Symbolism in Nietzsche's Moral Desert
In 1885, Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” was published. This book was vastly different from all of Nietzsche’s prior works in that this was his lone novel. “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” had characters, settings, a definite, albeit rather hard to follow, plot. It was not mere philosophical declaration, but rather philosophical novelization.
To his credit, Nietzsche’s moral landscape is a place brought to life (as opposed to Sam Harris’ moral landscape of scientific faith). This makes it an actual setting where characters can act and readers could then, hypothetically, emulate said characters. This allows Nietzsche to use symbolism to illustrate theoretical human action, behavior, and motive within his moral landscape.
For Nietzsche, morals are complex entities that need to be brought to life through the telling of a story. That story then results in the delineation of character. His moral landscape is depicted as a desert. There is nothing there but sand, and a grand dragon with golden scales, upon which shines the phrase “Thou shalt” which is God’s phrase of commandment. The desert in which human morality is fought for is lifeless, void of biodiversity, and policed by a mystical, fairy tale creature born of the human imagination; there exists no growth, only a guardian of tradition. Nietzsche posits a three stage metamorphosis so that mankind may move forward, so that we may will our way out of this desert.
Jordan Peterson recently weighed in on the symbolism and function of the desert in the Old Testament. He said:
Moses leads his people out of the tyranny, right? But weirdly enough, they don’t go to the promised land. This is very weird. They go into the desert. Well, why? Well, we’re all, say, prisoners of our own tyrannical misconceptions and misperceptions (psychologically and socially.) So let’s say we free ourselves from those. Well then we’re nowhere….That’s why people have nostalgia for tyranny. It’s like, at least we had enough to eat then. At least we knew who we were then…Out of the tyrant’s grasp, and into the desert…So, now, the Israelites are out in the desert. You think, ‘why are they there for forty years?’ Maybe it’s because it takes three generations to recover from tyranny. You’re in the desert, man. And so, the Israelites start worshiping idols; it’s ideology, it’s the same thing…because they don’t have anything to orient themselves because they’re not tyrannized anymore and they get all fractious and they fight with themselves and….Anyways, they turn to false idols…God isn’t very happy about this and he sends poisonous snakes in there to bite them…Out of the tyranny, into the desert, now we’re fractured by ideologies, now the poisonous snakes come. 1
So, for both Peterson and Nietzsche, the desert is where groups end up when they’ve escaped from the tyranny of misconception. Nietzsche takes that one step further and says that the tyrannical misconception is Christianity itself.
Crucially, all of this is to say that Nietzsche’s conception does indeed have biblical grounding, grounding in the story of stories. And in this fact we come to find that even Nietzsche could not fully escape the enchanted world. The atheist novelist knew too well that story is needed to purvey morality, so he tried to use Christian symbolism against itself.
There are many heavy things for the spirit, for the strong, weight-bearing spirit in which dwell respect and awe: its strength longs for the heavy, for the heaviest. What is heavy? Thus asks the weight bearing spirit, thus it kneels down like the camel and wants to be well laden. 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.2
From here we can begin to understand Nietzsche’s project.
Within this desert, man must first become like the camel so that he may rediscover, realize, and rejoice in his strength. As the camel, man will take upon him all that he can so as to realize how strong he truly is. This makes sense for a man whose guiding light and chief value is power. The symbolism makes sense as well. In the Bible the camel is indeed the animal used for load bearing and long journeys.
Nietzsche goes on to explain why simply bearing a burden would not be enough. He continues, “But in the loneliest desert the second metamorphosis occurs: the spirit here becomes a lion, it wants to capture freedom and be lord in its own desert.”3
To capture and to lord over are certainly two actions the king of the jungle would be capable of. Again, Nietzsche poignantly and accurately uses symbolic language. And logic would follow that if one wanted to will their way to power, will their way to a new set of values, they would indeed have to be free in order to do so.
The explanation goes on,
“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. What is the great dragon which the spirit no longer wants to call lord and God? The great dragon is called ‘Thou shalt’. But the spirit of the lion says ‘I will!’” 4
Nietzsche takes God, and boils his existence down to an ultimate principle represented in a great dragon or a bestial guardian. The language of ‘Thou shalt’, the language of commandment, is said to be written on this dragon’s scales. Nietzsche and his lion no longer want to be subservient to such commandments, but want to be the enemy of the God who commanded them.
Next, we may observe what truly makes this desolate desert guarded by a dragon a moral landscape in the same vein as Sam Harris’ conception.
Values of a thousand years glitter on the scales, and thus speaks the mightiest of all dragons: ‘All the values of things — glitter on me. ‘All values have already been created, and all created values are in me. Truly, there shall be no more “I Will!” ‘ Thus speaks the dragon.” My brothers, why is the lion needed in the spirit? Why does the beast of burden, that renounces and is reverent, not suffice? To create new values – even the lion is incapable of that: but to create itself freedom for new creation – that the might of the lion can do…To seize the right to new values – that is the most terrible proceeding for a weight-bearing and reverential spirit. Truly, to this spirit it is a work of theft and a work for an animal of prey. 5
There is much to unpack here, and a lot that could be unpacked that I won’t touch. Our focus will be on the nature of values laid out by Nietzsche. As stated previously, the dragon here is God, and thousands of years of values had hitherto been derived from him. The God-dragon proclaims that after him there are no values to be discovered. All that humans value, thus all of human morality, glittered up his scales and commanded men.
Immediately, Nietzsche proclaims his goal: to create new values. This is the entire reason the second stage of metamorphosis — becoming a lion — is needed. The lion must rip and roar its way through this desert landscape, presumably to tear the dragon to bits, so that it may “…seize the right to new values.”
From here there can be no doubt, Nietzsche absolutely saw values and morality derived from God as a hindrance that had held man from his true potential for too long. He also saw values and morality as a treatise man could set out for himself, if only he could theorize a way to obtain the freedom necessary to do so. (Harris agrees, and he posits the new treatise will be written by science.)
Thus far, Nietzsche has coached man on how to find the strength necessary to move on from God into the moral wilderness, seize the freedom to create from the great dragon, but once man has grasped such freedom, how will he create? Nietzsche explains,
But tell me, my brothers, what can the child do that even the lion cannot? Why must the preying lion still become a child? The child is innocence and forgetfulness, a new beginning, a sport, a self-propelling wheel, a first motion, a sacred Yes. 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 world.6
Jesus made a similar call to man in Matthew 18:1-3,
At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, ‘Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’
In children, there is a purity; they exist as naive, almost empty, vessels that have neither a pure morality nor a corrupted one. Children are the future personified; they are pure potential. Nietzsche takes this Christian principle and reimagines it. He also recognizes this raw potential. He even calls on men and women just as Christ did to become like children again. The only difference is Nietzsche calls upon us to become like children again only after we have destroyed God as the conduit from which we draw value, so that we may use the raw potential of childlike wonder to reimagine our own values.
For Nietzsche, morals were to be forged by the will, then understood, then lived.
For Christ, morals were commanded by the Father, then understood, then lived.
In trying to combat Christ, what Nietzsche ends up doing is demonstrating both his deep knowledge of the Bible (his father was a Luteran pastor) and his inability to conjure up symbolism beyond the bible, instead borrowing directly from it.
On commandment, John 12:49-50 reads,
For I have not spoken on my own, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment about what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I speak, therefore, I speak just as the Father has told me.
In attempting to move beyond Christ, Nietzsche reveals his project to be little more than narrative knock-off. Where the Father’s commandment is eternal life, Nietzsche’s commandments end up being symbolism lite that have not done what they were designed to do: replace Christianity. And in this way, Nietzsche truly did provide the world with a moral desert.
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- Rogan, Joe. “The Joe Rogan Experience #1769,” at 3:29:17. Spotify, January 2022.
- Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra, at 54. Penguin Classics, November 1961.