Zarathustra seems to be following my every move of late, not so much lurking in the background and sending strange thoughts into my mind on spirituality, belief, dogma and the Enlightenment, but more springing out where I least expect him and stunning me with the source of his words. But even this is not quite right, not accurate enough: Zarathustra is not speaking to me, although he could and did in the past, but those who have read the words of his creator, without necessarily knowing who that might be, are bringing his ideas back into my mind and reminding me of the influences of my youth. I say this because I was confronted with the words of Zarathustra in a letter just a few weeks ago and today, opening the post, you quote him too. And in both cases, these quotes come from those who no one would rate as highly educated, no one would consider to be at the height of intellectual capabilities, no one would assume had read or come into contact with the works and thoughts of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

Do not, please, misinterpret what I have just written: I have discovered that a person can find learning no matter where they look, and that learning, the understanding of life, the knowledge of words and thoughts which originated from the pens of those we consider to occupy the heights of intellectual thought, is something we all have within us, whether we realise it or not. A small group of words heard once which impregnate themselves onto our mind at a young age; a sentence which rings through our thoughts because of the sublime meter of its poetry; an idea which constantly occupies us because of the depth of ingenuity it shows, and the inspiration it gives us to try something new, to expand our horizons and step outside of what people today term the comfort zone. Where many are turning to electronic devices to assist them with all their needs and desires, a few remain in the dark ages, and have the pleasure of exploration, of discovery and, alongside this, the greatest satisfaction of all: ever more fascinating avenues of learning which can be followed slowly, laboriously, with intention and pleasure.

Let me begin by quoting a larger section from the text which you have used in your letter:

Your eyes are too cruel for me and you look lustfully at sufferers. Has your lust not merely disguised itself and called itself pity?

And this parable, too, I give you: not a few who wanted to drive out their Devil have themselves entered into swine.

Those for whom chastity is difficult should be counselled against it, that it might not become their path to Hell – that is, to mud and heat of the soul.

The whole is from the work Also sprach Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche, which we know in translation as Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and this particular section is from the short essay On Chastity, which forms a part of the whole as Nietzsche, through Zarathustra, gives us his meaning of life in a world where there is no longer a God. You will undoubtedly recall that it was Nietzsche who proclaimed that God is dead, and then proceeded to give us his thoughts on how we could still live a meaningful and wholesome life without the necessity of prostrating ourselves before a fantasy figure, created by man at a time when humankind felt the necessity of having a supreme power they could put a face to, pass the blame for lost wars, famine and all the other catastrophes man had created in his wake on to, as well as claiming Him to be the one who told us how to live our lives and threatened us with eternal hellfire if we did not follow His rules.

Now I suspect that the quote you have used takes on a slightly different meaning, unless you were already aware of the rest of his short essay, or even aware of the rest of this long work. Bearing in mind that Nietzsche wrote it in about 1885 and was directing it to the society in which he lived, rather than the one we live in and, of course you appreciate, the Germany of Leipzig at the end of the nineteenth century was a completely different social structure to the one which we know today, indeed, completely different to the society Germany became after 1918 which, again you will know, bears no relation to that which came after 1945 and, now, after 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall. I must also add that I only have this work in German – in an edition from 1930 – so any comments I make on it, or any part of the whole, are based on the original, and not on a translation to the next best word as some English language translations, sadly, are. Sometimes it is better to retain the meaning of the whole, than to sacrifice an idea to the exact translation of a word.

Nietzsche, though, is taking a look at the world and society through the eyes of Zarathustra and the example of a small market town he comes to, after ten years as a hermit on a mountainside consumed with his own thoughts and considerations. Nietzsche brings his own ideas on the way the world should be run, more towards the earthy meaning of life, the satisfaction of humankind, the fulfilment of a short life on this planet with nothing else to look forward to since, he believes, there is no God or gods and, therefore there can hardly be either an eternal life or, something which has fascinated people far more down the centuries, a soul. He begins this section – On Chastity – by saying that he loves the forest, although he (Zarathustra) had not spent his time in the forest, which was further down the mountainside, but at the peak or near to it. The man who lived in the forest, and who Zarathustra met as he finally came down to confront humankind with his thoughts and discoveries, was a holy man who still believed in the overwhelming goodness and power of a god.

He goes on to speak of the towns, of life in the city, saying that it is bad, that life there is not good – perhaps because everyone is living so close together, or because the ancient standards and beliefs of the free-ranging hunter-gatherer clans had disappeared – and that they live in a society overcome by desire, by the need to fulfil and still their sexual lust. Is it not better, he asks, to run into the hands of a murderer, than fall for the charms of a fervent female? Look at these men, he complains, they know of nothing better than to lie with a woman. Dirt is at the very base of their souls. He compares them, and the lust, to animals and to animal desires but also days that chastity is, for some, a virtue, for others it is a vice. Stepping into the dirt of the waters of such feelings is not so bad for those with knowledge, perhaps even wisdom, as stepping into shallow waters where there is no depth of knowledge. It is better, he says, to sink deep into something of interest, of intellect, of knowledge and possibilities, than to flounder on the surface of ignorance.

And how does out man think of chastity? He is not saying whether this ‘virtue’ is a good thing or not, more that it is a virtue everyone claims to live by, tells everyone else to follow but, because of their life styles, of the manner in which their society has been formed, their minds reject the idea and hope of chastity, and they would, given the chance, lie with any pretty maid who offered them the chance. Afterwards would, naturally, come the blame on such a woman for not be chaste but, as we know today, not on the man for being a stud.

Is chastity not a folly? It may well be, is the answer, but it came to us, we didn’t go to it and, now that it is here, we bid it welcome and offer it refuge to stay so long as it desires. The manners of the people, of course, would not change: where the chance to sin presents itself – and the chance to repent or buy an indulgence in earlier times, to wipe out the sin with a few words – it will be taken, and justified, repented, forgotten until the next opportunity arises for the self, but strongly, loudly chastised in others. We should, Nietzsche says, be true to ourselves as much as to others, and lay aside these old-fashioned ideals foisted on us by a god who is dead, or by the people who claim that a god existed in the first place, and fulfil our lives to the best of our abilities.

I can compare this form of ideal, the fulfilment of life as much as the presenting of a good face before society, with the standards of the English at the same time, the pinnacle of Victorian times and, despite what many believe to be the case, a time of heightened sexual exploration. Bearing in mind the exceptionally strong connection between the English and German higher social levels – Prince Albert, the Prince Consort and husband of Queen Victoria being German – I don’t see what there shouldn’t be some form of connection in manners and belief. There were many small groups of people living in what many would call sin, who practiced open love without the bounds of a marriage licence, without the social and religious restrictions placed upon society as it was seen by the public. A consort – a French courtesan is something most of us would recognise after books written by Zola or as the mistress of Voltaire – for a brief period of time was considered quite normal in some circles, but frowned upon when mentioned in polite circles. The hypocrisy of the town, the dirt of the soul, the fight against that which is natural for an ideal of society which hardly anyone truly believes in.

I don’t so much collect quotations, although I had considered it for a while, as mark them with slips of paper. If anyone were to go along the bookshelves in my small library, or any other the other rooms I use for my books, they would find most of the works stacked there contain one, two, maybe even ten small slips of paper, and refer back to a time when something struck me, when an idea came to my mind, when a use for a set of words seemed to be possible. Some of these slips have been there for twenty years, and will stay there for another twenty in all likelihood. Some are there for a short period of time, as an opportunity has arisen quickly. Now and then I will take a book down, open it at the marking, and wonder what on earth I could have been thinking of to note this one section, or even wonder which section, which words I meant, as no note has been included on the paper. And then there are my favourite works for quotations, such as Virgil’s Aeneid right now, or the Essays of Michel de Montaigne – a book which I can literally open at random, and find a suitable text under my fingers.

Shakespeare, of course, is a great source, but one I seldom use. Not because I find his works, his words unsuitable, or the ideas that they portray to be wrong – it is possible to twist words to any meaning a writer desires – but because he is used and abused so often I prefer to steer clear. A book which has just been published, or texts from the classical masters of ancient Greece and Rome remain my favourites to show – perhaps I am being vain here – that I have mastered or, at the very least read, across a broad spectrum, and that my interests range from the writings of Marcus Cicero through to Peter Frankopan or from Elizabeth I to Jane Welsh Carlyle. Although, to be honest, I do this less to show off what I have read, and more in the hope of finding other people who have similar interests, who can put together words of interest, bring out ideas and fertilize – for want of a better word – a deep and meaningful discussion without the arrogance of knowledge some insist on portraying. At the same time I am quite happy writing to someone who enjoys colouring books, as I am someone who knows about Nietzsche, or Marlowe, or even that there are foreign countries out there worth visiting. The best kind of letter writing, though? With someone who is not only open to learn, but can bring their own thoughts into the conversation and force the teacher, or correspondent, to think further. We never stop learning, and there is no one who cannot teach us something.