Zarathustra’s Three Metamorphoses

Zarathustra’s Three Metamorphoses


In his greatest work, Thus Spake Zarathustra, Friedrich Nietzsche proclaims that “God is dead” (Nietzsche 41). For Nietzsche, this means that the philosophical abstraction known as “God” to institutional religion, especially Christianity, has died in the hearts and souls of Western man. It also means that the dualistic metaphysics of Plato is no longer viable. With one fell blow from his philosophical hammer, Nietzsche strikes down the two-world theories that have dominated Western thought since Plato. But even though God’s death leaves a gaping hole in Western man’s being, Nietzsche has recognized that the death of God is necessary to bring about transformation.

Prior to God’s death, human consciousness is bound in a morass of “Thou shalts,” a controlling, will-less existence, where the new, the unique, is anathema. Creativity, which is mankind’s birthright, is frowned upon when it is implemented to bring about new values, new opinions, and new attitudes, that deviate from the norm. But when the ideals, the “eternal” standards have died, creativity can burst forth. As in the saying of Jesus, “Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit” (John 12:24 KJV). Before, the existence of God guaranteed eternal standards of ethics, knowledge, politics, metaphysics, etc. But afterwards, all these are obliterated. Now, humanity is tossed upon a sea of uncertainty. Now, there are no absolutes. In the midst of such a tempest, however, a new creation is born. The problem, for Zarathustra, then, is to discover new realities–to create new meaning out of the chaotic aftermath of God’s death.

In the section of Thus Spoke Zarathustra entitled, “Of the Three Metamorphoses,” Zarathustra describes a process of human transformation. The metamorphoses will become Zarathustra’s answer to the nihilism created by the death of God.

Nietzsche begins: “I name you three metamorphoses of the spirit: how the spirit shall become a camel, and the camel a lion, and the lion at last a child” (Nietzsche 54). These metaphors describe various stages in the transformation of human consciousness. Just as we pass through physical stages on our way to adulthood, Nietzsche proposes that we pass through various stages of consciousness. We are constantly becoming. We are not static creatures. In fact, for Nietzsche, nothing is static; all is in flux; there is no imperishable being; all is becoming. One point, however, should be noted: this process of transformation is not necessarily linear. Rather, it is cyclical in nature.

First, let us ponder the camel. A camel is a beast of burden. When commanded, it kneels down to accept heavy loads. It seems to possess a sense of duty in bearing what it is ordered to bear. It can go days through the desert without water. The camel-image refers to the human tendency to confront that which is difficult for us out of a sense of duty. We do not will what we do at this stage, but do “what we ought to do.” We are not free to make our own decisions because we give our will over to what we believe are our duties. Nevertheless, by doing “what we ought” we challenge ourselves, paving the way for further refinement.

Zarathustra says, “What is the heaviest thing, you heroes? so asks the weight-bearing spirit, that I may take it upon me and rejoice in my strength” (ibid.). In bearing the heaviest burdens, the camel-spirit becomes lofty in its strength, in doing its duty. This type of attitude reminds me of someone like Hegel, who would try to systematize all reality into a neat logical box, and then have the audacity to believe that everything has been explained. In order for further metamorphosis, this pride must be weakened: “Is it not this: to debase yourself in order to injure your pride? To let your folly shine out in order to mock your wisdom” (ibid.)? It would be a heavy burden indeed for someone like Hegel to admit that he was wrong. I know of one philosopher who did this. Shortly before his death, Thomas Aquinas had a mystical experience that caused him to describe his life’s work as so much straw. Sometimes, “wisdom” must be mocked in order for new realities to be born.

Zarathustra asks if it is not a heavy burden “to feed upon the acorns and grass of knowledge and for the sake of truth to suffer hunger of the soul” (ibid.)? For someone who has devoted much time to the search for truth and understanding, it is a very heavy burden to discover that all our so-called wisdom and knowledge is fleeting. The seeker longs for a person, a book, or some other foothold that can lead him or her to a bedrock of truth. It is burdensome because one discovers there is no such absolute foundation. One must consume what small morsels of truth one can find on the cold, damp ground. One must suffer hunger of the soul when the understanding comes that all so-called truths are really uncertain.

Zarathustra asks if it is not a heavy burden “to wade into dirty water when it is the water of truth, and not to disdain cold frogs and hot toads” (ibid.)? Think of sloshing through a green, miry swamp. It is a nasty undertaking. One can get lost very easily. The air smells bad. There are dangerous creatures at every turn. The frogs and toads are not really dangerous, but they are a nuisance, and there may be serpents lurking about. Seeking for truth is exactly like this. It is a burdensome affair to search and search, only to find that one is going around in circles, not to mention all the encumbrances along the way. This is the realm of becoming, where there are no absolute standards–no firm path on which to tread. Actually, there is no sense of being, except that it is becoming. The greatest burden here, however, is when one learns to wade into these waters without disdaining the difficult struggle of living in a world that is devoid of standards. This undertaking can bring about transformation.

The camel takes upon itself its heavy burdens and flees into a desert of solitude. Here, the camel must continually question even the “truths” it has accepted. It must interrogate this new idea, i.e., that there are no absolute standards.

The seeker of truth who carries the burden of uncertainty will eventually need solitude. Not actually literal solitude, but a separation in thought from those who still adhere to two world theories. Only in solitude can genuine creation be brought forth. This is why Zarathustra traveled to the mountains. “Here he had the enjoyment of his spirit and his solitude and he did not weary of it for ten years” (Nietzsche 39). It is in the desert that the camel changes into a lion, for “it wants to capture freedom and be lord in its own desert” (Nietzsche 54).

The lion is, at the same time, a mighty, noble warrior, and a vicious killer. It is noble in the sense that it craves freedom. It desires to create its own freedom, but it must kill to get it.

The camel is only a beast of burden. A beast of prey is required for the task of capturing freedom. The might of the lion can perform the task at hand.

Who is to be the lion’s victim? “It seeks here its ultimate lord: it will be an enemy to him and to its ultimate God, it will struggle for victory with the great dragon” (Nietzsche 54-55). The great dragon, which the lion will battle for its freedom, is called “Thou Shalt.” The lion’s foe is the spirit of commandments, i.e., when others seek to instruct us in what we must believe and accept as truth. History is replete with examples of the enforcement of commandments. One that comes to mind is the Catholic Inquisition.

The great dragon sparkles with gold. “The values of a thousand years” shine on its scales (Nietzsche 55). The dragon believes itself supreme because it believes it possesses the one truth concerning all existence. It believes in a transcendental realm of absolute ideas that can be understood by humanity through the faculty of reason. It believes in a transcendental being (God) that has created this realm and now watches over it, so that truth remains eternal. The dragon despises opposing opinions. “There will be no ‘I will,'” it says. One either conforms, or one is trampled underfoot. But the might of the lion says, “I will!” The lion is the beginning of the will to power, the will to create new realities, the will to become what one is meant to be.

The lion cannot create new values. However, its might is needed to capture freedom for itself. After the dragon has been mauled by the spirit of the lion, what then? The lion must understand that now there is no guiding hand of a transcendental God, or the firm foundation of a realm of absolute Ideas. There is no external authority. Now, the lion is alone; it is responsible for itself. There are no more laws, no more duties for it to bear. Is this not the greatest burden?

The lion is victorious. It has uttered the sacred “No” to the dragon. One thing remains: the lion is not capable of creating new values for itself. It is merely a warrior. Its talent lies in destruction. For creation, another metamorphosis must take place: the lion must become a child.

But tell me, my brothers, what can the child do that the lion cannot? The child is innocence and forgetfulness, a new beginning, a sport, a self-propelling wheel, a first motion, a sacred Yes (ibid.).

The child possesses unique talents which make it the perfect choice for the third transformation.

The child is innocence. It has no sense of what life was like when the dragon was still alive. There is no guilt because there is no awareness of Thou Shalt. It knows only becoming–awaking each day to discover a new idea, a new game to play, a new world to explore.

The child is forgetfulness. It has forgotten the heavy burdens of duty and the longing for freedom. Now, it constantly abides in freedom. It has forgotten the golden scales of the dragon. It has forgotten the ancient ways of the past, the so-called eternal values and standards. It lives only for the moment.

The child is a new beginning. When long-held beliefs have been called into question by the camel, and then destroyed by the lion, one enters a new epoch. After a time, the values one has created for oneself become obsolete. These must not be allowed to become sacred cows, for, eventually, they must be destroyed and replaced by new values. The spirit of the camel will question whether these beliefs are still viable. If not, the spirit of the lion will destroy them. Then comes a new beginning, the spirit of the child, who will bring about the creation of new values. This cyclical process never ends, unless one becomes stagnant, i.e., if one ceases to create by returning to a notion of static being.

The child is a sport, or a game. Children are always inventing new games, along with a set of rules for each. When I was about eight years old, some friends and I invented our own version of “whiffle ball”. It was similar to regular baseball. But, because we didn’t have enough fielders, we had to create a set of rules that would work for just three or four players. Also, the rules would change depending on whose yard we were playing in at the time. We didn’t need any adults telling us how to play our game. We created it ourselves. This, in my opinion, is the attitude that Nietzsche is trying to get us to think about here. We need to adopt the attitude of a child. When faced with a problem, even if it is only how to play a silly child’s game, the child will create a solution. He/She will allow spontaneity to flow freely, creating rules that fit the particular situation.

The child has no knowledge of anything eternal or transcendent. There is only spontaneity and creative play, that is, until we adults pound our values into their heads. After enculturation is complete, they are fortunate if they ever break free from the Thou Shalts of the herd.

The child is a self-propelling wheel. At this stage of transformation, the child possesses the will to power, or the power to roll its own wheel. Creation is the wheel that is propelled along by the will. As long as it is understood that all is becoming, the wheel continues to roll along. However, when “wisdom” becomes ensconced in one’s thinking, then the wheel comes to a screeching halt.

The child is a first motion. When the great dragon was still alive, no movement existed. There was only static being; there was no creation. There were only “the values of a thousand years.” The camel questioned those values; the lion destroyed them. Now, the child is the first motion, because the child is the creator. Creation is not static, but dynamic.

Think of how the earth continually creates and re-creates. Every spring, new life bursts forth from the earth. There is a period of growth, decay, and then death. I think this may be how Nietzsche envisions this process of transformation. Creators always pass through such periods of growth, decay, and death. The child represents growth, i.e., the growth of new realities. The camel eventually doubts these realities (decay), and the lion destroys them (death). Then, once more, the child creates new ones, and the process begins all over again.

The child is the sacred Yes. In order for new creation to occur, the spirit of the child must utter a holy Yes to life.

Yes, a sacred Yes is needed, my brothers, for the sport of creation: the spirit now wills its own will, the spirit sundered from the world now wins its own spirit (ibid.).

Before, the spirit had no will of its own. It was controlled by the beliefs of others, by the beliefs of the herd. But the sacred No was spoken by the lion. The spirit now has no sense of duty; it is not impelled to act in any other way than the behavior it chooses. Now the sacred Yes is needed in order for creativity to be unleashed, for new values to be invented. Nietzsche is not saying that we should simply adopt those values that give us the greatest pleasure. I see it as being much more complex. He is affirming the need to pass beyond all polarities (good and evil, for example) and create for ourselves a set of values which will allow us to envision the prospect of overcoming ourselves. Perhaps we will never get there. The Ubermensch may only be a possibility. The main point, however, is to take the risk, to make the attempt, to struggle with the uncertainty. By doing this, we are constantly abiding in the flux of life.

Works Cited

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. New York: Penguin, 1969.

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