The Lehrer and his Lehre in
Nietzsche’s "Thus Spoke Zarathustra"
By Jimmy Maher
Language is a cracked kettle on which we beat
out tunes for bears to dance to, while all along we
long to move the stars to pity.
-- Gustave Flaubert
There is a painting by Thomas Cole entitled "The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden." In it, Adam and Eve cower at the bottom of the frame in the dark wilderness of our world as they watch the metaphysical light of God that fills the upper areas of the picture being closed off to them forever. Mankind has literally and figuratively fallen from a higher realm of beauty and order to the debased chaos of the physical realm.
The entire Western religious, philosophical, and scientific tradition springs from this basic worldview. The idea of a separate realm of harmony and reason did not even originate with the Judaic-Christian tradition, but was rather adopted by the Jews from much older ideas. Plato was speaking of an abstract realm of perfect forms, which he simply called "The Good," during the 4th century BCE, and the idea almost certainly dates back much further.
Western intellectual history has been built around the idea of great teachers (Lehrer) who, through mystical or pseudo-mystical means, can communicate the divine, metaphysical logic of the universe to others in the form of learnable doctrines (Lehren). This conception is by no means confined to the realm of faith, but also permeates the supposedly materialist world of science. Isaac Newton, for instance, believed that he was revealing the hand of God through his experiments. Although they rarely couch their speech in such overtly religious language, modern scientists nevertheless exhibit a similar attitude. One can quite often hear contemporary physicists speak of their hope for the discovery of an underlying "theory of everything" upon which all of the orderly beauty of the universe is constructed. What appears to be chaos in the world around us is only sublimely delicate complexity. The world is an intricate machine, complex but understandable to those with sufficient insight.
Friedrich Nietzsche utterly rejects such faith in a divine, controlling reason in the universe. For him, life was not created by God in the golden light of Cole’s Garden of Eden, but rather grew through chaotic struggle up out of the dark wilderness at the bottom of the picture. There exists no controller and no order to the universe, for all is struggle and chaos. Western metaphysics, science, aesthetics, even language are mere feeble attempts by humanity to impose, for its own spiritual comfort, a framework of rules upon the great, seething mass of physis. Such frameworks may be useful to us in a practical sense, but in no way are the great thinkers of the Western tradition discoverers of some deep truth. They are mere inventors, and their inventions may be more or less useful but are in the end quintessentially human constructions. Objectivity does not exist in Nietzsche’s world. He has anticipated quantum physics by fifty years, for he understands that all truth is subjective.
At the pinnacle of the Western tradition, above all of the other branches of learning, stands philosophy. Literally translated, philosophy means "love of wisdom." Wisdom means the "ability to discern or judge what is true, right, or lasting." Yet if one rejects the very concept of objective truth, one is left with little room for wisdom or, by extension, for philosophy itself. Nietzsche’s position is ironic at best, for he finds himself the philosopher who has discredited philosophy. Having spent his career as a Lehrer, his studies have finally led him to the conclusion that the very concept of a consistent, communicable Lehre is bankrupt. At this stage in his career, Nietzsche’s truths are the instinctive, personal truths of the artist, not the universal logos of the traditional philosopher.
And so Nietzsche chooses to turn away from the traditional methods of philosophical discourse and turn to the techniques of the artist. The book that results, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, is a novel and a fable, a work of poetry and a celebration of life for its own sake, a comedy and tragedy. Most of all, it is Nietzsche’s attempt to communicate through words, the only tool he has available to him, that which cannot be expressed in words. Over the course of the narrative, Zarathustra discovers for himself the pointlessness of traditional teaching methods in a similar series of steps to those Nietzsche must himself have gone through before deciding to write the book. Zarathustra, among many other things, is thus a book about the creation of itself. This sort of recursive logic permeates every aspect of the book, and prefigures the grand idea that lies at its heart – the eternal recurrence.
The Prologue opens with Zarathustra playing the role of the traditional philosophical Lehrer. Having spent ten years in solitude, he departs from his cave, a clear analogy to Plato, and observes the Sun coming up to his mountain perch. He decides the time has come to leave his lofty home in Cole’s metaphysical Eden and go down to the people to communicate his Lehre. He puts out of his mind an unsettling encounter with an aging saint who has traveled the futile route of the Lehrer before him, and goes down to the city of Pied Cow. There he watches virtually the entire theme of the book played out before his eyes in the scene between the Drahtseilkünstler and the Possenreiβer. Here as everywhere in the book, Nietzsche attempts to move beyond words to communicate his message, for that message is too subtle to be spelled out mechanically in dry, clunky written language. Nietzsche instead uses imagery, the language of being. Implicit in his message is the futility of teaching the ineffable. Zarathustra misses the point entirely, however, and acquires a group of loyal followers in the traditional manner of wise men from Jesus to Einstein. Rather than exist in the moment and dance the dance of life for life’s sake, as the Drahtseilkünstler briefly managed, Zarathustra feels compelled to justify his existence by spreading his metaphysical Lehre among the people. He therefore spends most of Part One of the book teaching his doctrine of the Übermensch.
It is possible to accept this Lehre as the main theme of Zarathustra. Certainly many readers, among them prominent Nietzsche scholars, have done so. Such a reading is not incorrect in any conventional sense, for the doctrine of the Übermensch is a well thought-out argument in favor of materialism and the right and duty of the individual to fully engage with life and to become a creator, and a polemic against metaphysics and conventional Judeo-Christian morality. Virtually all of Ayn Rand’s influential twentieth century philosophy of objectivism is laid out right here, concisely and clearly. Why Rand needed several thousand-page doorstops to communicate these ideas, and with a rather shallow understanding of them at that, is a mystery to this commentator.
These ideas however, worthy as they may be, are only the currents at the surface of the ocean that is Zarathustra. Lurking beneath is another narrative that is more important for our purposes, for it tells the story of Zarathustra’s personal discovery of the true meaning of the doctrines he espouses and of the bankruptcy of the traditional student-teacher model for the communication of deep truths.
At the end of Part One, Zarathustra takes his leave of his followers. He has a long way to go before understanding the full implications of his own Lehre, and utterly misreads the symbolism of the staff his students present to him. He is, however, beginning to question the value of teaching and is becoming increasingly cynical about the pupils eagerly gathered around him to passively consume his wisdom. "One repays a teacher badly if one remains only a pupil (103)." Zarathustra here blames his dissatisfaction on his students, not understanding that the fatal flaw lies not in some failure on their part but in his very approach in trying to teach physis through a metaphysical Lehre.
Zarathustra again spends "months and years" in solitude, but then decides to return to the people, for his "doctrine is in danger, weeds want to be called wheat (107)." All his time is solitude has failed to teach him how useless the notion of a teachable, objective doctrine is. Although much of Part Two is again devoted to Zarathustra’s Plato-like dialogues with his followers, a creeping unease begins to follow him. He begins to realize that his followers simply do not grasp what he is attempting to tell them, yet he can hardly blame them for this, for he himself has not the courage to face the full implications of his ideas. A specter is stalking Zarathustra and the book itself at this point, and that specter’s name is Eternal Recurrence. The eternal recurrence shows that teaching is useless, for teaching implies progress, futurity, and a goal, and the universe has room for none of these quant human notions. Just as Nietzsche is the philosopher who discredits philosophy, Zarathustra is the teacher who discredits teaching. Zarathustra cannot face this thought in the full, rational light of day, and so it haunts his dreams and imaginings in the three "songs" at the center of Part Two.
These sections bring Zarathustra closer to the true implication of his message, for here he briefly abandons the logical to fall into the sublime world of the artist. Nietzsche returns to his metaphor of the dance in the middle of the three sections. This idea is extremely important to both Zarathustra and his author, for the message that will eventually be conveyed is that the dancer, at one with physis and existing in a single moment of time, is redeemed as she dances in a way the logical, dogmatic teacher can never grasp. Zarathustra is beginning to understand this. When he comes upon the dancing girls in the forest, they halt their dance, expecting this stern Lehrer to look down upon their frivolity. Zarathustra,, however, replies that "No spoil sport has come to you with an evil eye (131)." The "Spirit of Gravity" is the devil, who attempts to halt the dance of life with his dogma and logical assertions. Although Zarathustra soon returns to the metaphysical logos of logical discourse, his dialogues are now interspersed with more dreams and artistic visions. At the end of Part Two, he again returns to solitude. This time, however, he despairs not of his followers, but of himself, for he realizes that the way of the teacher is not the way to the redemption he seeks, yet he still cannot fully see the alternative. "Oh Zarathustra, your fruits are ripe but you are not ripe for your fruits (169)!"
Perhaps not, but Zarathustra is getting steadily closer, and early in Part Three the full import of everything he has learned hits him (and the reader) in the pivotal chapter of the book, "Of the Vision and the Riddle." Zarathustra finally faces the dawning truth which was played out symbolically before his unknowing eyes in the Prologue, and which has been slowly strangling him ever since. That truth is more complicated, both textually and subtextually, than a modest commentary like this can hope to address. For our purposes, it is perhaps sufficient to note that Zarathustra for the first time faces down eternal recurrence and all it implies, bites the metaphorical serpent’s head off, and spits it away. The man who set out to be a teacher of wisdom has found his redemption in the rejection of conventional wisdom. Having done so, he at last understands that each individual must experience his or her own singular and unique redemption. He abandons all notions of goals, progress, future and past, and, most significantly for our focus, abandons both his Lehre and his role as a Lehrer. The teacher of the Übermensch has become the living embodiment of the Ewigwiederkehr.
Through the remainder of the book, Zarathustra continues to have many discussions with himself and others, yet he never again assumes the role of the demagogic teacher of truth. Compare his interaction with the dwarf before his redemption in "Of the Vision and the Riddle" with his interaction with his animals in "The Convalescent." Both have devalued the eternal recurrence by reducing it to a simplistic doctrine. Zarathustra gets angry at the dwarf for treating his most profound insight in such a light, almost flippant way, yet seems to not even hear his animals when they do the same. He no longer seeks a metaphysical meaning for his life through the dissemination of a doctrine. He is instead content simply to be alive, to dance in the moment. The meaning of life, Zarathustra realizes, is life itself. There is nothing else, but the strong man, who is capable of bearing the nihilistic, tragic burden of that knowledge, needs nothing else. That is the greatest lesson Zarathustra has learned, a lesson which reduces all his other teachings, worthwhile as they may be, to shadows before the one great truth of the eternal recurrence. Zarathustra’s, and Nietzsche’s, greatest insight is the one lesson he cannot teach.
When a group of kings comes to Zarathustra’s cave in Part Four seeking enlightenment, he gently mocks their earnestness, and finally offers them a rather silly song in lieu of metaphysical logos. Later, he comes upon a sermonizer of the Biblical tradition in "The Voluntary Beggar." This wise man is preaching his gospel of the denial of worldly things to a group of passive cows, a not so subtle symbol of those who would idly accept the truths that are handed them instead of seeking their own redemption in the world. Zarathustra toys with the old beggar and his so-serious sermon of good and evil. Indeed, Zarathustra spends much of Part Four laughing and playing, for, having found his redemption, his tragedy has become a comedy. Art has trumped logic. Physis has trumped logos. In giving up his quest for the Übermensch, Zarathustra has become the Übermensch. At the end of the book, Zarathustra "left his cave, glowing and strong, like a morning sun emerging from behind dark mountains (336)." He no longer seeks to gather the light of wisdom and communicate it to others. He rather is the light, and like the Sun his purpose is not to discuss, teach, or even accomplish, but simply to be, simply to shine.
A first-time reader of this ironic, multi-layered, difficult book might find herself immediately returning to the beginning and starting again in hope of determining what has really just been read. That is a wise move, for much of the early parts of the book can only be understood if one has already read through to the end. And so, eternal recurrence surfaces again. Everything in the work is so steeped in irony and subtly that there are perhaps as many possible interpretations, and levels of interpretation, as there are readers. Consider the title, Thus Spoke Zarathustra. This is the ironic title for a book that is all about the limitations of speaking, of words in general, to communicate the essence of being. It is "A book for Everyone and No One." While everyone who reads may take their own meanings away from it, meanings that perhaps say as much about the reader as they do about Nietzsche, the fundamental themes of the book are so personal and so complex that Nietzsche must have had little hope for the work ever being understood during his lifetime. His potential publishers were so confused by the book that Nietzsche had to pay for its production out of his own pocket. The book is Nietzsche’s personal creation, his own dance of art.
If the book is difficult, perhaps it was meant to be that way. Nietzsche is not a demagogue, and has no interest in followers. Zarathustra is a book which the reader must engage with, not passively consume. If there is an overarching lesson to be found in its pages, perhaps it is that there is no single way to truth. Everyone must find their own redemption, or choose to live in the passive world of metaphysical nihilism. The choice is up to the reader.