For those of you who don’t know, I flippin’ hate Nietzsche. It’s not because he didn’t provide some interesting insights, but because 1) he was a master of superfluous bullshit and not getting to the point and 2) his insights weren’t anything I hadn’t thought of long before ever reading him, meaning either I am a genius or he was not. For humility’s sake, I’m betting on the latter. At any rate, a few days ago someone brought up Nietzsche’s hypothetical motivation for living the best kind of life, the idea of Eternal Recurrence. I haven’t revisited this idea since my highly annoying Nietzsche class several years ago, so why not go once more into the fray?
Nietzsche’s formulation of Eternal Occurrence appears most clearly in The Gay Science, asking each of us what we would think if some demon were to say to us that the life we currently live we are going to live an infinite number of times over again. Would we (as individuals) be crushed by such an utterance or would we “long for nothing more fervently,” meaning we have truly lived a life worth living over again? Would such news be transformative?
Nietzsche writes in The Gay Science an opinion on how to live one’s life, “the secret [for] the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment is: to live dangerously!” What is moral for Nietzsche is to live our individual lives to the fullest, to make choices that bring us excitement and energy. If we have lived an exciting life and are faced with the prospect of having to live the same life over again, we would be given great mental strength over any possibility of death, particularly (as far as Nietzsche thinks) if there is no God to afford Heaven. [Curiously, if there is no god in Nietzsche’s eyes, why use a demon in your thought experiment? But, whatever.] So, one’s life would be affirmed. In Nietzsche’s otherwise existentialist universe, death sort of becomes irrelevant. Indeed, in Section 318 of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, he writes, “Was that life? Well then! Once more!”
Nietzsche presents the concept of Eternal Recurrence in Thus Spoke Zarathustra through the section entitled “On the Vision and the Riddle.” Here, Zarathustra recants an encounter with a Spirit of Gravity (dwarf) who has paralyzed him. In building courage with which to confront the dwarf, Zarathustra contemplates Eternal Recurrence. Would Zarathustra spend countless lifetimes laid low by this spirit? He thinks not! His assent to courage, to overcome this dwarf, Zarathustra ultimately overcomes death.
The argument in the second section of “On the Vision and the Riddle” appears to presents an attempt to explain Eternal Recurrence’s usefulness in reality. Whether or not Nietzsche actually believed the doctrine may be unclear, but so much is beside the point. The concept of Eternal Recurrence is supposed to be useful enough as a thought-experiment in its own right. To Nietzsche, the thought experiment is useful not solely in pursuit of a recurring life of excitement, but to give us the kind of courage presented in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The doctrine of Eternal Recurrence gives us power over fear. “To live dangerously,” may appear unsound advice for the timid or frightful, but without an appeal to an Eternal Recurrence, could one ever know the kind of exhilarating life that living dangerously could bring? Even if the consequences of our actions would be grim, the survival of a dangerous scenario would leave us better off, having immersed us in more of the experiences life has to offer.
There are reasons to regard this doctrine as both important and superfluous. Certainly, if Nietzsche is right about an eternal recurrence, what better reward could we give ourselves than a fulfilling life? If he’s wrong and we still adhere to the doctrine, a question arises as to whether or not we’ve lost anything. And therein lies the catch. Paging Pascal’s Wager. Will Mr. Pascal please pick up the white courtesy phone?
What if the choices we make in pursuit of a rewarding life land us in prison for the rest of our life? How then do we live fully? Is living dangerously always worth the risk? We may be inclined to say not always, but rather, circumstances permitting. [One might argue it is exactly this fear the concept of living in light of an eternal recurrence seeks to overcome, but this doesn’t solve there being consequences for ‘living dangerously.’]
There is also a sense of temporal remoteness that might incline us to think of any eternal recurrence as inconsequential. If we have no attachment, no feelings towards our past or future selves, what does Eternal Recurrence matter? We’re not trying to save our past or future selves; if the point is to live now, what difference does Eternal Recurrence make versus the view that we only have one life to live? This latter philosophy of living is of equal merit, which is in part what makes Nietzsche so laughable. I’m not going to bow down before some dwarf if all I have is my one life and will never experience it again. Nor will I bow before the dwarf if I’m going to live life over again, so really, why wouldn’t any of us just pick which way of looking at the situation suits us?
Having heard the demonic scenario Nietzsche proposes, how would you feel about it? Certainly, I think it could be alarming for those who haven’t thought about it. On the other hand, for me, I would tell them demon I’m pretty much living life on my terms already because I was under the assumption I only had one life I would never experience again, but thanks for the heads up anyway. Whether or not Eternal Recurrence is the actual situation, I’m never going to pick up another Nietzsche book again. For Christ’s sake, there’s only so much masochism one life, or eternity, can take.