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The Challenge of Eternal Recurrence
Kathleen O’Dwyer considers Nietzsche’s method of self-assessment.
“I am content to live it all again
And yet again…”
(Yeats, ‘A Dialogue of Self and Soul’)
Friedrich Nietzsche has been read and assessed differently by many commentators and students. Some consider that he was the first existentialist, putting forward ideas and arguments that were later developed by Jean-Paul Sartre and others; some consider that he was primarily a psychologist – an analyst and commentator of human behaviour and motivation, and a precursor of Freud; others see him as a radical poet, using a clever and sometimes shockingly abrupt aphoristic style to express his ideas; many label him as a madman, citing biographical details, particularly of his later years, as evidence that his work should not be taken seriously; and some ascribe to him the inspiration for the assumption of the superiority of the German race fostered by Hitler and the Nazis. As with all writers, in any endeavour to understand his thinking, the best place to start is the work itself. We can read Nietzsche’s own words, consider them with or without reference to biographical accounts, and decide for ourselves whether what he is saying is meaningful or relevant for us as individuals.
One of Nietzsche’s most interesting and challenging ideas is a method he offers for assessing one’s attitude to life. In his doctrine of ‘the eternal recurrence’, he offers a formula for a test for whether life is accepted, embraced and loved.
Self-Creation and Beginning Again
Echoing Rilke’s exhortation “to be always beginning,” Nietzsche insists that “Existence begins in every instant” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. R. J. Hollingdale, p.234). He claims that an individual’s life is a continuum of creation, intertwining past, present and future, and that this life is constructed and reconstructed again and again. This emphasis on ‘beginning’, on starting anew over and over, might be rejected in favour of a desired for completion and achievement, but Nietzsche does not consider this a viable possibility, since for him life is the ongoing creation of the self and of one’s life. Accordingly, the idea of a fixed, definitively known or knowable self is a mere fiction: there is no being, only becoming. Life is synonymous with change: avoidance of the risks inherent in change may provide illusory comfort and security, but only at the cost of stagnation and death.
The Irish poet Brendan Kennelly suggests that this aspect of the human condition, this need to embrace change, and the willingness to begin again, is a source of celebration and consolation. In his beautiful poem ‘Begin’, Kennelly asserts that to love one’s fate, to ‘keep on going’, to lose and to find meaning over and over again, to have the determination to continually seek to transcend the limitations that confine us, is to have an intimate appreciation of being alive.
In the poem, Kennelly embraces the birth and death at the core of every experience when he states that “every beginning is a promise / born in light and dying in dark”; he recognises the “bridges linking the past and future”; and he admits the necessity of “the loneliness that cannot end / since it is perhaps what makes us begin.” (Familiar Strangers: New & Selected Poems 1960-2004, p.478). The mystery of hope in the face of despair, the resilience of restarting after failure, and the affirmation of life as something worth striving for, combine in the poet’s confident assertion that life is meaningful, and that the search for that meaning is in itself worthy of our effort:
Though we live in a world that dreams of ending
That always seems about to give in
Something that will not acknowledge conclusion
Insists that we forever begin.
The sentiment of these lines, the rejection of easy surrender, is close to Nietzsche’s admiration of a fervour “for seeking the truth, a search that does not tire of learning afresh and testing anew.” (Human, All Too Human, trans. Marion Faber and Stephen Lehmann, p.264). Such an affirmation of life requires an acceptance of its fluidity, and a simultaneous acknowledgement of the individual’s unique power of self-creation as a continually evolving endeavour. However, this is not a response to selected experiences, but rather a love of life in its totality. Nietzsche argues that an affirmative attitude towards life involves accepting all that one’s life has entailed: the good and the bad, the light and the dark, the success and the failure. A positive response to life must integrate every experience – joyful and sorrowful, proud and shameful, loving and hateful – for, Nietzsche argues, one can only accept a particular experience if one accepts all the events and experiences of one’s life that have directly or indirectly led to that moment. If anything had been different, the resulting and present conditions of one’s life would also be different. Nothing can be denied or regretted: everything is essential to the process, and what one is at any moment encompasses all one’s experience, past and present.
Nietzsche puts forward this challenge by posing the following question:
“What if some day or night a demon were to steal into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live and have lived it you will have to live once again and innumerable times again; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unspeakably small or great in your life must return to you, all in the same succession and sequence – even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself…’ The question in each and every thing, ‘Do you want this again and innumerable times again?’ would lie on your actions as the heaviest weight! Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to long for nothing more fervently than for this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?”
(The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufmann, p.341)
The demon’s assertion is the frightening possibility of endlessly replaying the single life we each have, and the demand that we affirm everything that we have experienced in it. The image of the ‘demon’ suggests that such a visitation would be seen as dangerous and unwelcome. Nietzsche also situates the asking of the question in a moment of utter privacy – “your loneliest loneliness” – a moment free of the need to consider the opinions of others, free of the performance and reaction which is concerned with one’s public image, and free of the fear that one’s response might be unacceptable, misunderstood, or otherwise negatively judged by another. It is also a moment of private reflection conducted without the aid or validation of ‘expert’ advice, friendly direction, or objective guidance: the question, the test of eternal recurrence, is asked of the self, by the self, and can only be answered by the self. The question ‘do you want this again and innumerable times again?’ is how Nietzsche suggests we might measure “how well disposed” we are to ourselves and our lives and our reality. It is a method of assessing the value, the significance, and the extent of our ownership of our choices and actions. This is ‘the heaviest weight’ to accompany our decisions, because it demands that we accept our choices as being an integral part of who we are. But the question of eternal recurrence might also serve as a filter for what we wish to prioritise in our lives, the (self-created) values we wish to espouse, and the choices, decisions and actions for which we accept responsibility, and which we will not regret. For Nietzsche, this is an approach by which we can strive towards a celebration of life as it is, and a celebration of how we live it. In this life-affirming stance, the past is embraced; mistakes, losses and disappointments are acknowledged, as are joys, achievements and fortuitous encounters; and the future is seen as the offshoot of the present.
Nietzsche’s challenge relates to his conviction that we are the authors of our own lives, or could be. This authoring involves the tasks of self-creating, self-mastery, self-overcoming; working out what an affirming life could be, and developing a worldview which has no remorse, no melancholy, no end. Self-honesty, self-direction and self-empowerment enable one to be the artist of one’s life, and to answer affirmatively Nietzsche’s question, “Do you possess courage?… Not courage in the presence of witnesses, but hermit’s eagles’ courage, which not even a god observes any more?” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, p.298). Nietzsche acknowledges that this self-creation is a difficult path, as it needs the humility of self-honesty and the courage of individual responsibility in place of the comfort and security of the ‘herd’: “One has to get rid of the bad taste of wanting to be in agreement with many” (Beyond Good and Evil, trans. R. J. Hollingdale, p.71). Taking responsibility for the creation of one’s life defines one’s life as an ongoing process of becoming; one is always beginning anew. It also promotes a constant revaluation of the values one adopts. This perspective sees ‘truth’ as the practice of one’s own values – the way one lives one’s life. Furthermore, “A human being’s evaluations betray something of the structure of his soul” (Beyond Good and Evil, p.206); indeed, one’s actions are surely the clearest expression of one’s values.
Nietzsche acknowledges the tremendous difficulty of living within such expansive honesty, but he offers it as an ideal for which to strive. He doesn’t tell us that we must to live a fuller, happier or more meaningful life: he merely offers the possibility. He repeatedly asserts that these are only his ideas: “these are only – my truths” (ibid, p.163). He urges us to discover and acknowledge our own truths.
The Love of Fate
The idea of living one’s life in such a way that one wants it again and again, helps us identify what’s important and significant for us. It also fosters appreciation of the moments of genuine wonder which speckle the symphony of life:
“Life consists of rare, isolated moments of the greatest significance, and of innumerably many intervals, during which at best the silhouettes of those moments hover about us. Love, springtime, every beautiful melody, mountains, the moon, the sea – all these speak to the heart but once.”
(Human, All Too Human, trans. Marion Faber and Stephen Lehmann, p.247)
Yet these ‘rare, isolated moments’ can impact all of life. Nietzsche clearly believes in the interconnectedness of all our actions and experiences: that what someone is at any moment is influenced and created by all of their past. We can see this when he recasts the test of eternal recurrence in a more particular form: “Did you ever say Yes to one joy?… then you said Yes to all woe as well. All things are chained and entwined together, all things are in love” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra).
The affirmation and acceptance of the whole of life is called by Nietzsche ‘amor fati’, ‘the love of fate’. This implies an acceptance of one’s fate, a delight in all aspects of life, an accommodation of chance and uncertainty, and a simultaneous acceptance of freedom and responsibility in the manner in which we choose to encounter life. This is a life lived without regret, remorse or guilt, but open to love; of self, others, and the world as it is experienced in all its manifestations. (Nietzsche’s advocation of the love of fate appears paradoxical, as it is complemented by his insistence on the need for self-creation and responsibility. The apparent paradox between determinism and autonomy is an issue which continues to be debated in many areas of philosophy.)
In a poem entitled ‘A Dialogue of Self and Soul’, W.B. Yeats echoes the connection between eternal recurrence and amor fati:
I am content to live it all again
And yet again…
I am content to follow to its source
Every event in action or in thought;
Measure the lot; forgive myself the lot!
When such as I cast out remorse
So great a sweetness flows into the breast
We must laugh and we must sing,
We are blest by everything,
Everything we look upon is blest.
The question is, do we consider “We are blest by everything”?
The theory of the eternal recurrence does not provide a definitive answer, nor a foolproof methodology, for an assessment of our lives. Like much philosophical discourse, it leaves many questions unanswered. For example, it is unclear whether Nietzsche’s test urges an acceptance of all the experiences, voluntary and involuntary, of one’s life. It is perhaps easier to concur with the acceptance without regret of our voluntary choices and actions; but even here, there remains the question of learning and growing, and of seeing one’s past choices in a new, more critical light. Is it always life-affirming to dismiss the possibility of mistakes, of remorse, and of regret? And for those experiences outside of one’s control, it is difficult to accept without complaint the reality of tragedy, loss and injury. It may be argued that acceptance, of self and of reality, is the key to happiness and integrity. However, we are also emotional beings, and sometimes our emotional response is in conflict with such reasonable advice. Our emotions, as well as our rational minds, are valid sources of personal truth and knowledge, and are very often a determining factor in our assessments of our lives.
The acknowledgement of potential conflict in the interpretation of one’s experience, consequently affecting the possibility of knowledge about one’s life, suggests the need for a re-examination of the doctrine of eternal recurrence. Nietzsche is urging a joyous acceptance of the totality of our experiences as a prerequisite for an authentic, responsible and life-enhancing mode of being, but there are difficulties inherent in this attempted integration. For another problem, memory is the door to the past, but we are susceptible to selective remembering and forgetting.
In his narrative poem The Prelude, William Wordsworth describes his own development as a poet and as a man, but he acknowledges the difficulties encountered in the attempted recreation of his life-story:
I cannot say what portion is in truth
The naked recollection of that time
And what may rather have been called to life
That is, any acceptance of the past is necessarily coloured by (if not essentially based on) one’s recollections: memory is crucial to one’s assessment of one’s life. But memory is subjective, often necessarily selective, and frequently erroneous: one’s narrative memory is fragile, and this fragility is coupled with the always-present potential for self-deception.
Foreshadowing Freud’s notion of ‘repression’ as a voluntary or involuntary removal of unwanted or uncomfortable memories, Nietzsche offers a familiar example of psychic ambivalence and disavowal. The apparent paradox inherent in the concept of self-deception – How is it possible to deceive ourselves? – is given at least partial resolution by Nietzsche via the inevitable gap between the unconscious dimension of the psyche and the mind’s manifestation in conscious activity. Nietzsche expresses this as the victory of pride over memory: “‘I have done that’, says my memory. ‘I cannot have done that’ – says my pride, and remains adamant. At last – memory yields” (Beyond Good and Evil, p.91). Freud agrees that “there’s no guarantee whatever for what our memory tells us” (from The Penguin Freud Reader, p.553). Freud explains this phenomenon from both an individual and a social perspective: “it is inherent in human nature to have an inclination to consider a thing untrue if one does not like it… society makes what is disagreeable into what is untrue” (Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, trans. James Strachey, p.48). The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are not always truthful or comprehensive; and the stories we tell to others about ourselves are sometimes coloured by our quest for recognition and approval.
In the light of the insights developed by Nietzsche and Freud, complete self-knowledge looks like an unattainable ideal. Moreover, our assessment of our lives is dependent on and determined by forces such as our moods, momentary circumstances, and varying degrees of insight, which are invariably subject to revision and reinterpretation. Therefore, any assessment of one’s life, and so any attempted integration and joyous acceptance of all that one’s life has entailed – an affirmative response to Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence – is at the mercy of the ambiguity, complexity and fallibility which characterizes the spectrum of human knowledge, and in particular, of human self-knowledge.
© Dr Kathleen O’Dwyer 2012
Kathleen O’Dwyer’s book The Possibility of Love: An Interdisciplinary Analysis (2009) is published by Cambridge Scholars Press.
• Dr O’Dwyer also examined this topic in ‘Nietzsche’s Challenge: Eternal Recurrence’ in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, April 2011; Vol. 51, No. 2.