Applying the Four Levels of Reading to Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche wrote Thus Spoke Zarathustra in four parts between 1883 and 1885. A few years later, in 1889, he had a complete mental breakdown and spent the next decade as an invalid before succumbing to a final stroke in 1900. It would therefore be easy to toss the baby out with the bathwater and assume everything Nietzsche had written was nothing more than the ramblings of a madman. However, as many scholars before this have proven, hidden beneath the layers of parables and riddles in Thus Spoke Zarathustra there are deeper truths to be found. As Robert Pippin writes in his introduction to Thus Spoke Zarathustra:

“’Meaning’ in a poem or play or novel is not only hidden, and requires effort to find; our sense of the greatness of great literature is bound up with our sense that the credibility and authority of such works rests on how much and how complexly meaning is both profoundly and unavoidably hidden and enticingly intimated, promised; how difficult to discern, but ‘there,’ extractable in prosaic summaries only with great distortion.” (Zarathustra xv)

In other words, the more difficult the meaning of a book is to understand, the greater the book may be. Whether it was because he was completely mad and could write no other way, or because Nietzsche consciously hid the true meanings of his work beneath the seemingly simplistic surface plot of Zarathustra’s travels and speeches, one thing everyone can agree on is that the meaning of Thus Spoke Zarathustra is “difficult to discern.” Difficult, but not impossible. By applying Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren’s four levels of reading from How to Read a Book to Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, some of its hidden meaning can be uncovered. Therefore, Thus Spoke Zarathustra rightly deserves its place on Adler and Van Doren’s list of “Great Books” because of how each level of reading unlocks a deeper layer of understanding for the reader.

The first level of reading is Elementary Reading. It is what we all learn to do in elementary school. Elementary Reading is simply reading the words on the page, with no further thought or analysis.

The second level of reading is Inspectional Reading. It involves systematic skimming, or pre-reading; wherein the reader looks at the title page and preface, studies the table of contents, checks the index, reads the publisher’s blurb, looks at the chapters pivotal to the book’s argument, and reads a paragraph or two here and there throughout the book (Adler and Van Doren 37). Inspectional Reading also involves superficial reading, which is to “read [a difficult book] through without ever stopping to look up or ponder the things you do not understand” (Adler and Van Doren 39).

The third level of reading is Analytical Reading, and it is broken into three parts: determining what the book is about, interpreting the contents, and criticizing the book. In order to know what the book is about, the reader should classify the book, briefly state what the book is about, enumerate the book’s major parts, and define the problem. To interpret the contents of the book, the reader should come to terms with the author, find the most important sentences and paragraphs, and examine the problems. For criticizing the book, first the reader must understand the book. Then, it is important that the reader not disagree contentiously and that there are good reasons for any critical judgements. It is also important to follow the points of criticism, which are to show where the author is uninformed, misinformed, illogical, and incomplete (Adler and Van Doren 136).

The fourth level of reading, Syntopical Reading, involves reading more than one book on the same subject. The five steps of Syntopical Reading are to find the relevant passages, bring the authors to terms, get the questions clear, define the issues, and analyze the discussion.

The previous four paragraphs summarize what took Adler and Van Doren nearly 300 pages to state in How to Read a Book. Actually, the levels of reading might be summarized even further: read the book quickly, figure what the book is about, examine the most important parts of the book, understand the book, and consider other books on the same subject. Adler and Van Doren also spend a lot of time teaching readers about things they might be unconsciously doing, such as fixating and regressing, and other common reading comprehension mistakes. How to Read a Book teaches how to make oneself a more effective reader through note-making skills and other habits. Besides this, How to Read a Book helps readers effectively criticize books by asking questions about not just the material, but also the author and other related topics. The book also reminds readers to remember their own personal prejudices. While it was first published in 1940, How to Read a Bookcontinues to be relevant today. Indeed, it forms the basis of the thesis of this research paper. By applying Adler and Van Doren’s advice for how to read a book to Thus Spoke Zarathustra, we can prove that it does belong on their recommended reading list, from Appendix A of How to Read a Book, number 118.

The main character of Nietzsche’s story is of course Zarathustra, ironically named after Zoroaster, the Persian founder of Zoroastrianism. Nietzsche wrote in his final book, Ecce Homo:

“…for what constitutes the tremendous uniqueness of that Persian [Zoroaster] in history is precisely the opposite of this. Zarathustra was the first to see in the struggle between good and evil the actual wheel in the working of things … what is more important is that Zarathustra is more truthful than any other thinker. His teaching, and his alone, upholds truthfulness as the supreme virtue – that is to say, the opposite of thecowardice of the ‘idealist’, who takes flight in of face of reality…. To tell the truth and to shoot well with arrows: that is Persian virtue.… The self-overcoming of morality through truthfulness, the self-overcoming of the moralist into his opposite – into me – that is what the name Zarathustra means in my mouth.” (96-97)

Zarathustra personified the Persian virtue of telling the truth, yet Zarathustra was “precisely the opposite” of Zoroaster; this battle of chaotic opposites is a theme throughout Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Zarathustra was Nietzsche, and through Zarathustra Nietzsche claims to be the first philosopher to personify the ideals of overcoming oneself to become something more—alluding to Nietzsche’s theory of the Übermensch. Already, we see that Nietzsche put a great amount of thought into something as simple as the name of his main character, proving that there is much more to Thus Spoke Zarathustra than just the words on the page.

In “Zarathustra’s Prologue,” we learn that when he turned 30 years old, Zarathustra left his home by the lake and went to live in the mountains for 10 years. Eventually he grows “weary of [his] wisdom, like a bee that has gathered too much honey,” (Zarathustra 3) and he goes down from his mountain to bestow his wisdom upon the rest of humanity. This initial scene conjures images of the character Spider Jerusalem from Warren Ellis’s comic book Transmetropolitan. In Ellis’s comic, Spider Jerusalem also begins his story living in seclusion on a mountain. “While Zarathustra and Jerusalem ascend and descend their mountains for different reasons, both cannot escape interaction with their fellow human beings, nor the need to speak ‘the truth’” (Gullatta).

This is an example of applying some of the four levels of reading to Thus Spoke Zarathustra. By pointing out the relevant passages, this is Analytical Reading, and by comparing it to another work on the same subject, this is Syntopical Reading. We can go deeper, however, by following the other parts of Analytical and Syntopical Reading: by examining the problems, understanding the book, and defining the issues. Daniel Gullotta does this in his article for the Sequart Organization, “Spider Jerusalem and Friedrich Nietzsche.” Gullotta points out that Spider Jerusalem has more in common with Friedrich Wilhem Nietzsche than just sharing surface similarities with Nietzsche’s character Zarathustra. Spider is a true nihilist, which Nietzsche is most often associated with. Gullotta also quotes one of Nietzsche’s more famous sayings, “whatever doesn’t kill me can only make me stronger.” This applies to Spider because he has to overcome a disease and “[t]hrough his suffering, he overcomes” (Gullotta). Rather than just considering two books on this same subject, Gullotta leverages Syntopical Reading to the fullest extent by taking into account all of Nietzsche’s work and using it to analyze the discussion.

Another comic book connection is to Alan Moore. In Alan Moore’s most famous graphic novel, Watchmen, he ends it with another famous quote from Nietzsche: “Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you” (Rowe). Additionally, in his comic bookMiracleman, the titular hero was given his superpowers from a government program called “Project Zarathustra,” in reference to Nietzsche’s Übermensch.

In his article titled “The Greatest Existentialist Hero,” Jon Rowe praises Alan Moore for creating a hero with such a “Nietzschean heart” in Watchmen’s character Rorschach. “Nietzsche’s influence on the development of existentialism is decisive,” (Badey 2) so it is no wonder Rowe looks to him in his article on the greatest existentialist hero. Chapter VI of Watchmen is titled “The Abyss Gazes Also” and is in clear reference to that famous quote from Nietzsche; as, in this chapter, Rorschach’s psychiatrist, “for the first time in his life, [truly stares] into the abyss—and flinch[es]” (Rowe). Rowe criticizes the American public for taking nothing more than an Inspectional Reading of Nietzsche’s work and, in not truly understanding it, turning Nietzschean philosophy into “Nihilism without the Abyss.”

Michael Brown, on the other hand, in writing a review of the third issue ofMiracleman, utilizes the points of criticism from the Analytical Reading step to show where Alan Moore was uninformed, misinformed, illogical, and incomplete. Brown points out the inconsistencies in titling the program Project Zarathustra, when it is supposed to be a British government program taking place in 1953, and Zarathustra is in reference to the German Nietzsche’s book, which helped inspire the Nazism that wrecked Britain a few years prior during World War II. After all, “the idea of the Übermensch is held to be the causal factor in not only Hitler’s war but also the First World War. Talking about Nietzsche’s Übermensch, we seem to be talking about the philosophy that generated the language of the master-race” (Babich 10). As Brown points out, “It appears that Moore may have sacrificed historical likelihood for the sake of making a clever reference.” That reference—to theÜbermensch—might not even be totally accurate either.

The Übermensch is often interpreted to be nothing more than a predecessor to Superman; that was not Nietzsche’s intention. Drawing a parallel between theÜbermensch outlined in Thus Spoke Zarathustra and the modern comic book superhero represents a simple connection that would be made upon an Inspectional Reading. While Übermensch can be directly translated as “superman” or “superhuman”, Del Caro translates it as “overman,” both because “it preserves the word play Nietzsche intends with his constant references to going under and going over, and secondly, the comic book associations called to mind by ‘superman’ and super-heroes generally tend to reflect negatively, and frivolously, on the term superhuman” (Zarathustra 5). Going deeper, using the Analytical and Syntopical Reading techniques from How to Read a Book, we see that Nietzsche’s Übermenschis something else entirely, and it leads us to two of Nietzsche’s other most thought-about concepts from Thus Spoke Zarathustra—that of the eternal recurrence, and of the will to power.

In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the overman is the first lesson Zarathustra attempts to teach upon his descent from the mountain. Zarathustra comes to a market place in the nearest town where a tightrope walker is set to perform and speaks to the people: “I teach you the overman. Human being is something that must be overcome” (Zarathustra 5). He goes on to explain that the overman shall be to humans what humans are to apes. Zarathustra continues his discourse while the tightrope walker is performing, which is meaningful in its own right. Zarathustra remarks, “Mankind is a rope fastened between animal and overman—a rope over an abyss … what is lovable about human beings is that they are a crossing over and agoing under” (Zarathustra 7). This “crossing over and a going under” is part of the word play Del Caro talks about when he notes why he translates Übermensch as “overman”. It is also a literal exemplification of Zarathustra’s “patent dramatization of above and below, esoteric and exoteric” (Babich 6). In going below to get to the above (i.e., descending through a personal Hell to reach the state of overman), we come back around to the philosophy Gullatta applied to Spider Jerusalem: “whatever doesn’t kill me can only make me stronger.”

The tightrope walker himself becomes important in Zarathustra’s tale, also; he is an example of a human on his way to becoming an overman through the will to power, one of Nietzsche’s most important concepts. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche proposes that the will to power is the “fundamental motivation of all living things … an empirical proposition about the nature of life” (Keeping 5). The will to power is sometimes in direct conflict with the will to life. This might seem like a strange idea, especially when compared to the “prevailing scientific view of life as fundamentally motivated by a drive to survive and procreate” (Keeping 5). However, when one thinks about the tightrope walker performing during Zarathustra’s first overman speech and his willingness to defy death, one realizes there are things humans do for reasons beyond survival and procreation. Other examples of humans perhaps on their way to becoming Übermensch through the will to power would be “the duellist who risks his life for the sake of his honour; the soldier who risks his life for the sake of his country; the martyr, who sacrifices her life for her God; the scientist or the explorer, who risks her life in the pursuit of knowledge; or, strangest of all, the daredevil, who risks his life for the sake of pleasure” (Keeping 5). All of these cases personify the will to power in ways of “victory, conquest, or prestige” (Keeping 5) and are therefore are examples of people expanding their spheres of influence. By overcoming different internal and external obstacles, they are well on their way to becoming overmen.

“Zarathustra teaches the Übermensch as the transition that is the overhuman and the eternal recurrence of the same” (Babich 6). The eternal recurrence, also called the eternal return, is one of Nietzsche’s more complicated theories to understand. In Ecce Homo, Nietzsche calls the eternal recurrence the “highest formula of affirmation that is at all attainable;” yet, he “never presents the eternal return as a single formula or unified doctrine” (Shepherd 1). In The Gay Science, Nietzsche best describes what he means by the eternal return: “What if … this life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live … innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it…. The question in each and every thing, ‘Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?’ would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight” (Shepherd 4). Put differently: what if you had to repeat this same life an infinite number of times over again? Would you be able to endure it? As we have established, “endurance is linked in the previous passages to overman—to becoming other” (Shepherd 5). So therefore, accepting the eternal recurrence is key to reaching the Übermensch.

Zarathustra himself deals with the struggle to understand the eternal return in “On the Vision and the Riddle.” Zarathustra tells of a vision he had where he was climbing a mountain path with gravity personified as a demon dwarf on his shoulder when he comes to a gateway:

Two paths come together here; no one has yet walked them to the end. This long lane back: it lasts an eternity. And that long lane outward – that is another eternity. They contradict each other, these paths; they blatantly offend each other – and here at this gateway is where they come together. The name of the gateway is inscribed at the top: ‘Moment.’ (Zarathustra125)

The dwarf replies that the straight pathways are lies and time is a circle. Zarathustra chides the spirit of gravity for making things too simple and explains that the path going backward from “Moment” is an eternity and so whatever can happen must have already happened, and likewise for whatever can pass by the “Moment” and go on to the future. Zarathustra continues, “…must not all of us have been here before? – And return and run in that other lane, outward, before us, in this long, eerie lane – must we not return eternally? –” (Zarathustra 126) Before Zarathustra can continue explaining these two eternal paths that represent time, a dog howls and screams for help and leads him to a young shepherd choking on a snake. Zarathustra advises the shepherd to bite the snake’s head off, which he does. The shepherd then leaps to his feet, “No longer shepherd, no longer human – a transformed, illuminated, laughingbeing!” (Zarathustra 127)

During the first reading of this passage, it seems like Zarathustra is about to make a grand point about the eternal return and how time is not a circle, as the gravity demon dwarf implies, but is eternal in both directions, when he is interrupted by a howling, screaming dog and the choking shepherd. However, by applying Adler and Van Doren’s four levels of reading, we can look beyond the surface and see that the interruption is in fact the point Zarathustra was making. By deciphering the “Vision and the Riddle,” we can interpret that “the snake is an animal of the eternal return, but that its head, symbolizing reactive forces, must be bitten off if it is to be affirmed” (Shepherd 8). After the shepherd bites the snake’s head off, he becomes “a transformed, illuminated, laughing being;” (Zarathustra 127) he becomes theÜbermensch.

Thus, the Übermensch is not merely the next step on the evolutionary scale after apes and human beings; nor it is a Superman analogue; nor is it even an example of Hitler’s master-race. Instead, the Übermensch was Nietzsche’s way of encouraging humanity to look within themselves, to overcome all those self-deprecating things deep within one’s soul, or to at least willingly endure them for eternity, and to therefore advance to the next stage of self.

The death of God is another concept of Nietzsche’s many people are familiar with. It is perhaps the most controversial of Nietzsche’s teachings and, like theÜbermensch, it is often misunderstood. In saying God is dead, Nietzsche is not acknowledging that there was a physical God up there who literally died. Instead, he is addressing the hypocrisy of many Christians—other religions, too, but mostly Christians—who, by blatantly disregarding and going against their own teachings, have set a poor example. Nietzsche believed that God only existed in the minds of his followers, and since those followers behave so against the morals that come along with worship of that God, he must be dead.

While the Übermensch is the first lesson Zarathustra teaches to other people, the death of God is actually mentioned before that in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. As Zarathustra is descending from his mountain, before he gets to the town with the tightrope walker, he comes across a saint in the woods. The saint tries to convince Zarathustra to stay in the woods like him.

’And what does the saint do in the woods?’ asked Zarathustra. The saint answered: ‘I make songs and sing them, and when I make songs I laugh, weep and growl: thus I praise God … But tell me, what do you bring us as a gift?’ When Zarathustra had heard these words he took his leave of the saint and spoke: ‘What would I have to give you! But let me leave quickly before I take something from you!’ – And so they parted, the oldster and the man, laughing like two boys laugh. But when Zarathustra was alone he spoke thus to his heart: ‘Could it be possible! This old saint in his woods has not yet heard the news that God is dead!’ (Zarathustra 5)

This is an example of the hypocrisy of Christians and how they would put themselves above others. Where Zarathustra wants to go try to help mankind, the saint would rather stay by himself in the woods. The saint even has the gall to ask Zarathustra, “…what do you bring us as a gift?”

In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche first presents the idea of the death of God as something people should have heard about already because, as with his concept of the eternal recurrence, it first appears in his collection published in 1882,The Gay Science:

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? (181)

By suggesting that we must become gods since we killed God, Nietzsche again alludes to the transformation into the Übermensch.

The saint in the woods that Zarathustra first encounters, besides being an example of a hypocritical Christian, is also an example of something Nietzsche gets more into in his later work On the Genealogy of Morality, something he calls slave morality. Slave morality is the morality of weakness, as seen in the Christian virtues of chastity, humility, and self-sacrifice. At first slave morality would seem to directly oppose what Nietzsche has pointed out to be the “fundamental motivation of all living things” (Keeping 5), the will to power. However, upon closer examination, we find this not to be the case.

In On the Genealogy of Morality, Nietzsche presents two cases where we see this slave morality as a way to achieve power, although it is “a feeling of power (in the form of moral superiority) even if he does not attain actual power” (Keeping 7). The way slaves achieve this feeling of power is by flipping the moral compass on their masters. This way, all the qualities the masters display—strength, vitality, and revengefulness—are seen as evil and all the qualities of the slaves—meekness, self-denial, and forgiveness—are seen as good (Keeping 7). By flipping these powerful qualities to make them appear evil, the slave “pretends to himself that he could strike back if he wished, but chooses not to do so because he is morally superior” (Keeping 7). Eventually, the masters may adopt the slave morality (e.g., when the Romans converted to Christianity) and then the slaves’ will to power actually pays off.

The second way slave morality could be a way to achieve power is through what Nietzsche calls the “ascetic ideal.” According to Nietzsche, asceticism, or abstinence from worldly pleasures, arose as a way to numb oneself to pain, acting as “a kind of psychological analgesic. To the slaves, whose life was no doubt full of suffering, analgesics were required in order to make life bearable for them and dissuade them from suicide” (Keeping 8). Even though the slaves are doing nothing more than surviving, they interpret this survival as a will to power.

Like much of Nietzsche’s teachings—including even the choice of name for Zarathustra—the way he explains that slave morality is in fact a fulfillment of the will to power is a bit twisted and chaotic. This is the point. Most things in this world are not rational. As Zarathustra says, “That [life] must be struggle and becoming and purpose and the contradiction of purposes – alas, whoever guesses [life’s] will guesses also on what crooked paths it must walk!” (Zarathustra 89)

Despite being a legitimate way to achieve the will to power, Nietzsche saw slave morality and its virtues of pity, compassion, and mercy as distractions from the transition to the coming Übermensch and happily drove home the point that God is dead, replaced by the overman. Not just the Christian God, either, but all gods: as Zarathustra says, “Dead are all gods: now we want the overman to live” (Zarathustra 59).

Zarathustra devotes an entire chapter to his hatred of pity, turning traditional Christian slave morality upside down into the chaos that seems to be Nietzsche’s favored theme. “Therefore I wash the hand that helped the sufferer, therefore too I wipe even my soul. For inasmuch as I saw the sufferer suffering, I was ashamed for the sake of his shame; and when I helped him I severely violated his pride” (Zarathustra 68). Zarathustra is saying here that by helping someone who suffers, he is both taking away their ability to help themselves, and also putting the sufferer in debt to Zarathustra, which is like “a gnawing worm” (Zarathustra 68). Zarathustra is so against pity, he goes on to say that the devil told him “God is dead; God died of his pity for mankind” (Zarathustra 69).

In conclusion, by applying all of Adler and Van Doren’s four levels of reading and other advice from How to Read a Book, we can see the complexity layered into Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. By reading the book quickly, going back to figure what the book is about, examining the most important parts of the book, understanding the book, and considering other works on the same subject, we are able to somewhat decipher Nietzsche’s work. His most important concepts are found in Thus Spoke Zarathsutra: those of the Übermensch or overman, the eternal return or recurrence, the will to power, and the death of God. These concepts are often misunderstood, and even after all this study, they are still difficult to comprehend. This is why Thus Spoke Zarathsutra belongs on a list of the “Great Books;” because, according to Pippin, “…our sense of the greatness of great literature is bound up with … how complexly meaning is both profoundly and unavoidably hidden … extractable in prosaic summaries only with great distortion” (Zarathustra xv). If there is any doubt as to the greatness of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, all one has to do is ask Nietzsche himself; in Ecce Homo, he tells us:

Within my writings my Zarathustra stands by itself. I have with this book given mankind the greatest gift that has ever been given it. With a voice that speaks across millennia, it is not only the most exalted book that exists, the actual book of the air of the heights – the entire fact man lies at a tremendous distance beneath it – it is also the profoundest, born out of the innermost abundance of truth, an inexhaustible well into which no bucket descends without coming up filled with gold and goodness. (4-5)






Works Cited

Babich, Babette. “The Philosopher and the Volcano: On the Antique Sources of Nietzsche’s Übermensch.” Philosophy Today 55 (2011): 206.

Badey, Paul B., PhD. “Nietzsche: A Confused Philosopher?” International Journal of Academic Research in Business and Social Sciences 2.6 (2012): 553-8. ProQuest. Web. 15 Mar. 2015.

Brown, Michael. “Miracleman #3: The Review Thickens.” Web. 25 Apr. 2015.

Gullotta, Daniel. “Spider Jerusalem and Friedrich Nietzsche.” Sequart Organization. Web. 15 Mar. 2015.

Keeping, J. “The Thousand Goals and the One Goal: Morality and Will to Power in Nietzsche’s Zarathustra.” European Journal of Philosophy 20. (2012): E73-E85. Academic Search Premier. Web. 4 Feb. 2015.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Ecce Homo. Trans. R.J. Hollingdale. New York: Penguin Books, 1979. eBook.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage Books, 1974. eBook.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Trans. Adrian Del Caro. Cambridge University Press, 2006. eBook.

Rowe, Jon. “The Greatest Existentialist Hero.” The Jon Rowe Archives. Web. 21 Apr. 2015.


Applying the Four Levels of Reading to Thus Spoke Zarathustra

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