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Nietzsche’s Understanding of Zarathushtra’s Philosophy

By Arthur Pearlstein,
In Ecce Homo, essentially Nietzsche's autobiography, he expresses surprise that no one ever asked what the real Zarathushtra meant to him (most folks wrongly thought it was just Nietzsche having some fun). "What constitutes the tremendous uniqueness of that Persian in history"

Nietzsche wrote, was that "Zarathushtra was the first to see in the struggle between good and evil the actual wheel in the working of things....". And although Nietzsche was not a fan of the moral categories that Judeo-Christians then seized upon, he pointed out that Zarathushtra's teaching "and his alone, upholds truthfulness as the supreme virtue... To tell the truth and to shoot well with arrows: that is Persian virtue." He called Zarathushtra "more truthful than any other thinker." And he announced that "the self-overcoming of morality through truthfulness is what the name Zarathustra means in my mouth."

Nietzsche, in other words, praised Zarathushtra for what Nietzsche took to be his willingness to take a fresh look at the world and to make distinctions (as between "good and evil"). But the specific values of GOOD and EVIL that evolved (through what I take to be Judeo-Christian MIS-interpretation of Zarathushtra) --based upon a transcendental, unchanging, objective, omniscient, supreme God-- were anathema to Nietzsche.

Why? Because such values do not apply to what we as human beings are in real life. We are not omnipotent beings--never will be. These kinds of values do not promote growth but rather inhibit the realization of our potential as human beings. They deny our nature.

The ubermensch or overman[2] that Nietzsche spoke of (and which I take to be analogous to what Zarathushtra wants us to aspire to) looks at the world as it is (and uses what Zarathushtra would call his "good mind") to generate values from that very environment--he then tests these values in the real world, avoiding prejudgment.

Rather than deny the drives within him and his needs for gratification, the overman joyously pursues the fullness of his potential--guilt and negativity are avoided. Likewise, Zarathushtra himself was anything but an ascetic (and in this aspect, at least, most Zoroastrians--even among the traditionalists, still agree. In the Judeo-Christian-Muslim tradition, for example, sex is somehow sinful--something that both Nietzsche and Zarathushtra would consider utterly absurd).

"Good and evil" are not specifically, immutably defined terms (Dr. Jafarey's definition, I think, is suitably generic)--not some higher authority, some set of holy values for us to discover--rather, according to Nietzsche, the overman trusts himself to make the distinction between good and evil. My own personal take is that it is a pragmatic calculus--that which promotes the welfare of the "living world," that which helps us realize our potential and radiate happiness. But, in any case, values themselves are not immutable--they can and should change as we make the world, as in Dr. Jafarey's translation "ever fresh."

This process of renovation of the world--reinvention and self-realization, taking nothing for granted, is what it means to live (I think both to Nietzsche and to Zarathushtra). It is life itself. This, I think, is what Nietzsche means by the term "overcoming."

That's a brief summary of where I think Nietzsche is on Zarathushtra. Zarathushtra, I believe, was a very powerful inspiration to Nietzsche and few westerners (I dare say few people) have ever understood Zarathushtra so intelligently.


[1] These notes were produced by Arthur Pearlstein. He has had an interest in understanding Nietzsche’s philosophy starting in college when the trivial fact that Nietzsche and him have the same birthday caught his attention.

[2] Insight into the significance of the term Overman provided courtesy of Mr. Alexander Bard: Overman as in the English word ‘overcoming,’ meaning Man overcoming his own predicament, understanding who he is, beyond his own actions. This is the same as introducing words, deeds, actions as ethics. Strictly, seeing the human condition as a series of cause and effect. Making ethics immanent. Reducing the transcendental to a condition for the thought process. This is the exact opposite of Judeo-Christian thought where Man is REMOVED from Nature and Mind is turned into an independent capacity from, for example, The Body or The Context. Nietzsche puts Mind back into The Body and makes it a part of The Body, realizing that Mind, although its product is different from Nature (Culture) is not in any way independent of Nature. Because without Nature (as in Body or Society) there would be no Mind.

Superman, as in a transcendentally superior being to current Man, is a totally absurd notion to Nietzsche. This is why for example Nazism (but also much of current popular culture) or for that matter the worship of messiahs as “men of God” is totally alien to Nietzscheanism, as it of course is to Zarathushtra. The founder of our religion is our equal, not our superior.

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