There are many maps of human development; in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Friedrich Nietzsche offers us a unique map: a developmental map of the creators of values. This developmental pattern has three stages — three “metamorphoses” as Nietzsche puts it — from the man into the camel, the camel into the lion and finally from the lion into the child.
As we will see the first of these developmental stages is — at least in nihilistic ages such as our own — relatively common. We can see this metamorphosis into the camel in people who dedicate themselves to a tablet of values whether that be the dictates of Stoicism, the 12 Steps of programs like Alcoholics Annonymous or the discipline of Buddhism.
The latter two stages however are much rarer. These are reserved for those who transcend the old value systems and create whole new tablets of values.
The first metamorphosis then is the camel and here’s what Nietzsche has to say about this stage:
There is much that is difficult for the spirit, the strong reverent spirit that would bear much: but the difficult and the most difficult are what its strength demands.
What is difficult? asks the spirit that would bear much, and kneels down like a camel wanting to be well loaded. What is most difficult, O heroes, asks the spirit that would bear much, that I may take it upon myself and exult in my strength? […] All these most difficult things the spirit that would bear much takes upon itself: like the camel that, burdened, speeds into the desert, thus the spirit speeds into its desert.
This first transformation is the stage of apprenticeship. This is the metamorphosis of descent; one goes from being human to being a beast of burden.
Transforming into the camel means becoming a servant to something higher — apprenticing oneself to a system greater than oneself. For some this means becoming a monk in a Zen monastery, for others it’s entering Jungian analysis and for others again it may mean devotion to a code of ethics like Stoicism or Confucianism.
The heavy burden that the camel takes on is a collection of “thou shalts” — a code of behaviour, a way of seeing the world. But not just any code of behaviour or worldview — it’s a system that takes one on the most ancient journey in the history of philosophy: the journey of self-knowledge and self-mastery.
The camel sacrifices their lower urges and desires at the altar of this higher quest. They humble themselves by surrendering their will to this higher system; as Nietzsche puts it, the camel “renounces and is reverent”.
In The Book of Mormon, there’s a great parable about the Tree of Life in which the path to the Tree of Life lies through an impenetrable fog and the only way to get there is by holding on to the rod of iron. This rod of iron leads one on a strait and narrow path to the Tree of Life. This rod is the way of the camel whether the substance of that path be Mormonism, Stoicism or Vipassana. This is the heavy burden that the camel bears — the weight of discipline and the valuations of this mastery which bring the camel to a knowledge and mastery of itself.
Liminality is a term in anthropology for the space between spaces. It is the transitional stage when something has ceased to be one thing but has yet to become something else. We presently live in an age of liminality.
In non-liminal times the first metamorphosis is enough — one surrenders to a higher law and it nourishes them and sustains them. But in ages of nihilism like our own, the old tablets of values lose their grip on the psyche.
These are the ages out of which new tablets of values emerge. And for these new tablets to be born the camel must first become the lion. Here’s Nietzsche’s description of this metamorphosis:
In the loneliest desert, however, the second metamorphosis occurs: here the spirit becomes a lion who would conquer his freedom and be master in his own desert. Here he seeks out his last master: he wants to fight him and his last god; for ultimate victory he wants to fight with the great dragon.
Who is the great dragon whom the spirit will no longer call lord and god? “Thou shalt” is the name of the great dragon. But the spirit of the lion says, “I will.” “Thou shalt” lies in his way, sparkling like gold, an animal covered with scales; and on every scale shines a golden “thou shalt.”
Values, thousands of years old, shine on these scales; and thus speaks the mightiest of all dragons: “All value of all things shines on me. All value has long been created, and I am all created value. Verily, there shall be no more ‘I will.’ ” Thus speaks the dragon.
My brothers, why is there a need in the spirit for the lion? Why is not the beast of burden, which renounces and is reverent, enough?
To create new values—that even the lion cannot do; but the creation of freedom for oneself for new creation—that is within the power of the lion. The creation of freedom for oneself and a sacred “No” even to duty—for that, my brothers, the lion is needed. To assume the right to new values—that is the most terrifying assumption for a reverent spirit that would bear much. Verily, to him it is preying, and a matter for a beast of prey. He once loved “thou shalt” as most sacred: now he must find illusion and caprice even in the most sacred, that freedom from his love may become his prey: the lion is needed for such prey.
Most of us spend our whole lives couched in the value system of our culture. As Foucault would put it we are dragged in a thousand different directions by the field of force relations. This field is immanent in the way that gravity is — there are hidden strings of power shaping the landscape of our experience in ways we might not even be aware of.
The Dalai Lama once advised that we should “learn the rules so you can break them properly”. That is a good bridging idea between the role of the camel and the role of the lion.
In Nietzsche’s description of the camel stage, there are a couple of terms that recur a number of times: spirit and strengthen. The reason for the camel’s trials and tribulations is to make this spirit strong.
Thus strengthened the spirit, now transformed into the lion, is strong enough for the battle of its life. The lion now fights the dragon. In Christian writings, the dragon is usually associated with the devil. Nietzsche now says that our Lord and God has now become this devilish monster of the underworld. The tablet of values which moulded the spirit must now battle its own creation.
The spirit which loved and adored this Lord and God for everything that it gave to the camel, must now fight that which it loved.
The role of the lion is a carving out of space; it fights back against the dragon with its shining scales of values — each value a force relation pushing the lion to act in a certain way. These same thou shalts that moulded the spirit into what it is are now what hinders it. As Nietzsche says the role of the lion isn’t to create new values but “to create itself freedom for new creation”.
As Brene Brown talks about in her work on vulnerability shame and creativity, something truly new is incredibly fragile. The work of the status quo is to suffocate all change; this is the meaning of the Herod myth in the Bible — the old order kills all the newborns in the land for fear they will displace it.
And so the lion’s work is to create a safe space — a womb free from the domineering force relations of the dragon. Notice that Nietzsche never talks about the lion killing the dragon. You cannot eliminate the values of ages gone by. You can fight for the freedom not to be dominated by them. The spirit of the lion asserts its “I will” against the dragon’s “thou shalt”. He has followed the rules, followed the map but the time for transcendence is coming and for this he needs to turn his back on duty and fight for his right to create.
This is the work of the lion. It is a magnificent achievement but the lion is merely the midwife. With its work done and a safe space carved out — sheltered from the dragon — the lion can now become the child.
But say, my brothers, what can the child do that even the lion could not do? Why must the preying lion still become a child? The child is innocence and forgetting, a new beginning, a game, a self-propelled wheel, a first movement, a sacred “Yes.” For the game of creation, my brothers, a sacred “Yes” is needed: the spirit now wills his own will, and he who had been lost to the world now conquers his own world.
At first blush, the child seems an odd character to end the developmental sequence from man to camel to lion but the archetypal child is the perfect image of the innocence required to birth new values.
The creation of new values requires a beginner’s mind. The child of the Three Metamorphoses has come into existence free from the crushing gravity of the dragon Thou Shalt. It comes into being in a space that is safe from Thou Shalt’s scales of values and so it can do what children do best: it can play.
In the fragments of Heraclitus we find the idea that Time is a child playing a game. In his commentary on Heraclitus in his book Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks, we can see the foreshadowing of Zarathustra in Nietzsche’s reading of the cryptic philosopher:
A coming-to-be and a passing away, a building up and tearing down, without any moral glossing, in innocence that is forever equal – in this world it belongs only to the play of artists and children. And as the child and the artist plays, so too plays the ever-living fire, it builds up and tears down, in innocence – such is the game that the aeon plays with itself.
Transforming itself into water and earth, it builds up towers of sand, like a child making sandcastles by the sea, heaps it all up and then tips it over; from time to time, it starts the game anew. A moment of satisfaction: then need seizes it, as the need to create seizes the artist. Not hybris, but the ever newly awakening impulse to play, calls new worlds into being.
For the child, creation is part of its nature. And this creation is innocent. When a child stacks a tower of blocks and then knocks it to the ground, it isn’t out of malice towards the creation but out of a desire to create something new.
It is this living spirit of creation that is the essence of Zarathustra’s child. This aliveness stands in total contrast to the ossified institutions of Thou Shalt’s values.
In nihilistic ages, there are many new tablets of values created. In other ages Buddhism, Christianity and Stoicism may have been enough to wholly satisfy us but all of these value systems have to contend with the hollowing out of their archetypal depths in the face of modern science.
Buddhism has been stripped back to a mindfulness practice, Stoicism has been denuded of its physics and Christianity has for the most part gone into denial. Following the ethics of Stoicism, Buddhism or Christianity is satisfying to the rational part of our minds but there is a deeper nourishment of the soul that is left thirsty by this shallowness.
As such, more and more individuals have to make the journey beyond the camel. If the law that the camel submits to no longer nourishes the depths then the camel must become a lion and the lion the child. To reach this stage is to birth new values out of the collective unconscious.
Those who liberate themselves from the dragon don’t always become the founders of religions. In the language of the four quadrants, the metamorphosis into the child is a Q1 occurrence. It takes a particular confluence of factors in the collective landscape for a new tablet of values to go viral and for this value meme to spread through a culture.
The same pattern occurred in the ancient world and there were many new tablets of values that were created and tested — from the cults of Mithras, Isis and Jesus to the Gnostic sects and the widely popular philosophical schools of Stoicism and Epicureanism. Ultimately it was Christianity whose tablet of values became the new gold standard but in times of Nihilism, there are many competing tablets of values.
Seen from the memetic perspective of Richard Dawkins, the previous value meme dies — in the case of the Ancient world it was polytheism, in the case of the Modern world the husk is Christianity. As this value structure decays and loses its stickiness in the cultural psyche, a new niche opens up and a number of memes vie to fill that niche.
Today we can see many memes vying for this spot. Some, as we’ve already touched on, are also ancient like Buddhism or the animism of indigenous peoples or else the resurgence of ancient philosophical schools like Stoicism but there are also more modern trends like scientism, futurism and transhumanism and the depth psychology of Jung that are vying for the same memetic niche.
Behind each of these memes is a Nietzschean child creating new sandcastles of values while the great dragon Thou Shalt waits to see whether this child’s creation will become another scale on its back used to ward off future creators.
That concludes this exploration of Nietzsche’s Three Metamorphoses. There’s much more that could be said especially in exploring points of contact between this developmental map and Jung’s individuation process as well as his exploration of the chakra system as a model of spiritual psychological development.
This isn’t a developmental pattern that most humans will go through; this is the development of spirit — it is the attainment of self-transcendence and of cultural transcendence. It is the birthing pattern of prophets and sages.
📚 Further Reading:
- Nietzsche, F. and Kaufmann, W., 1954. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The Portable Nietzsche. trans. and ed. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Viking.
- Jung, C.G., 1998. Jung’s Seminar on Nietzsche’s Zarathustra: Abridged Edition (Vol. 99). Princeton University Press.