Who Is Nietzsche's Zarathustra?

Dismay determines the style, the hesitant and constantly arrested course of the work as a whole. Dismay extinguishes all of Zarathustra's self-assurance and presumptuousness at the very outset of his way. Whoever has failed and continues to fail to apprehend from the start the dismay that haunts all of Zarathustra's speeches—which often sound presumptuous, often seem little more than frenzied extravaganzas—will never be able to discover who Zarathustra is.

If Zarathustra must first of all become the teacher of eternal return, then he cannot commence with this doctrine straightaway. For this reason another phrase stands at the beginning of his way: "I teach you the overman."

To be sure, we must try to extirpate right here and now all the false and confusing overtones of the word Übermensch that arise in our customary view of things. With the name overman Nietzsche is by no means designating a merely superdimensional human being of the kind that has prevailed hitherto. Nor is he referring to a species of man that will cast off all that is humane, making naked willfulness its law and titanic rage its rule. Rather, the overman—taking the word quite literally—is that human being who goes beyond prior humanity solely in order to conduct such humanity for the first time to its essence, an essence that is still unattained, and to place humanity firmly within that essence. A note from the posthumously published writings surrounding Zarathustra says (XIV, 271): "Zarathustra does not want to lose anything of mankind's past; he wants to pour everything into the mold."

Yet whence arises the urgent cry for the overman? Why does prior humanity no longer suffice? Because Nietzsche recognizes the historic moment in which man takes it on himself to assume dominion over the earth as a whole. Nietzsche is the first thinker to pose the decisive question concerning the phase of world history that is emerging only now, the first to think the question through in its metaphysical implications. The question asks: Is man, in his essence as man heretofore, prepared to assume dominion over the earth? If not, what must happen with prior humanity in order that it may "subjugate" the earth and thus fulfill the prophecy of an old testament? Must not prior man be conducted beyond himself, over his prior self, in order to meet this challenge?