every incarnation. In On the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche summarizes his contempt for such nihilism masquerading itself as self-negating and transcendent mysticism:
…the hypnotic feeling of nothingness, the silence of the deepest sleep, in short, the loss of suffering – something which suffering and fundamentally disgruntled people have to consider their highest good, their value of values, and which they must appraise as positive and experience as the positive in itself. (With the same logic of feeling, in all pessimistic religions nothingness is called God).
It becomes rather obvious that Nietzsche goes at great lengths to deny an impersonal, supreme and transcendental power that lies beyond the world of the material such as Brahman. Buddhism and its founder Siddhartha receives a lesser disdainful evaluation, despite the fact that they fundamentally agree on such “fictions” as an immortal soul that survives the sudden cut off of death. It is notable that ideas such as Eternal Recurrence in which Nietzsche adopts into his personal philosophy shares an affinity with the idea of the cycles and wheels of Samsara or metempsychosis under the realm of dukkha. So what exactly survives death? To Nietzsche there is no “soul” that transmigrates into another body or thing. Instead, the “soul” is replaced by the Will to Power alone, although it seems as though Nietzsche was simply arguing semantics. Still, Nietzsche is far from completely denying a spiritual reality, but yet maintains that it must be understood as shorthand for our experiential lives in the here and now. Consciousness to him isn’t exactly a purely metaphysical or mystical substance but rather a product of social conditioning and of social existence in conjunction with our practical needs and abilities. In The Indian Origin of Nietzsche’s Theory on the Eternal Return by D. Bannerjee, he goes in greater detail in their similarities:
The central theme of his (Nietzsche’s) passionate hope and aspiration for the future of mankind, namely, the survival of human character and personality in a ceaseless cycle of births (death being only a harbinger to the eternal return of life’s perfect and heroic moments) discloses likewise an Indian origin and in fact, constitutes the main tenet of Hinduism and and Buddhism alike.” (p. 163)
It seems as though Nietzsche had adopted the concept of reincarnation for his philosophy. Nietzsche’s connection to Asian religion and philosophy started with Paul Deussen aka “Deva-Sena” (a name he adopted for his admiration for the Hindu religion), a German Sanskrit scholar, something of which Nietzsche acknowledges in his works. In the Advaita Vedanta teaching, it posits that there is an eternal, emantative and incomprehensible spirit beyond the material universe yet imminent in the life-process as an energizing principle. As follows, every sentient being is a unique manifestation of this ineffable force or principle, in which the world of appearances makes this realization difficult to realize that we are identical to the Supreme Spirit, since the cosmos is marked in terms of separation, illusion and duality under the umbrella of Maya. The Atman thus returns to the Ultimate Reality as the pinnacle of its spiritual journey through direct experience via the dissolution of form and into the unborn. It is this viewpoint that Nietzsche contends with in that he categorically rejects the idea of the world of appearances as the shadow of a noumenal world as promoted by the likes of Plato in the Theory of Forms of his dialogue Phaedo, the Gnostics and the Hindu mystics as a pursuit of a metaphysical fancy.
The attachment and emphasis on the world of ideals is what he dismisses. To Nietzsche, the world of experience, the world of appearances was the only real world, the channel in which the Superman ceaselessly pour the creative energy of the Will to Power. It is the concept of Samsara in being subservient to something that is both space-less and timeless, in which a moral necessity for an absorption back into Brahman to Nietzsche was no different then the notion of the Judeo-Christian God in which he considered a crutch for the decadent and antithetical to the virtues of the Superman. The Atman according to Nietzsche is its own source that it returns too and not some vague mystical reality that is yearned to the nth degree by mystics throughout history. In The Anti-Christ, although Nietzsche also expresses the Buddha’s doctrine under the banner of nihilism, it is far more favorable in comparison in his contempt for the (proto-Catholic corruption of) Pauline Christianity:
Buddhism is a hundred times as realistic as Christianity — it is part of its living heritage that it is able to face problems objectively and coolly; it is the product of long centuries of philosophical speculation. The concept, “god,” was already disposed of before it appeared. Buddhism is the only genuinely positive religion to be encountered in history, and this applies even to its epistemology (which is a strict phenomenalism) — It does not speak of a “struggle with sin,” but, yielding to reality, of the “struggle with suffering.” Sharply differentiating itself from Christianity, it puts the self-deception that lies in moral concepts be hind it; it is, in my phrase, beyond good and evil.
To Nietzsche, the Buddha offered a far more realistic and approachable path for spiritual practitioners, that was leavened with reason and moderation in light of the Middle Way to liberation without all the extreme bodily mortification prevalent in asceticism of the Yogi’s (for example) or abstaining from addictive sense pleasures and vices of all stripes.
Buddhism, I repeat, is a hundred times more austere, more honest, more objective. It no longer has to justify its pains, its susceptibility to suffering, by interpreting these things in terms of sin — it simply says, as it simply thinks, “I suffer.” To the barbarian, however, suffering in itself is scarcely understandable: what he needs, first of all, is an explanation as to why he suffers. (His mere instinct prompts him to deny his suffering altogether, or to endure it in silence.) Here the word “devil” was a blessing: man had to have an omnipotent and terrible enemy — there was no need to be ashamed of suffering at the hands of such an enemy.
While he has a reasonably favorable view of Buddhism in comparison to other more decidedly theistic religions, he however dislikes its evaluation of suffering as a category definition of the world, thus weakening and even negating the Will to Power, instead of fortifying it. To Nietzsche, the weak man dwelt in his own miserable state, picking his mind with festering thoughts of jealously and inferiority while placing blame on others. It is this slave morality that denounces power and happiness while promsing the weak will receive eternal bliss in the afterlife. Yet, Nietzsche had also rejected the idea that mankind was guilty and responsible for everything inherently wrong in the world because this shifting of responsibility from God to man is false though it reverses the direction of the resentment and might serve as a catalyst to personal development.
This world, the eternally imperfect, an eternal contradiction’s image and imperfect image- an intoxicating joy to its imperfect creator:- thus did the world once seem to me.
It is here that Zarathustra paradoxically shares the pessimistic anthropological attitude of the ancient Gnostics such as the Sethians who disregarded the world and its creator as an abortive mistake to be repudiated and transcended. They believed that the creator god was by no means a universal one, but a secondary, subordinate god, angel or even a malicious demon empowered with the ability to craft and construct. It is this being who in his vanity created the world and cosmos in which he was satisfied this work was good and perfect, but in reality was a sham in which its iron manacles kept the inner luminary of man captive to the realm of fate, similarly to the idea of Eternal Recurrence. Yet, he was admonished by his own Mother of the Angels (Sophia) for being opaque and blind.
It was the real and true Father which took pity on the half-conscious worms that this creator angel had formed out of the dust of the earth and through his emissaries, provided them spirit and consciousness to animate them on their journey to salvation by carrying the sparks of divine Light to heaven which are burred in living matter. English poet and artist, William Blake writes in The Book of Urizen where the god of Reason recounts how the mind is imprisoned in the cosmos, deprived of light and eternity:
In chains of the mind locked up, Like fetters of ice shrinking together Disorganiz’d, rent from Eternity, Los beat on his fetters of iron; And heated his furnaces & pour’d Iron sodor and sodor of brass
The human being, accordingly is really a spirit entrapped in the tomb that is bodily flesh, like a pearl buried in mud. Both the world of humanity and the world of the cosmos at large are battlegrounds in a war between good spirit of light and the malevolent, counterfeit spirit that rules over matter. Man was originally pure spirit or consciousness, but somehow in the process of emanation and creation, man had become entrapped by the evil eon to the shackles of the cave-world Plato described in his famous Cave allegory.
The human race experiences this reality in whatever he projects from his own consciousness but is really a sort of malevolent simulacrum, a matrix-like “time out of joint” as Shakespeare’s Hamlet put it. In this Gnostic revelation, the pre-cosmic fall of being from the world of light leading to the creation of an evil, prison-like world made by a stupid and inferior creator becomes the center stage of this unfolding, divine drama. Whether or not, Nietzsche was familiar with the doctrines of the Gnostics (probably not), he definetly shares a similar attitude as expressed earlier on, despite his insistence on laying a hold of the beauty in the gloomy cosmos as a thriving and independent isle of virtuous light and power that transcends the dichotomy of good and evil. The Gnostic acosmic denial of existence would have turned him off, however.
Companions the creator seeks, not corpses, not herds and believers. Fellow creators the creator seeks — those who write new values on new tablets.
Notably, in Plato’s allegory of the cave — there are four phases in the story which includes the prisoner in the darkness, the liberation from the shackles of ignorance, the contemplation of the pure forms outside the cave, and the return to the cave to liberate the prisoners left behind much like a Bodhisattva or a Manichean light-savior would do out of divine compassion to those still left lingering in the world of suffering and ignorance. This is similar to the threefold process of transformation or as it is called in Zarathustra “The Three Metamorphoses” that the spirit of the Übermensch undergoes:
THREE metamorphoses of the spirit do I designate to you: how the spirit becometh a camel, the camel a lion, and the lion at last a child. Many heavy things are there for the spirit, the strong load-bearing spirit in which reverence dwelleth: for the heavy and the heaviest longeth its strength.
The obedient camel is representative of the herd man who embraces the virtues of the slave. The freedom-loving lion is second transformation of the spiritual Atman in which the lion becomes the chief symbol for the Will to Power who is ready to pounce and tear at the virtues of the weak and the lukewarm and make it into a strewn, bloody carcass. Yet, Zarathustra makes it very clear that not even the lion can replace the old values of the dead and buried; it has to take a completely new archetype to forge the new ideals like an alchemist transmuting lead to gold. The playfully creating child becomes the last stage in which the Übermensch can rise from the dark ashes of the former into the new, fiery light of the reborn Phoenix. This threefold progression mirrors the three natures doctrine of the Gnostics, that being the Hylic, Psychic and Pneumatic. The Übermensch is also (obviously, if you’ve been paying attention) represented likewise through the figures of Zarathustra and Dionysus whom both forged new vistas of vision, new universes of possibility, freedom and liberation:
Innocence is the child, and forgetfulness, a new beginning, a game, a self-rolling wheel, a first movement, a holy Yea. Aye, for the game of creating, my brethren, there is needed a holy. Yea unto life: its own will, willeth now the spirit; his own world winneth the world’s outcast.
I take that in light of what Nietzsche wrote about when the highest values have become devalued, a new system of values needs to be created. The Übermensch must first grow in the wilderness of past mythology and metaphysics, then he must surpass those “lying specters of the ages” and forge his own destiny by staying truthful to his virtues midst the drowning miasma and noise of the herd. Nietzsche correctly understood that fixed values of the old religions and sciences weren’t not enough to make humans reach their optimal state. They would need an intelligent utilitarian will, an executive power which transcends moral law and seeks the most highly beneficial outcome in circumstances which the virtues and laws of the common man could not properly address.
The virtues of the common man would perhaps mean vice and weakness in a philosopher; it might be possible for a highly developed man, supposing him to degenerate and go to ruin, to acquire qualities thereby alone, for the sake of which he would have to be honoured as a saint in the lower world into which he had sunk. There are books which have an inverse value for the soul and the health according as the inferior soul and the lower vitality, or the higher and more powerful, make use of them. In the former case they are dangerous, disturbing, unsettling books, in the latter case they are herald-calls which summon the bravest to THEIR bravery. Books for the general reader are always ill-smelling books, the odour of paltry people clings to them. (Beyond Good and Evil)
A genuine measure of individual sovereignty or autonomy and self-mastery becomes the laid foundation for this “higher” type of human being, transcending “beyond good and evil” and attaining a higher calling or spirituality. This philosophy does not call for the eradication or repression of ones most innate and basic drives with which humanity is endowed, but rather they are sublimated into a flouring vitality. It supplies the impetus to all higher spirituality and culture, through which alone human life can transform itself into something worthy of esteem. This new set of values provides the means to emerge to a higher platform of vision and being, transcending the brutish nihilism that is left from a disbelieving herd or mass of people who have resigned themselves to an unsatisfactory life of mediocrity and conformity.
Nietzsche’s characterization of the general idea of an objective truth as a kind of error, and knowledge as a kind of fiction also becomes notable, at last in relation to the traditional model of truth as the process correspondence of thought to being, and of knowledge as justified true belief. This in his view is a myth. All truth expressed by a human has a relational or relativistic character that requires to be understood differently and is purely subjective in perspective. So, what does that say about Zarathustra who ministers and proclaims his existential truths to the mob?
The figure of Zarathustra himself also shares a remarkable similarity to the Hermetic-pagan figure of Poimandres who is likewise similar to the Gnostic Savior or Christ. Poimandres is considered to be the nous or Logos of the highest godhead. Of course, Poimandres was also the name for the first chapter of The Corpus Hermeticum. As mentioned earlier, Poimandres was also called the “Shepherd of Men” who becomes sort of an Illuminator mentor to the Gnostic aspirant and speaker of the text. He is in essence, the sublime Promethian Gnostic hero, similar to the Superman through his own realization, setting an example for those who are strong enough and called to follow. And yet, Hermes himself is a teacher of wisdom not meant for the mob, but only for those initiated into his “secret knowledge”. In the Corpus Hermeticum, it asserts something that Nietzsche would have approved of:
“If, then, being made of Life and Light, you learn to know that you are made of them, you will go back to the Life and Light.”
In The Poimandres as Myth: Scholarly Theory and Gnostic Meaning, the author Robert A. Segal writes in a footnote:
…The “Will of God” means the “Counsel of God,” and entity which is distinct from both Nature and the Word and which mediates between God and the material world, at once unnecessarily complicates the cosmogony and really makes the Will equivalent to the Word.
Accordingly, perhaps Nietzsche was in fact channeling the Will from the Word or Logos, Zarathustra. Much like in the way Paul had the private revelation an entity he identified as the spiritual Christ appear before him which bubbled up from deep within his unconscious, Zarathustra likewise does the same with Nietzsche dictating the law of the Will to Power. Christ himself becomes is the perfect symbol of the hidden immortal within the mortal man. Other Gnostic archetypes as well (Hermes, Poimandres, Seth, and even the Buddha) can be compared to the Superman as flourishing figures of the four gates of self-knowledge: light, life, love and liberty, shining through the dark miasma of nihilism and the fetters of the material world. Nietzsche recognized the spiritual and even Gnostic virtues expressed by Jesus Christ in the Gospels, eliminating the Church’s orthodox authority over his words of wisdom in regards to the true “Kingdom of God” that is nowhere to be found but within:
The “kingdom of heaven” is a state of the heart—not something that is to come “above the earth” or “after death.” The whole concept of natural death is lacking in the evangel: death is no bridge, no transition; it is lacking because it belongs to a wholly different, merely apparent world, useful only insofar as it furnishes signs. The “hour of death” is no Christian conception: “hour,” time, physical life and its crises do not even exist for the teacher of the “glad tidings.” The “kingdom of God” is nothing that one expects; it has no yesterday and no day after tomorrow, it will not come in “a thousand years”—it is an experience of the heart; it is everywhere, it is nowhere.
Nietzsche as a whole is severely critical of everyday cherished beliefs and aspects of society — everything from religion, morality, science, philosophy and traditional values. In this instance, Nietzsche becomes one of the first deconstructionists. However, this does not stop Nietzsche from having the “Lulz” when he suggests that we bury all these serious ideals embodied in the Übermensch, the Will to Power and the urgent need for self-overcoming and make time for laughter and joy, even in the face of utter despair and misery as he writes in The Gay Science:
To laugh at oneself as one would have to laugh in order to laugh out of the whole truth, to do this, the best have not hitherto had enough of the sense of truth, and the most gifted have had far too little genius! There is perhaps still a future even for laughter! When the maxim, “The species is all, the individual is nothing,” has incorporated itself in humanity, and when access stands open to everyone at all times to this ultimate emanciption and irresponsibility. Perhaps then laughter will have united with wisdom, perhaps then there will be only “joyful wisdom.”
This same sentiment is repeated in Twilight of the Idols:
A revaluation of all values: this question mark, so black, so huge that it casts a shadow over the man who puts it down — such a destiny of a task compels one to run into the sunlight at every opportunity to shake off a heavy, all-too-heavy seriousness.
Even the Übermensch must laugh and crack jokes every now and then, which ultimately reflects Nietzsche’s attitude towards life and oneself on the journey towards ascending the golden starecase of self-mastery and into the light of self-possessed being. It is laughter which demonstrates the capacity in taking command of one’s self and the heights of the soul because it is capable of affirming life for what it is, in the here and the present. It is only in the present that the higher man can flourish.
My wise longing cried and laughed thus out of me – born in the mountains, verily, a wild wisdom – my great broad-winged longing! And often it swept me away and up and far, in the middle of my laughter; and I flew quivering, an arrow, through sun-drunken delight, away to distant futures which no dream had yet seen.