Nietzsche’s three metamorphoses

I wanted to know all about everything when I was a kid. I was an inquisitive child. The will to knowledge took root well before I was in any real position to pursue it. I remember, as a child, being conscious of a realm of adult understandings that I just didn’t have access to. There was a universe of truth and wisdom beyond my ken, and it fascinated me.

Things are different for kids today. Thanks to the internet, the truths of adult existence are only a mouse-click away. But I didn’t have recourse to instant internet gratification. I was left to think about things. My search for knowledge, as I travelled through childhood and teenagerdom, led me to dwell on the weightier things in life. Intuitively, I knew that many of the adult things beyond my experience were sombre, perhaps even dreadful, matters. The more that I reflected on these matters, the more I became a sombre person myself. I was weighed down by what I knew. I stared too long into the abyss and I started to see the abyss in me.

This was before I read Nietzsche. I started university later than most, at the age of 24. Attending philosophy classes and reading Nietzsche was a revelation for me. I had a Damascus road experience – broke with much of my past life, and devoted myself to philosophy broadly.

Looking back, I can see there was a spiritual transformation that came along with this as well. I went from being a camel to a lion. I transitioned from the first to the second phase of Nietzsche’s “three metamorphoses.”

Nietzsche introduces the three metamorphoses in his book Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The metamorphoses describe the process of spiritual transformation that characterizes his vision of the flourishing life. We don’t always think of Nietzsche as a “spiritual” philosopher. But the story of the three metamorphoses is nothing if not a saga of spiritual transformation. The phases of spiritual metamorphosis are symbolically represented by the camel, the lion, and the child.

I had become a camel, of sorts, by allowing my naive quest for knowledge and wisdom to lead me into the darkest and most disturbing corners of existence. Perhaps we inevitably become camels when we take on the labor of philosophical thinking. Eager to prove ourselves capable of embracing the truth, we seek out the heaviest and most burdensome insights, and force ourselves to dwell on them as a rite of passage. “What is heavy? Thus asks the weight-bearing spirit; thus it kneels down like the camel and wants to be well laden.” Nietzsche describes the camel spirit as a collector of burdens, conquests, and scars. The camel asks: “What is heaviest … that I may take it upon me and rejoice in my strength” (Z, 54).

Camels can carry great weights and survive in the desert. But the weighted individual is inevitably taxed by their burden. Over time, they run the risk of being poisoned by bitterness, despair, and the spirit of revenge. If the camel does not become a lion, the seeker will be ruined by their quest. It is always in the “loneliest desert [that] a second metamorphosis occurs, the spirit here becomes a lion; it wants to capture freedom and be lord in its own desert” (Z, 54). This is a fair description of the metamorphosis that I underwent in my university years, which were a thrilling period of self-discovery and actualization.

Reading Nietzsche changed my life. If I had never read Nietzsche, I would have remained a camel personality all my days.

What does it mean to be a lion? The metaphor speaks for itself. The lion is the “king of the beasts.” The lion spirit says “I will” – and that is the whole of the law. The camel becomes a lion when the subject of spiritual transformation, having ventured into the desert of human expectation, discovers that “God is dead” and surmises that everything is permitted. In this moment, the individual realizes that there is nothing to forbid them from creating their own values, imposing their own will upon the world. But, in the desert of the real, the lion encounters a dragon, and “Thou Shalt” glitters on its scales. The dragon is Nietzsche’s image of societal norms. In the lion stage, the subject of spiritual transformation must engage the dragon in mortal combat. One needs to be a lion in spirit to defeat the law of “Thou Shalt” and affirm the conditions of one’s flourishing.

There is no happiness in fighting dragons all one’s life, however. To complete the three metamorphoses, the lion must become a child. ‎Maturity, for Nietzsche, means rediscovering the seriousness one had as a child at play.

A child-like spirit is vital to happiness, health, and well-being. “The child”, Nietzsche says, “is innocence and forgetting, a new beginning, a sport, a self-propelling wheel, a Sacred Yes” (Z, 55). The lion becomes a child when the individual who says “I will” ceases to affirm their values contrary to the law of “Thou Shalt”, and affirms them instead “for the sport of creation: the spirit now wills its own will, … its own world” (Z, 55). Life is no longer a reactive struggle to defeat other forces. Life is a celebration of one’s powers – a sustained act of pure affirmation. The child-like spirit knows the joy of life and the innocence of perpetual creation.

Philosophy helped me evolve from a camel to a lion. I’m still working on becoming a child. It is a long way back to the beginning of one’s life. But this is where I am headed. Nietzsche was wrong about many things. But he was right to argue that a light, innocent, affirmative approach to life is vital to spiritual flourishing and creative existence as well.

Comments

  1. I can definitely relate to the “camel” perspective.
    Interesting post, because I’ve been thinking lately that I need to go back to a child’s view of the world.. I’m currently working through the “lion” stage myself.

  2. oh God (or not) – not Nietzsche…. I LOVE this guy (less or more – or more or less).

  3. Jennifer Sinclair says:

    You wrote this years ago, but I just happened upon it, teaching a class the book Call of the Wild. I really use this metaphor to make sense, or make a pattern, of my own life. I read somewhere, I can’t recall,that the the object of spiritual inquiry and practice is to achieve a state where each succeeding moment ( or hour, or day) is greeted with fresh wonder, freed from the burdens of preconceptions, prejudices, and other such burdens of the mind. The Child seems like a good metaphor for such a state. Thank you for writing this.

  4. Demar Mau says:

    My first serious introduction to Nietzsche was through “The Way of the Creator” from TSZ. An associate more-or-less, sporadically, paraphrased portions of this chapter; intuitively, it resounded deeply. I memorised the entire chapter ….Over the numerous years, numerous changes, numerous challenges, when the ‘burden’ became too great, when I felt my knees buckle, I would recite this chapter aloud to myself, of course, only in proximal company of self. With an initially, strongly forced, baritone emotional tone, the “recital” would take on a life of its own (Jungian Active Imagination?) as I submerged myself as deeply as I could, into the meaning of the words. This chapter from TSZ has been and continues to be my oasis in the desert. I though I would share this with you.

  5. thehibernator says:

    The universe is connected has always been an unfelt contention. Thought but unfelt. On march 6,2012 I began 6 days of a physical reaction that can only be described as an epiphany. I saw the nature of the universe, of God or what we perceive as God. I saw some of the nature of humans and made connections regarding gender, power, and feminism in a profound and almost overwhelmingly powerful way. All in 6 days. I don’t know why. When the physical reaction ended I had an appointment with a drama therapist and when I could speak what I said was, ‘i am a lion’….. I have not read any philosophy and certainly not the musings of Nietzsche until I started looking for it this week and stumbled upon this blog.. How are we this connected by something so ethereal? It is glorious and God is nowhere to be found.

  6. I love Nietzsche though I so very much do hate spelling his name ;0) It’s funny to just be reading this now (it’s FDC I think – fate, destiny and chance), because I am just about to post two of my favorite quotes of his as they relate to this prior post I write yesterday:

    http://thecultivationofbeauty.wordpress.com/2013/07/03/cultivating-beauty-the-book/

    I’m so excited to see a blog all about philosophy. It’s hard in the real world, well I don’t know about your experience, but it’s been difficult for me to find people who love philosophy as much as do I. I look forward to reading more ;0) Thanks for the post.

  7. I feel I am still struggling between the camel and the lion. The metamorphoses is one of the most interesting parts of Thus Spoke Zaratustra. There ís another part that states that Joy and innocence are the basis for a lifestyle, becasue we cannot receive enjoyment and pleasure for free. We have to make and exchange with life and never look for that enjoyment. We´ve got to look for gloom and doom.

    • Perhaps not gloom and doom, but struggle is definitely a precondition for flourishing, in Nietzsche’s view. The reason is that we don’t discover what we’re truly capable until we push ourselves to the limit. Once we discover our true capacity, it becomes a goal that can define the meaning of life. What are you *ultimately* capable of doing and being in life? To catch a glimpse of the answer to that question – a question that each of us must ask and answer for ourselves – is to release the spirit of the lion within.

      ‘I *could* be that? Yes! I *will* it!’

  8. And since you Timrayner you´ve been talking about the spiritual path Nietzche deny , I have always felt that his doctrine is not atheist as a whole. Because he refers several times spiritual matter like making and exchange with life.

    • Nietzsche sought to worship life itself. Religion teaches us to undervalue life, affirming the hypothesis of an afterlife or karmic cycle or whatever over the immanence of our real existence. Nietzsche’s spiritual mission was to teach us to love life – including its suffering and disappointments.

      • Jose Rodriguez Salinas says:

        I beleive in the duty of exercising your true potential as free souls, inside (and
        only inside) the rules of Love… the only rules that matter.
        Paradoxically, by abiding to the rules of Love and exercising
        its doctrines, we find true and absolute freedom (power) in our
        lives.

  9. radicalenthusiast says:

    Brilliant 🙂

  10. This blog make you understand complex philosophers in an easy way. I really appreciate the simple prose and style of the author which helps in simplifying what is otherwise painfully abstract ideas.

  11. Great article. I love, love, love Nietzsche. It’s a shame his sister was so bad for his reputation.

    The metamorphoses is such a good metaphor for spiritual development and, in a way, the emergence of hope from existential angst. I liked Thus Spake Zarathustra so much I built the structure of one of my novels off it.

  12. Jose Rodriguez Salinas says:

    Dear Tim: I stumbled upon your essay by pure chance and have enjoyed it profoundly. Your evolutionary process is strikingly similar to mine. I too, was strugling with the weight of the “big truths” at a young age, particularly the eastern ideas of material detachment and supressed desire to attain true happiness (it is a lot to handle when you are 21 and want to rule the world, have all the money and get all the girls). Then I came upon TSZ by Nietzche and it blew my mind, specially this part which you so gracefully describe. I have too, fought with the dragon, which presents itself time and again in different forms and angles… the will to power, uncorrupt and internal moral power is the key of the overman. The greatest truths of existence are always simple, childlike and overwhelmingly conclusive. Once I wrote: “…when profound wisdom is attained, we only emulate children, the reflection of true wisdom result in becoming, deciding and ignoring like a child.” I thoroughly enjoyed your essay and congratulate you for asking the right questions and for the courage to accept the burden of their answers. Sorry for any grammar mistakes, I am from Mexico and english is not my primary language.

    Cheers!

  13. The greatest value that undermines itself is independence, ultimately we are interdependent species and our ever evolving values are a product of collective action and change, there’s no escaping that. If you attempt to go solo in finding holistic truth, or taking on society lone wolf, that’s hubristic at best. Might as well say revaluation of knowledge and then attempt to read and rewrite Wikipedia alone, it’s like attempting to eat the sun. I’m glad Nietzsche recognises this to a degree with his child solution.

    So eventually the camel or lion realises it’s foolishness and submits either voluntarily or from the weight of the burden it has attempted to carry. Overloaded it retreats back into agitated state of paternalism or stubbornly into a state of infantilism. Little productive work is actually achieved. The camel wants to be the lord of it’s own desert and the lion wants to create a more pure morality, but both lack the cognitive and physical capacity to achieve and manifest into something sustainable.

    This rebellious lion enters a state of infantilism, an adult that is not a child because it is neurotically trying to remain a child and must shut down possibilities. This infantilised adult seeks a world that is safe and coldly uniform. It does not engage the world in a way characterised by the joy of being open to possibility. It’s reactionary, perhaps even fascist under inverted totalitarianism, it rallies against collectivist norms and dissenting views to maintain it’s atomised reconstruction of reality.

    In realisation of the insurmountable task, the infantile lion surrenders to the void, a mature stage of infantilisation that accepts the lions will to power is not solely his own and events ultimately out of his control. Free of grasping the lion become child is now open to play, experimentation and exploration, which seeks out the confines of reality and embraces self-acceptance as an interconnected social creature. This stage equips him to one day confront reality for what it is, as what the child will be as an individual. But the child cannot remain a child; a child is on the way to becoming an adult.

  14. I woke up this morning after several days of feeling sorry for myself and just suddenly invisioned myself as a lion. It was weird at first and then as I set here free from thought I started to shout I Am a lion,I Am a lion, I Am a lion which lead me to this blog and this has to be no coincidence.

  15. When I chose to drop out of high school at 16, I began my journey as a lion. And because of my reasons to do so, namely rejecting societal norms and following my child-like wonder and intuition, I have grown up as a lion while retaining the powers of a child.

  16. Raymond Donahue says:

    Amazing! I’ve struggled with Thus Spoke Zarathustra. I’m reading it again. I’m still struggling but I have made a lot of progress in understanding it. I think the camel describes me pretty well. I have a lot of knowledge – 23 years in the Navy, 15 years as a Special Ed Teacher, Master’s in Liberal Arts from the University of Chicago and their 4 year program in the Liberal Arts. I live in a very liberal city
    and seem always fighting for what I think is right. My views are contrary to the views of the
    people I know regardless of class, gender, or race or age. I am continuously disrespected for my ideas
    which leads to my defending my beliefs. This has been going on for years. It’s made me very very
    tense, agrivated, and many times I wonder if there is something wrong with me. It has made me depressed. When I read Nietszche I feel a connection. I am not saying I understand what the Superman is but I feel I know where he is going with this book.

    I happened to be in a place where there is great conformity of thought, (except for me). I do not understand their way of thinking so…
    I said I really do not want to discuss whatever it is you’re discussing. This pretty much leaves me
    with sports. Tonight their was a discussion on politics and…I should have left it alone…but now I am glad I didn’t. I ended the same way. I was wrong and the rest of the clientel were right. I came home
    and turned on a movie (Dorian Gray). During the movie I noticed the way the actor was playing the role of Dorian Gray. He was a Nietzschean type, very stoic, who lived for pleasure. Suddenly he
    felt guilt for all the things he had done in his life which were contrary to the norms of English society.
    He felt guilt for things that he had done then, which American/English society does now without guilt.
    Norms change. Morality changes. I thought to myself “Why can’t he just laugh it off?” It really doesn’t matter. It was then, that I thought of the Lion’s transformation to the child. If I can just LAUGH/smile
    at what I feel is rediculous or just plain stupid instead of getting heated I would be in bliss. I think I am
    close but this transformation is the hardest. I have been in the Lion’s stage for 20 yrs now – with a little
    self-discipline/self-awareness I may learn to become a child.

    • Pleased to be of assistance. It was the three metamorphoses that enabled me to understand Nietzsche. One we see that he is really about spiritual transformation, everything (or at least a great deal more) in his philosophy falls into place.

    • PS. I love your comment. It resonates we me. Nietzsche says philosophy is ‘a life lived among ice and mountain peaks’. It gets lonely but there is an amazing view.

  17. gadflyaf says:

    It’s all peaks and valleys for me… sand dunes and camel humps alike. I started becoming interested in philosophy a few years ago but have really gotten into it more deeply the last 6 months or so.

    I guess the only real way I can describe it is… the sublime. Or more accurately, I feel like I’m almost there.

    This was a great post to read, thank you. It’s giving me some positive things to think about in these dark days.

  18. Thanks, this website is really helpful

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