Zarathustra, the Hermit, and the Madman

In his early writings, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) experimented with philosophical positions, testing them against science and the history of thought, against culture, thinkers and the momentum of the times. Additionally, he adopted personae or masks to present controversial ideas within an experimental context and as novel ways of philosophizing. The dramatic characters of Zarathustra and the hermit in Thus Spoke Zarathustra and the madman in Gay Science (also translated as Joyful Wisdom) are the most representative of Nietzschean personae. They represent Nietzsche himself, self-described "philosopher and solitary by instinct" (Will to Power 3).


Zarathustra is not the historical Zoroaster except as his counterpart. Nietzsche may have chosen Zoroaster as his model because he was the first historical founder of a religion or because he savored the irony of inverting the god of morals for nature, reversing Zoroaster's preference against nature (Angra Mainyu) for morals (Ahura Mazda). Or perhaps the bombastic tones of the Avesta, the Gathas, and Zoroastrian scriptures may have appealed to him.

But Zarathustra is portrayed by Nietzsche as a religious prophet with Biblical overtones, a Moses descending from the mountain with a new vision for humanity and a new set of tablets of law. In Nietzsche's case, the prophet's teaching is based on a revelation that is the opposite of Western religion's theistic premise.

When Zarathustra was thirty years old, he left his home and the lake of his home, and went into the mountains. There he enjoyed his spirit and his solitude, and for ten years did not weary of it. But at last his heart changed, and rising one morning with the rosy dawn, he went before the sun and spoke to it.

In his earliest writings, Nietzsche had viewed saints, geniuses and creative people as those who achieved the highest human potential. He retained a religious sensibility, even as he moved into a radical critique of religion, culture, and society, and even as he absorbed the sciences as a foundation of necessary knowledge. The imagery of biology, evolution, chemistry, physiology, and physics, lurked beneath his aesthetic and creative values.

With Zarathustra, Nietzsche was evolving the notion of self-transcendence  and transvaluation -- methods of self-control and individual achievement culminating in the Ubermensch, that oft-abused concept of Superman that is better translated as Overman or simply higher man. In this period of his writings, Nietzsche's Zarathustra represents a benign and productive will to power, for despite Zarathustra's pronouncements, he is a sparse and unassuming figure among other people -- much like Nietzsche himself.

To Nietzsche, "first nature" was religious, both in his personal experience and in the experience of humanity. "I am a plant, born near the churchyard," he wrote of himself. And like the plant, he was solitary, affected by his social environment, his experiences, and his proclivities. Nietzsche projects all of this into his character Zarathustra, though as commentator Rudiger Safranski notes (in Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography): "Nietzsche's image of the Ubermensch betrays his own ambivalence while unfolding an entire existential drama." The creative use of a persona or mask like Zarathustra allows Nietzsche to express his ideas at the moment. This style makes the work a monument of philosophical literature.

In the opening passages of the Prologue, however, Zarathustra has decided to come down from the mountain and to share his wisdom. He has renounced his solitude. Zarathustra's first encounter is with a forest hermit, who recognizes Zarathustra and comments on his changed attitude: "No stranger to me is this wanderer. He passed through here many years ago. Zarathustra, he was called, but he has changed."

The hermit declares that Zarathustra once carried his ashes into the mountains but now carries fire into the valley, that he is awakened but goes to the land of the sleeping, that he has lived in the sea but now comes ashore. When Zarathustra answers that he loves mankind, the hermit replies:

Why did I go into the forest and the desert? Was it not because I loved men far too well? ... Go not to men but stay in the forest! Go rather to the animals. Why not be like me, a bear among bears, a bird among birds?

Zarathustra asks the hermit what he does in the forest, and "the saint" replies: "I make hymns and sing them. And in making hymns, I laugh and weep and mumble. Thus do I before the God who is my God."

Zarathustra has told the hermit that he brings a gift to mankind, but when the hermit asks what it is, the former demurs, saying that he must hurry on lest he take from the hermit. Then comes one of the most striking passages in philosophical literature.

So they parted from one another, the old man and Zarathustra, laughing like schoolboys. When Zarathustra was alone, however, he said to himself: "Can it be that this old saint in the forest has not yet heard? God is dead!"

Here is the entire Prologue of Thus Spoke Zarathustra.


When Zarathustra was thirty years old, he left his home and the lake of his home, and went into the mountains. There he enjoyed his spirit and his solitude, and for ten years did not weary of it. But at last his heart changed. Arising one morning with the rosy dawn, he went before the sun, and spoke thus unto it:

O great star! What would be your happiness if you did not have those for whom you shine! For ten years you have arisen over my cave. You would have wearied of your light and of the journey had it not been for me, my eagle, and my serpent. But we awaited you every morning, took from your overflow, and blessed you for it.

But now I am weary of my wisdom, like the bee that has gathered too much honey; I need hands outstretched to take it. Would that I could bestow and distribute it, until the wise have once more become joyous in their folly, and the poor happy in their riches.

Thus must I descend into the deep, just as you do in the evening, when you go behind the sea and give light also to the nether world, you exuberant star! Like you rI must go down, as men say, to whom I shall descend.

Bless me, then, oh tranquil eye that can behold even the greatest happiness without envy! Bless the cup that is about to overflow, that the water may flow golden out of it, and carry everywhere the reflection of your bliss!

Lo! This cup is again going to empty itself, and Zarathustra is again going to be a man.

Thus Zarathustra began his going down.


Zarathustra went down the mountain alone, not encountering anyone. When he entered the forest, however, there suddenly stood before him an old man, who had left his holy cot to seek roots. And thus spoke the old man to Zarathustra:

"No stranger to me is this wanderer: many years ago passed he by. Zarathustra he was called; but he has changed. At that time you carried your ashes into the mountains, and now you would carry your fire into the valleys? Do you not fear the incendiary's doom? Yes, I recognize Zarathustra. Pure is his eye, and no loathing lurks about his mouth. Does he not go along like a dancer?

Zarathustra has changed. He has become a a child, an awakened one. What will you do in the land of the sleeping? You have lived in solitude as if in the sea, and the sea has borne you up. Alas, will you now go ashore? Alas, will you again drag your body after you?"

Zarathustra answered: "I love mankind."

"Why did I go into the forest and the desert?" asked the saint. "Was it not because I loved men far too well? Now I love God; men, I do not love. Man is a thing too imperfect for me. Love to man would be fatal to me."

Zarathustra answered: "What spoke I of love? I am bringing gifts to men."

"Give them nothing," said the saint. "Rather, take part of their load, and carry it along with those for whom it  will be most agreeable, as long as it be agreeable to you! If, however, you want to give to them, give them no more than an alms, and, and let them beg for it!"

"No," replied Zarathustra, "I give no alms. I am not poor enough for that."

The saint laughed at Zarathustra, and spoke thus: "Then see to it that they accept your treasures! They are distrustful of anchorites, and do not believe that we come with gifts. The footfall of our steps rings too hollow through their streets. And just as at night, when they are in bed and hear a man abroad long before sunrise,  so they ask themselves concerning us: Whither goes the thief?

Go not to men, but stay in the forest! Go rather to the animals! Why not be like me, a bear among bears, a bird among birds?"

"And what does the saint do in the forest?" asked Zarathustra.

The saint answered: "I make hymns and sing them; and in making hymns I laugh and weep and mumble: thus do I praise God. With singing, weeping, laughing, and mumbling do I praise the God who is my God. But what do you bring us as a gift?"

When Zarathustra had heard these words, he bowed to the saint and said: "What could I give you? Let me rather hurry on lest I take something away from you!"

And thus they parted from one another, the old man and Zarathustra, laughing like schoolboys.

When Zarathustra was alone, however, he said to himself: "Can it be that this old saint in the forest has not yet heard? God is dead!"

Thus Spoke Zarathustra

The four volumes of Thus Spoke Zarathustra are a dramatic elaboration of Nietzsche's philosophical explorations based on the late nineteen-century cultural reality that religion is no longer the animating force of society. Zarathustra reveals a philosophy of life based on a "love of earth" and the vitality of life and thought, speaking in parables and poems like a prophet. Throughout, Zarathustra is confounded by the reality that society and the masses cannot receive or embrace his insights, not only because of their turpitude but because they cannot transcend themselves or identify with a higher meaning than the inherited culture and sociiety's mores give them.

To that select aspirant of higher meaning, who would be the higher soul or Ubermensch, Zarathustra appeals, but he is called by the people vain, a glutton, a fool. He admits that "When I came  to men for the first time, I committed that great folly of hermits: I went to the marketplace." That is, he decided to share his teaching with everyone, with anyone who would listen. (This was the case with Nietzsche himself, whose writings were rejected by contemporaries).

But now Zarathustra knows better. "In the marketplace no one believes in higher souls. The masses blink and say: 'We are all equal.' ... Before this people, however, we will not be equal. You who are higher souls, away from the marketplace!"

The philosophy espoused by Zarathustra is the logical development of Nietzsche's thought, poised at the maturity of his grand essays, Genealogy of Morals and Beyond Good and Evil. His philosophy is too complex to pursue here beyond consideration of the many uses of and the imagery of solitude found creatively in key personae. But Nietzsche's context for solitude presented in Thus Spoke Zarathustra is invaluable.

Zarathustra warns that the state is a monstrous new idol from which the wise are to flee.

The earth is still open to great souls. Unoccupied are still many places for solitaries and friends, where the fragrance of tranquil  seas floats. A free life is still open to great souls. One who possesses little is that much less possessed. Blessed be moderate poverty (Zarathustra, 1, 11).

Against the marketplace, Zarathustra warns: "Flee, my friend, into solitude! (1, 12).

The perennial conflict between city and marketplace versus countryside furthers the contrast of higher self and the masses.

In the wilderness have ever dwelt the conscientious, the free spirits, as lords of the wilderness. But in the cities dwell the well-foddered, the draught beasts.

Solitude and the spurning of society is both insight and practicality, for "whatever cannot obey itself is commanded" (2, 34). Thus, self-discipline is a prerequisite to "self-surpassing" and the attainment of the higher self. This process requires a separation that is moral, cultural, and social. But this solitude and separation is not an aggrandizement of the ego. Nor in his radicalism does Zarathustra scorn self-discipline or what elsewhere Nietzsche considers asceticism, for the three evils he enumerates are voluptuousness, passion for power, and selfishness (3, 54), all opposites of self-control. However, Zarathustra offers a contrast to conventional self-control, arguing that society is an imposition of control and power over the individual and is built on perverted human values.

Man is the cruelest animal. At tragedies, bull-fights, and crucifixions, he has hitherto been happiest on earth. When he invented hell -- behold! That was his heaven on earth" (3, 57).

Zarathustra weaves a philosophy based on what Nietzsche would call "will to power" but which nevertheless involves a "hermit and eagle courage" (4, 73), a courage which is "subtle, spiritual, and intellectual" (4, 75). Without God or society, Nietzsche's higher soul is thrust into existential and necessary solitude, but learns to laugh and to dance.

It is important to note that Nietzsche presents Zarathustra and the hermit without a trace of satire, derision, or criticism. The role of prophet and hermit are such close parallels to Nietzsche's own life and thinking that they remain models of being even when the plaster saints and "pose ascetics" he blasts in Genealogy of Morals fall away from view and are discarded among the fallen idols. "All honor to the ascetic ideal insofar as it is honest!" writes Nietzsche, "so long as it believes in itself and does not play tricks on us" (Genealogy of Morals, 3, 27).

The Madman

Self-transcendence or transvaluation is necessary because contemporary culture is not animated by religion but by power, greed, corruption, and violence. To Nietzsche it is not a matter of restoring what he declares as myth and delusion. But he is keenly aware -- like his Zarathustra character and unlike the people in the marketplace, the bourgeoisie of his fin-de-siecle -- that something must replace God or the Western world will collapse morally -- and take the rest of the world with it. (Thus Nietzsche's chilling prediction that the next two centuries would be disastrous for humanity.)

However, that set of new and necessary values would not be forthcoming or capable of being universalized for the entire culture. Mankind teeters on the brink of this horrible realization, as the story of the madman in Gay Science (125)  shows.

The madman is a combination of ancient Greek Diogenes, a Cynic philosopher, and the Hermit figure of the Tarot all in one, although ultimately the madman is another persona for Nietzsche's philosophical reflection. Only at the end of the passage do we learn that the marketplace and the people are our contemporaries, not ancient Greeks.

The madman's message is frustrated by the same obtuseness of the masses experienced by Zarathustra, this time an audience that is up-to-date in its arrogance and religious skepticism in contrast to the audience of Zarathustra. But, like Zarathustra, the madman realizes that his message cannot be brought to the marketplace. Here is the entire passage from Gay Science:

Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the marketplace, and cried incessantly: "I seek God! I seek God!" As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, the madman provoked much laughter. Has God got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? Emigrated? Thus did they shout and jeer.

The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. "Whither is God?" he cried; "I will tell you. We have killed him -- you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideways, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine putrefaction? Gods, too, decompose. 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? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us -- for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto."

Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they, too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he flung his lantern to the ground, and it shattered into pieces and went out. "I have come too early," he said. "My time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than most distant stars -- and yet they have done it themselves."

It has been related further that on the same day the madman forced his way into several churches and there struck up his requiem aeternam deo. Led out and called to account, he is said always to have replied nothing but: "What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?"

Nietzsche arrives at the inevitable link between God and morals. He makes the necessary conclusion parallel to Fyodor Dostoyevsky's persona in The Brothers Karamazov, who says, "If God is dead, everything is permitted." In Genealogy of Morals, Third Essay 24, Nietzsche writes: "Nothing is true, everything is permitted." Though Nietzsche did not read Dostoyevsky's novel, the two prophets of the future converge in their prophecy.

Nietzsche is not a formal atheist or a nihilist who gloats about the death of God, for he is not engaged with the details of God nor optimistic about the liberation that science promises. As commentator Safranski says, summarizing the Nietzschean task for the individual:

The issue is whether man can retain the ingenuity employed in inventing an entire heaven of gods, or whether he will be left empty after attacking them. ... The Ubermensch is free of religion. He has not lost it, but reclaimed it for himself. The typical nihilist has merely forfeited religion and retained life in all its profane wretchedness. Nietzsche aspired to salvage sanctifying powers for the here and now from the nihilistic tendency of vulgarization by means of his Ubermensch.


Thus Spoke Zarathustra is a great leap in philosophy, taking the degeneration of society and culture as a clear sign that the individual must chart values independent of what inevitably desires to crush the individual. In this period of his writing, the solitary Nietzsche was referring to what would become the "will to power," power understood as self-discipline, thought, and the actualization of self. Appropriately, Nietzsche's personae of hermits (and a madman's honesty) is the right vehicle for his exploration, complimenting Nietzsche's respect for solitude as the necessary condition for the development of a higher self.


The best collections of Nietzsche's writings are: Basic Writings of Nietzsche, introduction by Peter Gay, translated and edited by Walter Kaufman. New York: Modern Library, 1968 and The Portable Nietzsche, selected and translated with an introduction, prefaces, and notes, by Walter Kaufmann. New York: Viking, 1954. Thus Spoke Zarathustra is in the latter collection; Gay Science is in the former.