In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Nietzsche’s Cruel Messiah
  • James R. Martel (bio)

And he whom you cannot teach to fly, teach to fall faster!

Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra


In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in the chapter called “On Redemption,” Nietzsche offers us a vision of a prophet who, coming upon a group of afflicted people, is asked, like Jesus, to heal them:

When Zarathustra crossed over the great bridge one day the cripples and beggars surrounded him and a hunchback spoke to him thus: “Behold, Zarathustra. The people too learn from you and come to believe in your doctrine; but before they will believe you entirely one thing is still needed: you must first persuade us cripples . . . You can heal the blind and make the lame walk; and from him who has too much behind him you could perhaps take away a little . . .”

But Zarathustra replied thus to the man who had spoken: “When one takes away the hump from the hunchback one takes away his spirit—thus teach the people. And when one restores his eyes to the blind man he sees too many wicked things on earth, and he will curse whoever healed him. But whoever makes the lame walk does him the greatest harm: for when he can walk his vices run away with him—thus teach the people about cripples.1 [End Page 199]

This story seems like a mockery of the life of Jesus, a tale of a cruel messiah who comes and then goes away leaving the afflicted exactly as they were before. Nietzsche’s messiah may be (and, as I will later argue, must be) cruel, but he is not ineffectual. Or rather his ineffectuality has an effect of its own (and a salubrious one). As Zarathustra tells the afflicted in the above passage, were he to redeem them in the ordinary way, he would only add to their sorrows. He would, in effect, confirm these people in their self-hatred, reinforcing their sense that they would be fine if only this one problem would be taken away from them. Extending this analogy a bit further, Zarathustra tells them, “Verily, my friends, I walk among men as among the fragments and limits . . . but no human beings” (Z, 138). We become defined by our lack (or our extra feature); too much of this, too little of that, we are never just right.

Indeed, rather than saving them, Zarathustra identifies with these people when he tells them:

The now and the past on earth—alas my friends, that is what I find most unendurable; and I should not know how to live if I were not also a seer of that which must come. A seer, a willer, a creator, a future himself and a bridge to the future—and alas, also, as it were, a cripple at this bridge: all this is Zarathustra.

(Z, 139)

If he is a “cripple at this bridge,” a fellow non-traveler, as it were, what does that tell us about where Zarathustra is heading? What does it say about the possibilities for any kind of future, something different than what already is?

In this essay I will argue that Nietzsche’s cruel messiah both disappoints us and draws out of us our own expectations for salvation.2 He dangles the promise of a future (“a seer . . . a future himself”) even as he explicitly deprives us of any hope. The purpose of such cruelty, of disappointment and misrepresentation, is to force us to give up on a future that condemns us to more of the same, to destroy those false expectations that keep us trapped in self-loathing and in a false sense of the present.

The destruction of false hope includes those hopes raised by Nietzsche himself. Although Nietzsche (especially via the figure of [End Page 200] Zarathustra) speaks of an “overman” as the savior of the future, such a figure risks freeing us from one false prophet only to turn us over to another. I will argue that the figure of the overman is itself evoked in order to fail to appear. The overman is Nietzsche’s final device to keep us from turning him into yet one more savior...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 199-223
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.