Monday, January 02, 2006

Zarathustra Speaks Again

Early one spring, when the water was rushing cold down the mountains, a man from the town came to the hermitage and asked to speak to Zarathustra.

“Esteemed elder, I beg you to hear me and give me your advice.

“I am a civil servant – of the fourth rank – and I have a son. My wife and I have labored long and hard so that he could be educated at the colonial university. It was our dream that he would become a doctor, or a magistrate. Why not? My beautiful son was a flower that bloomed brighter every day. No child could have been happier or more promising. So greatly did we rejoice in him that none of the world’s sorrows could touch us.

”At the university, my son joined a nationalist party, and befriended many young political men. I did not object. When I was a youth, I belonged to the very same party, and I had many such friends. But when my son began to give all of his thoughts to these political affairs, rather than to his studies, I became concerned. Yet I did not reproach him, because I could not believe that anything he did could lead to an ill result. My son was so filled with life and intelligence, it seemed only natural that some of this bounty should spill over its banks; and yet his river would find the right way to the sea.

“But, wise one … a terrible progression now occurred. My son became estranged from all of his friends, except for a small number of radical men. His language became dogmatic and cruel, and he would no longer show any respect to me or to his mother. Some of the men in his circle were military officers who could procure weapons, and he talked quite openly of the violence they would do with these weapons one day soon. And now I did plead with him. On my knees, I pleaded. But we can no longer understand each other. He is little more than a child, but he seems to have despaired of everything but death and bloodshed. Certainly he sees no good in the world, and he speaks of it with nothing but hatred.

“My wife has implored me to turn him in to the Civil Guard, before he gets into dreadful trouble. But how can I inform on my own son? The Civil Guard may jail him – or worse – even though he has done nothing wrong. And yet I live in terror that he will kill someone, or be killed himself. Tell me, please, what is the right thing to do?”

Zarathustra answered: “You must not turn in your son. You must not attempt to dissuade him, either. You must shut your door to him and give him no further support, until the day that he returns to you as a loving son once more.”

The man was saddened by this advice, but he resolved to do as Zarathustra said, for it seemed better than anything else he could do. So he thanked Zarathustra and left without another word.


Late in the winter, when the mountains gleamed white and the hermitage was draped in ice, an old man came and asked to speak to Zarathustra.

“Old one, I wished to see you again and speak this to your face before I died.

“Many years ago I came to you and asked for your advice. You told me to shut my door on my wayward son, and I took your advice. Wait until he reforms himself, you said, and I took your advice. But I never saw my son again. He murdered a state official – a man with five children of his own – and was himself killed immediately afterwards. All of my happiness died with him. The grief of his mother doubled my own. Though she did not speak a word of reproach to me, I never felt her love again. Within a year she followed our child to the grave. I hoped to die too, but it has been my fate to live year after year in sorrow; alone and despised.

“This is what I reaped from the seeds of your famous wisdom, Zarathustra. And if I have lived bitter years to reach this day, it can only be so that I may tell you to your face that all your philosophy is poison.”

Zarathustra answered: “I remember your visit very well, and I remember the question you put to me. You did not ask me how to recover your lost happiness. You asked me to tell you the right thing to do. You did not explain what you meant by right, so I inferred it from your other words, and gave you the best answer I could.

“I told you to sever yourself from your son. Your son was sick, and either you were the cause of this sickness by your failure as a father, or you were not. If you did not cause his sickness, it seemed to me that you could not cure it, either. And if you were the cause, then cutting yourself off from him was the only possible way to do him any good.

“You feared that your son would die, or be responsible for the death of another. Both of these fears were realized. How should I have advised you to prevent this? The very same thing might have occurred if you had denounced him to the authorities. Not only that, but you would have violated your own moral precept by informing on your son. Such a course could not be the right thing that you wanted me to tell you. On the other hand you might have continued to shelter him in your home, concealing your knowledge of his violent intentions. In that case, however, you might have abetted even more deaths. That could not be the right thing either, by the standards that you yourself follow. With death on either hand, the only right course is to withdraw yourself and make no choice at all. So did I advise you, and my advice could not have been anything other than it was.

“If you had asked me the best way for you to be happy in your situation, I could have given you some better advice. Happiness is entirely an accident, so there is no right way to do it. You might have asked me: ‘How can I live so that I enjoy the greatest amount of happiness and the least amount of sorrow?’ And I would have told you that this is a logical contradiction. You cannot increase the possibility of happiness without increasing the possibility of sorrow, for they go together like rain and lightning. If you would minimize both, then be like Zarathustra. Have no wife, no children, no expectations of the world and no hopes for the future. Spend your days contemplating human wisdom, which is a little bit happy and a little bit sad, but not an unmanageable amount of either. For a man can’t fall off a mountain that he never climbs.”

Thus spoke Zarathustra. But the man was not consoled, and for the rest of his life he muttered against Zarathustra and warned everyone not to seek his advice. But he was just a bitter old man, fading out of the world like an old stain, and nobody listened to him.