“Those known as ‘the rabble,’ whom Zarathustra describes as fit only to be slaves, ultimately dwell within every human soul. It is that lowly thing in each of us which must be pitilessly overcome.”
Nietzsche, we need you more than ever. On second thought, we don’t really need you per se, we most of all need your thirst. But what is this water that Nietzsche pants for, what is this one spring that will relieve his parched lips? It is that spring called greatness. Hear the word and tremble, or else you do not really know what he is getting at. Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra has the capacity to rejuvenate society. His writing is exceedingly hot to the touch, but maybe we could use a bit of fire. What kind of man creates a work like this? But more importantly: what kind of human does its author call us to be?
“Man is something that should be overcome.”1 Through the mouth of Zarathustra, Nietzsche proclaims his love for not ‘man’ but ‘Superman.’ Not passive mediocrity, but creative transcendence. “I will make company with creators, with harvesters, with rejoicers: I will show them the rainbow and the stairway to the Superman.”2 Who will listen? “I wish modern youth to remember and to love Nietzsche and the way of Zarathustra.”3 His message is not for ‘man’ but ‘Superman,’ or even simpler: not half-man, but man—for after all, the fully realized man is himself the Super-man.
Nietzsche’s work is only naively interpreted in a literal sense. The Superman is not a distinct class between men, but a distinct class within men (it “cuts through the heart of every human being”).4 Nietzsche’s ‘aristocratic’ sensibilities allow him to know the difference between higher and lower, better and worse, figure and ground: the qualitative. Those known as “the rabble,” whom Zarathustra describes as fit only to be slaves, ultimately dwell within every human soul. It is that lowly thing in each of us which must be pitilessly overcome. “Man is something that should be overcome.”
His new man is one who assumes the creative imperative of making new being, of becoming a new being. (“The people have little idea of greatness: that is to say, creativeness.”)5 But for Nietzsche, this creative greatness looks like the will-to-power: the domineering force that smashes all into its desired form. We need no allegiance to this ideal. It is quite unnecessary. A single fleeting verse from Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil tells us far more about the real fulfillment of his thought. This line represents Nietzsche being better than Nietzsche (and undoubtedly, Nietzsche is something that should be overcome). He writes: “Whatever is done out of love takes place beyond good and evil.”6 Nietzsche’s only deficiency, then, is loving things too small: power, and other worthless things.7 His transcendence of a stifling herd-morality is correct, but the same message was actually preached far better in the Sermon on the Mount. To the Pharisees and half-men: ‘Whatever is done out of love lies beyond your all-too-human morality, the infinite love will always transcend your mediocre legal statutes.’ Thus spoke Christ.8
Augustine concords: “Love, and do what thou wilt.” And so too Nietzsche: “Whatever is done out of love…” Although still, what is worth loving the most? What is greatest? I will give no finite answer, but I am certain it is greater than that gutter of words which is Nietzsche’s own “will-to-power.” Woefully deficient imagination. Something nobler and more beautiful hides latent in our midst, something worth loving most of all. The will-to-power is no intrinsic element of Nietzsche; it is merely his provisional ideal of beauty, and, “there are more beautiful things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in his philosophy.”
A better, greater, nobler society: let us learn the meaning of this. Do you think you already know? This is a question directed at you, ‘contemporary society.’ Do not feign to know the meaning of better, greater, nobler. I have seen your present aspirations and they are all so magnificently small.
I would never want to be a success, for I count your ‘success’ as failure. And that reminds me, you do in fact have your cute little ideal of ‘success’ don’t you? It is reflected in your highest aspirations, individual and social. My bird’s soul feels weighed down just thinking about them. As Nietzsche might ask, where are the gravity-haters in our midst? Why do the laws of gravity burden your vision? Why these arbitrary inhibitions? Do you not love any more than that?
Unique, but only a uniqueness chosen among your menu of preassigned options. Individual thought, but only within the dogma of your right-think. Different, but only different like everyone else.
You praise uniqueness, individuality, and the goodness of being different. It is the title of all your self-help books and the moral of every Disney movie. But present society, you have no concern for these things really—because the minute anyone truly cracks your prison shells, you immediately hate them for it. Unique, but only a uniqueness chosen among your menu of preassigned options. Individual thought, but only within the dogma of your right-think. Different, but only different like everyone else. Nietzsche’s “small men”: you, me, us.
O writers, for you: if only you would aim to write something not forgotten five minutes after we read it. But hear this too: it is even okay to fail at this aim, for at least you had this as your aim. If only we had more failures in this society. At present, we have very few, for failing implies trying, and I hardly count this thing we are doing as trying.
You call a work ‘good,’ but what do you mean by this? It is ‘what a good work looks like.’ But what does that mean except what you have seen, what is being done (the mass)? But we ought not to define ‘good’ as ‘good as judged by the standard of the mass.’ We are straining for the qualitative good, which is always stifled by ‘mass-ness.’ Your sterile imagination can think of elevation and see only the high ground in the plains. Have you yet heard there is such a thing as mountains? We plainsmen need to travel more. We are provincialized by our mediocrity. And even if we have seen summits, why do we not listen to their message? A mountain is not a thing to be observed, but imitated.
“The spirit is understood by the spirit; by the same spirit, i.e., in the same style. The proper response to poetry is not criticism but poetry.”9 For that reason, the energetic and intense Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev was one of the only legitimate interpreters of Nietzsche. He writes with the same fire and, therefore, does not renounce the creative imperative (i.e. betray the philosopher he would understand). Neither is he passively imitative, for, ‘the proper response to creation is not preservation but creation.’
Forget about studying Nietzsche, be Nietzsche! Do not analyze Kierkegaard in a lab coat with a ruler, be a visionary man of spirit!
There is perhaps nothing more scandalous in all of contemporary academia than this evil (I can hardly even bear to say such awful words): this sin that is ‘Nietzschean scholars,’ ‘Kierkegaardian scholars,’ and so forth. Surely I am not the only one who feels their stomach drop and their appetite vanish at the mere thought of such decadent corruption. “One repays a teacher badly if one remains always but a pupil.”10 Forget about studying Nietzsche, be Nietzsche! Do not analyze Kierkegaard in a lab coat with a ruler, be a visionary man of spirit!
And though you may not like to hear it, this is something our friend Kanye has been saying for years. “If you’re a fan of Kanye, you’re a fan of yourself.” He has the arrogant indecency to believe in his own infinitude. How dare he aspire so boldly? “Who does he think he is?”11 He responds: “I am a god,” “I am a genius,” “I am Da Vinci,” “I am Michelangelo,” “I am Picasso.” Oh, but Kanye, you will have to stop saying things like that; it offends my mass-man sensibilities. How dare you count world-historical figures as your peers, your like-men? It is almost as if you thought we could be something…great. It almost seems as if you knew…the thirst.
A friend on Kanye: “He thinks about how people will view things 300 years in the future.”12 Finally, someone speaking that bold human language, that correct human language…as if we could become great. This kind of ambition is even too noble to be thwarted by the fickle accidents of time, or our culture’s incessant amnesia. We take on a new qualitative character by relating ourselves to this timeless, this beyond-the-present-moment. The chance uncertainties of historical memory can never steal that from us. Quality is of eternity, quantity of time. Greatness is the qualitative, ‘success’ is the quantitative. The reassurance of Kierkegaard: “None who were great on this earth shall be forgotten, and each shall be great in proportion to what they loved.”13
Creators, do not create for me (in the present), create for that woman receiving your work 300 years from now, and in so doing, you will give me (in the present) something worthwhile. What is the other ideal again? Of course, ‘relevance’: slave talk—enchainment to is-ness. Why this allegiance with is-ness (the reigning order of the present moment)? It is not at all good. Is-ness is something that should be overcome. MLK: “I refuse to accept the idea that the ‘is-ness’ of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal ‘ought-ness’ that forever confronts him.”14 We are better than is-ness. It just seems we have yet to realize the full extent to which is-ness currently enslaves us. Is-ness is mediocrity. “All creativity is dissatisfaction with ‘the world’ (is-ness).”15
“It has been said that genius concentrates in itself, and gives expression to the spirit of the times. This is a very inaccurate and misleading expression. The genius is a man out of his time, a man unadapted to his time and presenting it with a challenge.”16 The genius is the one who is free. We can almost use this as our definition. They are those spiritually liberated from the bounds of our collective normalcy. They shed this false realm in flight towards something higher. Genius is inherently transgressive, for by nature it seeks to transcend, for by nature it loves the heights. This inevitably means rising above and challenging the ordinary consciousness of ‘mass-men.’
In this sense, genius is a way of being in the world. As Emerson knew, the seeds of genius are present in us all. Perhaps it is best thought of as a sort of movement, an existential orientation, a direction. It strains for spiritual freedom, transcendence, greatness. To daringly follow the path of genius is, at some level, to have already realized it in one’s self. ‘To the beat of a different drum,’ an exquisite metaphor: to a different pattern of being, a creative pattern of being.17 And what becomes of genius in this present society? I hardly need answer. There is never any room in the inn for genius. For they always experience the house of society as a cage. We are stifling geniuses.
Judgement: Nietzsche would never find a place in contemporary academia. What philosophical journal would dare touch his fire? We are in need of new, better philosophers. Norman O. Brown was a creative philosopher. An aphoristic prophet with vision. You read Love’s Body and marvel that it was created by a human being (it was really the work of a Superman, an infinite being—a human being fully realized). “The glory of God is the human being fully alive.”18
A creator: the director Terrence Malick—now there is a man with some desire (at last). He creates as if he believed in something, as if humans were worth something and had a destiny, as if he saw in all the world a thing called ‘Beauty.’ He is forever committing the impropriety of being wholly unashamed in his love for this Beauty—even in this respectable age, when someone like him should know better. But “to see the infinite in all things” is only possible for the infinite man or woman; we are infinite men and women.19 The natural work of infinity is love. And it is not greatness we love necessarily; it is more so that we become great by virtue of loving great things: “each in proportion to what they loved.” A related sin is our inability to love what is already great.
But we get our revenge against whatever strains for greatness and transcendence by calling it things like ‘grandiose’ and ‘grandiloquent’ and ‘florid’ and ‘pretentious’ and ‘presumptuous’ and ‘self-important’ and ‘indulgent.’ These critiques are too often bitterness against greatness (our own perhaps). They reflect spirits fearful of exiting the comforting domain of mediocrity. We all-too sneakily deceive ourselves by calling this instinct ‘taste,’ ‘sophistication,’ ‘sober-mindedness.’ But I have the drunken bad manners to expose you for what you are. I am saying you cannot hide your foul work any longer, you resentful of all things great. We are better than your cynic’s feebleness.
Thus Spoke Zarathustra is the kind of work with lines that inspire you to drop the book at your side and start pacing the floor in excitement. Who can sit still reading such a thing? I have a follow up question, though: who does Nietzsche think he is in authoring this book? Who presumptuously counts themselves worthy to write something with such vision, such daring, such intoxicated grandeur? Or perhaps I am mistaken in my approach; maybe the more apt question is: why are we not all writing like this?
I am not so sure we are even writing unless our work contains a few exclamation points. If only we erred on the side of grandeur. Listen here: I do not want you to write with an outline anymore; I only want you to write in fits of ecstasy and bursts of inebriated vision. Writing like an early Genesis album: gorgeous, exuberant, adventurous, slightly crazy.20 You were able to stay sitting the whole time you wrote it: I think that might be one for the rubbish heap.
Relating it to a previous theme: where are the exclamation points you supposed philosophers!! In “wonder” your field begins, so says Plato. Philos-sophia, love of wisdom, but what pathetic lovers you are! “Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart,” but this too: lovers without passion!21 Where is the love? Where is your thirst for what is best?
If you don’t seem at least half-drunk, I’m only half-interested. Intoxication is the new moral virtue. Let us examine this metaphor more closely. Inebriation: the loss of inhibitions—the boundless self hidden is no longer repressed. We are Supermen, but only realize this in drunkenness. Soberness is slavery. When will I find some drunken companions?
Realizing greatness is to be free like a child. “Unless you become as children…” “Human maturity: this means rediscovering the seriousness we had towards play when we were children.”22 The two words for the present age: why not?
Our present political discourse: you call it a deficient discourse; I call it a mediocre discourse—one argued amongst half-men and half-women. Woke liberalism, the reaction to woke liberalism: you call it a discourse; I call it renunciation— a renunciation of our creative imperative, to positively make something beautiful of ourselves. “You want to create the world before which you can kneel: that is your ultimate hope and intoxication.”23 Pray tell where I can find such an instinct now? Left, Right, Center, Far-Left…you freeze my spirit with your one-dimensional framework in this three-dimensional world. I am asking you to be creative. I, obstinate one, even refuse to concede that your questions are real questions (speaking nothing of your answers). We three-dimensional beings who know ourselves to be such cannot help but get claustrophobic in your flattened world.
If only we could find something worth sacrificing all to gain—to become. But the question of the hour: what is greatest of all? The challenge of the hour: how to enact what is greatest of all? The ancient Egyptians and others built immortal emblems of the human spirit motivated by fatuous superstitions. I refuse to accept that we need phantom illusions in order to activate this Superman-self, so that—with the loss of such illusions—so too goes our capacity for great creation. And know, too, that I am not even saying we necessarily need creations made of stone. There is such a thing as ‘creative being’—a perpetually living, dynamic engagement with reality. But we have not even begun to ask creative questions, much less seriously respond to their imperative.
Does what we are doing now even count as a ‘human’ society? Does it even count as trying? I know you too well, ‘human being’; you are better than this. We have yet to begin. Half-men, half-women: we will need to become something more before I change this assessment. Never make peace with, “the idea that man has passed through 10,000 years of trials and sufferings in order that there might at last be a perpetual succession of comfortable shopkeepers.”24
And just now, I may have written too much. I may have written too little. I may have written badly. And yet, I have written. I have dared to say something. I refuse to blush red at writing like a human being. But tell me, how do I write? Is it in anger? Nay, it is love. Only a man in love could write like this. Love for the heights—in myself, you, and this whole sleeping world yet to be woken. ‘But your work is antagonistic, it still contains much negation.’ Very well, it is true enough. But love is fire, and this flame also purges all that’s fickle and false.
And lastly, have I been quite vague? Indeed, if by ‘vague,’ you mean ‘open’—not fixed in possibilities, not prematurely closed to the what-may-be. And what may in fact become of us? That is what I am still waiting to see. I only know it has yet to be realized. Just do not let the encompassing grip of is-ness here suffocate your sense of the possible.
Nietzsche, will anyone listen to your prophecy? If only we thirsted for what is greatest of all, if only we panted for the highest love. And here is the highest love: she lays gently on the bed and sweetly calls for us by name, but we look stupidly and first feel we must go wash the dishes. No! Desire is our duty. Why no adventure for us cowardly shire-folk? Nietzsche suggests we can be something more: “Man is something that should be overcome.” But when will the time be right? When is the kairos? “It is coming, it is near, the great noontide.”25 It is already present for those who will give the Yes.
Brandon Tucker writes from New York.
- “I teach you the Superman. Man is something that should be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?” Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (London: Penguin Books, 2003), 41.
- Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 52.
- Nicolai Berdyaev, Christian Existentialism: A Berdyaev Anthology, ed. and trans. Donald A. Lowrie (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1965), 77.
- This being a reference to the famous line from Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
- Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 78.
- Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, trans. Judith Norman, eds. Rolf-Peter Horstmann and Judith Norman (Cambridge University Press, 2002), 70.
- Although, in response to Nietzsche, King interestingly calls the opposition of love and power a severe misunderstanding. Power is a beautiful word. It is just that Nietzsche understands it far too narrowly. “Where Do We Go From Here?” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. James Melvin Washington (HarperSanFrancisco: 1986), 247.
- In Nietzsche’s own translation of Christ: “The law was for servants, —love God as I do, as his son! Why should we care about morals, we sons of God?” Beyond Good and Evil, 72.
- Norman O. Brown, Love’s Body (New York: Random House Press, 1966), 205.
- Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 103.
- 2013 interview with Zane Lowe, BBC Radio.
- Christopher Hooton’s paraphrase. “Chance the Rapper Defends Kanye West,” The Independent, October 8, 2018.
- A variant of Kierkegaard’s original saying from Fear and Trembling: “No! No one who was great in the world will be forgotten, but everyone was great in his own way, and everyone in proportion to the greatness of that which he loved.” Eds. C. Stephen Evans and Sylvia Walsh, trans. Sylvia Walsh (Cambridge University Press, 2006), 13.
- King, Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech.
- Berdyaev, Christian Existentialism, 77.
- Berdyaev, Christian Existentialism, 90.
- I am inspired to this metaphor by the Peter Gabriel song “A Different Drum,” from the soundtrack of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ.
- From 2nd century theologian St. Irenaeus.
- William Blake, There is No Natural Religion.
- I specifically think of Foxtrot, Selling England by the Pound, and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.
- From the conclusion of Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958), 182.
- Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, 62.
- Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 136.
- Heard beaming from the radio in the 1971 Australian film Walkabout.
- Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 192.