Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra: Before Sunrise – Introduction

The following is the Introduction to Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra: Before Sunrise, the first English language collection of philosophical essays on Nietzsche’s seminal work, published by Bloomsbury Publishing.

Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra


The world is deep — and deeper than the day had ever thought.

From ‘Before Sunrise’, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

A sense of irony attaches itself to Thus Spoke Zarathustra, although not due to any fault of its own (or, perhaps it is the ‘guilty’ book par excellence). It is a work that was written for philosophical purposes, and for a cultured, philosophical audience. Yet, it is written in a style which was, and still is, not recognized as philosophical and is thus not taken seriously as philosophy (disregarding for the moment the scattered clusters of researchers in the Continental tradition). At the same time, however, due to its philosophical content and the status of its author as a philosopher, Zarathustra is regarded by specialists in literature as a work of philosophy. The work thus ends up homeless.

The irony is, in this way, due to the ambiguous, or perhaps, undecidable, status of the work, which simultaneously plays in the fields of literature and of philosophy. One could, and always does ask, is this accursed status not Nietzsche’s own fault, after all, for having transgressed the customary boundaries of ‘our’ academic division of labour? In response to such a question, it can just as simply be argued that it is this very distinction which itself has given rise to the irony (and the problem of assignment) in the first place. Indeed, is it not the case that this problem is itself indicative of the revolutionary significance of Zarathustra, as its homelessness is an intimation that it is outside of the motley city of reason and of its organizational compartments? The reception of Zarathustra, and its ambiguous status, in this light, can once again serve as an indication of a task yet to be fulfilled, a task for the philosophers of the future.

For the philosophers of the ‘analytic revolution’, Nietzsche’s greatest work is a work of poetry, of literature, capable only of conjuring forth a metaphysical attitude towards life. In the opinion of no lesser figure than Carnap (perhaps the first of the ‘revolutionaries’ to refer to Zarathustra), Nietzsche, contrary to bad ‘metaphvsical’ musicians such as Heidegger, should be commended for the honesty of his Zarathustra.  In this latter work, Carnap detects an attempt at poetic expression, beyond the strict limits of philosophy, conceived by him as the logical analysis of language. In this charitable reading, Carnap is willing to allow a place for poetry and literature (though not in philosophy), for, although their sentences are in a technical sense meaningless, their expression disseminates ‘meaning’ or ‘sense’ in a grammatical, poetic, or historical sense. We could perhaps suggest that such expression is akin to that of the mystical in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, an expression which from within the limits of the world and knowledge, is silent de facto, silent of logical meaning. Yet, with this last suggestion, we begin to sense a difficulty in Carnap’s position (and, of the ‘analytic’ distinction between philosophy and literature itself) in that Wittgenstein contended that this ‘silent’ aspect was not only part of his philosophy, but it was also the most important part.

Such a contention was yet another event (along with the attempts of Heidegger, Blanchot, and others), to give back to philosophy its proper depth (and, to save it from Carnap’s ‘ideal language’). Indeed, towards the late 1920’s. Wittgenstein began to articulate this ‘silence’, first, in his ‘Lecture on Ethics,’ and later, in the 1930’s, with his Blue and Brown Books (where he mentions the ‘eternal recurrence of the same’), in which his original framework is dissolved into ‘systems of propositions’, or, in the usage of the later Philosophical Investigations, ‘language games’. With such a topological path of thinking, the Carnapian assertion of the limits of meaning could no longer hold (if it ever did outside of the prejudices of philosophers).

In the wake of this and other radical challenges to the ‘analytic revolution’ over the last decades (yet, already anticipated by Nietzsche), however, there has been little authentic reappraisal, outside of the field of the history of philosophy, of the myriad philosophers who had been unjustly relegated to meaninglessness, such as the early German romantics and German Idealists, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Heidegger. At the same lime, we must be aware that we ourselves (continental philosophers included) are creatures of the ‘analytic revolution’, and as victims and convalescents of its eliminative strategy, we must attempt to retrieve once again a topos of authentic philosophical questioning.

That which is significant however and which speaks to mv allusion to irony in the opening lines is that the very difficulties which emerged in the attempt by ‘analytic’ philosophy to ‘set the limit’ were already anticipated by Nietzsche in the development of his work between The Birth of Tragedy and Thus Spoke Zarathustra. As I have explored at length in ‘The Wreckage of Stars: Nietzsche and the Ecstasy of Poetry’, the question, and predicament, for Nietzsche, was how he was to articulate a Dionvsian wisdom through a philosophy that must trace its ‘context of emergence’ amid the long genealogy of ‘theoretical men’, from Plato and Aristotle through to Leibniz, Kant, and Schopenhauer.

The question of the rebirth of the Dionysian, of forgetting, of creativity, and of the unhistorical is eventually resolved with the poetic creation of Zarathustra. With this work, Nietzsche subverts the restricted economy of the principle of sufficient reason through a return to mythos and poiesis, not as a destruction of reason, but rather as its re-contextualization amidst the broader topos of human existence and understanding.

The irony is that Nietzsche has transfigured his writing into that of literature for philosophical purposes. And, indeed, contrary to Carnap, Nietzsche, as we can readily see in his own words, regarded Zarathustra as the central work, the poetic topos, of his philosophy. The return to the indigenous topoi of poetry and music is an affirmation, for Nietzsche, of the contingency of existence, and it is an honest renunciation of the illusions and simulacrums of unproblematic conceptions of ‘permanence’, ‘objectivity’, ‘morality’, and ‘God’. In this way, the poetic revolution of Zarathustra, in its defiance to the idols of religion, science, philosophy, and the state, intimates more than just a different ‘way of speaking’.

Indeed, the poetic (and musical) return stands as a challenge to those, like Badiou, who have become ‘pious again’, captivated by the resurrected Platonic idol of infinity. With the end of the ‘Age of the Poets’, Badiou contends, in his Manifesto for Philosophy, that the condition of poetry is to be preserved, though dismissed in the current period.  For those others, like Bataille, Blanchot, Kristeva, Irigaray and Derrida, to name a few who have resisted this captivation, the poetic return is an evasion of godlike discourses which attempt to seduce us to a new truth, a new ‘objectivity’. Nietzsche’s poetic expression is an affirmation of becoming, and its indications and signs open up differing perspectives amid finite existence, while returning dogmas to the truth of their scandalous origins.

It is in this context that Zarathustra’s speeches in Parts I and II can be read as specific articulations of Nietzsche’s philosophical revolution, of which the question of style and of the ‘organisational’ (Hölderlin) is only one – though important – aspect. Nietzsche, through his innovations in philosophical language, invites his reader to think differently, in different ways, and about differing ‘things’, questions, and perspectives which were, until the door was unlocked, hidden from view. Thus Spoke Zarathustra is a challenge to the hegemony of logic and reason in philosophy, and with his articulation of a topos beyond the principle of sufficient reason, Nietzsche is inciting us to liberate ourselves from the epochal trajectory of ‘theoretical man’.

Nietzsche once predicted that in the future, once he had found posthumous readers, his children, that a university chair would be established for his great work. To date, this prediction has yet to be realized, despite the sustained century long influence of his writings, including his poetry, upon philosophy and other diverse regions of human knowledge, culture, and politics. Moreover, despite his pervasive influence upon the philosopher and non-philosopher alike, and his own zealous regard for Zarathustra, there has been relatively little serious study of his magnum opus. At the same time, the little work that has been, and is still being, done in the English speaking world, though scattered and quarantined from the mainstream discourse of philosophy, displays the vitality and depth of what Schacht calls ‘Nietzsche’s way of doing philosophy’, one that forces us to call into question the very tools of logical reasoning which dominate Western thought.

This volume, Before Sunrise seeks to address the paucity and scattered character of current research by gathering together efforts to explore Zarathustra not only with regard to its significance for an interpretation of Nietzsche’s philosophy per se, but also in light of the deeper questions of the meaning of philosophy itself and its relation with poetry, life, and existence.

Before Sunrise presents chapters by twelve international Nietzsche scholars in which Zarathustra is explored with respect to its myriad philosophical questions, aspects, and implications for existence and life. This volume shows the relevance of Zarathustra to questions articulated in contemporary philosophy, from deconstruction, hermeneutics, and critical theory to phenomenology, existentialism, and post-structuralism; cosmology and contemporary physics; and finally, ethics, religion, and politics. The volume interprets Zarathustra as a provocation to a technical philosophy that, as Nietzsche contends, has removed itself from authentic questioning and, thus, relevance for the new millennium.

The volume is laid out in three parts, Of Method, Of Existence, and Of Life. Of Method will explore Zarathustra with respect to its compositional structure and style as a philosophical and poetic text, and the implications of its radical innovations to pertinent meta-philosophical questions amid the broader horizons of philosophy. Of Existence will explore the question of the significance of the eternal recurrence of the same to an interpretation of cosmic and human existence. Of Life will explore various aspects of the ethos of Zarathustra and the myriad questions and implications arising from Zarathustra on the meaning of freedom, convalescence, the overcoming of nihilism, the sources of affirmation, and the virtue of gift-giving.

Part I, Of Method begins with ‘The Symphonic Structure of Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Preliminary Outline’ by Graham Parkes, in which he excavates the contention that Zarathustra has a symphonic structure and seeks to show what this contention means in light of musical theory. He contends that we will be better able to understand this Dionysian text in light of its musical background.

In ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra as Nietzsche’s Autobiography’, Thomas Brobjer laments the lack of attention paid to Zarathustra as a philosophical text, and suggests that one way to consider this work as philosophical, is to regard it as autobiographical. In this way, this work is set forth by Nietzsche as an example of how philosophy should be practised, as a poetic sublimation of personal and situated experiences.

In the next chapter, ‘Zarathustra in Nietzsche’s Typology’, Yunus Tuncel explores the question of type, or typology, in Zarathustra and Nietzsche’s philosophy as a whole. He outlines three typologies: cultural, characteriological, and historical. The first concerns forces of culture (artistic, priestly), the second, traits and tendencies (spirits of gravity and revenge), and the third, epochal principles as the trajectory of the historical becoming of nihilism and its overcoming.

In the final chapter of Part I, ‘The Three Metamorphoses and Philosophy’, Peter Yates explores the status of Zarathustra as a philosophical work against the background of the question of poetic expressivity in philosophy. Yates raises the meta-philosophical question: What then is philosophy? Who then is a philosopher? He traces the maturation of philosophy from technical, or prepositional, to literary, or poetic, expressivity against the background of the three metamorphoses of the spirit, of the camel, the lion, and the child.

Part II, Of Existence, begins with ‘Zarathustra, the Moment, and Eternal Recurrence of the Same: Nietzsche’s Ontology of Time’, in which Mark Daniel Cohen and Friedrich Ulfers offer an interpretation of eternal recurrence as an overt ontological principle within an ontology of time and existence. They argue that eternal recurrence is a Dionysian re-interpretation of nineteenth-century physics in which is disclosed a theory of the moment as a continuous opening.

In ‘The Gateway-Augenblick’, Paul S. Loeb lays out the doctrine of eternal recurrence as the Dionysian mystery faith to which Plato was opposed. Loeb juxtaposes the dying Zarathustra to the dying Socrates in a contemplation of the distinction between eternal recurrence, on the one hand, and reincarnation (with its eventual release), on the other.

Alan Wenham, in ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra: The Hammer and the Greatest Weight’, argues that in preparation for the radical innocence and freedom envisaged in Zarathustra, human beings must first awaken themselves from their blindness to their own enslavement within the nexus of Christian fatalism, slave mentality, and masochism. Wenham proposes, however, that we interrogate the figure of the Übermensch as to its apparent re-petition of the temporality of the slave.

Part III, Of Life, begins with ‘Zarathustra on Freedom’, in which Gudrun von Tevenar argues that only those who have liberated themselves both from external constraints as well as front such inner constraints as attachment to past values can be deemed suitable candidates for freedom. Yet, real freedom also requires having a vision as to future goals [the famous Freiheit wozu?], plus the rare ability to find one’s own way towards those goals. Only then is one free and can thus qualify to be one of Zarathustra’s true fellow-creators.

In ‘Nietzsche – On the Regenerative Character of Dispositions’, Arno Boehler examines Zarathustra’s convalescence as a pre-condition for the affirmation of eternal recurrence. He sketches out a difficult struggle which exposes the transformation of the performative speech of Zarathustra to an openness which allows his own soul, his own abyss, to speak.

In the next chapter, ‘In Search of the Wellsprings of the Future and of New Origins’, Uschi Nussbaumer-Benz argues that one of the sources for the Zarathustra legend is the ancient narrative of the Dighanikaya which speaks of a wise individual who rolls out of himself like a wheel, as a symbol of his own perfection. She argues that this narrative served as a wellspring for the philosophy of Nietzsche and may shed some light upon his attempt to set forth a competing ‘grand narrative’ to those of the monotheistic religions.

In the final chapter, ‘Justice and Gift-Giving in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Vanessa Lemm examines the practise of gift-giving as an alternative to both utilitarianism and to exploitation and domination. She argues that gift-giving is distinct from Christian alms or charity which is not giving at all, but a poisoning which creates dependencies and shores up relations of injustice. Drawing connections between Derrida and Nietzsche, Lemm contends that gift-giving is an animal virtue and that it is in a competitive friendship with animals that there will be an enhancement of life.

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