Nietzsche’s Great Reversal:
Overview & Comprehension Questions

Nietzsche can hardly be called a consistent or exhaustive thinker. His aphoristic approach leant itself to a philosophy that asked more questions and attempted to demolish more traditions than it offered anything like a systemic answer. Indeed, Nietzsche himself saw his various works and stages as “masks” that were taken away as he advanced in his great reversal of the Classical Western and Judeo-Christian traditions. Nonetheless, it is possible to isolate his key ideas. As you read the selections from Thus Spoke Zarathustra, ask yourself how his protagonist anti-sage embodies and gives voice to these various conceptions:

  1. “God is Dead”—Nietzsche by this did not mean that God had ever existed, but rather that the divine in any form is a human idea, one increasingly disappearing with the rise of modern science and cosmopolitanism. He saw the God-concept as one ultimately hostile to life as it could be lived. This is not to say that Nietzsche was entirely happy with this change. On the one hand, he prophesied a coming nihilistic culture that would follow from the West’s loss of its traditional metaphysics and ethics. On the other hand, he urged that new systems of values could be forged in the future once the old theism was jettisoned.
  2. Apollo & Dionysus—Nietzsche saw these as two principles always existent in life. Dionysus represents the life-giving dynamism of life, one charged with an erotic and bodily energy able to create beauty and revitalize tired social conditions. Yet this force was also chaotic, destructive, and violent. Apollo, its opposite, represents the “principle of individuation,” the control of life’s dynamism giving it order and restoration. This force is able to harness the Dionysian energy to create works of art. It is the symbiosis of these two that makes the best culture in Nietzsche’s mind, for true aesthetics needs Dionysian energy with Apollonian restraint.
  3. Master-Slave Morality—Nietzsche saw these as two moralities that always exist in tandem, sometimes even in the same person, though giving rise to the two classes of humanity-masters and slaves. Master morality is that which renews life through its high creativity, its energy, force, and hardness. It has the potential to determine new systems of values and human purpose. Slave morality, on the other hand, is the morality of the “herd,” the mass of mediocrity which suffers greatly, and therefore, enshrines those values that lessen its suffering—kindness, patience, pity, etc.
  4. Resentment—This is the often psychologically unacknowledged desire for vengeance of the slave classes against their masters that expresses itself in a religion of damnation and divine justice, a system that is life-denying.
  5. View of Christianity—Nietzsche held an especially strong hatred of Christianity, ironic perhaps since he was the son and grandson of ministers. He saw Christianity as embodying the worst in slave morality, a joyless religion that denies the value of life, the body, instinct, the passions, and beauty. He saw it as a faith that denied itself this life for a non-existent life to come. Ultimately, belief such as this is decadent and mad.
  6. “Truth” as Perpetual Fiction—Nietzsche held that all claims to truth were in fact only fictions imposed on the universe. There is no uniform or universal system of ethics. Instead, all claims to knowledge are instruments of power that impose order on reality, giving it shape and understandability. All “truth” is interpretation crafted for the ends of power.
  7. Transvaluation—“Beyond good and evil” as he called it. If all truth is fictional power plays, then “good” and “evil” are but names imposed by humans to map reality; therefore, new values can be created in the future. Human nature is ever plastic, so we may reimagine the past and reinvent what is to come.
  8. Will to Power—By the will to power, Nietzsche meant a description of the world as it is, not a metaphysic of what should be. The will to power underlies everything that humans do and can explain why they do it. Willing itself becomes the basis for valuation. Life is ultimately not a question of “good” or “evil” but the form that aesthetics can give all of life. Tragedy is an aesthetic category not a moral one; suffering is given form, not dismissed as imperfect.
  9. Ego/Self as Fiction—Not only are truths and ethics fictional willed constructions that order life’s chaotic energy, so are conceptions of self and the ego. They are convenient masks that explain our bodies’ needs and desires.
  10. Uebermensch (Overman/Superman)—An expression of transcending life, the next stage in our evolutionary development. The overman rises above the herd, both politically and aesthetically—a sort of merger of Napoleon and of Goethe.
  11. Eternal Recurrence—Nietzsche was both fascinated and horrified at the idea that nothing is new in life--that existence moves in gigantic, perpetual cycles. Thus, even the overman is but a part of the great circle of life. He, nevertheless, held hope that this idea preserved some since of continuity in life, gave some Being to an otherwise perpetual Becoming, and offered something like God without any hint of the transcendent.

Comprehension Questions for Thus Spoke Zarathustra  

Book I selections

(I.1) The Three Metamorphoses: What are the three metamorphoses and what do they reveal about the creation of values according to Nietzsche?  

(I.2) On the Teachers of Virtue:  Why is the teaching of the sages really about the virtue of sleep?

(I.3) On the Afterworldly: How does Nietzsche propose to answer the problem of evil? What is the purpose of the new will and the new ego?

(I.4) On the Despisers of the Body: What is the body’s role and relationship to the self?

(I.5) On Enjoying and Suffering the Passions: Hoe does he redefine evil and the passions?

(I.9) On the Preachers of Death: What is wrong with those who preach renunciation?

(I.14) On the Friend: What keeps hermits, slaves, tyrants, and women from not being able to be friends?

(I.15) On the Thousand and One Goals: How have different values expressed themselves in different eras?

(I.16) On the Love of the Neighbor: What motives underlie the love of one’s neighbor?

(I.17) On the Way of the Creator: What separates the “lonely one” from the masses? What kind of ethic results from such a one?

(I.18) On Little Old and Young Women: What is the narrator’s view of women?

(I.19) On the Adder’s Bite: How does this passage reverse the Sermon on the Mount of Jesus?

(I.22) On the Gift-Giving Virtue: What are the two kinds of selfishness? How do they relate to bodily existence?  

Book II selections

(II.2) Upon the Blessed Isles: What is Zarathustra's view of God? How does he compare it with willing?

(II.3) On the Pitying: What is the problem with pity in his view?

(II.4) On Priests: What is wrong with the Redeemer and the churches of Christianity?

(II.5) On the Virtuous: What is the origin of virtue and where is it found?

(II.12) On Self-Overcoming: What is the relationship of self-obedience and the will to power?

(II.13) On Those Who Are Sublime: Why is sublimity ugly? How do you describe the beauty of rulers?

(II.14) On the Land of Education: Why does he condemn education as hiding in the past?

(II.16) On Scholars: What does he see as wrong with the scholarly way of learning?

(II.19) The Soothsayer: What do you think Zarathustra's dream means?

(II.20) On Redemption: What are "inverse cripples"? How does redemption differ from the preachers of madness?

Book III selections

(III.1) The Wanderer: How does one go about the journey to greatness? What are its dangers?

(III.4) Before Sunrise: Why is an accidental cosmos a blessing?

(III.5) On Virtue That Makes Small: How would you characterize small virtue? Moderation? Comfort? Self-love?

(III.8) On Apostates: Why is praying a disgrace? What is his view of the Judeo-Christian Father God?

(III.10) On the Three Evils: What are the three evils, and does he embrace each one?

(III.12) On Old & New Tablets: This section functions as a summary of his key ideas: Try identifying the key concept in each subsection.

(IV.6) Retired: Why is the last pope more godless than Zarathustra? What is Zarathustra’s view of the incarnation and crucifixion of Christ?

Book IV selections

(IV.7) The Ugliest Man: Why is he the murderer of God? What is his view of Christ and his pity?

(IV.11) The Welcome: Why does Zarathustra resist their veneration?

(IV.12) The Last Supper: How does this scene function as a parody of communion?

(IV.13) On the Higher Man: Why does he recommend evil, unclean birth, laughter, and dance?

(IV.17) The Awakening: Describe their prayer to the ass? How does it mock Christian worship?

(IV.18) The Ass Festival: Why does Zarathustra come to accept their new form of worship? 

(IV.19) The Drunken Song: How does the midnight hour with its celebration of death and eternal recurrence function as an apocalypse?

(IV.20) The Sign: What is Zarathustra’s “final sin”? Why is it significant?


"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding