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A Return to Self-Overcoming

July 30, 2014


Below is a passage from Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra followed by an interpretation of it:


‘Will to truth’ you call it, you who are wisest, that which drives you and puts you in heat?

Will to the thinkability of all beings: thus I call your will!

All beings you want first to make thinkable: For you doubt with healthy suspicion whether they really are thinkable.

But they shall fit and bend themselves to you! Thus your will wills it. Smooth shall they become and subject to the spirit, as its mirror and reflected image.

That is your entire will, you who are wisest, as a will to power; and even when you talk of good and evil and of valuations.

You still want to create the world before which you can kneel: that is your ultimate hope and intoxication.

The unwise, of course, the people — they are like a river on which a bark drifts along: and in the bark, solemn and disguised, sit your valuations.

Your will and your values you have placed on the river of Becoming; what the people believe to be good and evil betrays to me an ancient will to power.

[…] But that you may understand my word about good and evil: to that end will I say to you my word about Life and the way of all living.

The living did I pursue; I followed the greatest and the smallest paths, that I might understand its way.

With a hundredfold mirror I caught its look when its mouth was closed, that its eye might speak to me. And its eye did speak to me.

But wherever I found the living, there too I heard the speech about obedience. All that is living is something that obeys.

And this is the second thing: whoever cannot obey himself will be commanded. That is the way of the living.

But this is the third thing that I heard: that commanding is harder than obeying. And not only because the commander bears the burden of all who obey, and this burden can easily crush him:—

An experiment and a risk appeared to me in all commanding; and always when it commands the living puts its own self at risk.

Yes, even when it commands itself, there too it must make amends for its commanding. For its own law it must become judge and avenger and sacrificial victim.

[…] Where I found the living, there I found will to power; and even in the will of one who serves I found a will to be master.

That the weaker should serve the stronger, of this it is persuded by its will, which would be master over what is weaker still: this pleasure alone it does not gladly forgo.

And just as the smaller yields to what is greater, that it might have pleasure and power over the smallest: so does even the greatest yield, and risks for the sake of power — life itself.

[…] And whoever must be a creator in good and evil: verily, he must first be an annihilator and shatter values.


This is one of the most important passages in all of Nietzsche and pretty much the key to all of his work. This is the penultimate expression of his doctrine of the “will to power” in the work he called his most profound, Thus Spoke Zarathustra. I will try to make my interpretation brief, though that may mean leaving certain passages up to you to interpret. I will touch on the most important parts.


At the beginning of the passage Zarathustra indicates that he is addressing “you who are wisest”, this address is meant for the philosophers and others who spend their time in contemplation of existence and ideas (scholars, for example, or perhaps those who seek to be intelligent rulers or counsel rulers).

The philosophers (I will stick with this denotation) believe, or at least expound, that they seek the “truth” about existence, or society, nature, or what have you. That Zarathustra calls this search the “will to the thinkability of all beings” is connected with the next couple of lines. The philosophers have a “healthy” suspicion about what the world is, about what they are told, and opinions, and so they put all ideas to the test of thought and reason to discover whether they can accept it as true.

But Zarathustra does not think it is possible to see the truth in itself, he says the philosophers “fit and bend” the truth so that it accords with they way they would like to see the world, so they transform the truth into a mirror in which they see their own image and are satisfied with it.

This signals the beginning of Nietzsche’s doctrine of the “will to power”. The philosophers (or others with a power to bend the truth into their image) place their valuations on the truth, and they call what they value “good” and what they despise “bad” or “evil” and they back it up with reasoning.

By forming the truth into their own image, one they love and respect, Zarathustra says that the philosophers create a world before which they can kneel, or worship, because they love and respect that world, because it is their own.


Zarathustra then talks about the “unwise”, or “the people”, who in other parts of the book he calls “the herd”. The herd, he believes, don’t think for themselves, they don’t take time to examine the nature of the world and ideas, this is important to the imagery. He relates the people to a river, which he later says is the river of Becoming. The image of the river is an old image in philosophy related to the nature of existence or “being”, first related by the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who Nietzsche was very fond of. Heraclitus thought that existence was a constantly changing flux, everything that comes into being ultimately changes and/or perishes… He said “you can’t step into the same river twice” to express this, because though the river as an idea is the same, the water is always moving and so your foot would sink into different water particles at any given time. So the “unwise” people are related to the river, which is also time.

This image is also bound up with something I believe Francis Bacon said about rivers, which is that the hollow and “light” things float on them and are taken down stream… so in other words the unimportant things… so this would be another jab at the unwise, that they don’t bring into the future the truly deep and important things which just sink through to the bottom of the rushing river but instead they carry the useless empty junk…

So what is the empty junk in this passage? It is the values of the philosophers, which Zarathustra says are the “ancient will to power”, so the values of past philosophers, or rulers.


Next Zarathustra names the three truths he has learned about life, that all life obeys, that whoever or whatever does not obey himself/herself obeys another, and that commanding is harder than obeying. I think those are pretty self explanatory in themselves. By obeying oneself it means that you have to become resolute about your goals or desires and also you do them on your own terms, for yourself…

Nietzsche writes a lot about morals, and this passage is no exception, so obeying oneself would also mean not following the moral standards unless you have put them to the test of your own reason and you desire them entirely for your own and their own sake… if you desire them for the sake of another, or because society has demanded them, that would be obeying another… if you do it for another for your own sake and you have really thought that truth, then it would potentially fit this description as well.

Zarathustra says that the commander bears a burden in commanding. There are several reasons for this, I will mention a few reasons. If you reject the current social standards and set out on your own path and your own valuation, you will have to shoulder the burden alone… there is a chance that no one will understand you or even agree with you, you might face hostility towards your ideas (there is more in philosophy that is given to tactically combat this, but I will not address that here). There is also the possibility that you might collapse under the weight of your conscience, either for something you have done or something you have commanded others to do that went wrong (think along the lines of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment). There is also the possibility that, because you are striking it out on your own, you are taking the role of someone of “strength” (in Nietzsche’s view), and because (in this world of wills to power) there are other figures of strength, you might come up against another will greater than your own and face annihilation.

Those are a few reasons that commanding is a risk, and it is a risk to “life”, because life for Nietzsche is “will to power”, and to fail in one’s self exertion is to lose your life, your “will to power”.

For this “will to power”, one must become judge and avenger and sacrificial victim, Zarathustra says. Judge because it is on one’s own reason to decide what is true and real and worth fighting for. Avenger because other people or conditions in nature will threaten one’s will to power, and sacrificial victim because of the prospect of annihilation, and because as one expends one’s life it becomes expended, and much of what one accomplishes, particularly on a grand scale, is something that lives on for posterity… Nietzsche didn’t really believe in a life of ease and attaining pleasures, he called a world dominated by those ideals the world of the “last men”, who he saw as epitomizing the unwise, the ones who did not want to gather themselves to accomplish anything, who just wanted to sit back and enjoy pleasures for the remainder of their lives.


There is more to the passage, but I think with that description it should become more evident how to place it all. I want to say a couple more words. A lot of people place Nietzsche into the existentialist tradition, which partly makes sense because of his thoughts on striking it out for oneself and playing an active role in the world… but Nietzsche scholar Laurence Lampert has a different interpretation of Nietzsche which actually places him in opposition to existentialism. Here is a short passage from his book Nietzsche and Modern Times:


Nietzsche is no existentialist, for he ridicules long before its promulgation the existentialist  faith that we are free to create ourselves and the existentialist morals that condemn as bad faith identification with one’s role. […] The age of the actor [who can create his own destiny] poses a problem for the master-builder [Lampert is using this term for the philosopher or ruler who creates morals and a new way of life]. Such builders […] have the perspective of millennia and aspire to create a new society; they are prudent legislators who found peoples. Any such aspiration today must face the fact that all people believe themselves capable of everything. Such a faith is most unpromising for the builder whose projects require a very different fundamental belief: that worth derives from being a part of a whole, ‘a stone in a great structure.’ [pg. 253-254]


If what Lampert describes as Nietzsche’s point of view is true, despite the ridicule of the existentialist “faith”, Nietzsche himself in the role of a “prudent legislator”, or “master-builder”, would himself have a degree of faith, that he could create new societies and that the “unwise” would fall into place like blocks in a great structure… it is also clear, from this point of view, that Lampert’s Nietzsche does not intend to dispell “faith”, but merely channel it into a useful direction, ie. the belief “that worth derives from being a part of a whole”.


I personally think as far as philosophy currently stands, existentialism is the closest we have to providing a way for individuals to experience freedom and create their own image of the world. While I may be accused of being like the philosopher who is planting morals and beliefs into others, that may be true to a degree, but keep in mind that pretty much everyone believes in something, even if you are a nihilist, you just call that something nothing… and existentialism does not dictate what you should believe… though it might be argued to the contrary, as the above comment by Lampert indicates, the existentialist “moral” not to identify with one’s roles… which I happen to agree with, but nonetheless I will put that on the table here with the rest of this to ponder on… and you can submit it to the light of your own judgement, so that if you do not agree you can reject it… I think existentialism gives that freedom more than any other “belief system”, it has the advantage of openness and fluidity… I personally think Nietzsche and/or perhaps Lampert has a fear of existentialism for the prospects of his “strong”…


I wrote another post which I personally think is helpful. It could probably be expanded upon or tweaked by different points of view, but again it is an attempt to create an open way of life and not just become a “stone” in someone else’s “great structure”, the post can be found here:

A New Form of Social Organization— For those who value Freedom


From → Exposition

One Comment
  1. 4t4m4t4 permalink

    everything is upside down …. remember tha last will be the first and the first the last …. they infected everything i mean starting with language …. namaste

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