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The Mask of Enlightenment: Nietzsche's Zarathustra (review)

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 21, Number 1, April 1997
pp. 193-196 | 10.1353/phl.1997.0021

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Philosophy and Literature 21.1 (1997) 193-196

Book Review

The Mask of Enlightenment: Nietzsche's Zarathustra

The Mask of Enlightenment: Nietzsche's Zarathustra, by Stanley Rosen; 286 pp. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995, $18.95 paper.

In Ecce Homo Nietzsche remarks that he wants to be read the way good old philologists read Horace. Stanley Rosen has fullled this Nietzschean wish. His Mask of the Enlightenment interprets Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra with astute attention, and it delivers on Rosen's stated aim of avoiding both the obscurantism of postmoderns and the selective attention of analytic philosophers. It is philological in the best sense, balancing its consideration of detail with a sense of the book's larger context, as well as the context of textual predecessors to whom Nietzsche refers and responds.

Rosen reads Nietzsche as a fundamentally political thinker, who seeks to transform humanity's collective circumstances. The ultimate goal of this effort is "to breed a new race of mankind" that would supersede the decadent existing race (p. 56). This positive aim, however, requires the destruction of the existing race to make room for the new one.

Zarathustra, according to Rosen, is an artistic statement of these aspirations and a tactic for achieving them. From the beginning, Zarathustra calls for the appearance of the superman and the destruction of contemporary European culture. Aware of how far his contemporaries are from the superman, Zarathustra utilizes a double rhetoric, concealing his real intent from all but the select few.

Zarathustra addresses noble lies to the crowd, which make his doctrines appear to be afrmative and salvational, but try to seduce the majority to their own self-destruction. Preaching the coming of the superman and the doctrine of eternal recurrence (the view that time recurs cyclically), Zarathustra's real purpose is to accelerate nihilism and hasten the destruction of current European culture. This aim, however, is concealed by the seemingly afrmative character of these doctrines.

Zarathustra's esoteric message rests on Nietzsche's materialistic reductionism, according to Rosen. Nietzsche understands reality, fundamentally, to be nothing but chaotic uctuations among accumulating points of force. Even the expression "will to power" suggests a more coherent ontological structure than reality exhibits. The doctrine of "will to power" is an exoteric idea that conceals Nietzsche's belief that the world is a chaos of uctuating points of force. Will, subjectivity, and physics are all illusions that disguise a cruel and uncaring world.

The doctrine of eternal recurrence, in its esoteric sense, reects this vision. Claiming that the sequence of temporal events recurs endlessly, the doctrine is an image for the universe's spontaneous being, which has no inherent value. This vision is nihilistic, for it implies the illusory status of our subjective selves, any sense of progress, and even our scientic theories. If reality is ultimately chaos, our lives are meaningless.

So understood, the doctrine of eternal recurrence is not obviously compatible with Zarathustra's call for the superman. The superman project is doomed to fail, since eternal recurrence implies that the condition of decadence will recur, even if a superman is generated at some point. Eternal recurrence is also incompatible with amor fati, the love of fate that Zarathustra preaches. Eternal recurrence is an image of chance, of the random happening of force-points, while amor fati is a deterministic vision. Chance and necessity are the same in their human signicance. Both deny human freedom. Chance means that our behavior arises from the un-ordered movements of force points.

One of the achievements of Rosen's book is its mapping of such tensions within Zarathustra, tensions that motivate the drama of the book. These tensions are numerous. Zarathustra preaches the superman to those he seeks as followers, but followers are inherently incapable of the superman's creative spontaneity. Zarathustra's bombast, used to attract attention, is in tension with the subtlety of his actual message. The activism implied by Zarathustra's preaching is at odds with the fatalism of amor fati. The rank-ordering of human types, a feature of Zarathustra's elitism, is incompatible with his inner doctrine that the world is chaos.

Rosen concludes that some of these tensions arise...


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