I started reading the most famous work of Nietzsche's, and then on the first chapter after the prologue, thus spoke Zarathustra:

Or is it this: wading into dirty water when it is the water of truth, and not shrinking away from cold frogs and hot toads?

What does this mean?

  • Most people live under some form of delusion or other. They do this because reality is unpleasant. It's relatively easy to be happy and deluded. Not so easy to deliberately try and rid oneself of delusion, and be happy. Start by swallowing the biggest toad.. what happens when you die? etc.
    – Richard
    Feb 11, 2019 at 10:15
  • Thank you, but one more thing! ¿What's the difference between the cold frogs and hot toads, if what matters is the fact that you are trying to escape delusion by swallowing them? eAren't the two animals refring to a same end on itself? Feb 11, 2019 at 10:22
  • 1
    Well.. i don't know for sure.. but i always assumed he was referencing someone else (Chamfort?) who said that, if you must swallow a toad, do it in the morning, the rest of your day will be better.
    – Richard
    Feb 11, 2019 at 10:36
  • Hot and Cold, Good and Evil, It has to have a meaning, and I don't know it either, but anyway thank you for thy answers and for showing me Chamfort because I've never had heard of him! Feb 11, 2019 at 10:46
  • I guessed at chamfort after a quick google. But i think the proverb about toads is.more ancient.
    – Richard
    Feb 11, 2019 at 10:48

3 Answers 3


It's a metaphor for The Boiling Frog Fable!

  • How could it be? Wading into slowly boiling water would not fit the context the quote is in at all.
    – CriglCragl
    Mar 8, 2021 at 21:38

As always with Nietzsche, it is worth looking at the context of the quote. This sentence is part of the first metamorphosis of the "three metamorphoses of the spirit" and in order to understand the quote, you have to understand what it stands for (translation from the Cambridge Edition, 2006):

On the Three Metamorphoses
Three metamorphoses of the spirit I name for you: how the spirit becomes a camel, and the camel a lion, and finally the lion a child.
To the spirit there is much that is heavy; to the strong, carrying spirit imbued with reverence. Its strength demands what is heavy and heaviest.
What is heavy? thus asks the carrying spirit. It kneels down like a camel and wants to be well loaded.
What is heaviest, you heroes? thus asks the carrying spirit, so that I might take it upon myself and rejoice in my strength.
Is it not this: lowering oneself in order to hurt one’s pride? Letting one’s foolishness glow in order to mock one’s wisdom?
Or is it this: abandoning our cause when it celebrates victory? Climbing high mountains in order to tempt the tempter?
Or is it this: feeding on the acorns and grass of knowledge and for the sake of truth suffering hunger in one’s soul?
Or is it this: being ill and sending the comforters home and making friends with the deaf who never hear what you want?
Or is it this: wading into dirty water when it is the water of truth, and not shrinking away from cold frogs and hot toads?
Or is it this: loving those who despise us, and extending a hand to the ghost when it wants to frighten us?
All of these heaviest things the carrying spirit takes upon itself, like a loaded camel that hurries into the desert, thus it hurries into its desert.

All these are about how the spirit endures burdensome tasks (burdens itself...like a camel - a beast of burden - is burdened with heavy loads), asking which of them is the most burdensome one.

If you rearrange the sentence, it becomes more clear what is meant:

Wading into the water of truth, even if it is dirty, even if there are cold frogs and hot toads?

It should be clear how wading into dirty water by itself is burdensome, but what about "cold frogs" and "hot toads"? Cold frogs is straightforward: Frogs' skin feels cold and many people do not exactly deem it a pleasant experience to have to touch or be near a frog (think of the Grimm's tale The Frog King, or Iron Heinrich). Hot toads is a bit more tricky: The common (European) toad - the species Nietzsche most probably was acquainted with under the name "toad" - has a slimy secretion on it which, on contact, causes the skin to burn, thus making it a "hot toad".

Thus, the dirtiness, the cold frogs, and the hot toads are all poetic devices to describe just how unpleasant it is to "wade into the water of truth" - since the truth often is veiled by lies and "social practices" and unpleasant to encounter. But, the enumeration suggests, it is necessary for the metamorphosis towards "the spirit of a child" - the standard poetic description of a truly philosophical spirit.

One has to keep in mind that all these tasks that make the spirit "kneel down like a camel" are descriptions of Christian virtues of renouncement of one's desires (resisting temptation, modesty, not to be a burden to somebody, truthfulness, Christian charity), all of which lead us into a (spiritual) desert (a world bereft of all this-worldly satisfaction, containing nothing), and which we have to overcome if we are ever to transform into lions (nihilists, critics of all values, fighters against the status quo - but without the ability of positive determination):

My brothers, why is the lion required by the spirit? Why does the beast of burden, renouncing and reverent, not suffice?
To create new values – not even the lion is capable of that: but to create freedom for itself for new creation – that is within the power of the lion.

or even children, who have left all (conventional, authoritarian) determination ("the world") behind, went through the (void, undetermined) desert and now start to create their own values, satisfactions (saying yes means agreeing to something, bringing something to fulfilment), and rules in pure self-determination:

The child is innocence and forgetting, a new beginning, a game, a wheel rolling out of itself, a first movement, a sacred yes-saying.
Yes, for the game of creation my brothers a sacred yes-saying is required. The spirit wants its will, the one lost to the world now wins its own world".

Thus, the three stages are living the (spiritual/rational - not Epicurean/hedonistic) values, renouncing these values (the ratio/desire dichotomy embodied in "thou shalt", ie. imperatives), and creating one's own values. In other words: (Understand what it means to) be a Kantian/Stoic, (understand what it means to) be a nihilist, (understand what it means to) be an Epicurean, in that order (and without forgetting/seizing to be the former). Mind, it is about metamorphoses, ie. you transform into something different without seizing to be the former: you cannot be a true nihilist without knowing, understanding, and living (in) imposed imperatives since that is what teaches you to endure the sometimes grief consequences, and you cannot be a true Epicurean without living, fighting for and against, and (re-)determining your own imperatives/values, which only really are your own (and not someone else's) if you know what the conventional values are and have learned to endure the consequences of living values even if it sometimes is burdensome, and how to dissociate oneself from the will and values of others.


I don't agree on it being about boiling frogs.

It occurs in the context of the three metamorphoses, and along with "To feed on the acorns and grass of knowledge, and for the sake of truth to suffer hunger of soul". He is clearly poetic language, and a Lot of animal metaphors.

Frogs are smooth, making them look slimy. Toads are not, and perhaps were considered more active.

But the thing that should stand out is the idea of the 'water of truth' being dirty. What he is conveying, is that truth may be neither clear, nor unambiguously nourishing. And not sustaining fish, which are edible, and can be considered beautiful with their silver or gold scales. Frogs and toads are much more likely to make us recoil, to live in muddy waters and swamps where there are insect larvae, and brushing against them in the opaque waters startles.

He is talking about 'What is heavy:", heavy things for the load-bearing spirit, the person who wants to take up a burden, a task of significance, intuiting it is the route to spiritual growth to do so. So he is talking about wading into the domain of difficult or unpleasant truth, without flinching, as such a burden. Denying the instincts that have prevented others exploring there, and a way to 'mortify one’s pride', which he gives as an avenue for load-bearing in the same paragraph. 'God is dead' was not a populist phrase, then or now, but especially not then. Nietzsche pursues his truths regardless of stigma or sanction, which I would say bear analogy to the frogs & toads in this quote.

Have a look at some answers to previous questions about Nietzsche's phrases, for discussion of his puns & intentionally provocative unsettling poetic phrasings:

"There is always a kind of contempt in the act of speaking" - What does this quote mean?


Trying to Understand Quote by Nietzsche

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