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Balance and upset in Zarathustra

‘Now the scale stands balanced and still: three weighty questions I threw into it, three weighty answers are borne by the other pan.’

This line appears in ‘On the Three Evils’, where Zarathustra, imitating a dream in which he ‘weighed the world’, decides to weigh the three ‘best-cursed things in the world’: ‘Sex, lust to rule, selfishness’ (p.149-150). There are then three questions that balance these three answers:

On what bridge does the now get to the someday? By what compulsion does the high compel itself to the low? And what commands even the highest – to grow higher? (p.150)

Does this balancing of the scales mean that these three questions are answered by the three answers? If so, could we read Zarathustra’s ordering of the questions and answers as significant: so would sex be the bridge from the now to the someday; lust to rule the compulsion by which the high compels itself to the low; and selfishness the command to grow higher? These would indeed be weighty conclusions, regarding these questions on the themes of the bridge to the more-than-human and the will to power.

However, perhaps the stillness of the scale gives little away. Which answer, if any, balances which question; and what is meant by balance and stillness: how do these terms function in Thus Spoke Zarathustra?

A notable moment of stillness is Zarathustra’s ‘stillest hour’, which, as Zarathustra later recalls to himself, ‘drove you away from yourself’ (p.147). The voice of stillness disturbs and unbalances Zarathustra: it brings terror, pain and parting from his friends. It says, ‘The stillest words are those that bring the storm’ (p.117). Here stillness foreshadows the storm, but in itself has a force. Zarathustra hold the balanced scales over the ‘rolling seas’, and there is not the sense that the stillness and balance provide calm equilibrium. Another sense of the disturbance of stillness is provided by the repeated imagery of ships on the sea: as in Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, stillness brings horror.


Stillness and balance are brought together in the image of the tightrope. The rope itself balances the points of departure and arrival: it constitutes a marker of points of common elevation. The tightrope walker is then a figure of balance, and stillness on the rope again risks upsetting this balance: the ‘dangerous shuddering and standing still’ (p.7). The ‘spirit of gravity’, Zarathustra’s ‘old devil and arch-enemy’, is that which conditions the fall and the going under, and is also the condition for weight: it is gravity which gives the camel’s load weight. The camel mistakenly seeks what is heaviest to ‘rejoice in my own strength’, and gravity and weight are therefore what the lion refuses, and the context in which the child transcends refusal (p.16).

Themes such as will to power, overcoming and walking-upon all evoke an unbalance, a privileged term. However, Zarathustra wonders, ‘must not there exist something over which one dances, dances away? Must not, for the sake of the light and the lightest – moles and heavy dwarfs exist?’ (p.158). Here, weight is upturned: the dwarf is no longer weighing Zarathustra down but is a ground for the lightweight to dance over. Furthermore, a different conception of balance appears: the heavy exists for the light; a balance reminiscent of the pre-established harmony of Leibniz’s Monadology.

What is at stake in these issues of balance, stillness and weight? Firstly, our interpretation of the questions and answers being weighed. It seems our interpretation here (as with other issues in the text) remains in the balance, because stillness, balance and weight signify more than mere equivalence. Secondly, the question of balance in philosophy. Kant’s first Critique is a great work of balance, codependence and reciprocality. One instance is the homogeneity of the object of intuition and the concept, a homogeneity manifested in the ‘third term’ of the time-bound schema. A second is the common ground of intuition and the understanding: the possibility of synthesis, which is manifested as the imagination (A78/B103). A third is in the Transcendental Deduction, where the object’s objectivity is constituted through the subject, and the subject’s subjectivity is constituted through the object (A108). In these instances there is a balance and stasis between key elements of Kant’s system. The first two demonstrate Kant’s use of bridging concepts, like tightropes, to ensure a necessary common ground between elements. The third, through the Transcendental Unity of Apperception, shows the complete static mutual dependence of subject and object in the Critique.

In contrast, Hegel’s Phenomenology is a work of movement and continual unbalancing, codified in the final image of the eternally overflowing chalice. Where do Nietzsche and Zarathustra stand in relation to this issue of balance and stillness against upset and movement? Our interpretation may determine whether the eternal return of the same is read literally, or, with Deleuze, as the eternal return of difference. Or a third interpretation may be opened: crossing a tightrope, like crossing a high ridge between two seas, requires both balance and movement, both difference and the same on different axes.

By Steve


7 comments on “Balance and upset in Zarathustra

  1. Tokyo Witch
    April 12, 2013

    You have to consider the third element in the balancing act which is force. So Zarathustra might seem to be balancing ‘By what compulsion does the high compel itself to the low?’ with ‘lust to rule’ but in fact there is a third hidden force acting on the balance which is perspective. But it’s hidden which is why Zarathustra says: “Where there is force, number will become the master”(p149) all we see is the number, the weight, and we think everything is stable but it’s not.

    This is probably what is missing from Kant. Kant discusses the dynamism in the categories yet it never really tip his scales. Even in the schematism where subjective time and perspective somewhat play a part we are still looking at a well balanced schema. This could be related to Hegel’s analysis in force and the understanding where the understanding is the antithesis to force. So here you have balance and force in opposition. In Hegel of course the third element that tips this balance is the conflict itself, negativity.

    • Steve
      April 13, 2013

      Hi TW, thanks for this. Yes, force is key, which I tried to suggest in mentioning gravity. You’re right that perspective is also important as the point from which a hierarchy is judged, but that’s not a force, is it?

      The line on number becoming master is a good one – perhaps you can think of number being the attempt to remove perspective, by instilling a common unit of measure.

      I find it interesting that since I wrote this, a little while ago, I’ve gone completely against my claims about Kant and am looking for points of dynamism in his philosophy. I think the reason these small windows of dynamic movement in Kant are so interesting are because his system is generally aiming for architectonic stability, and he can’t help showing, despite himself, where his foundations wobble…

  2. Tokyo Witch
    April 13, 2013

    Perspective is no different from life in Nietzsche which is force. You can see this clearly in the example of the lizard. Every life is a perspective. You also have the third term that tips the balance in Marx which is labour power. So yes I would say its force.

    In terms of Kant I agree I think that’s why Hegel was so fascinated by him and why generally he’s so great. No one wants to read philosophy that doesn’t wobble though and you don’t want to read something that totally breaks.

    • Steve
      April 13, 2013

      Hmm, I disagree. A key sentence seems to be just after Heidegger gives his lizard example: ‘in the ‘organic’ there is a multiplicity of drives and forces, each of which has its perspective’, and then the rest of that chapter. Life is a concatentation of warring forces; it is therefore perspectival (but it isn’t *perspective* itself); one force might temporarily prevail and so one perspective dominate, but that won’t be fixed. So counter to you I think perspective, life and force are all different in (Heidegger’s) Nietzsche…

  3. Tokyo Witch
    April 14, 2013

    But aren’t you here talking about the dominant perspective so the dominant force? I don’t disagree that there can only be one dominant perspective but does that mean the other forces aren’t perspectives.

    To put it more concretely if three people are in the room. One of them can have more power and therefore dominate the other two into agreeing with his perspective. Does this mean they lose theirs? I don’t think so. Because tomorrow someone else can dominate and the exchange continues.

    • Steve
      April 15, 2013

      Yes, but I think even in your example force and perspective aren’t exactly synonymous. They’re closely related, but distinguished from one another. So a force has a perspective, as in the line I quoted; and perspectives have force, in your example. But let me know if there’s somewhere in Nietzsche or in Heidegger’s reading where they’re brought into strict equivalence, that would be interesting.

  4. Tokyo Witch
    April 16, 2013

    I guess it becomes a discussion of what it is to have something vs to be something which is equally interesting. It’s a question that deserves a blog entry on its own.

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This entry was posted on April 12, 2013 by in Philosophy and tagged , , , .
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