Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

Notes on Nietzsche, “Thus Spake Zarathustra” – “On the New Idol”

Still reading through Zarathustra. If Laurence Lampert is correct and the book is about Zarathustra learning as a teacher, then I’m in no position to comment on this section as if it were a fixed and final teaching.

Let’s get to the fun part, then highlight some of the ambiguities and issues that have presented themselves to me:

Behold the superfluous! They steal the works of the inventors and the treasures of the sages for themselves; “education” they call their theft – and everything turns to sickness and misfortune for them.

Behold the superfluous! They are always sick; they vomit their gall and call it a newspaper. They devour each other and cannot even digest themselves.

Behold the superfluous! They gather riches and become poorer with them. They want power and first the lever of power, much money – the impotent paupers! (50)

Zarathustra speaks in the above quote, complaining about various aspects of the modern project that give us the world as we know it today. We “learn” with no respect for those who taught us: this is a consequence of insisting on “method” (cf. Descartes, Bacon) as fundamental to education. With method, there is no such thing as theory in the older sense. There are only theories which have immediate practical use. Without any true teachers or any sense of larger questions, we do a lot of alchemy in the name of science.

The next complaint is aimed at someone like John Stuart Mill. We act like as if the only thing that happened to people in other ages was that they said somethingĀ (anything) once, and were promptly thrown in jail. It is true that works like The Prince and Macbeth hide what they’re saying to some degree because of a lack of respect for free speech. It is also true that unchecked populist bile in our age can basically end any good that could come from having free speech.

One should focus on the word “impotent” in the last complaint, about how we only desire money and power. That word brings into play a number of issues which limit the scope of Zarathustra’s complaints: it brings us to the idea of creation. It should be noted no alternative political order is given in this “On the New Idol” section.

The section begins with a distinction between “peoples and herds” and “states.” We live in a world of “states,” but “peoples and herds” still exist somewhere, probably not on this earth. Zarathustra: “State is the name of the coldest of all cold monsters.” This is not as severe a criticism as it might seem; Nietzsche himself in Ecce Homo talks about cold as connected with dialectic (cf. “Why I am so Wise”). To be sure, he reiterates there how Socrates is a decadent. He also discusses how he himself is a decadent. Zarathustra, of course, was living high in the mountains at the opening of the book. There is some connection between the “state” and Zarathustra which does not reduce to rejecting the state as evil.

However, the language of this section is awfully harsh on the concept of the “state:”

Coldly it [the state] tells lies too; and this lie crawls out of its mouth: “I, the state, am the people.” That is a lie! It was creators who created peoples and hung a faith and love over them: thus they served life.

It is annihilators who set traps for the many and call them “state:” they hang a sword and a hundred appetites over them. (48)

The line of thought behind the words “We the People” seems to be at stake here. “Faith and love” is contrasted with “sword and a hundred appetites:” there has been a lowering of man, and yes, it does look like the time of “peoples and herds” was more religious, perhaps even more honest. In the following paragraphs, we hear that “every people speaks its tongue of good and evil,” in contrast to the state, which “tells lies in all the tongues of good and evil.” It is implied that “customs and rights” reside with peoples. We are warned, we “vanquishers of the old god,” that the state proclaims itself “the ordering finger of God,” and we blindly accept this, as there are material rewards. The culmination of the rhetorical attack is as follows:

State I call it where all drink poison, the good and the wicked; state, where all lose themselves, the good and the wicked; state, where the slow suicide of all is called “life.” (50)

Those of you who have read even these few notes carefully can see the trap hiding in Zarathustra’s argument. It isn’t just that the “state,” Nietzsche, Zarathustra and Socrates are all “cold.” That’s something I’ll have to work out fully later, and will probably get unnecessarily dense. No, the immediate issue is that every speaker has an audience, and Zarathustra is pretty explicit about how his audience conceives itself: “vanquishers of the old god.” These are not believers, not even many atheists. This is a very particular sort of person: I don’t even know Richard Dawkins fits, because it isn’t enough to be blunt and rant about how much religion sucks. The figure who meets this address closest is Wagner, I suspect. Wagner spent much of his time crudely bashing Christianity andĀ  mindlessly promoting the Reich and its ugliest aspects. He did this by promoting a new sort of music and having a bunch of theories about music and nationhood.

Still, even though Zarathustra seems to say the “state” is nothing but lies and death, he doesn’t endorse revolution or anarchy, like I’ve heard certain groups nowadays proclaim every nanosecond. Earlier in the book, Zarathustra gave up on addressing everyone all at once. He addresses his “brothers” (yes, the “vanquishers” above), telling them to “break the windows and leap to freedom.” He does not tell them to take power: “whoever possesses little is possessed that much less: praised be a little poverty!” (51) He emphasizes the “end” of the state. Those of you who have been reading this blog a while know that probably doesn’t refer to the destruction of the state, but rather the holding of it in its proper limit, as all things that are (beings) are defined by their limit.


Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra. trans. Kaufmann. New York: Modern Library, 1995. p. 48-51

1 Comment

  1. A well-written commentary.

    Thank you for your thoughts.


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