Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra begins with the line: "When Zarathustra was thirty years old he left his home and the lake of his home and went into the mountains." Zarathustra is a kind of modern day prophet. He leaves the world to live as a hermit in the mountains, but one day his heart is "transformed" and he feels the need to go back into the world of humanity. He first has a conversation with the sun and tells the sun that he has tired of all the wisdom he has accumulated during his time alone. He tells the sun that the reason he wants to return to humanity is so that he can spread the wisdom he has attained to all people.
As Zarathustra is coming down from the mountain, he encounters an old man. The old man tells Zarathustra that he saw him pass by ten years ago. The old man can tell that Zarathustra has been transformed. He warns Zarathustra not to return to civilization with the fire of his knowledge, for anyone who starts a fire will be punished as an arsonist. Zarathustra replies that he loves mankind. The old man asks him why he doesn't want to stay in the woods with the birds and the bears. The old man himself lives in the woods to get away from human beings, saying that they are "too imperfect" for him. He prefers to commune with God in the wilderness away from humanity. As they part, Zarathustra is surprised that the old man, as wise as he is, has not heard the news that Zarathustra has come to bring: "God is dead!"
Zarathustra enters a town, and he begins speaking to a crowd of people waiting to watch a tightrope walker. He begins to tell them about the "overman," a state of being that they are capable of entering. He says that as they laugh at the apes, so the overman will laugh at a regular human being. The people should no longer listen to anyone who tells them that their soul must escape their body to go to heaven, because God has died. The overman's greatest hour is when he overcomes feelings and states such as happiness, reason, virtue, and justice. When Zarathustra finishes, the crowd thinks he's been talking about the tightrope walker, and they laugh at him.
Zarathustra is shocked at the response he gets, and he continues to preach to the people. He tells them that, as human beings, they can "cross over" and "go under." This, he says, is the true way to sacrifice one's self to the earth and become an overman. The overman is a person who lives in order to know, who lives to create virtue, and who seeks no thanks for his virtue. The people still laugh at him, so Zarathustra decides to tell them of "the last human being." The last human being upon the earth will realize that human beings invented happiness. He will realize that love was simply an evolutionary reaction to the body's need for warmth. The last human being will not want wealth or poverty, nor will he desire poverty because both will be too burdensome. As Zarathustra finishes his first speech, the crowd laughs and mocks him. Zarathustra realizes that his words are not having an effect.
While the crowd is laughing, the tight-rope walker begins his routine. As the performer gets half way across the span of his rope, he hears a voice coming from behind him. The voice is telling the tight-rope walker to move out of the way, to go back to his tower, and suddenly the being behind him jumps over the tight-rope walker. The walker, so surprised by this, falls from his rope and lands next to Zarathustra, slowly dying from the fall. The tight-rope walker asks Zarathustra if he thinks he can stop the devil from dragging him to hell as he dies. Zarathustra only comforts him and tells him that hell no longer exists and that to die through the dangers of one's work is a great honor. Zarathustra sits next to the corpse until nightfall and then buries it.
Zarathustra brings the corpse to a graveyard where the gravediggers laugh at him for trying to steal a soul from the devil. On the way there, the jester who jumped over the tight-rope walker, causing his fall, sneaks up on Zarathustra and whispers in his ear to leave the town. He tells him that the pious hate him, as do the good and just, and that if he stays another day they will all kill him.
As Zarathustra walks on with the corpse, he becomes hungry and stops at a hut in the woods where an old man offers him bread and wine. After eating, he continues wandering for two more hours, finally stopping to sleep after he buries the corpse in the hollow of a tree. He wakens in the late morning and realizes that talking to the masses of people is like carrying around a dead corpse. He needs to find companions who will follow him around and learn from his teachings.
As Zarathustra thinks these thoughts, he looks up to see an eagle with a snake around its neck. The snake is not the bird's prey, however. They are friends, and to Zarathustra their friendship represents his need to couple his wisdom and his pride. If his wisdom were to leave, Zarathustra thinks, his pride must leave as well. The prologue ends with the words: "Thus begun Zarathustra's going under."
In the prologue the reader is first introduced to Zarathustra, a man who ventured into the wilderness ten years ago and has found contentment and enlightenment during his time alone. Zarathustra is given the idea that because of his love for mankind he will venture down his mountain to proclaim to civilization that there is a better way to live. Zarathustra speaks to the sun, and seeing how the sun ascends and descends every day, decides he will do the same. Thus Spoke Zarathustra is filled with allusions to classical philosophy and literature. Zarathustra's conversation with the sun and his descent back into civilization is an allusion to Plato's Myth of the Cave in which a philosopher descends into a cave to share his insights.
Descending and ascending are important concepts in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. In each case, Nietzsche describes a kind of transformation that happens to the individual. Zarathustra ascends to his mountain wilderness and becomes a different kind of being: an enlightened individual. He descends to become different again, a kind of prophet and philosopher. Throughout the work, Zarathustra talks of man's need to descend in order to ascend again and become something else.
One of the most important distinctions in Nietzsche's work is the contrast between Apollonian and Dionysian elements of the world. The Dionysian represents the chaotic and dark parts of humanity. Zarathustra has experienced these elements on the mountain, and they have led him to realize that God is dead. The Apollonian elements of the world represent order, reason, and culture. By being on top of the mountain, Zarathustra is surrounded by the Dionysian, yet his physical proximity to the sun represents his ability to talk with and understand the Apollonian. Both elements are important to understanding Nietzsche's philosophy in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Zarathustra's mission is to balance these opposing views and to help others balance them as well.
As Zarathustra descends from his mountain, he begins to encounter different kinds of people. He meets a hermit who lives in the wilderness so that he can praise God more fully. However, as Zarathustra says, the hermit doesn't realize that God is dead. It should be noted that the death of God is not the culmination of Zarathustra's philosophy but its starting point. For Zarathustra, the saint's communion with God is meaningless and an impediment to finding a true way to communicate with the world.
Zarathustra's first attempts to communicate his message to the masses are met with trouble. He immediately begins to preach to them of the overman, yet the crowd thinks Zarathustra is talking about the tight-rope walker they have come to see. Even thought the speech is a failure, it gives the reader a sense of Zarathustra's message nonetheless. According to him, the overman is "the meaning of the earth." Because God has died, there is no use in praying to Him or worrying about sin. Instead, the overman should only remain faithful to the earth. For Zarathustra, the tragedy is not that God has died, but that people still seek to find meaning in their lives from a dead God. If a person seeks a God who is dead, that person risks being confronted with nihilism - the conviction that there is no meaning in life. Nihilism is a state intolerable to human beings, but a belief in God, Zarathustra says, only numbs the soul. This is the lesson he means to teach with the parable of the last human being. Zarathustra does not want people to be faced with nihilism, so he offers an alternative.
His alternative is the overman. In German, the original word is ubermensch, which can also be translated as "superhuman." The overman is a being that has a new relationship to the earth and to nature. It is the highest form of being that a human can attain. Much as the ape evolved into the human being, according to Zarathustra, the goal of humans should be to then evolve into the overman. For Zarathustra, this promise of something better is what can take the place of belief in God.
The image of the tight-rope is thus an appropriate one for this first speech. For Zarathustra, human beings are torn between the beasts from which they have evolved and the overman they can become. The tight-rope walker, as he is walking across the rope, is teased by the voice of the jester behind him. The jester represents the voice of tradition. Nietzsche is telling the reader that attempting a feat such as trying to become an overman is a dangerous task, one that the voice of tradition will attempt to thwart. The jester eventually disrupts the tight-rope walker's trek, causing him to fall to his death.
As Zarathustra talks with the dying performer, the reader can see how foreign Zarathustra's message is to the society he has encountered. While the tight-rope walker attempts to talk of his eternal destiny - albeit a destiny in hell - Zarathustra simply tells the man that there is no hell, rendering the question of his eternal destiny moot. Zarathustra's conversion of the man to atheism secures a peaceful death for him. For Zarathustra, the man's life is meaningful because he dies in the face of the danger he lived in.
Zarathustra wanders through the forest, finds some food from another old hermit, and realizes that all his attempts to convey truth to people have been for naught. Everyone he meets heckles him and the jester who killed the tight-rope walker tells him that he needs to leave the town or he will be killed. After sleep, Zarathustra realizes that he must try a new strategy. Instead of speaking directly to the crowds, he needs to speak to a group of disciples.