What is man? I might begin; how does it happen that there is such a thing in the world, something that ferments like a chaos and moulders like a rotten tree and never thrives to ripeness? How does nature tolerate this sour grape amidst its sweet ones?
To the plants, he says, i, too, was once like you! and to the pure stars, i will become like you in another world! Meanwhile he breaks asunder and now and again performs his arts on himself as if, when a living thing falls apart, he could put it together again like masonry; but it does not disconcert him when nothing is bettered through all his deeds; what he performs remains, after all, an artifice.
O you poor men who feel this, who, like me, do not like to speak of human purpose, who, like me, are so completely seized by the nothing that reigns over us and so thoroughly recognize that we are born for nothing, that we love a nothing, slave away for nothing, so as to cross over gradually into nothing – how can i help if your knees break when you reflect seriously on it? I, too, have at times sunk into these thought and have cried, why do you put the axe to my root, cruel spirit? and am still here.
O once, you dark brothers! it was different. Then it was so beautiful above us, so beautiful and joyous before us; these hearts, too, overflowed before the distant, blessed phantoms, and our spirits, too, penetrated boldly, exultantly, upward and broke through the confines, and when they looked about, alas, there was infinite emptiness.
O! I can cast myself on my knees and wring my hands and beg – but it do not know whom – for other thoughts. But i would not overcome it, the screaming truth. Have i not convinced myself two times over? When i gaze into life, what is the last of all? Nothing. When i rise in spirit, what is the highest of all? Nothing.
But be still, my heart! It is your last strength that you waste! Your last strength? and you, you will storm heaven? Where, then, are your hundred arms, Titan, where are your Pelion and Ossa, your stairs that you climb to the palace of the father of the gods, so as to hurl down the god and the table of the gods and all the immortal peaks of Olympus and preach to the mortals: Remain below, children of the moment! Do not strive here upward into these heights, for there is nothing here above.
You, my heart can cease to see what rules over others. Your new doctrine holds sway for you. It is undoubtedly empty and desolate above you and before you because it is empty and desolate within you.
Certainly, if you others are richer than i, you could help a little.
If your garden is so full of flowers, why does their breath not delight me too? – If you are so full of divinity, then offer it to me to drink. No one starves at feasts, not even the poorest. But only one has his feast among you; that is death.
Need and fear and night are your masters. They separate you, they drive you together with blows. You name hunger love, and where you see nothing more, there dwell your gods! Gods and love!
O the poets are right, there is nothing so small and meager that men could not be inspired by it.
So i thought. How all this came into me, i still do not grasp.