The ideas of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche are evident throughout Zorba the Greek, whether consciously intended by the author or not. Nietzsche’s well-known book The Birth of Tragedy posits two main archetypes of man that were present in the art of Ancient Greece, as well as influencing culture to this day. Those types are based on two gods of the Greek pantheon: Apollo, the god of light and reason, and Dionysus, the god of revelry and ecstatic emotion. In terms of art, the former describes the intellectual, linguistic-oriented approach while the latter signifies the more experiential dimension of art. Clearly, we can see how the narrator and Zorba represent these two different orientations towards life; the narrator, in his scholarly focus on trying to find meaning through scripture, reflects the Apollonian polarity, while Zorba, with his passion for dance and song, embodies Dionysus.
In Nietzsche’s work, the Apollonian ideals of asceticism are continually in conflict with the Dionysian impulse to live life rather than to merely think about it. In his earlier works, Nietzsche tends to cast those like the narrator as the enemy in a war in which Dionysus would emerge victorious as the icon of man's true religion. Over time, however, Nietzsche’s views began to change as he realized that great art can sometimes only come about as the result of Apollonian control of Dionysian impulses. Without that control, exuberance is life lived, but with nothing to show for it. We can see this dynamic played out through Zorba, who, despite his joy, comes to the end of his life with no better insight to its greater purpose.
Zorba is a tremendously engaging character who has achieved one thing which Nietzsche truly admired and considered a rare art. Zorba succeeds in giving meaning to his own character, manufacturing his life into a work of art itself; Nietzsche described this as being able to "comprehend [one's strengths and weaknesses] in an artistic plan until everything appears as art and reason and even weakness delights the eye.” Zorba accepts both the good and the bad, happiness and misery, virtue and evil, as part of a greater plan called life. That is why he dances; his is the dance of life.
Ultimately, Zorba the Greek exemplifies currents of Nietzschean philosophy in its early stages. That the narrator is changed by the end of the book, embracing the Dionysian path of Zorba (to an extent) perhaps reveals where author Nikos Kazantzakis stands on the perspective of Nietzschean philosophy at the time he wrote the novel. Later works of his indicate an evolution that has similarities to the development of that of the philosopher himself. Were Zorba the Greek written later in Kazantzakis' life, it may have well ended differently. As it is, Zorba is forever an icon of passion and exuberance and, perhaps for some, the most notable example of a Nietzschean hero in the annals of literature.