Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra



The course is an examination of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the work he considered his most profound and in the wake of which, he said, all his subsequent books were mere fishing hooks.  It is the first book written after he came to the solution to the problems that troubled him while composing his earlier works, i.e., after he came to the proper way to understand those problems.  After it, he reissued his first book, On the Birth of Tragedy, with a new preface entitled “An Attempt at Self-Criticism.”  In light of it, he called his attempts to give a genealogy of morals in Human, All-Too-Human “inept” and constrained by a language inimical to his message.  This was the effect the experience of Thus Spoke Zarathustra had on him.

Zarathustra is the Avestan form of the name Zoroaster, prophetic founder of the religion that dominated Persia well before Israel’s 70-year Babylonian Captivity.  On the theory that it was only following their return from this exile that Israel became committed to the nonexistence of every other nation’s gods, Zarathustra stands as the founder of that strange mixture of monotheism and dualism that Nietzsche saw in Christianity.  Nietzsche’s Zarathustra seeks to undo this tradition.  Thus Spoke Zarathustra is then a kind of anti-Bible.  Given the foundational place of the Bible in Western politics, even of that segment that is self-assertively secular, it cannot but shake politics with a magnitude proportionate to Nietzsche’s influence as a philosopher.

And Nietzsche and his Zarathustra have indeed altered the whole of politics and society.  Passing over the more direct influences in silence, his more subtle impact is seen even in the least admirably educated.  The intellectual laziness of soft relativism speaks his language, a language aped from hard-nosed relativists until it became a part of the fabric of acceptable conversation.  Psychologists have taught people to think of themselves in terms derived from a decayed Nietzscheanism.  Louis Armstrong sang a charming little ditty about a Nietzschean character.  The 1960s saw a God-is-dead theological movement.  Interfaith dialogues now find common ground in the question of how to make faith relevant in people’s lives, no matter the content of their faith, so healthy is religion today.

Nietzsche represents more than a political and social crisis, some dangerous but ill-conceived, and hopefully short-lived, fad.  The crisis is instead philosophic.  There are neo-Kantians around; there are no Kantians because Nietzsche so refuted the man from Königsberg that even his most ardent admirers cannot take his metaphysics seriously.  Hegel has shared the same fate, lingering on only because intelligent Marxists had to cast about for some intellectually respectable foundation once Nietzsche had rendered Marx’s whole style of thinking laughable, and still they had to jettison much of Hegel’s system.  The English model of rights, utilitarianism, and analysis still survives, but that is little comfort when Nietzsche predicted that it would, and indeed would flourish:  anti-philosophy always thrives best.

The crisis of Modernity swirls around Nietzsche as if he were its center.  One might express that crisis most succinctly with the observation, “But he seems to be right.”  That would certainly explain his deep and ubiquitous influence:  even his foes absorb him.  But if he is right, then the foundations of our society are rotten.  Our alternatives would then be to go as the Western Roman Empire went, or rather as the Eastern.

If our society is to be retimbered, the full extent of its weakness must be reckoned.  Nietzsche was a masterful social critic, and the best have followed in his train.  Nietzsche must be understood.  If his destructive analysis is to be transcended, an understanding of it must first be achieved.  This course is devoted to one form in which he presented his mature thought.

The only way to make it through Thus Spoke Zarathustra is for us to start immediately, and so we shall.  We will scrutinize the book closely, which requires that you have taken considerable pains in reading it before class meets.

In order to better facilitate class discussion, I will post my lecture notes online after I have given them.  You are thereby encouraged to ask questions, rather than practice your shorthand.  Submit all written work via blackboard.



10%    Weekly Papers, no more than 300 words in length, due by the beginning of each class on topics assigned.  There will be no paper due in weeks where you hand in an essay.  The lowest paper will be dropped (i.e., twelve papers, eleven of which count).

15%    Attendance and class participation.

25%    First Essay, due February 27 by 5:00pm.  Essays should not exceed 3500 words.

40%    Second Essay, due April 17 by 5:00pm.  Essays should not exceed 4500 words.

10%    Take-home Final Exam, distributed via Blackboard 48 hours before the exam date/time.


Required Readings

  • Friedrich Nietzsche.  Thus Spoke Zarathustra.  Trans. Walter Kaufmann.  New York:  Penguin, 1978.  ISBN:  0140047484

Recommended Readings

  • Laurence Lampert.  Nietzsche’s Teaching:  An Interpretation of ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra’.  New Haven:  Yale University Press, 1986.  ISBN:  0300044305
  • Stanley Rosen.  The Mask of Enlightenment:  Nietzsche’s ‘Zarathustra’.  2nd ed.  New Haven:  Yale University Press, 2004.  ISBN:  0300104510.  [1st ed., New York:  Cambridge University press, 1995.  ISBN:  0521498899]

Literature Often Cited

  • Keith Ansell-Pearson.  Nietzsche contra Rousseau.  New York:  Cambridge University Press, 1991.
  • Daniel Conway.  Nietzsche’s Dangerous Game.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1997.
  • Werner Dannhauser.  Nietzsche’s View of Socrates.  Ithaca:  Cornell University Press, 1974.
  • ———.  “Nietzsche,” in History of Political Philosophy, ed. Strauss and Cropsey.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1987.
  • Arthur Danto.  Nietzsche as Philosopher.  New York:  Columbia University Press, 1980.
  • Gilles Deleuze.  Nietzsche and Philosophy.  Trans. Hugh Tomlinson.  New York:  Columbia University Press, 1983.
  • Jacques Derrida.  Spurs, Nietzsche’s Styles.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1979.
  • B. Detwiler.  Nietzsche and the Politics of Aristocratic Radicalism.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1990.
  • Robert Eden.  Political Leadership and Nihilism.  Gainesville,  University Presses of Florida, 1983.
  • Michael Gillespie and Tracy Strong, ed.  Nietzsche’s New Seas.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1988.
  • Martin Heidegger.  Nietzsche.  Trans. David Krell.  New York:  Harper and Row, 1979–86.
  • Kathleen Higgins.  Nietzsche’s Zarathustra.  Philadelphia:  Temple University Press, 1990.
  • R. J. Hollingdale.  Nietzsche, the Man and His Philosophy.  Baton Rouge:  Louisiana State University Press, 1965.
  • Karl Jaspers.  Nietzsche, An Introduction to the Understanding of his Philosophical Activity.  Trans. Wallraff and Schmitz.  Tucson:  University of Arizona Press, 1965.
  • ———.  Nietzsche and Christianity.  Trans. E. B. Ashton.  Chicago:  Regnery, 1961.
  • Carl Jung.  Nietzsche’s Zarathustra:  Notes of the Seminar Given in 1934–1939.  Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1988.
  • Walter Kaufmann.  Nietzsche:  Philosophy, Psychologist, Antichrist.  3d ed.  New York:  Vintage, 1968.
  • Karl Löwith.  Nietzsche’s Philosophy of the Eternal Recurrence of the Same.  Trans. J. Harvey Lomax.  Berkeley and Los Angeles:  University of California Press, 1997.
  • H. L. Mencken.  The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche.  Port Washington, NY:  Kennikat Press, 1967.
  • Alexander Nehemas.  Nietzsche:  Life as Literature.  Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 1985.
  • Thomas L. Pangle.  “The Roots of Contemporary Nihilism and its Political Consequences According to Nietzsche.”  Review of Politics 45 (1983), 45–70.
  • ———.  “The ‘Warrior Spirit’ as an Inlet to the Political Philosophy of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra.”  Nietzsche Studien 15 (1986), 140–79.
  • Bernard Reginster.  The Affirmation of Life:  Nietzsche on Overcoming Nihilism.  Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 2006.
  • Ruediger Safranski.  Nietzsche:  A Philosophical Biography.  Trans. Shelley Frisch.  New York:  W. W. Norton, 2002.
  • Lou Salomé.  Nietzsche.  Trans. Siegfried Mandel.  Chicago:  University of Illinois Press, 1988.
  • Leo Strauss.  “Note on the Plan of Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil,” in Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1983.
  • Tracy Strong.  Friedrich Nietzsche and the Politics of Transformation.  Berkeley and Los Angeles:  University of California Press, 1975.
  • Gianni Vattimo.  Dialogue with Nietzsche.  New York:  Columbia University Press, 2006.

Course Expectations and Policies

CANCELLATIONS:  I have a cell phone, and will call to cancel class if necessary.

LATE ESSAYS:  No weekly papers will be accepted if submitted late.  Late essays will be penalized 5% per day (including holidays and weekends).  The last day to turn in the final essay is three days before grades are due, unless you have been granted an incomplete for the course.

INCOMPLETES:  Incompletes will only be given in rare circumstances, such as illness, death in the immediate family, or other unusual and unforeseeable circumstances.  Incompletes are given at my discretion and only when it is possible that the completion of the remaining work could result in a grade of A or B. An incomplete must be resolved within the appropriate time limit or it will automatically be changed to an F.  You are responsible for seeing that incompletes are made up before the expiration date.

ACADEMIC DISHONESTY:  All work must be the product of the student’s own original effort.  It is the student’s responsibility to familiarize him- or herself with university policy regarding plagiarism and academic dishonesty.  Students should take the university’s Academic Integrity tutorial (  All infractions will be punished with unsublimated, sadistic abandon.

DISABILITIES:  Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, NIU is committed to making reasonable accommodations for persons with documented disabilities.  Students who believe that their disability may have some impact on their coursework and for which they may require accommodations should notify the Center for Access-Ability Resources (CAAR) on the fourth floor of the Health Services Building.  CAAR will assist students in making appropriate accommodations with course instructors.  It is important that CAAR and the instructor be informed of any disability-related needs during the first two weeks of the semester.


Tentative Class Schedule

01/15    First Part — Zarathustra’s Prologue
01/22    Frst Part, through “On the Pale Criminal”
01/29    First Part, through “On the Flies of the Market Place”
02/05    First Part, through “On Love of the Neighbor”
02/12    First Part, through “On the Gift-Giving Virtue”
02/19    Second Part, through “On the Tarantulas”
02/26    Second Part, through “On Immaculate Perception”
03/05    Second Part, through “The Stillest Hour”
03/12    [Spring Break]
03/19    Third Part, through “Upon the Mount of Olives”
03/26    Third Part, through “On the Spirit of Gravity”
04/02    Third Part, “On Old and New Tablets”
04/09    Third Part, through “The Seven Seals (Or: The Yes and Amen song)”
04/16    Fourth Part, through “Retired”
04/23    Fourth Part, through “On the Higher Man”
04/30    Fourth Part, through “The Sign”

Comments are closed.